A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Epiphany 2 ~ 1 Corinthians 1:1–9
The year is 0055, the place is the Roman city of Corinth, and the author of the letter we heard quoted today is Paul – church planter extraordinaire. Corinth was a busy cosmopolitan city and the church community that gathered under Paul’s initiative was very diverse – socially, ethnically, economically, spiritually. Christianity was actually 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 (that’s certainly what my letter to you would be about – most days!) – 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.
In simple terms, they were doing community wrong.
We ain’t them! So I’m wondering, can we read this as positive and without Paul’s cynicism or edge? While he’s probably “damning them with faint praise,” what he’s saying ought to be the ideal. Can we hear it as invitation and encouragement rather than setting up how we’re going to be scolded?
Are you waiting for a scolding? It ain’t coming today!
I’d like to preach this without the big BUT that Paul starts into in the verses after this introductory section.
So let’s have a look at this letter and 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! If you did a quick ‘word frequency count’ here 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 – all in just 9 verses.
Whatever you hear Paul saying, one thing that’s perfectly clear is that it’s thoroughly and deeply grounded in Christ. Christ, Jesus, God, Christ, Jesus, 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, Jesus, and God 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…Courtice(?), 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.
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. I like the sound of that! 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 – authority arguments, scandalous sexual behaviour, suing one another, segregation at meals, disagreements about spiritual gifts and 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 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. 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.
And there’s those words again that I love so much – so that! We are filled with Christ, we are strengthened in the Way of Christ – why? So that…we can grow and share our spiritual gifts.
We have incredible spiritual giftedness here. Y’all are gifted! The gifts are different, and all the gifts are needed, and when we put our individual giftedness together we become awesome!
Strengthened…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The word wait in this passage is actually much better translated as “to eagerly wait!” Eager means keen or enthusiastic interest; intense desire; impatiently longing; revealing earnestness; to be expectant. That’s our posture as we’re yearning for more and more of Jesus’ Way to be revealed.
And then, finally, 1 Corinthians 1:9 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 friendly chit-chat.
Fellowship is about vital union with one another.
It’s about a deep, mutual relationship where people know one another and are known.
Mutuality speaks of a give and take, a willingness to learn about other people, and to share something of yourself. You can’t love someone you don’t really know, so mutuality begins with a commitment to know and be known. But it also suggests a level of selflessness – the willingness to be there for one another, to love one another.
Jesus’ first followers weren’t as diverse as the Corinthians were, but they did come from all walks of life. They were drawn into community by Jesus and they became one body with a common purpose – to love God, love people, and love one another.
This intimate, supportive, sacrificial, worshipping, learning, serving, daring, committed, passionate group of friends is our model.
Faith is nurtured in close community, and close community is rooted in mutuality.
Apparently one of the defining characteristics of the earliest church was how much they cared for and supported one another.
Unfortunately, the Corinthians missed that memo!
What I just called mutuality the scriptures call fellowship, but the word in Greek connotes something far richer than simple fellowship.
Can you guess what the word is in Greek? It’s right there on the screen: coy-no-KNEE-ah. (koinonia)
It means spiritual fellowship, to be in communion with, sharing in, helping.
It means partnering together, working together, contributing to one another’s well-being, supporting one another.
It means community, joint participation, and intimacy.
That’s a whole lot more than just socializing at coffee hour!
Interestingly, koinonia has no equivalent in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. That’s not because Jewish folks don’t have deep fellowship together, but it’s because the Jewish religion is so intertwined with Jewish life.
The early Christian church didn’t have that advantage.
They had to seek one another out, forge new relationships, and build community together – in Christ!
The word koinonia is not in any of the four gospels either, and is not a word that Jesus used.
Of course he didn’t. He was Jewish.
He and the disciples lived and modelled koinonia – intimate Christian fellowship – but they didn’t form church communities, as such, yet. That came later.
However, once the Christian church began to be planted and spread, the word and concept became fundamentally important.
Koinonia is found 20 times in the New Testament, appearing in Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Philemon, Hebrews, and 1 John.
That’s a lot of fellowship.
That’s a lot of mutuality.
That’s a lot of loving one another!
And it shows how fundamental a core value it was – is!
Are you ready for the pat on the back part?
Faith United exemplifies the deepest meaning of the word koinonia.
No we’re not perfect, yes we stub our toes on occasion, but we are striving hard to live out that core value of loving one another.
And the way we get better at it is to keep practicing it!
Let’s get really practical.
Here are some of the ways in which we can “Know and be Known”:
- Stay for refreshments after worship
- Talk with one different person each week
- Be less guarded than you might usually be
- Be interested in the lives of your church family
- Celebrate our interconnectedness
- Trust one another
And then there’s some of the ways in which we can “Be There for One Another”:
- Be ready to listen, lend a hand, give a hug
- When requests are made for help, help if you can
- When you feel a nudge to call or talk to someone follow through!
Sharing, helping, partnering together, working together, contributing to one another’s well-being, supporting one another, being in communion with one another, intimacy, mutuality, being devoted, living in unity, friendship with no agenda but the flourishing and spiritual deepening of one another – these are rare, precious things in this world.
I sometimes say you can find community at Tim Horton’s. But not this kind of deep, loving community.
Yet here, in this place, as God’s people, as Christ’s followers, filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, these are the characteristics that abound.
It what sets us apart from the usual way the world works.
Of course, just being a Christian doesn’t guarantee you’re going to exemplify koinonia – it certainly didn’t for those Corinthians. It doesn’t get handed to you like a membership card.
It’s something we grow and nurture together.
That’s why we use the word ‘love’. Love is never a commodity.
Love is always a relationship, and relationships always need attention and intention in order to grow.
Faith United really is one of those rare places where koinonia flourishes.
This is one of those uncommon churches, those special spiritual communities, that truly dares to tackle Jesus’ agenda – that is open enough to engage hard topics – that doesn’t throw things at me when I broach subjects like the environment, like LGBTQ+ issues, like Indigenous issues, like classism, like racism and white supremacy and privilege – and you’re willing and open and humble enough to try to come to deeper understandings of our…stuff.
This is one of those churches that embraces koinonia, loving one another, in the fullest and deepest sense of the word.
Are you ready for the kick in the pants part?
I don’t want to put too much pressure on you, but the world desperately needs our example of how to love one another.
Have you been out there lately?
Have you watched the news?
They need us.
They need our voice, our example, our commitment, our passion, our compassion, our love.
They need to have an epiphany about how life-giving and wonderful deep, spiritual fellowship, koinonia, is.
And they’ll only notice it if we risk showing them.
Paul may have written it ironically, but I preach it without reservation:
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,
5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—
6 just as the testimony (the Way) of Christ has been strengthened among you—
7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship – the koinonia – of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Koinonia in Christ. Our gift to the world.
May it be so.