January 15, 2017
The Apostle Paul was a letter writer. He wrote letters to churches and he wrote letters to individuals. Today we look at his letter to the church in Corinth. To understand the letter, we need to understand a bit about the church and why Paul was writing to them. You see, Corinth was a very prosperous, commercial, busy city on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It was also a religiously diverse city. Modern archeologists have found evidence of over 2 dozen different temples. And it was a city with a reputation. It was the original “Sin City”. Here is how Eugene Peterson describes it in his introduction to this letter in The Message: they “had a reputation as an unruly, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bunch of people.” And this was the city in which Paul established a church for this new sect, the Christians. And since the people there had not been exposed to moral living, they had a hard time living the Christian faith, even in the church community. Again from Peterson, “Paul received a report...that in his absence things had more or less fallen apart....Factions had developed, morals were in disrepair, worship had degenerated into a selfish grabbing for the supernatural.” I won't get into all that today, but it is an interesting book to read when you understand the why of Paul's writing. Today we are looking at just the first nine verses with an eye toward our own church. As we ordain and install officers today we are reminded of the connections to this church 2000 years ago.
The church is made up of people. That's why there will never be a perfect church. But Paul worked very hard to help the churches he established try to live up to their calling.
So let's look at the reading, it is printed in your bulletin insert. You may recall, we've talked about the practice of writing letters at the time of Paul; you began with who the letter is from. In this case, Paul. Interestingly, sometimes Paul wrote these letter as a “brother” in Christ; in this letter, he makes the point that he was called to be an “apostle”. This indicated that this letter was going to be more than mere catching up. Paul was writing to instruct them on how to behave. His calling as an apostle in Christ gives the letter a greater air of authority.
In this case, he includes a friend Sosthenes, in the message. We don't know much about him but he may have been the ruler of the Synagogue named in Acts (18:17). If so, he has converted to Christianity as Paul calls him brother—the term used for fellow Christians.
Next he shares who he is writing to: “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.” He is writing to the church, particularly to the saints; a term we need to clear up. Saints as used in the bible is never referring to “super Christians”...saints are all of us who call on the name of Jesus as Lord. We all here are saints in its proper usage, and Paul adds that he is including us in the letter...”all those in every place”. This letter is addressed to you and me, not that we are involved with the questionable practices of that Corinthian Church; but we are exposed to them daily in our world and must work to avoid those problems.
He goes on offering them grace and peace. A very typical part of his letters and one we carry on today in our worship—we share the peace of Christ every time we worship together. Grace and peace might be a nice addition to our greeting.
He tells them that he gives thanks to God for them; not their actions necessarily, but that God has given them this grace and enriched them with spiritual gifts. I think of all the reasons I, as your pastor, have to give thanks to God for each of you. And I do. I have very specific items of thanks...for clean sidewalks and faithful attendance, for officers willing to step up and serve, for the friendships made, for gifts given, talents shared, time offered, grace given, missions undertaken, teachers volunteering, baking, cooking. I could go on and on. But the fact that God has called you and you have responded is reason for great thanks.
Today in particular we give thanks for our officers who give of their time and talents to serve this church. Most all of you have served in some capacity. That is both the blessing and bane of a small church. You can't hide here. If you are a part of this fellowship, you are involved. Look again at the little article Julie included in the bulletin—this is my church—you are the church, we are the church together.... We are to dedicate ourselves to the task of being the church. The elders and deacons whom we install today are stepping forward to serve God and to serve this church. I thank you all.
Paul includes in this paragraph a promise that God will strengthen each of us til the end...by which I believe he means when Christ comes again. And we can take this promise to heart, because, and this is his closing line today, God is faithful! That is the basis upon which we can live our Christian life, not that we are faithful but that God is faithful and all his promises will be fulfilled. I wrote this in this month's newsletter and I think it may be worth sharing again: “I realize more and more that it is not MY faithfulness, nor MY goodness, nor MY intelligence, nor MY good looks (checking to see if you are paying attention!) that makes me qualified to be called into fellowship with Jesus Christ our Lord.” We are reminded yet again that we are totally reliant on God for the grace that calls us into fellowship Him and with each other.
Ann Ortland describes the difference in a church that recognizes the blessings of fellowship with churches that are centered upon programs and ceremony. “Christians can be grouped into two categories—marbles and grapes. Marbles are 'single units that don't affect each other except in collision.' Grapes, on the other hand, mingle juices; each one is a 'part of the fragrance' of the church body.
Fellowship and worship is genuine Christianity freely shared among God's family members. Sermons and songs, while uplifting and necessary, provide only part of a vital church encounter. We need involvement with others too. If we roll in and out of church each week without acquiring a few grape juice stains, we haven't really tasted the sweet wine of fellowship.”
So let's be fully aware of what God has called us to; fellowship. And we recognize the part we must play in this body of believers as we ordain and install regular members, regular people to offices of leadership in our community of faith. We will pray for them, we will pray over them and we will then support and follow their leadership and their vision for our church. God is faithful and has called us into this holy fellowship. Let's be aware of how like a bunch of grapes we can be as we worship and fellowship, mix and mingle, and may we indeed acquire some grape fruit stains of fellowship this morning. Amen.