PRAYER: Remind us, O God, that you have already poured out your grace upon us and you have given your church the tools we need to do ministry and to serve your glory. We are blessed beyond measure and turn to you for guidance. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
In the 18th chapter of the book of Acts, Paul’s visit to the church in Corinth is described in some detail. So we can have some context into Paul’s letter, let’s hear about Paul’s visit:
Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. When they opposed and reviled him, in protest he shook the dust from his clothes and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the gentiles.” Then he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household, and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized. One night the Lord said to Paul in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.” He stayed there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
So Paul stayed there 18 months and there was a lot of tension between the Jewish synagogue and the newly formed Christ-centered church. There were enough Christians that Paul was able to be there safely. The story continues…
But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal. They said, “This man is persuading people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.” Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of crime or serious villainy, I would be justified in accepting the complaint of you Jews, but since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves; I do not wish to be a judge of these matters.” And he dismissed them from the tribunal. Then all of them seized Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of these things.
Our reading today is an introduction from Paul to the church in Corinth where he spent 18 months. If you are familiar with Paul’s letters, then you know that they all share at least this much in common – they each have an introduction of some kind. Each introduction begins with identifying the writer – Paul obviously – but this one also includes …and our brother Sosthenes.
There is a tendency to skip past Paul’s introductions because they seem superfluous to the meat of his letters. But the truth is that these introductions, most often give a summary of what is contained in the letters themselves. In Philippians, for example, Paul’s introduction gives thanks for what they’re doing for others, for themselves, and for the way they’ve blessed him as an apostle.
Whether or not this is the same Sosthenes who had been beaten before the council in the 18th chapter of Acts is only speculation. But since most of the letter is critical of the church, it seems reasonable to assume that it is one and the same… as though it were a bit of a warning of what’s to follow.
So, in this introduction from 1 Corinthians, we read that Paul gives thanks for the gifts that God has given them and for the potential that is within their community. Potential may be a key word there because when we read the rest of 1 Corinthians, Paul is pretty blunt in telling them that they need to get themselves right. There is a possibility that Paul’s greeting in this book is somewhat pointed, maybe a little sarcastic because he’s telling them how great it is that they have the gifts for ministry, but later in the book, he tells them how they’re not using the gifts that God has given them.
What we know about Corinth is that they seem to be in a mess of trouble. There’s a lot of infighting about who is the better teacher, who is the God that they follow, who is a better follower of Christ. There is a subset of the church who believes that if they have more status, they have more grace. To get right down to it: from the time they were introduced to Christ to the time that Paul writes this letter, they have forgotten who they are, and they have forgotten whose they are.
Paul writes in this introduction, beginning in verse 4:
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 kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 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 whom you were called into the partnership of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul appealed to all of the good that CAN rise among them. He appealed to them to remind them that God is faithful. Their ability to be the church and to be a faithful community together does not come from them. It does not come from their own strength or their own will, but it comes from God’s faithful work among them and within them.
We read this morning the first 11 verses of Psalm 40. This psalm is in two parts. The first 11 verses that we read is a song of thanksgiving. It is an acknowledgement of God’s faithfulness. The psalmist begins with their own piety, stating that they waited patiently before God, but then launches into an extensive summary of God’s saving activity. God heard; God saved; God transformed. It is a psalm of worship, reminding whatever congregation first heard these words about the power and authority – and the grace of God.
It is what Paul is trying to remind the church in Corinth about. God is faithful. Their ability to be the church and to be a faithful community together does not come from them or their own abilities, rather it comes from God’s faithful and saving work among them and within them.
He is reminding them that God has gifted God’s church with all they need to serve in partnership with God, and to remain strong until the return of Christ.
Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth addresses divisions in the Corinthian church, but what we must recognize is that these divisions are also present in many churches today. There is a wide theological chasm between many churches today, some who follow a God who is all about following rules and about individual salvation, while others follow a God who calls us into community with one another, to be connected and to stand in solidarity with our neighbor, no matter who that neighbor is. There are some churches who claim that only they have the correct understanding of God, while there are others who teach a more open understanding and welcome the opportunity to wrestle with a deeper understanding of who God is and who we are called to be.
Paul reminds the church in Corinth – as he reminds us today – that to be faithful is to be in partnership with God and with one another. Instead of focusing on who is gifted with more grace than everyone else, Paul tells us that God is enough. He reminds us that instead of focusing on what we don’t have, or on divisions that tear us apart, can we focus on what holds us together – the grace of God, which empowers all gifts.
All of the divisions and troubles that Paul will talk about in the next 16 chapters have their solution in the very first paragraph: God’s grace was given to you in Christ Jesus. Because of God’s grace, you are not missing any spiritual gifts. God is faithful, and you were called into partnership with God’s son.
Put the grace first, then the gifts.
Paul invites us into a new community – a new way of living, forgiving and loving as the body of Christ. Paul is affirming the call from God. His focus is to remind the church that they are a community. How might we remind ourselves that each of us is called into a new way of being? We are called – not just to worship, not just to be in fellowship and have coffee with one another. We are called into a life transformed and filled by grace.
Let’s not kid ourselves: too often, we spend time wishing – wishing we had more people or more resources or more volunteers or more activity. But what if, instead, we were simply thankful? Let’s be thankful for the gifts we have, for the people we have, for how they give of themselves and their resources and give thanks for the mission and witness that we are able to do week by week. Of course, we want to encourage more. But not because we are lacking. No, we encourage more because we don’t want anyone to miss out on the joy of being the body of Christ, the joy of serving, the joy of worship. We need to come from an attitude of abundance and not scarcity.
We are called to be the church… to BE the church. There is a difference between going to church and being the church. We are not called to be volunteers, but by virtue of our lives in Christ, we are transformed by grace and joined to Christ’s calling to serve others, to bring good news, to proclaim God’s reign.
And Paul tells us that we already have the gifts that we need. Read that verse 7 over and over again reminding the church that you are not lacking in any gift. We need not shrink away in fear or in doubt because God has given us the gifts that we need. We need not say to ourselves that we can no longer do the things we used to do, because God has given us the gifts that we need.
Let us put the days of doubt and fear behind us. Let us stop looking to our own power and abilities (or lack thereof) and trust in the God who has given us the grace that sustains us. Let us be reminded that when we claim our salvation by faith, what we are really claiming is that we have salvation by the faithfulness of God. And when we make that claim, God is with us, God empowers us, God strengthens us, and our fellowship is forever blessed.
To God be the glory