In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
That day was a scorcher. We arrived at the site of ancient Corinth, which lies totally exposed to the hot sun, and thoroughly dry and barren. Above the ancient ruins is the Akropolis, the “high town,” where people could flee for refuge in the ancient world. It’s easier to defend than their city site, which is out there in the open and accessible to anyone who wants to walk right in.
Barry and I took one look at that exposed place in that heat, and we immediately headed to one of the restaurants across the street for some fortification. We had fresh fish and a Greek salad to die for, lots of water, …and another adventure negotiating the tourist shops afterward.
But when we finally put on our sun hats, walked over to the site and met our guide, we were ready to go.
The main thing I remember about ancient Corinth is its location. You can see the western arm of the sea from the town—you just look down a little and out to the left. And you know that the eastern arm of the sea touches that isthmus not far from where you are—you can see that from the restaurant as you look out in the other direction.
We toured with an English-speaking Greek woman who took us to various sites, including a few Greek temples, meeting places, and uncovered pavements. I had fun imagining life at this site 2000 years ago when it was a bustling place of commerce due to its situation on that neck of land between the mainland and the Peloponnese. All kinds of different people passed through there. So the congregation must have been really diverse, and I bet there were lots of different opinions floating around about how to do things the RIGHT way.
When we were there I could almost envision Paul meeting with people at the ancient synagogue or on any one of the open squares.
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And so today we begin a 6-week series of readings from Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth. He—Paul—is the one directly responsible for teaching the Corinthians about Jesus and for beginning the Christian church there. And so he felt a strong pull on his heart when he heard later on / about problems in the congregation. (We’ll be speaking about those problems as the weeks roll out.)
Paul wrote at least 2 letters to them, instructing them about how to be followers of Jesus in a pagan culture. He wanted them to thrive and truly to have the mind of Christ.
And as is true of all Scripture, these letters of Paul that have survived are useful to us, today, even though they date from around 60 A.D. All Scripture is alive. It’s useful for teaching and for correcting. That’s still true, even in our day. We’ll be preaching on the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians for the next six weeks, and we’ll have our eyes open for ways in which they’re still relevant to US.
Today’s reading begins the letter. At first it’s deceptive because it seems like this is so much empty form-following. Here’s what I mean:
We see here all the elements of how a good letter or memo should begin. (Follow along if you’d like.)
Verse 1: the sender. That’s Paul.
Verse 2: the recipient. That’s all the people in the church in Corinth.
Verse 3: An opening blessing: grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verses 4 through 8: A rather lengthy thanksgiving for the church and for how its members are called to do God’s work.
These are all elements that would be present in ancient letters.
But now let’s zero in on some of the content in these first 8 verses. Paul sets forth some themes that will weave in and out of the rest of his letter.
First, right after his name, Paul, we have the word “called.” Called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God… In the next verse he tells the Corinthians that they are “called to be saints.” He’s stressing the idea that it’s God who calls every one of us, and gives us the gifts we need for ministry. And lest the Corinthians think they are very special, Paul stresses that they stand with Christians from all over the known world, all called by God and all of whom call on Jesus as their Savior.
Another idea Paul mentions strongly in the second verse is that the Corinthians are sanctified—or made holy—in Jesus Christ. They are called by God and made to be saints by God—not by their own efforts. Betsy Malavet spoke a little about saints in her sermon last November. She said “we are not ‘saints’ because we are pious—although I imagine that can’t hurt—but we are ‘saints’ because we have been ‘called’ by God—to strive, to believe, to dare for God, to live a life in service to [God].” [Betsy Malavet, sermon for November 6, 2016, Christ Church Parish]
In other words the emphasis here is that people are set apart to be made holy BY GOD—and not because of any special thing they’ve done themselves. Even if we don’t feel very holy—still—God calls us holy and sets us apart for service. We’re holy, sanctified in Christ Jesus, whether we like it or not! Referencing another biblical assertion from Paul, we have a righteousness that is not our own. [see Philippians 3:9] We are saints, by God’s free gift.
The third theme I’d like to highlight today is that Paul says in verse 7 that God has enriched the congregation and strengthened them in spiritual gifts, so that they don’t lack for anything. They have all they need, and it’s all by the grace of God. These gifts are given to the body, the church, in aggregate. As a body they have all they need. And that implies that they need one another, because without one another they are incomplete.
I think it’s really important for us to remember this teaching. It’s just as applicable today as it was almost 2000 years ago. As a parish we have all we need when we pool and share our various abilities and resources. Some here are teachers, some are artists. Some do well with figures and finance. Some love to study and are developing well as preachers. Some have the ability to jump into a situation and just do whatever needs to be done. Many of us have a knack for hospitality. Many love to pray. All these things are so important. And added together, they reflect the One who gives the gifts. They help make us strong.
We see the same thing with our financial giving. We all are able to give something. Some folks are on limited incomes, so their giving is less. That’s ok, because other folks are able to give more. It’s when you look at us in aggregate that you see how well we’re doing. Every gift, every giving, is important, because they all add up to the whole. Thanks be to God.
* * *
Now, this Lent we have an interesting project coming up. We’ll be illustrating our many and various prayers by writing them on paper tags—like this one. People who might like to decorate their tags are welcome to do so, and we’ll have a table set up in the parish hall for this activity. But what’s really significant about this is that we’ll be encouraged to pray each others’ concerns out loud during the Prayers of the People. We will be holding each other up, taking care of each other, being Christ for each other, through little paper tags, some markers, and a bit of yarn. We will be “church” in the best sense of the word.
Now, Paul hints at the problems that beset the congregation in Corinth. As the chapters roll out in this letter he’ll be coming down on them hard due to their failure to live as Jesus would have them live. But our opening today is masterful, because Paul starts by saying the good stuff…so that they’ll be better able to hear the hard stuff as the letter rolls out.
We all need reprimanding now and then. May we learn to take critical input and let it help us to change for the better. And may we remember, with the Corinthian church, that God is faithful. By him we were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. May we continue to play our part in helping our collective fellowship with God to thrive.