A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Epiphany 2 ~ 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
I had a hard time writing this sermon. Not because it tackles a delicate subject, and not because I don’t believe in what I’m saying – it’s just because I wanted to keep jumping to next week’s sermon, and the week after that, and the week after that. Today we’re starting a 5-part sermon series. We’ll be going through the first 3 chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Today’s sermon is called It’s A Blessing Thing. Next week It’s A Harmony Thing, then It’s A Heart Thing, then It’s A Spirit Thing, and finally It’s A Growing Thing. Each one of those has a more focused kind of topic or theme. This week is more of an introduction.
Another challenge is that our tradition is to take small sections of scripture, called pericopes, and only focus on those few verses – like today where we get verses 1-9. Next week it’s verses 10-18, and so on. That approach has distinct advantages. We can zero in on one main teaching concept and get to some good depth. It also suits our short attention spans!
Do you know what the most popular form of social media is these days? It’s very short 15-30 second videos called ‘tik-toks’ or ‘reels’ or ‘shorts’. This thing I’m doing right now – preaching a 15 or so minute sermon – it’s kinda the polar opposite of a tik-tok. And even this 15ish minutes is too short if we want to understand the fuller context of what we’re thinking about. I keep wanting to jump ahead to the other sermons in the series because the arc of what Paul is trying to convey needs that kind of breadth. So we’re caught between trying to get a bigger picture while contending with a culture that favours tik-toks and bumper stickers.
So what I’m going to try to do today is set the stage, and then focus in on specifics in the coming weeks. This letter called 1st Corinthians was written by Paul in about the year 55 CE. That’s about 25 years after Jesus, and about 20 years before the first of the gospels was written. The city of Corinth was in southern Greece, and because of its location it was a major cosmopolitan hub. Population estimates range from 100,000 to 600,000 people, back then.
It’s impossible to say how big the Corinthian church was, but it was large enough that there were numerous factions within it. They wouldn’t have had a building like we do, but they would gather every week for a shared meal together and for worship. Paul planted the church a few years before he wrote this letter. Interestingly, they had asked him for advice. They wanted some more instruction in Christianity, and they were also having a bunch of problems. Gee, imagine a church having problems! So Paul gives them instruction, but he also gives them a good talking to, because they needed it.
1st Corinthians begins with salutations and thanksgiving (like all his letters do), then he spends 3 chapters talking about divisions. Then 2 chapters about immorality, disputes, and sexual impropriety! Yikes. The conflicts in their church were many. It concerned things like 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. Like I said, they needed a good talking to!
After all that, he does 7 chapters of teaching doctrine, and worship, and all kinds of churchy stuff. The letter is 16 chapters in all, and we’re only covering the first 3 in this series.
So, imagine you are Paul. Imagine you have this church that you’re responsible for, and they’re having all this trouble, and they’re looking to you to help them. How would you begin? Probably with something like:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:3-7)
It’s lovely, right? Very complimentary. Very warm and encouraging. It’s filled with all sorts of blessing words like sanctified, saints, grace, peace, enriched, strengthened, called.
However, just because you’re being enriched and strengthened doesn’t mean you’ve got it all figured out. I think he’s trying to reassure them. “You’re basically on the right path. You’re being enriched and strengthened. That’s good.” Then he talks about them not lacking in spiritual giftedness. Again, great! All the gifts are present among them. The problem was that they were fighting about which gifts were better, and therefore which followers were holier. Not great!
Listen carefully to this next part, 1 Corinthians 1:8-9
God will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Notice that there is a promise that God will continue to strengthen them to the end – so that (my favourite bible words!) – so that they may be blameless. Someday, with God’s help, they ‘may’ be blameless – but that day ain’t today!
And then Paul very subtly shames them by reminding them that they were called into fellowship. Sounds innocuous to us – by him you were called into the fellowship of Jesus – but it’s more nuanced and layered than we think. Our English word ‘fellowship’ just sounds like being friendly. We basically call anything that involves hanging out together in church as being ‘fellowship time’. It conjures images of standing around chit-chatting over coffee.
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 – and to not think you’re better or worse than 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. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia (coy-no-nee-ah).
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 what Paul is poking the Corinthians about.
And that’s a whole lot deeper 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 non-Jewish Christian church didn’t have that advantage. They had to seek one another out, forge new relationships, and build beloved 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! And that sets the stage for the next 15 ½ chapters where Paul berates the Corinthians for not practicing that core value. Ok, berates is probably too strong – how about scolds, admonishes, chides, reproves…you get the idea.
But you can’t walk in and start there, right? You need to start softly, with beautiful words of blessing. You need to practice what you’re going to preach. (Yes, so do I!) So Paul begins with warm words of encouragement and reminds the church of all their blessings – because that’s what church is supposed to be. It’s a blessing thing!
That would be a good thing for every church to do, including us. Count our blessings. Remember that it’s a blessing thing. Remember that we are sanctified. We are the ‘saints’. We are immersed in grace and peace. We are being enriched, and strengthened, and called. We practice koinonia – mutuality, partnership, communion. We aren’t perfect, by any means, but we are certainly doing a better job at all that than those poor Corinthians were. I would never write a letter to this place like Paul had to write to them. Thank you!
But I would echo his greeting. I do 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 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Yes, indeed. It’s a blessing thing!