Yr A ~ Epiphany 2 ~ 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
If you could write a letter to “the Church” that you knew every church member would read, what would you say? Would you be encouraging or critical? Would you compliment folks’ efforts or chastise folks’ for not being engaged enough? Would you focus on the positives or dig in to the challenges and struggles? Would you cast a vision or patch up problems? Would you pray for them? Well, if the year is 0055, and your name is Paul, your answer would be “all of the above”!
We’re going to spend a few weeks touring through Paul’s first recorded letter to the church he planted in the city called Corinth. Corinth was a busy cosmopolitan city and the church community that gathered under Paul’s initiative was very diverse – socially, ethnically, economically, spiritually. We kind of have this sense that back in the day everybody did Christianity the same way because it hadn’t been around long enough to get corrupted and messed up. But the truth is that Christianity was radically diverse from the very start – and each planted community of faith had its own style, theology, strengths, and challenges.
So what do you think would prompt Paul to write a letter to this church that he had planted some time earlier? I’d like to tell you it was to congratulate them on their awesomeness – but really he was writing because they were messed up. They’d lost their focus. They had too many divergent ideas about what was most important. They had brought too much of their worldly hierarchy into the church and not committed deeply enough to living the way Paul taught them, a way that Paul learned through his own profound spiritual encounters with the risen Christ and his nurture with other early followers of Jesus.
Now, before we go any further let me say that while I’m going to draw parallels and insights from the Corinthian church I’m more comparing them to the Church in general than I am to Faith United. We’re not perfect, but we do a pretty good job of keeping the main thing the main thing – of focusing on communion, compassion, and connection – loving God, loving people, and loving one another. So as I move through Paul’s intro today you’ll hear themes that you’ve heard before, but we (the Church) still need to keep being reminded of them over and over again.So let’s start with something that seems so obvious it should go without saying, but that we really need to say: for Paul it’s all grounded in Christ! Here’s the whole opening passage of the letter up on the screen. I know you may not be able to read it clearly, but if you could do a quick word frequency count you’d see something wonderful. In these short, opening 9 verses Paul uses the word Christ 9 times, Jesus 8 times, God 6 times, and Lord 6 times.
Whatever Paul says next is thoroughly and deeply grounded in Christ – and whatever I say next is too. Christ, Christ, Christ, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, God, God, God – it booms out like a musical ostinato echoing in the air. And remember that this would have been read out loud to the Corinthians, not photocopied or sent as an email – they’d have heard it, heard the words reverberating, heard the holy refrain setting the foundation. So with Christ in the air and in your ears, let’s hear what Paul might have to say to us!
1 Corinthians 1:2-3 “To the church of God that is in Corinth (or Courtice, or Oshawa, or Toronto, or Winnipeg, or Halifax, or Lethbridge, or…), to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It was very important to Paul to remind his church that they were not alone. They were (and we are) part of the body of Christ. We are at all times spiritually and mysteriously connected to all those who in every place call on the name of God. Sometimes those connections feel really good, and other times, when we hear of someone going off the rails in the name of Ja-eez-us, we roll our eyes and wish people didn’t associate us with “them.” But we are all part of the body, together.
That means that while we’re individuals we can never be individualistic. I try to emphasize the individual’s first-hand personal spiritual experience and growth, but it’s always in the context of being part of the community of faith. Communion is not alone – it’s the foundation that fuels compassion and connection. We are individuals together. The Corinthians forgot that and established a pecking order and it led to trouble.
Verses 4-5 “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind…”
That word enriched can also mean fullness/made full. Paul’s giving thanks that the Corinthians have been made full in Christ in every way. Two things: first, what does ‘made full’ mean here? What does it mean to you to experience the fullness of Christ? Later, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)
Whatever fullness is I like the sound of it! It sounds deep, and rich, and expansive, and empowering, and life-giving, and wonderful! How have you been made full/enriched in Jesus? (or in faith, or spirit, or whatever word works for you). So Paul is thankful for their fullness!
Or is he being ironic? It’s possible. He might be giving them the gears here. You could read into this that since he’s about to launch into some finger wagging and correct quite a bit of their misbehaviour – namely following different leaders, scandalous sexual behaviour, members suing one another in public courts, the unequal treatment of people of higher and lower status at the celebration of the common meal, and disagreements about the gifts of the Spirit and practices in community worship – that sounds like a bunch of people who are full of something but it isn’t Spirit!
I’d prefer to read it as Paul holding up the ideal and encouraging them to aspire to it – but I wouldn’t put it past him to be subtly kicking them in the butt while he’s doing it.
The next part of the letter says that Paul is thankful that “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…” (1 Cor 1:6-7). The second part of that is definitely a dig because one of their biggest conflicts was around spiritual gifts – who had them, which was better. Paul is telling them here that ‘better’ is irrelevant – what matters is that together in the body of Christ they have all the spiritual giftedness they need. That’s good for us to hear too. We have incredible spiritual giftedness here. The gifts are different, and all the gifts are needed, and when we put our individual giftedness together we become awesome!
The first part of that verse mentioned the testimony of Christ. It’s a bit of an odd phrase. Obviously, none of those people directly heard Jesus give a testimony of his faith journey. (I’ll talk more about testimonies another day.) The testimony of Christ isn’t so much by him as it is about him. I’d change the words to the ‘way’ of Christ – the way of Christ has been strengthened among them…or at least it ought to be.
The next verse is, for me, the most important one in the whole passage, and the NRSV bible blows it. It under-translates the key word. It says that we do all those things we’ve talked about so far “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word they messed up is wait. It says we’re waiting for the revealing of Christ – waiting for Holy Mystery to be revealed, waiting for Sacred Presence to be experienced. But what kind of waiting is it?
What does it mean to wait? What’s your attitude while waiting? I guess it depends on what you’re waiting for. If you’re getting ready for church and the person you’re driving with isn’t ready or hasn’t arrived to pick you up you’re waiting. But that’s a kind of anxious, nervous, stressful waiting. That’s not what we’re talking about.
The word wait in this passage is actually much better translated as “to eagerly wait!” Eagerly! That’s really different than being anxious! Eager means keen or enthusiastic interest; intense desire; impatiently longing; revealing earnestness; to be expectant. So Paul is actually telling them (telling us) that as we do that stuff we are eagerly waiting for the revealing of Christ in our lives. Eagerly!!!
What has you buzzing about your faith journey?
What has you enthusiastically interested?
What part of your spirituality expresses your intense desire?
For what are you longing impatiently? (hopefully it’s not the end of this sermon!)
Some people think this means we’re supposed to be eagerly waiting for the second coming. I agree! But I may mean something different than what you think. Jesus lived, taught, inspired, died, and was mysteriously present with people after his death (we call that resurrection). That’s the “first coming”.
The second coming isn’t about him physically coming back – the second coming happens inside you. It’s about when YOU or I personally experience the Sacred, the Christ, the Holy Mystery, in a deep and transformative way. First the world knew the Sacred in a person, now we can know the Sacred in our person. I hope we’re all eagerly awaiting that experience, and if we’ve already experienced it I pray that we’re eagerly awaiting for even more to be revealed to us, for even more depth, for even more shalom to fill our lives until we burst with joy!
When it comes to knowing the Sacred personally and fully I want us all to be eager beavers! – with enthusiastic interest, intense desire, and impatient longing!
One last verse and one last theme to lift up – verse 9: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
What does the word fellowship mean to you? Every week we invite people to stay after worship and enjoy some fellowship together over coffee and tea. But fellowship means much more than just friendship. Fellowship is about vital union with one another. It’s about a deep, mutual relationship where people know one another and are known. Another word for fellowship is the body of Christ – or in our 3 Cs it’s what we mean by connection.
So imagine, you’re the spiritual leader of a church, and you’ve decided to send them a letter to answer some questions and concerns. What do you say? I’d say that your task – my task – is to remind the people that they are eager beavers!
Eager beavers who are grounded in Christ.
Eager beavers who thrive on togetherness.
Eager beavers who are filled with the fullness of God.
Eager beavers who are journeying ever deeper into the Way of Jesus.
Eager beavers who are waiting enthusiastically and expectantly for more and more revelation of God’s Sacred Presence in their lives.
Eager beavers who are meant to be in deep unitive fellowship with one another.
Because once people like the Corinthians – like us – can see what we’re called to be, what we’re invited to be, what we’re meant to be, it makes it easier to own where we’ve fallen short, and try to catch hold of our eagerness again.
Over the next few weeks we’re going to hear what Paul offered to the Corinthians about how to get back to being eager beavers. I pray his words will ring true and inspire our church as well.
As Paul said, “Grace to you and peace from God our Holy Mystery and the Lord Jesus Christ.” [1 Cor 1:3]