1 Corinthians 1:1-9
January 15, 2017
William G. Carter
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
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.
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 spiritual 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 him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Back in seminary, we had a dean of faculty by the name of Arlo Duba. Dr. Duba was a Presbyterian minister. He began his long career by preaching in a little church in the town of Ideal, South Dakota. He told us that, after preaching in Ideal Church, it was all downhill from there.
He was joking, of course, and those of us who knew about real, live congregations could chuckle at the joke. In the broadest possible sense, where can you find the ideal congregation? And how would you know if you got there?
Now, that’s a question for a lot of people: where is the ideal church? How do you know if you find it? Which church has the most loving people? Which church has the most engaging sermons? Where can I find a worship service that is a good fit? Where can I find a group of people who believe the same things that I do?
This is a relatively new phenomenon. Fifty years ago in America, Christians didn’t go in for a lot of comparison shopping. They went to a church like the ones where they grew up. Catholics went to Catholic churches, the Orthodox stayed in Orthodox churches, and the independent churches were splinter groups who didn’t own property in the middle of town.
I once asked my parents how they decided to go to a Presbyterian church. Mom grew up Presbyterian, and Dad was raised as a Methodist. There was no great light that split through the heaven to shine on the correct place to worship. Rather, my Dad kept passing North Springfield Presbyterian Church on the way to work, and figured he could give in to my mother’s wishes to get me baptized. It wasn’t an Ideal Church, but it got me wet.
What exactly is the ideal church? And where can you find it?
If all we had to go on were these opening words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, you might think he’s writing to the perfect church. He begins by calling them “saints” – they are the saints of God in Corinth. He says, “I thank God for you, because you are so full of grace.” That’s a kind greeting, don’t you think? He says, “You are enriched in speech and knowledge. Your testimony of Christ is strong. You are not lacking in any spiritual gift. I’m sure you will be morally blameless on the last day.”
Now, that must have been some church! Enriched, strong, blameless, full of grace, not lacking in any spiritual gift – that is, God gave them everything they needed. Based on this description alone, I think it would be wonderful if we had a New Testament church like that. Everybody is faithful, happy, always getting along. They pray and rejoice all the time. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a New Testament church? Sure it would.
The only problem is that it’s not like any church I’ve ever known. It’s probably not like any church you’ve ever known, either.
Some time back, I was a guest preacher somewhere. It was a big, glitzy place - - twelve hundred people in worship, gorgeous building, brand new organ. The minister said, “If you have any expenses to be reimbursed, please turn in itemized receipts.” He said it three or four times. The last church treasurer stole a million-two from the offering plate, and had to serve the Lord for five years in the state penitentiary. Just imagine: somebody let a sinner inside that building.
It happens, you know. The ideal church is hard to find. A married couple went to a restaurant one Saturday night, and there’s a woman at the bar shouting and carrying on. It was embarrassing, they said, so they left the place right after dinner was over. The next morning, they came here for worship. As the wife began to pray quietly before the service, the husband elbowed her in the ribs. She looked up, startled, to see the boisterous barfly from the night before taking a seat in the very next pew.
Or I think of that bustling congregation across the street from where my grandmother lived. A terrible fire destroyed the sanctuary. Investigators determined it was arson. Then they found out the pastor’s teenage son had started the blaze. They might have been willing to practice the Christian discipline of forgiveness, until the pastor threw his son out of his home. Then the pastor resigned and said, “If I can’t control my family, I don’t think I am worthy of all of you.”
My goodness – where is the perfect church? Where is that Corinthian church?
Ah – but you know what? If you know the rest of this letter to the Corinthians, you know Paul is up to something here. He is not writing this letter to say hello. He’s writing to them because they wrote to him first, and they had a whole list of problems. Scholars think there were only about fifty people in that congregation, but they were splintered into rival factions and competing cliques. There were the Holy Rollers over here, convinced they were intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. Over there was the Peace and Justice committee, wanting to sell what they had and give it all to the poor. And then there was the Wisdom Enclave, who studied their Bibles and professed to know more than everybody else.
Not only did they have their groups, they were fighting about a list of issues. They argued over the Lord’s Supper, they battled over baptism, they disagreed on what kind of worship service they should have, they shoved one another about leadership, and they fiercely debated over spiritual gifts. From chapter 5, we know there was some immorality in the congregation that embarrassed a number of them. And if wasn’t enough, many of the Corinthians didn’t believe in the resurrection. Welcome to the New Testament church!
When Paul sends this letter in response to their concerns, he clears his throat and says, “Why don’t we pray?” And his prayer is full of humor. “O Lord, I thank you for these people. They are rich in speech and wisdom.” Speech and wisdom was about to blow them apart! “They are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Wait: the Holy Spirit was surging through that church, and they had pennies in the fuse box to keep it from catching on fire! “O Lord, they will be morally blameless on the Last Day.” Yeah, right. Sure thing. Paul’s prayer list is actually their complaint list. Certainly they had to flinch at the satire!
But actually he was tweaking them by the second line of the letter. Remember what he called them? They are “the church of God that is in Corinth, those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints.” Let me unpack that: the word “sanctified” means “to be made holy.” The word “saints” is literally “the holy ones.”
Now, no Bible publisher has the guts to translate that directly, but what Paul is saying is, “I’m writing to all of you, Holy Holy Ones.” With a twinkle in his eye, he is rubbing their noses in their own sense of superiority. They aren’t holy at all - - except as God is calling them, inviting them, to live by the grace and generosity of Jesus Christ. They are not holy because they are good - - they are holy because God is at work in their flaws.
The Christian life is not about the presumption of our perfection. It’s about the redeeming grace that slowly, steadily calls us together, invites us to become more like Jesus, and fills us with the gifts that in and of ourselves we do not yet possess…we can only receive them as gifts from God’s love.
So where is the perfect church? I’ll tell you where it is: it’s in the same place where there are perfect people. And do you know where you can find perfect people? I don’t have a clue where that is. The only church is the real church. And in the real church, God is praised, Jesus is generous, and the Holy Spirit is always busy. Even if you can’t see it, the Trinity is dynamically up to something.
The ideal church is the one where you belong, where you are being summoned to be better than you are, where you are invited to take the same journey toward Christ along with all the others who have been invited with you. And if we stay at it, God is faithful, and we keep growing toward Jesus.
Here’s what somebody says about this passage:
Paul is using his satire to tear down their assumptions. He says, “If you think you can stand on a higher moral plain and divide the body of Christ, you have another thing coming. I’m writing to you, you holy holy ones in Corinth.”
But not only is he tearing something down. In a deeper sense, he’s building something astonishing and unexpected in its place. He is replacing a faulty understanding of sainthood with a good one. And he’s using humor as a wrecking ball to tear down what does not need to stand, and to build up what must endure. They needed the wrecking ball because the people in Corinth assumed that sainthood was a position of moral status, a destination to which a person of moral perfection arrived … Paul says no! Sainthood is not a destination, it’s a journey. You are called to be saints. (Tom Long)
This is the journey that you and I are on. Sometimes the best way to make that journey is to realize how far we have yet to go. When somebody calls us “the holy holy ones,” we know we’re not even close to claiming that description. But we keep at it, and this is the great adventure. There is no such thing as a perfect church because there are no perfect people. But there is a God at work in the world, the same God who raised Jesus from the dead, the same God who raises us by the Holy Spirit. And that’s where we keep it.
The emphasis of faith is never upon us, but upon God. No matter how righteous we try to be or think we are, we will never impress God enough to love us – because God already loves us, right in the midst of all our inconsistencies, all our puffed up words, all our reluctance to take any risks. We are loved by God’s redeeming love. The journey can change us.
Where is the perfect church? The ideal church? I suppose people can keep looking for it somewhere. They may jump from here to there, or back again, or hop somewhere else. Some may even pick fights with one other as a way to justify their whims.
But there’s no use looking for a perfect church. It’s much more satisfying to go to a church and look for God. We look for the God who keeps working in imperfect people, a God who invites them on a shared journey, a God who calls them to travel together with all the rest of the saints who are still becoming the saints, all of them chosen and precious of the Lord.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.