I Corinthians 1:1-9
For the next few weeks the lectionary takes us through the first three chapters of I Corinthians for the epistle readings, and I have decided to focus on these passages. Depending on how that goes, I might come back to this letter at other stretches during the year. So to start out I want to give you a bit of an introduction to Corinth.
As you know, Paul was a traveling evangelist and church planter. His goal was to go throughout the known world and proclaim the gospel in every place, establishing Christian fellowships wherever he went. He occasionally wrote letters to those fellowships in communities he had visited, particularly when he had news from those communities about the state of life in the church.
These letters, some of which have survived and are in the New Testament, are the earliest writings of the New Testament. None of the Gospels had been finalized at this point, which helps explain why Paul never quotes Jesus or retells the parables or main teachings. The letter we are looking at dates from the early 50’s A.D.
We can gather from Paul’s writings that he spent 18 months in Corinth, which was a very long time for him to stay anywhere. So it was an important group of people for him, and the two letters we have in the New Testament are the most correspondence with a particular church which we find by a lot. Paul left Corinth in 51, and the letter we know as I Corinthians probably dates between 53-55, and he indicates that he is writing from Ephesus.
So Paul is writing to people he knows, among whom he worked and preached for a year and a half. He mentions having written a previous letter, which they misunderstood. The point is that we are reading someone else’s mail. We are not privy to what has previously happened, what the relationships are like, how the Corinthians would have described their situation from their side of the equation. Paul refers to situations that would have been crystal clear to the Corinthians but are quite murky to us. Paul is not writing a systematic theology here; he is responding to questions and giving advice about specific situations he has heard about. That is an important distinction.
I hope you have access to the map that was handed out on your way in today. For better context you will want to take it home and look at a larger world map. In the top left you will see a box with a smaller box within it showing where the enlarged are is. Corinth is on a narrow isthmus which connects the mainland of Greece with the Peloponnesian peninsula. The isthmus is only about three miles across at its narrowest point, so for centuries this had been used as a shortcut for shipping from Asia to Rome. Instead of making the long and dangerous journey around the southern peninsula, shippers could do one of two things. A rock roadway was built across which smaller ships could be dragged from one side to the other, and in later days the Egyptian method of rolling on top of logs was adopted. Or merchandise could be unloaded on one side and carted to a new shipping vessel on the other side. Several attempts were made at digging a canal across the isthmus, but this was not successful until the 1800’s.
All of this made Corinth a very important commercial center. It ran the harbors on both sides of the isthmus, it provided carts and laborers for moving ships and goods, and undoubtedly charged taxes for goods to move across their land.
Apparently they thought they could even have their way when the Roman Empire came along, but they were wrong. The Romans destroyed Corinth in 146 B.C., executing or enslaving its inhabitants. It was abandoned for 100 years, when it was refounded as a Roman colony, largely with former slaves. So the composition of Corinth was quite different when Paul arrived 100 years later than it would have been a couple of centuries before. He indicates in his letter to them that only a few in the Christian fellowship were people of status, education, and wealth; most were not. Accounts of that period indicate that there were numerous temples devoted to different gods, many public statues of gods and goddesses, and a major statue of the goddess Athena in the marketplace. There was also a Jewish community in Corinth. All of these factors help us understand the particular problems facing the Christian fellowship in Corinth.
I would like to have seen Paul’s face as he read the letters and heard the news from his friends in Corinth. It probably was not all that large a group to begin with, and they faced a number of controversies, any one of which would be a major threat to a congregation’s existence. I’m sure he was horrified and panicked as he read.
Here are a few of the bullets: division into groups following different leaders; some claiming to be more advanced in their knowledge and spiritual gifts than others; disagreement about whether it was okay to eat meat which had been sacrificed to idols; disagreements over all types of sexual issues, from incest to prostitution to the demand for total chastity; arguments over which spiritual gifts were more important; fighting to be first in line at the Lord’s Supper.
Any pastor would be horrified to learn that his or her former congregation had degenerated into such a state. So Paul wrote a letter in which he attempted to do a variety of things. We don’t know how successful it was. We do know that relations became very strained between Paul and the Corinthians over time because he refers to that in II Corinthians.
With that background, let’s launch into the letter and see what we can find that will be helpful to us. Paul is working on the art of encouraging, which requires walking a delicate line and does not come naturally for him.
However, he does follow the first rule of effective communication, which is not to make your audience mad right off the bat. He starts with a greeting and introduction, which were standard for letters of the time, but knowing what we know about the context of his letter there are some important themes introduced as well. It is like a musical overture, which sounds some important melodies which will reappear throughout the larger work.
He starts with his greeting: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes…” Paul’s leadership is being challenged in Corinth, and the issue of whether he was an apostle was always being raised since he was not an eyewitness of the life and ministry of Jesus. So he asserts his credentials right off the bat. Called… to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. Sosthenes is with him. In the book of Acts, Sosthenes is identified as a leader of the synagogue in Corinth who became one of Paul’s converts, and now he is with Paul on his missionary journey. He is one of their own and again gives authenticity to Paul’s ministry.
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” The letter is addressed to a group, a fellowship, a church, to people who have also been called to a holy vocation – to be saints. Saints is a word that means “set apart,” so he is not saying they are all to be like the revered saints that we think of. They are set apart and called together for a purpose. But he also wants to remind them that they are part of a larger movement: “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” When your church is fighting, all your attention is focused there and you forget that you are one small part of something much bigger. Paul reminds them to be humble. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Two gifts and characteristics which are both greatly needed. The gift of grace – of forgiveness and compassion and acceptance – and the gift of peace.
Then comes the thanksgiving, again a common part of the beginning of letters in Paul’s day. “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 king – 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.”
Most weaknesses are also strengths in a way, and all problems are also opportunities. So Paul here gives thanks for some of those very things which have become divisive. He is grateful that God has blessed them so abundantly with knowledge and with spiritual gifts and with the ability to speak about them well. Just because they have begun arguing about which of the gifts is most important and which of them is the most advanced in knowledge and wisdom doesn’t mean the gifts themselves are not good. He emphasizes, though, that they are gifts from God rather than accomplishments on their own. Grace has been given to you in Christ Jesus. In every way you have been enriched in speech and knowledge and are not lacking in spiritual gifts. And for those who think they have arrived, have learned what they need to know, have perfected the spiritual gifts, Paul reminds them that they “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The story has not been completed and is not in their hands to complete.
“He 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.” Again he is focusing on humility. We cannot make it to the end by our own strength, but God will strengthen us and make us blameless when the judgment day arrives. That is the gift of grace, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. By God we are called into the fellowship of his Son.
The word fellowship is so important, and it is what has been lost in Corinth. Broken fellowship is painful. It brings anger and then grief. Paul reminds the Christians of Corinth that they have all been called together to be saints, set apart, to be part of a fellowship based on Jesus Christ. When we are arguing about who is right and who is wrong and forming camps based around leaders or ideologies, we have no interest in fellowship.
This is an important way to exercise the art of encouraging. Paul will repeatedly address divisive issues by pointing to a theological truth that really makes the argument irrelevant. Sometimes his passion leads him to take sides on the argument, but many times he wants everyone to refocus their attention on the Christ who has redeemed them and the grace and fellowship he has gifted them with.
In writing about this passage, Richard Hays calls our attention to an excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together. In prison, Bonhoeffer learned the hard way about the blessings of Christian fellowship and the church. When you are in the midst of the church it is easy to focus on the disappointing aspects of it, the flaws, the people. When that is taken away from it, you realize what is good about it.
Bonhoeffer wrote, “If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if, on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ… What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God… The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.” (pp. 29-30)
Hays says, “Paul models the thankful stance that Bonhoeffer prescribes. He is able to give thanks to God for the problematical Corinthian church because he recognizes that Christian community is, as Bonhoeffer aptly observes, ‘not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.’” (30) (Interpretation, I Corinthians, p. 21)
Next Sunday we continue on with the very next verses in the first chapter, verses 10-18. Paul is now going to jump right in to begin specifically addressing the problems he has heard about and how he thinks they should be dealt with. I think he starts with the one he thinks is most important. Next week, then, the topic will be: “The Church I Used to Go To.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey Central Presbyterian Church
January 19, 2014 Anderson, SC