This Sunday’s RCL’s Epistolary Lesson may seem like a strange way for Paul to begin his first letter to the Corinthians. Of course, it would not be a particularly strange way to begin most communications. 1 Corinthians 1 begins, after all, with (for its day) a fairly typical greeting. What’s more, many of us are also accustomed to beginning our various communications with some thanksgiving and good news.
What makes this text feel somewhat out of place is that the tone with which Paul follows this complimentary beginning feels very different from these 9 verses. After all, throughout the rest of 1 Corinthians, he deals extensively with problems in the Corinthian church that include sexual immorality, lawsuits, marriage, eating food sacrificed to idols, tensions surrounding worship and women’s roles in the church, gift and talents and the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 1:1-9’s complimentary language feels almost like neon lettering against a huge black background that is much of the rest of the letter’s dark message.
So those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might explore with our hearers just what’s going on with this stark contrast. Is Paul trying to “butter up” his hearers with compliments before hitting them with the rest of 1 Corinthians’ 1’s sledgehammer? Is this a rhetorical strategy by which he tries to gain the Corinthians’ confidence before he clobbers them with his deep concerns for and about them?
Yet I would suggest that 1 Corinthians 1:1-9’s complimentary beginning actually lays a solid theological foundation for the rest of the book. Paul relentlessly grounds all of this Sunday’s text’s positive things in the gracious work of God. In fact, God is either the subject of or an active participant in every sentence, verse and assertion that Paul makes. So while the apostle compliments his Corinthian readers throughout this text, he’s actually giving all the praise for it to God.
Paul begins to offer that praise by nothing that he’s an apostle. He is a herald of God’s gospel for not just the Corinthians but also the whole world. Yet the apostle insists that it’s not like he chose that career. It’s not even like Paul had any choice in the matter of becoming or being an apostle. He was, in fact, doing all he could to obliterate Christ Jesus’ Church when God knocked him off his high horse and into the kingdom of God.
Paul refers in verse 1 to being “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” By that he means that God did all the hard work and heavy lifting. All Paul could find himself able to do was meekly murmur, “Who are you, Lord” (Acts 9:5).
So why does Paul begin his often-harsh letter to the Corinthian by immediately presenting his apostolic “credentials” to them? Perhaps it’s because he’s going to say some very difficult things to them. The apostle doesn’t want his readers to mistake the source of those hard words about things like Christians’ relationships, worship and leadership. He wants the Corinthians to know that they come not from him, but from the God who called him by God’s will. So we might almost picture verse 1 as a kind of “Don’t shoot the messenger” plea.
Yet Paul is also quick to remind his letter’s first hearers that it’s not just he whom God has graciously called. God has also called his Corinthian audience. Yet they aren’t just Corinthian Christians. Paul first hearers are Corinthian Christians who are also “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (2).
So the Corinthian men, women and children to whom Paul writes his first letter are those whom God both calls and equips to become more and more like their Savior. No matter what follows, Paul seems to want to begin his letter by asserting that God is busy transforming members of the Corinthian church into people who increasingly resemble the Lord Jesus Christ on whose name they call.
So Paul will go on in this letter to deeply grieve and scold those Corinthians for their deeply unholy relationships and worship practices, among other things. Yet he prefaces all of that by reminding them that God is making them more and more holy, more and more like Jesus Christ. So verse 2 stands out like more neon writing on a huge black canvas. Its description of the Corinthians’ unrighteousness stands in almost shocking contrast to both God’s righteousness and the righteousness for which God is fully equipping them.
Yet even when Paul goes on to describe some of the ways the Corinthians are displaying that empowerment, Paul still is very careful to give all the credit for it to God. He thanks God for his Corinthian readers, but insists it’s because of the grace God has given them in Christ Jesus. So it’s almost as if the apostle reminds them that while he is, in fact, deeply and constantly grateful for them, that for which is he so thankful is a gift to them from God. Corinth’s Christians are in some ways praiseworthy because God has graciously made them praiseworthy.
Without God’s redeeming and equipping work, the Corinthians to whom Paul writes are like beggars. God, however, has empowered them to be rich in talent. The Corinthians speak well and know a great deal not because of some virtue of their own, but because God has graced them with those great gifts.
Those Corinthians, in fact, don’t lack any spiritual gifts (7). The Spirit has equipped them with everything they need to be holy, to honor God and bless their neighbors. So their marital unfaithfulness and lawsuits against each other don’t arise out of their lack of some spiritual gift from God. The Corinthians’ sins arise out of their failure to use the gifts with which God has graced them.
In fact, Paul essentially moves toward ending the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday by asserting that the Corinthians have everything they need to be faithful to both God and each other until Christ returns from the heavenly realm. God, the apostle insists in verse 8, “will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is, of course, a deeply ironic assertion. The rest of Paul’s letter, after all, describes a Corinthian church whose members are, in fact, very far from being blameless. They’re about as strong as wet dishcloths. Yet Paul insists God will somehow keep them both strong and blameless until Jesus Christ returns.
So is Paul at least implying here that no Christian, including the Corinthians, can stay strong until Jesus comes back unless God keeps us strong? That the Corinthians’ sins that the apostle goes on to sometimes so graphically describe and condemn throughout the rest of the letter are perhaps a result of a spiritual arrogance that assumes they don’t need God’s help?
That may also help us understand why Paul ends this Epistolary Lesson the way he does. “God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful” (9). The Corinthians are proving to be very unfaithful. But the God who graciously calls and equips them to be holy is faithful. So there is hope, not just for the unfaithful Corinthians but also for Paul’s modern readers. But that hope has little to do with us, and everything to do with God.
This second Sunday in Epiphany may mark the beginning of a mini-series of lessons or sermons on 1 Corinthians for those who proclaim the RCL’s Epistolary Lessons. Those who stick with this letter will quickly move into far grimmer passages than today’s. Its proclaimers will dive quickly and deeply into Paul’s grief over and condemnation of divisions within the Corinthian church.
As we explore those divisions, it’s good to remember the way Paul introduces them. The Corinthians who have created such deep fault lines are those whom God sanctifies and calls to be holy. We don’t have to heal divisions we create in the church by our power. God has graced us with every good thing we need to facilitate unity among God’s beloved people. So while we may not read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 each time we proclaim other parts of the letter, it may not hurt to begin each message or lesson with a brief summary of its teaching on God’s gifts and equipping.
Those who further explore 1 Corinthians will also want to remember the grace with which Paul soaks its first 9 verses. Yes, the Corinthian church has deeply divided itself. Christ Jesus’ Church also has made and continues to make a mess of things. But God calls. God sanctifies. God gathers. God grants grace and peace. God enriches. God equips. God keeps God’s promises. And so we have hope. Hope that God calls God’s modern apostles to continue to proclaim until “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul soaks this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson in thanksgiving. Those who proclaim that lesson might draw a contrast between the attitudes of the apostle and Seth McFarlane. The example also provides a contrast between not only those men’s ideas about the source of good things, but also about how good things affect the way we live.
McFarlane is a cartoonist and comedian who created the animated television show, “Family Guy.” On 9/11 he had been booked on American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston to Los Angeles. But because McFarlane arrived late at the airport, he missed his flight. Hijackers flew that airplane into the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center.
An NPR interviewer, Terry Gross, later asked McFarlane, “After that narrow escape, do you think of the rest of your life as a gift?” The comedian answered, “That experience didn’t change me at all. It made no difference in the way I live my life. It made no difference in the way I look at things. It was just a coincidence.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 19, 2020
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 Commentary