This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s “twin themes” of Paul’s thanksgiving and the return of Jesus Christ may seem particularly appropriate this week. After all, this first Sunday in Advent falls just three days after (U.S.) Americans’ celebration of Thanksgiving and at the beginning of the season of heightened anticipation of Jesus’ second coming.
However, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 also contains what may feel like a strange beginning for Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Of course, it wouldn’t 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 at least a bit out of place is the sharp contrast between the tone with which Paul follows this complimentary beginning and this Lesson’s six verses. After all, throughout the rest of 1 Corinthians, the apostle goes on from this text to deal 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, as well as gift, talents and the resurrection.
So those who proclaim this text might ask our hearers and ourselves just what’s going on in our text. Is Paul trying to “butter up” Corinth’s Christians with compliments before hitting them with the rest of his letter’s criticism? Or is this perhaps a rhetorical strategy by which he tries to gain the Corinthians’ confidence before he clobbers them with his deep concerns for and about them?
Those who proclaim it might note how 1 Corinthians’ complimentary beginning actually lays a solid theological foundation for the rest of the book. Paul, after all, relentlessly grounds all of his compliments 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 in this Lesson.
So while the apostle compliments his Corinthian readers throughout this text, he’s actually giving all the praise for that for which he gives thanks to God. What’s more, when he later sometimes harshly criticizes them, he also grounds that in his understanding of who God is and what God desires.
Paul begins to offer this Lesson’s praise by noting that he’s an apostle. He’s 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. He wasn’t the first to dive into God’s “volunteer pool.” In fact, 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. When Paul refers in verse 1 to being “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” he means that God did all the hard work and heavy lifting. 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 God hasn’t just called the Corinthian. Paul also reminds his first hearers that God has also “sanctified [them] in Christ Jesus and called [them] to be holy” (2). So the Corinthians are those whom God both calls and equips to become more and more like their Savior.
No matter with what he follows this thankful opening, 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 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 the rest of the letter’s 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. It implies that Corinth’s Christians have no excuse for their disobedience that Paul later describes.
Yet even when Paul goes on to describe some of the ways the Corinthians are displaying the Spirit’s empowerment of them, he’s still careful to give all the credit for it to God. He thanks God for his Corinthian readers, but also insists that for what’s he so thankful is the result of the grace God has given them in Christ Jesus.
So it’s almost as if the apostle reminds them that 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. So 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, honor God and bless their neighbors. So things like 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 closing this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson 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.”
Here, then, is a reminder of the church and world’s best and only hope on this first Sunday in 2020’s among strangest of Advents. Christians’ faithfulness doesn’t depend on us. God promises to keep us strong and faithful until Jesus returns.
This is a hopeful message for all of Jesus’ followers who feel beleaguered during this season of expectant Advent waiting. So much challenges our faithfulness: a global pandemic, racial injustice and inequality, as well as political turmoil and unrest. It all adds up to make what sometimes feels like a very long wait for the Jesus who came as a baby to a manger in Bethlehem to come again as Judge and King of the whole world.
Can we stay faithful as we continue to wait? Can Christians stay faithful even if we must wait until perhaps Easter, Pentecost or even next Thanksgiving for a COVID vaccine? Thankfully, the answer doesn’t depend on our endurance or us. It depends on the God who has given us everything we need to wait in faith and hope until not just a vaccine is developed and distributed, but also “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (9).
Christians who “eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (7) at his return may resonate with the feelings of Charlotte Web’s Wilbur. As he waits for Charlotte’s eggs to hatch from their sack, E.B. White writes, “Nothing in life was so important as this small round object — nothing else mattered. Patiently he awaited the end of winter and the coming of the little spiders. Life is always a rich and steady time when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 29, 2020
1 Corinthians 1:3-9 Commentary