We are in the middle of our sermon series, The Wisdom of God. This week we are beginning several weeks in 1 Corinthians. The city of Corinth was an important sea port between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. It was full of the “vice” that one associates with sea ports, full of a transient population with plenty of money.
The Apostle Paul established the church there I about the year 51 A.D. and he wrote the letter we call 1 Corinthians in about the year 55 A.D. Even though we call this letter 1 Corinthians, we know from its text that it wasn’t the first time Paul wrote to them.
Most of the people in this church had recently become followers of The Way of Jesus Christ (or Christians), and they weren’t as familiar with the God of Israel. They were used to living in a community where hierarchy was quite literally king, and they tried to adapt their new life in Christ to look and feel like the Greco-Roman life they had known all their lives. They had sent a list of issues to Paul in Ephesus that they needed help to resolve.
The thing that we need to remember is that even though we read this as a book in the larger book of the Bible, it is, in fact, a letter. When we read this, we are reading someone else’s mail. True, it was intended to be a community document and shared with other churches, but it is a letter.
Today, we are looking at the very beginning of this letter. Unlike today’s letters, its beginning is more like our endings. It’s part of the mechanics of the letter. We might think it’s boring, but you can tell a lot about a letter by the way it is signed.
I sign my letters in a variety of ways. It could be: Sincerely, Yours truly, or Love. Within our own church community, you may have seen me sign things “In Christ,” “Blessings,” or at Christmas time, I like to use “Peace & Joy.” When I’m writing a letter of reference for someone for a job or school application I usually sign it, “Sincerely, Pastor Cherie L. Dearth, MTS,” adding as many initials after my name as I can. Very rarely would I sign it “Love.”
In Philippians, Paul signs his letter, “Paul and Timothy, slaves of Jesus Christ.” We can immediately see the tone of this letter will be about humility and sacrifice. In Galatians, Paul signs, “Paul, an apostle, not by human means or authority, but by the power and will of God in Jesus Christ.” It is his signature, but we can tell that this is going to be a more forceful letter.
Let’s take a look at how 1 Corinthians begins.
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
1 From Paul, called by God’s will to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, and from Sosthenes our brother.
2 To God’s church that is in Corinth: To those who have been made holy to God in Christ Jesus, who are called to be God’s people. Together with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place— he’s their Lord and ours!
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I thank my God always for you, because of God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. 5 That is, you were made rich through him in everything: in all your communication and every kind of knowledge, 6 in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. 7 The result is that you aren’t missing any spiritual gift while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, and you were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
It can be difficult to detect when the Bible is telling a joke. The Bible can be very humorous at times, however they can be hard to detect. We miss the joke. Why is that? Part of the reason is that very contextual. It is particular to a culture and a time and place. We live in a very different time and place from Paul and the people of Corinth. Also, it can be because we take the Bible seriously. This is a good thing, but we can also take it solemnly, which is not always a good thing. Therefore, we miss the joke.
If we look carefully, there are two areas of humor in these opening passages, and they actually form the major theological purpose of the entire letter. To see them, we have to remember what is happening in Corinth. They had written to Paul with a long list of issues. The church was not an overly large group with about 50 people, but they had separated themselves into rival factions. They were at each other’s throats.
There was the “Holy Spirit” group who thought of themselves as more “spiritual” than the others. They were, as Martin Luther described a similar group in his time, people who were certain that they had swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all. They were “holier than thou.”
Another group were the “Action” people who were “more ethical than thou.” They were ready to get rid of everything for the poor and allow themselves to be burned. But, there was also the “Wisdom” group, who had been studying the Scripture for years, and they thought that they knew more than everyone else.
Not only were there these competing groups, but there was dispute about a variety of issues. They fought about the Lord’s Supper, who should eat when. Who should wait for whom. Who should be allowed to participate. They fought about baptism. (Because, that never happens today.) They fought about leadership. They fought about spiritual gifts, which ones were better or more important. There was sexual immorality going on that would cause everyone in this room to blush. After all of this, there were some Corinthians that didn’t believe in the resurrection. Other than that, they didn’t have any problems at all.
Paul replies to them by starting off, I think I should pray, and there’s humor.
God, I want to thank you for these people. You have given them such gifts in speech and knowledge. (Speech and knowledge were tearing the church apart.) You have provided them with such a range of spiritual gifts that they are lacking nothing. (Spiritual gifts were about to burn the church to the ground.) They will certainly be presented to you on the last day as morally blameless.
Paul’s prayer list matched their list of concerns. It must have gotten their attention. However, Paul’s humor began even earlier than that. Did you see how Paul describes the church?
I am writing this letter to the Church at Corinth, those made Holy in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.
The word “saints” means “holy ones,” so in the Greek, Paul is repeating that “holy” phrase. No modern English Bible translation would be so bold to put it this way. However, what Paul is literally saying … Can you hear the sarcasm … I’m writing to all of all you in Corinth, you holy holy ones.
Why does Paul do this? One, is that he is confronting and breaking down their presumptions about themselves.
If you think that you can stand higher and divide the Body of Christ, you have another think coming. I am writing to you holy holy ones.
He’s not only breaking down their self-conceit, but he is building something much better in its place. He is replacing their false notion of what it means to be a saint with the true one, and he is using humor to help them see it.
They needed this correction because they had a false notion that being a saint was a position of moral status. It was a title of moral and spiritual perfection. It was a destination to which one arrived. That’s what they thought it meant to be a saint, to which Paul says, “No.” It is not a destination but a journey. You were called to be saints.
When you were a child, did you ever hear anyone say … when someone did something wrong or inappropriate, “Child, that was un-called for”? That’s an interesting turn of phrase, isn’t it, “un-called for”? It’s like there is something inside of us that doesn’t just come out. It needs to be invited from us. It needs to be “called for.” This is exactly what Paul is driving at about sainthood. (Tom Long)
Sainthood is not something that we produce by ourselves through our own moral strength. It drawn from the outside. You are called on a journey to be saints.
In his autobiography, the great attorney William Longfellow said that his Christian life became passionate when he realized that he wasn’t a lawyer with an occupation but a baptized person with a vocation.
Reverend Tom Long tells a story about when he was a professor at Princeton. He would worship at Nassau Presbyterian Church, which was on the campus of Princeton University. Many of the professors of the university and seminary attended there. It has long prided itself on its intellectual life.
Soon after he arrived, Tom was at a potluck supper seated next to a man he didn’t know. The man asked, “How long have you been going to Nassau Church?”
“Not very long,” Tom replied. “I just moved to Princeton. How about you? How long have you been here?”
“O Lord, I’ve been here all my life. In fact, I’m the last non-intellectual left here in this congregation.”
Tom said, “You’re kidding.”
“No, I haven’t understood a sermon that has been preached here in 25 years … But, I’d never leave this church,” the man said.
He told Tom that every Monday night, he and a group from the congregation get into the church van and go to the youth correctional center up the road. “Sometimes we have Bible study, but most of the time we just play ping-pong and get to know them. I started doing it because I thought it was the kind of thing that Christians ought to do, but now I wouldn’t miss a Monday night. I have found that it feeds my soul.” Then he paused and said, “You cannot prove any of the promises of God in advance, but if you live them, they’re true, every one.”
That may be the best sermon preached at Nassau Church in 25 years because there was a saint on a journey being called.
In addition to the Corinthians thinking that achieving sainthood was a goal instead of a journey, they thought it was a state you arrived at alone. That is why it was all right to make divisions within the church as being a saint was an exclusive club magnificently separated from the lessor faithful ones. Again Paul says, “No.” We are called to be saints together. In truth, one of the signs of a Christian saint is that whenever there are divisions among Christians, saints build bridges. Wherever there are gulfs between people, saints try to span the divide. Where there are walls, saints strive to get it down.
That is what Paul did with the Corinthians. The wisdom of the world says, Forget them! Never mind. They’re too much trouble. They’re too far gone. They’ll never get it.
The Wisdom of God says that these people have been called to be saints. God has invited them on a journey. God is not going to give up on them, and neither is Paul. In 2 Corinthians, it is clear that this church is breaking his heart, and still he does not give up on them.
In the same way, God is not going to give up on us though we may give God great provocation. Nor, should we give up on someone because they make it difficult to love them. It certainly would be easier to write them off. That would be reasonable by the wisdom of the world. The Wisdom of God took Israel back time and time again after they abandoned God’s law and ignored God’s prophets.
The invitation remains open. It remains open to you and to me. As we move forward in our journey as saints, we are called through the Wisdom of God to keep trying, to keep loving, to keep working with people who may frustrate the living daylights out of us, just as God keeps working with us when we frustrate and confound God.
Lord, thank you for continually doing that for all of us. Help us to see and you see and to love as you love. Help us when we are frustrated and confounded by the people that you put on our path, those you have chosen to go on your journey with us. And, thank you for the grace and mercy that you continually show us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen!