Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 15, 2023
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 Commentary
Gospel proclaimers who think of preaching as largely the sharing of helpful hints for being a better Christian may find that this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson offers rather thin subject material. It is, after all, far longer on theology than on ethics. Many English translations of 1 Corinthians 1:1-9’s Greek have six sentences. People, however, are the primary subject of none of them. God is the acting subject of each. The need for any human activity can only, at best, be inferred from this Epistolary Lesson.
That may help to serve as a good reminder to preachers and teachers on the third Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2023. We naturally long to offer the good Christian advice that many of our hearers long to hear during this coming year. However, gospel proclamation always centers on the character and activity of God.
So even when Paul and those who proclaim his writings offer encouragement and scolding, we always do so on the basis of who God is and what God does. Otherwise preachers and teachers devolve into little more than Ann Landers or Captain Awkward with a collar.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s relentless focus on the character of God starts already with its second word. While Paul is, with Sosthenes, its author, he insists that he writes only because God has acted on him. Paul refers to himself as one who is literally “a called (kletos) apostle of Christ Jesus by the will (thelematos) of God” (1).
What’s more, the apostle also hurries to insist that just as it wasn’t his idea but God’s calling that made him who he is, so also his readers’ status was not their idea, but God’s. In verse 2 already, after all, he speaks of the Corinthians as those who have been literally “sanctified (hegiasmenois) in Christ Jesus called (kletois) holy.” So Paul thinks of both himself and his readers as those who are “called.” Even the root of the Greek word in verse 2 that we translate as “church” (ekklesia – from the word kaleo) points toward that calling.
This Sunday Epistolary Lesson’s assertion of Christians’ status as those whom God has called resonates with this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson. It is, after all, John 1’s account of Jesus’ calling of his first disciples. The RCL Gospel and Epistolary Lessons combine to at least suggest that God’s dearly beloved people are those whom God calls no less than God called Andrew, Simon, James, John, Paul and the Corinthians.
God, Paul insists twice in verse 2 alone, calls Jesus’ friends to be holy. Yet lest Christians confuse this holiness with something we muster on our own, Paul repeatedly emphasizes that it’s a work of God. 1 Corinthians’ apostle isn’t calling Christians to be holy. He’s insisting that God has already made us holy. So Jesus’ followers are people whom God has sanctified.
In verse 4 Paul tells Corinth’s Christians that he “always thanks God for” them “because of his grace (chariti) given to you (dotheise) in Christ Jesus.” So even Paul’s thanksgiving for the Corinthian Christians is a response to the effects of God’s work in and on them.
Because of its salvific overtones, it’s somewhat regrettable that most English versions of the Bible translates verse 4’s chariti as “grace.” It, after all, more literally refers to “graciousness” or a “gracious way of acting or being” than to God’s grace by which God saves us. In that way, chariti is a sign of the holiness the Holy Spirit graciously imparts to God’s beloved people.
Paul continues to emphasize in verse 5 the way in Christ Jesus God has acted on the Corinthians. He rejoices in the way they been “enriched (eploutisthete) in every way – in all” their “speaking and in all” their “knowledge.” God, the apostle insists, has caused them to abound in all their speaking and knowing.
“Therefore,” Paul writes to Corinth’s Christians in verse 7, “you do not lack (me hystereisthai) any spiritual gifts (charismati) as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.” God, in other words, has graced God’s dearly beloved Corinthians with all the spiritual gifts that they need as they await Jesus’ return. They are, in other words, graced.
Paul’s emphasis on God’s acting on the Corinthian Christians is an important one for those who preach on the apostle’s letter to them. Preachers who follow the Lectionary’s Epistolary Lesson’s suggestions may especially want to remember it as we prepare to preach a kind of mini-series on 1 Corinthians’ first four chapters.
Paul, after all, fills not just those chapters but also his whole letter with what may seem like little more than good advice with a spiritual twist. He, after all, doesn’t just call Corinth’s Christians to Christian unity as he does in the Epistolary Lessons the RCL appoints for the next month. Throughout his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle also calls them to a spiritually disciplined way of life.
Yet when Paul calls Corinth’s Christians to refrain from things like jealousy, envy, lawsuits, sexual immorality and the misuse of spiritual gifts, he’s not calling them to conjure up such obedience on their own. The apostle is calling them, instead, to be who and what they are.
Since God has called the Corinthian Christians, they are united. Since God has called them to be holy, they are sexually pure. When, quite simply, Paul calls the Christians in Corinth to do something, it’s to be who they are in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
But, of course, as the rest of Paul’s first letter to Corinth’s Christians shows, they aren’t always being who God has made them to be. The Corinthian Christians aren’t acting in ways that show that the Holy Spirit has made them one. They aren’t being faithful in their marriages, appropriate in worship and disciplined in their use of their spiritual gifts the way the Spirit has equipped them to be.
That helps make verse 8 both poignant and startling. There, after all, Paul insists that God “will keep you strong (bebaiosei hymas) so that you will be blameless (anenkletous) on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The apostle literally promises his Corinthian readers that God will “sustain” them not temporarily, but literally “to the end.” God will also, he adds, keep them “strong” all the way until Jesus Christ returns.
“Strong”? The Corinthian Christians? They aren’t even strong enough to stay out of the beds of other people’s spouses. “Blameless”? Corinth’s Christians? They can’t even stop blaming each other in court. “Strong” and “blameless”? God’s dearly beloved people? We don’t even love each other as much as we love ourselves, to say nothing of loving God more than any person or thing.
So what might Paul be saying when he promises that God will keep Jesus’ Corinthian followers strong and blameless until Christ returns at the end of measured time? He may be speaking not of a kind of blameless way of living, but of a kind of forensic blamelessness. The apostle may be insisting that until Christ comes again, God will continue to view and treat God’s dearly beloved people as blameless.
Paul may also, however, be alluding to the role that God will play in equipping Jesus’ friends to be who they are, to act in ways that are loving, holy and righteous. That may, after all, be the force of what he’s saying when he insists in verse 8 that the “God who has called (eklethete) you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful (pistos).”
It isn’t, in other words, up to the Corinthians to remain strong and blameless until the end of measured time. If it were, their eternal well-being would be in deep danger. They, after all, have shown a persistent inability to be either strong or blameless. If Corinth’s Christians are to be faithful, it will completely depend on God’s faithfulness. As The Message paraphrases verse 9’s Paul telling the Corinthians, “God will never give up on you. Never forget that.”
Here is great gospel, not just on the third Sunday of a new year, or throughout the coming year, but also for all the years God graciously chooses to give us. God is completely reliable. So while God calls us to respond to God’s amazing grace with our faithful obedience, God is so trustworthy that God’s adopted sons and daughters can count on God to hold us in the everlasting arms of God’s lovingkindness.
On his February 1, 2010 blog, “Living Up to Your Name” Tim Elmore writes about his loyalties during the 2010 Super Bowl. While he’d been a lifelong fan of their opponents, the Colts, he found himself cheering for the New Orleans Saints.
He writes about the Saints players, “Each of these guys have given large sums of money back to their city. Even over the last two years, they have given money in response to the horrendous damage of Hurricane Katrina. We are talking hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“In fact, several of the Saints’ team members had volunteered hours, and worked in the worst sections of New Orleans in an attempt to foster hope and good will among the city’s population. It has made an incredible impression on the people there.”
While Elmore admits that it’s “cheesy,” he writes that he loves how the New Orleans Saints football players were “living up to their name.”
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