1 Corinthians 1:1-9
There are days when my sincere desire is to end it all in the same way that the Apostle Paul had hoped to end it. He looked forward, with deep and eager anticipation, to our Lord’s return, and he believed, with all of his heart that he would witness that return with his own living eyes. The Apostle barely makes it to the second sentence of this letter, which is actually his second letter to the church at Corinth, before he announces that we are all waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul lived, and ultimately died in anticipation of that day. It was his life’s most important ambition. Every step he took, every word he wrote, every act he committed toward the advancement of the gospel in his world, was done with the return of his Lord in sight and in mind.
But…even though he eagerly anticipated that day, he never once, even for a moment, believed that he, or any one of us could stand idly by and wait for that glorious eventuality. There was work to be done, and all of us ought to be busy doing it, even, and perhaps especially, those recalcitrant followers of Jesus at Corinth. “Recalcitrant” means “having an obstinately uncooperative attitude toward authority or discipline.” There is no question that the believers in Corinth were severely afflicted with this.
The believers at Corinth had no faith in the Apostolic authority of the Apostle Paul whatsoever. They would have absolutely bristled at verse one, even though they would have known by now that this is how the Apostle always begins the letters that he writes to them. The folks at Corinth were convinced that he was no apostle at all; that he was completely unqualified for the position, and that it was some kind of ungodly ego trip that he was on, that caused him to persist in calling himself an apostle. Paul knew that this was how the believers in Corinth felt about him, because they were not shy about reminding him of it as often as they could.
This did not keep Paul though, from loving his brothers and sisters at Corinth, nor did it keep him from continually encouraging them to accept new challenges in their ongoing proclamation of the gospel on the Corinthian Peninsula.
As evidence of his love for them, he first of all describes them as the church of God. Nothing gets much better than that. “church of God,” simply means assembly of God or gathering of God. A church is a group of people who have been assembled, or gathered together by God himself. That’s pretty awesome, because most of the time we think that we just get in our cars and drive here, that we assemble ourselves. Not necessarily true; it is God who has carried us here, and it was God who had gathered the church in Corinth, even though the Apostle Paul was the one who had founded it, it was God who gathered it.
Paul also, as part of his love for them, reminds his readers that they are called to be saints. “saint” is such an odd word. Even though I know better, I sometimes think of a saint as being one of those statues of some important, stern looking guy clad in a big, flowing robe and holding a giant cross in one arm, while he holds his other hand up in the air as if to say, “hey dudes.” Or maybe something slightly more spiritual like, “pass some Nabisco, everyone say ‘cheese'”. In real life, though, a saint is any random one of us here this morning, or there in Corinth, who has become a follower of Jesus, and who is in the process of becoming obedient to Christ’s commands. Saints, according to the Apostle Paul, are everywhere. They are scattered all over the globe. And the wonderful truth about saints is that we are part of a mysterious, but powerful unity, all working together to advance the kingdom of God. And so we have an invisible, but powerful connection to the saints who are followers of Jesus just down the street and in far, far away places that we might never have ever heard of. When we pray we should pray for and with the saints close to home and the saints far away. For the Apostle Paul, the most glorious blessing of being a saint is knowing that in every other place and with every other person who calls on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we all share a faith in common. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul put it this way: “There is one body and one spirit…one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”* That is awesome beyond comprehension. God is faithful.
In almost all of his letters to the churches, Paul greets them by saying “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” “Karis kai iranae”, was a pretty standard greeting in the first century, a lot like, hey, how are you? Good to see you! But when the Apostle uses it, he uses it with the full impact of both of those words. I started a sermon a while back using similar words, and my intent was the same as the Apostle Paul’s. Grace and peace remind us simply and profoundly of God’s faithfulness to provide us with salvation and hope that surpasses everything that this world has to offer us in terms of satisfaction. Grace and peace are never light or temporary things, they are instead, eternal things.
Another way in which the Apostle expresses his love for the followers of Jesus at Corinth is by reminding them of how thankful he is for them. Paul says, “I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus.” I don’t think we realize how powerful a simple “thank you” can be. And none of us does enough of it. The Apostle Paul sets the example by being grateful to God for his sisters and brothers in Corinth. If he can do that for a congregation that barely tolerates him, we ought also to be able to express our gratitude to God for our own brothers and sisters when we see the grace of God at work in their own lives.
This next bit gets a tad more difficult. Paul indicates that the folks in Corinth have been enriched in speech and in knowledge of every kind, and that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift. And the difficulty comes in trying to decide, is Paul gushing along, still spewing compliments, or has his tone shifted subtly, and has he switched to a rather sophisticated form of sarcasm? The answer is yes. It is both. It is compliment, and it is sarcasm.
If we were to read further along in this epistle, we would discover and learn that the folks in Corinth loved and adored their spiritual gifts, with some even elevating their gifts even to the status of idols. Many were busy boasting about their gifts, others were using their gifts to abuse their brothers and sisters, still others were wasting their gifts by not using them for the glory of God and for the building up of the fellowship, and the rest of the folks were fighting over who had the greater gifts and who had the lesser gifts.
Instead of being used to enhance the ministry and mission of the church, spiritual gifts in Corinth had become weapons to prove that some had higher and better gifts than their other brothers and sisters in Christ. This may even have resulted in the dividing of the church into four separate congregations, all worshiping in opposition to each other there in that one city. When the ranking of spiritual gifts consumes a congregation, the mission and the ministry of the church ceases. And that is because some of the members become exalted, while others are debased, or made to feel as if they are irrelevant. It is easy to see that the Apostle Paul had his work cut out for him. We know that he ultimately wrote at least four letters to this church, only two of which have survived. They would be letter number two and letter number four; what we call First and Second Corinthians. What we don’t know, and still remains a mystery to us, is whether or not, at Paul’s urging, the believers in Corinth ever learned to be better followers of Jesus. Did they ever get their ministry and mission back on track? We don’t know.
We’ll have to wait and see.
But this we do know with an absolute surety: the Apostle Paul never gave up on them. He never stopped loving them. And he never lost hope in them. His prayer for them was that the Lord Jesus Christ would strengthen them right up until the end, right up until the time when Jesus returned to the earth.
Paul uses several terms for the second coming of Christ in his writings, and he uses two of them here. They are “…the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ”, and the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And it is the former that I’d like to finish up with this morning.
Paul acknowledges that the believers at Corinth are waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. Taken at face value, that is certainly the goal of all who are followers of Jesus. Jesus is coming back. We can wait. We will wait. We will have to wait. But we anticipate the day when he will be revealed to us forever. But because Paul uses both of these synonyms for our Lord’s return in such close proximity, to one another, I can’t help but imagine that he has a subtle nuance in mind when he speaks of the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this world those of us who follow Jesus are the body and visible presence of our Lord himself. When we engage in ministry and in mission, Jesus becomes visible in our community and around the world. We are our Lord’s Ambassadors and presence in this world. When Rudy carries a meal to the teen shelter on our behalf, Jesus is present. When any of us does anything to help out the poor or the broken hearted or the sick or the lonely, Jesus is revealed in each of us. And he is revealed in us because we look just like him. We are, in fact, created in his image.
When we proclaim the good news of the gospel to those who still languish in sin, Jesus is marvelously revealed and gloriously visible. I think that this was Paul’s prayer for his brothers and sisters in Corinth. His prayer was that as they focused less and less on themselves, and more and more on ministry and mission, that Jesus would be revealed in them; that throughout all of the city of Corinth and beyond, the citizens of that city, when they saw all of these followers of Jesus scurrying about doing good things, that they would clearly see Jesus, and no one else. That’s why Paul says that God is faithful.