1 Corinthians 1:1-9 CEB
From Paul, called by God’s will to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, and from Sosthenes our brother.
To God’s church that is in Corinth:
To those who have been made holy to God in Christ Jesus, who are called to be God’s people.
Together with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place—he’s their Lord and ours!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God always for you, because of God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. That is, you were made rich through him in everything: in all your communication and every kind of knowledge, in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. The result is that you aren’t missing any spiritual gift while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and you were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the book, The Screwtape Letters, Christian author and apologist, C.S. Lewis, uses the fictional demonic characters of Wormwood and his Uncle Screwtape to satirize and explore the many wrinkles of the modern church. In one of the many “letters” from Screwtape that make up the book, the uncle laments that Wormwood’s human patient has become a Christian, but Screwtape then tells his nephew that not everything is lost for:
“One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space [...] All your patient sees is the half-finished sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands [...] When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.”
As Screwtapes points out, our churches hardly look like the dwelling places of the holy people of God at the outset. They hardly look like the kind of places kin-dom builders would come from today, and yet, Paul reveals something hinted at by Lewis’ satire. He tells us that we as part of the church “aren’t missing any spiritual gift.” We have everything we need in this partnership, this relationship with Jesus Christ, to do the work of God by building places and people of grace and peace right here and now. Rather than being people that aren’t enough, we are instead people of abundance through God.
Since 1972, the number of self-avowed Christians in the United States has declined from 90% of the population to just 64%. A recent Pew Study has projected that by 2070, less than half of the nation will profess to be Christian. We’ve felt this decline in many of our congregations across this country where our churches have gotten smaller and older as time has passed. We now often wish we had more people, more resources, more volunteers, and more activity in our congregations like we used to. Nowadays, we find ourselves asking how we can get back to more. Maybe we need to have just the right service, or maybe we need to have attractive enough programming for children and youth. Maybe if we just fix our theology, God will bless us and return us to the time when we had more. Instead, today, we are given this scripture from Paul’s letter to the church of Corinth, where he makes the bold assertion that the church already has everything it needs to be the church.
What a profound statement of faith to make, especially to a church like Corinth! I can imagine old Uncle Screwtape having a field day with their messy congregation! You had rich people having large communion feasts while leaving the poorer among them to starve. You had people fighting about which spiritual gifts were the best, and even some making themselves out to be the best of all because they could speak in tongues. Some even described themselves as “super-Christians!” You might say they had an overabundance of confidence in themselves. A far cry from today where we are far more apt to say “Don’t expect much from me because I don’t have much. I am too old, too poor, too busy, or too new to the faith to be of much use.” While it may not seem like Paul has much for us in this letter, in one of those mysterious God-kind-of-moments, this passage, written to an overconfident bunch of Corinthians, still meets us, the modern church, where we are to give hope for the future.
To correct their overinflated egos, Paul greets them in a way that reminds them and us of who the church is. Paul addresses the church in verse two, “To God’s church that is in Corinth: To those who have been made holy to God in Christ Jesus, who are called to be God’s people.” Let’s go step by step here. Paul calls them “God’s church,” not Corinth’s church or the First Church of Corinth. Paul reminds them that their community of faith belongs to God above all else. Paul makes it even clearer in the next part, by saying you church members are those “who have been made holy to God in Christ Jesus.” These words echo Leviticus 19:2: “‘Speak to all the congregation of the Israelites and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’” Like Israel of old, they have been made into a chosen people, they have been called to be God’s kin-dom examples. Holiness has a dual meaning after all, as it can mean to be perfectly good and righteous, which describes God to the letter, but it doesn’t feel right to describe the church in Corinth this way. On the other hand, to be holy is also to be set apart, as Israel was, and for this, as imperfect as they are, we can see Corinth as called to this purpose too. God has called these people, in this place, as fraught and flawed as they are, to be a holy community on a holy mission to build a new way of living, a new kin-dom, in this world.
Now, let’s turn to the final part of verse two, where Paul says, “Together with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place—he’s their Lord and ours!” Paul is telling his Corinthian siblings in Christ that they are connected to the rest of God’s family, throughout the world. In fact, not just throughout the world but throughout time! We are included in this call with this second part of verse two, as we too call “upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” in this place here and now. Paul’s reminder to the church in Corinth and to us today is that we belong to God, and this call to be holy and this call to be God’s people is an invitation for us to ask and examine ourselves to see if we still fit that description. We are invited to remember, like that church in Corinth, that we are all in this together. Not just me, not just this church, or this community, or just the folks I like or think as I do, for our vision is always bigger and bolder! We are building, by the grace of God, a beloved community, through which God brings blessing and peace to the whole Church and to the entirety of the world.
What’s more, wherever and whenever the Church is, God’s abundance means that it is always up to the task. Look at what Paul says in the closing part of his greeting to the church in Corinth. He tells them that “God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus” has made you “rich through him in everything,” and so “you are not lacking in any gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here’s the thing, how big do you think the church in Corinth was at the time of Paul’s writing? I mean these are the days when Christianity was growing all over the empire, so how big was this church? Rough estimates reveal that the church may have been no more than 40 - 150 people. According to Paul, that was enough to do God’s work in that time and place to reveal God’s grace and peace. Here in this church in Thermopolis, we have over 100 members and almost 100 more that either attend or are connected to this church. If God is able to do all that God wishes to do with 40 people, why would we not be enough?
As Screwtape told Wormwood, it is easy to think Christianity is ridiculous or that we are not enough when we get distracted by the shortcomings of our neighbors who “sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes.” It is easy to get distracted by failing numbers and shrinking churches. It is easy to get distracted by the oh-so-human failings of our churches. However, God gives us an altogether and more fundamental truth, through the continual grace of God which enriches us and provides us with many gifts, we are all that is needed to build the kin-dom. The church in Corinth had its fair share of weaknesses and failures, and we today have our fair share as well. If it were up to us alone, it might not be enough, but we lack for nothing through God who calls us to be partners with Christ, partners in this kin-dom building. Instead of lamenting what has been lost or wishing for more, let us be grateful for God’s continual care for the church in this age and every age as we continue to strive to be the holy people God is transforming us to be. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman