This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, 12/3/17 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The text is 1 Corinthians 1:3-9.
Imagine that you spent a year and a half getting a new church up and running. When you left to work with other churches, the church was growing. Leaders were emerging and the congregation seemed healthy. All was well.
Then a delegation from the young church arrives. They bring word—via a letter—and that letter carries bad news. The church is fighting. There are visible factions. Some are in danger of returning to their old lives to serve their former gods and to resume life as they once knew it. Others are lording their so-called knowledge over those whom they deem weaker in the faith. The weaker members are being intimidated by some of the stronger, more experienced believers. This resulted in some being anxious about their own status before God and they were apparently confused about the second coming of Christ. Class divisions are even evident at the Lord’s Table.
But that’s not the end of the problems. You hear secret reports that involve church members visiting prostitutes and a man sleeping with his stepmother. Some are questioning the very heart of the gospel—the resurrection. The problems are overwhelming and relentless. You can’t drop everything and go visit these people now. The delegation awaits your response. You must respond. Volumes are writing themselves in your head of all the things you would like to say, but there are limits to what you can include in a letter—even a long one? Where do you begin? How did things go so terribly wrong? (Carla Works)
Welcome to Paul’s world. It is because of these various issues that Paul is writing in the first place. Instead of criticizing the Corinthians right from the start, he encourages the Corinthian church. Here Paul sets the tone and prepares us for what is to come.
As we look at Paul’s responses to the Corinthians’ issues, through the lens of Advent, we see that our present life is lived between Advents. How many of you have ever experienced a trip in a car with children? I know that numerous times you heard the words, “Are we there yet?” You are in-between home and your destination. Paul understood Christian existence as a tension between the “already” and the “not yet”—living between the times of Christ’s first coming and Christ’s triumphant return. The word “wait” carries the connotation of eager expectation. So, we can think of it in this way, “as you wait with eager expectation for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7). But we are not there yet.
Our world, communities, churches and lives are not perfect. We have not arrived. How are we then to manage? How do we get there and what do we do in the meantime?
For one thing, God’s gifts are more than sufficient for the in-between times, v. 7. Can’t you just hear the Corinthians saying, “That’s all well and good. But we have real problems, right here in Corinth. Our church is falling apart!” Of the myriad issues the Corinthian believers were experiencing in their broken church, they all have their solution in this first paragraph of Paul’s letter.
Paul mentions two things in this introduction and prayer for the Corinthians: knowledge and spiritual gifts.
God has enriched the Corinthians in “speech and knowledge of every kind” (v. 5). The Corinthian culture especially exalted, and even competed in, skills of speech and knowledge, including extemporaneous speeches on various topics. Corinthian believers especially valued the spiritual gifts that were valued, in a secular form, in their culture.
The knowledge Paul wrote of is not some hidden, mystical knowledge the Corinthians possessed. Without the cross they were no more able to reach God and be saved than we are. Paul is speaking of concrete knowledge based on the reality of Christ’s incarnation and death on the cross. This is something that happened in real time and real history. It is reality.
Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the Corinthians sharply for their many problems, but here emphasizes that they are not due to a lack of gifts. Paul tells the Corinthian community that they have more than enough—enough grace, knowledge and spiritual gifts. Grace is everywhere: “Grace to you and peace,” “because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.” Grace “summarizes Paul’s understanding of God’s full generosity in dealing with humanity” (Marion Soards).
In the last verse we see the hinge upon which the door of encouragement swings. “God is faithful…” (v. 9). This is the key statement as we think about the in-between time, as we live our everyday lives. The knowledge of God’s faithfulness may be the only thing that gets us through various situations we encounter.
God has called the readers of this letter into a unique participatory [not passive] community with Jesus Christ and with that calling, comes the promise that “he will strengthen you to the end” (v. 8). We are not left in weakness in our personal or corporate struggles.
In the in-between time, the believers’ community should demonstrate a genuine unity. God calls us to a unity of mind and purpose. We are not so different today than the Corinthian church of Paul’s time. We too are torn by many issues as Christians in our country; each with a multitude of answers. Each side cites scripture, claiming that God is on their side, whether the issue is immigration, taxes, LGBTQ rights, drug addiction or any other problem of our time. We wonder if those who think differently than we do are even Christians.
This is neither the time for passivity or selfish pursuits. It is the time for exercising our spiritual gifts for the benefit of the larger community and for the glory of God. This is something I see this happening in our community of faith. If you’re not sure of what your spiritual gifts are, call me or come see me.
In the midst of all of our messes, God is present and at work. Paul wrote that “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son…” v. 9. Elsewhere, “fellowship” is translated “sharing,” “participation,” and “communion.” It is both vertical and horizontal—with God and with each other in unity. The horizontal can only exist as it emerges from the vertical relationship with God. Such participation is not optional, but is part of God’s original call to each of us.
Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of forgoing rights, attending to the weaker, of a worship that builds up the entire congregation, and of love that “does not insist on its own way” (13:5). These are the ingredients that cause unity and that characterize those “called into the fellowship of … Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).
God is the actor throughout the Christian drama of life. It is God who calls the Christian community into being and God who sustains it to the end.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t always live the kind of Christian life that most pleases the Lord. I am not always faithful. I am encouraged by the fact that the Corinthians had problems. They were not perfect Christians, as we like to think those of the first century were. Paul teaches and corrects their errors, but not before beginning with encouragement of God’s faithfulness in the time we live in—the in-between time of the 2 advents—Christ’s first coming and his return.
God had given the Corinthians all they needed, to do what God wanted them to do. God has given us all we need to do what God wants us to do. God is the One who does the work through his people. Grace and gifts abound from God’s generosity.
God comes to us in the past, in the history of Israel and in the incarnation of Jesus, in the present, in word and sacrament and in the sufferings of our time, and in the future, at the end of all things. God shows up whether we are ready or not—no matter what kind of stipulations or conditions or provisions we make to persuade God of our timeliness. God entered into our time, forever changing it. Divinity took on mortality, eternity entered temporality, and love eliminated death (Lewis).
We may not be there yet, but as Paul wrote, 8”He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Christian Coon, christian
Fred B. Craddock & M. Eugene Boring, The People’s New Testament Commentary, Kindle Edition.
Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Abridged Edition): New Testament
NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible