Greetings to the Corinthians

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

From now through the end of February, the lectionary is going to have us reading from the first letter of Paul to the church in Corinth. Next Sunday I’ll again be speaking to the themes Paul raises, and then because Catherine and I will be away on vacation through those four Sundays in February, it will be up to our other preachers to determine the degree to which they’ll focus on the Corinthians reading. I suspect that when Jaylene stands here to preach two weeks from tonight, she’ll have a hard time not speaking on the passage for that day, as it is really one of Paul’s most extraordinary pieces of writing… no pressure, Jaylene!

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Every once in a while the lectionary has us read the opening verses of one of the epistles of Paul, and I used to wonder why. Wouldn’t it make more sense to skip by the formal salutations, and just dig into the meat of the letter?

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There are three full verses of formalities, followed by another five verses in which Paul just seems to be getting warmed up. Somewhere along the line, though, it occurred to me that such verses are appointed precisely to remind us that before they were read as scripture, these epistles were letters. Someone else’s mail, in other words, occasioned by very particular circumstances, and that’s really helpful to keep in mind anytime we open the bible to read from Paul’s writings.

I have long counted 1st Corinthians as my favourite of all of Paul’s epistles, in part because it is so very clearly a letter written to a very particular community. I hear Paul’s voice in this letter in a way that makes me feel as if I can get a real sense of what makes him tick. Paul as an actual person comes through here in an extraordinary way, in part because he is trying to help this young church work its way through some very real issues. Very, very real issues… of the sort that could only surface in a place such as Corinth.

In his memoirs, the ancient Greek writer Alciphron remarked, “Never have I been to Corinth, for I know pretty well the beastly kind of life the rich enjoy there and the wretchedness of the poor.” A significant port city and trade centre, Corinth was so notorious for its vice that by the 4th century BCE a new word had made its way into the Greek language: to “corinthianize” was to engage in all manner of dubious sexual practices. Think Las Vegas, without the pretense of glamour. What happens in Corinth stays in Corinth…

It is exactly the sort of place to which Paul was inclined to gravitate, though not because he wanted to try his hand at the ancient world’s version of the slot machine. Yes, he always maintained a relationship to the church in Jerusalem—the centre of Jewish Christianity—and would eventually end up in Rome—the political centre of the Empire—but he spent most of his ministry out on the edges. And frankly, you didn’t get much edgier than Corinth.

He arrived there around the year 50, and it wasn’t long before he’d begun to begin to build a Christian community. Maybe there was something about Paul’s powerful theology of grace that had particular resonance in that city; after all, if you’ve been living in a place knee deep in moral muck, and someone comes with this proclamation that says you’d never done anything so bad that God would turn you away, that’s got to have some appeal. You were not going to be defined by the badness of your failings, much less by the the goodness of your adherence to the law. You were simply going to be embraced by the wildly freeing grace of God made available in Christ; by God’s folly, in fact, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

He proclaimed it to the rich living what Alciphron had called their “beastly kind of life,” and to the poor in their “wretchedness.” Women, men, gentiles, Jews, slaves, free, young, old… their was a place for all. And when they came to gather, it seemed as if the Holy Spirit all but danced in their midst. People spoke in tongues, and words of wisdom and prophecy poured out of the mouths of the most unlikely people. It must have been exhilarating to experience, and when after a year or more Paul sailed away to plant his next community, maybe he even thought that in time that word “corinthianize” would take on a whole new meaning.

A couple of years later Paul received a letter from some of the leaders of the Corinthian church, and while that letter is long lost—maybe Paul crumpled it up and threw in on the fire in frustration—we can get a pretty good sense of it from the letter Paul sends back. Just two verses after today’s reading closes, he writes, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you,” and that’s just the beginning. That exhilarating community he’d left behind has come seriously off the rails. “Dear Paul… ummm… we’ve got some problems here, and could use your advice.” Someone has shacked up with his step-mother, and it is pretty clear that some of the men in the church have been paying regular visits to the local prostitutes. People in the community are launching lawsuits against one another, and they’ve got a controversy brewing about whether or not a Christian can eat meat from an animal that had been sacrificed in a pagan temple. When they gather for the Lord’s supper, they seem to have lost sight of the idea of a shared meal, for some are getting roaring drunk and others are left to go hungry.

You can almost hear the deep sigh coming from the depths of Paul’s soul, as he writes his reply. At times he really seems to struggle to find the right counsel. He’s convinced, for instance, that women should keep their heads covered during prayer and worship, but given his own powerful message that Christians are no longer bound by the Law he’s not entirely sure why this should be the case. A good half of the 11th chapter of this epistle finds him searching for a good reason, and in the end he just resorts—rather unconvincingly, I’d say—to social convention: “But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.”

Yet there are these other moments where he simply soars, as in chapter 12 when he gifts the Christian tradition with one of its most important and abiding theological images, that of our being the one Body of Christ.

Still, surely there was something heart breaking in having to write this epistle in the first place. Paul can be such a realist, and it must have been tough to summon the courage to believe that this Corinthian church would be able to make it through the mess they’d made of it all. As Frederick Buechner puts it in his essay, “Paul Sends His Love,”  “It is this which in many ways is what First Corinthians is essentially about—[Paul’s] sense of futility and despair at war with his exultant hope, the terrible tension between the in spite of and the because of of his restless and often anguished faith.”

Back for a minute to the passage we read this evening. The formal salutation rolls into a section that I used to hear as Paul trying to strategically win the ears of his readers by saying some nice things about them, before plunging in with his much tougher challenges. “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus… you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ… God will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” You know, sort of giving them the “good cop” treatment before swinging around with his “tough cop” message. But I don’t hear it that way any more. I think he’s trying to tell them who they truly are, so that they might again find a way to be that. He’s trying to give them back their foundational identity.

Again from Frederick Buechner: “To pray for your enemies, to worry about the poor when you have worries enough of your own, to start becoming yourself fully by giving of yourself prodigally to whoever needs you, to love your neighbors when an intelligent fourth-grader could tell you that the way to get ahead in the world is to beat your neighbors to the draw every chance you get—that was what this God asked, Paul wrote. That was who this God was. That was who Jesus was.”

And in those things the Corinthian Christians can begin again to find who they truly are. And so will we. As we read someone else’s mail and eavesdrop on their particular foibles and failings, so will we.


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