As most of you know, much of the New Testament consists of letters, ancient letters written by church leaders to some of the very first Christian communities. From these letters, we have windows into some of the early church’s victories and defeats, their successes and their struggles. Nearly 2,000 years ago, a young missionary named Paul sat down at a desk in the ancient city of Ephesus. His heart and mind could hold no longer the words and emotions that had been struggling inside of him. He sat down at the desk and he wrote a letter to some of his dearest friends, his “children” in the faith. I say “children” because he really did, as a parent to a child, hand to them the message of Jesus Christ. He helped raise them from spiritual infants to adulthood, or, so he thought.
Before Paul sat down to write his letter, he had been informed about some “problems” among his spiritual children. Church, in case you didn’t know it, sometimes spiritual people have problems. Problems with their relationships with God, problems with their relationships with one another. Well, the congregations that met in the ancient city of Corinth were having all of these “problems” and more. I’m sure Paul wanted so desperately to jump on a plane and be there in an hour. But the timing of his birth ruled that option out of the question! Lacking such an expedient method of transportation, Paul wrote a letter. We happen to have a copy of that letter today. We know of it as I Corinthians and it begins like this:
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. (I Corinthians 1:1–9)Believe it or not, you can tell a lot about the entire letter of I Corinthians by reading these few sentences. A common characteristic of ancient letters was that the Thanksgiving portion of the letter (which is what I read) foreshadowed what was to come. Carl Holladay, a New Testament scholar, has referred to these opening verses of I Corinthians as the “Table of Contents” for the letter. That may be a good way of looking at it. For example, in these first few verses, Paul plainly or subtly makes mention of three key elements of his letter: First, the grace of God. The word “grace” appears 3 times in these first nine verses. One of those is hidden to many of us—the word “spiritual” in verse 7 would more accurately be rendered “grace.” Paul there says the Corinthians are not lacking in any “grace-given” gift. We’ll find throughout this letter that the Corinthians had a habit of giving themselves too much credit, as if their own abilities or position in relation to God was of their own doing. Paul reminds them early on, what you have, everything that you have, is a gift of God!
Another key element foreshadowed here has to do with Paul’s view of the end times. Paul says:
You are not missing any grace-given gift while you wait for the Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.No matter how blessed they may have viewed themselves; Paul insists that they have not yet received all that God has to give. Some members of the Corinthian church were relishing in their present glory.
“Look at us and what we have…”
“Look at all that we can accomplish…”
Paul’s message was this: “No you haven’t! There is more to come—and better things.” And in the very next verse, Paul builds on this theme reminding the Corinthians of something else that will happen in the end, there will be judgment! Paul offers a sobering corrective to their enthusiastic spiritual experience in the present.
And a final theme that Paul mentions here in the Thanksgiving: community.
God is faithful, and you were called by Him to partnership with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.Paul will speak throughout this letter to the Corinthians about their fellowship with God and their fellowship with one another. In fact, he will suggest that their fellowship with one another has no other basis than their fellowship with God! This was a diverse group of people, rich, poor, young, old, Greek, Jewish. What bound them together in community were not trivial matters. They didn’t huddle together because they liked to worship the same way, because they liked to dress the same way, because they conceived of church the same way. They didn’t huddle together because they necessarily “liked” one another. They huddled together because they had in common one thing: they were in fellowship with God!
Now this is important, because all of those other things can change and shift. Your preferences will change from one day to the next and if your fellowship is based on those things, your community will fail. It will divide and fall apart. Let me give you an example. In the late 19th century, some tension arose in the Restoration Movement—of which we are a part. Some folks said they wanted a piano in their worship; others didn’t. Some folks wanted to collect money into one organization and use that organization to support missionaries. Others didn’t. They thought each congregation should support missionaries autonomously. The fights over these issues became so volatile that the church split right down the middle! They divided; they broke fellowship with each other. Why? Because they thought their unity was based on how they worshipped. They thought their unity was based on how they viewed missions. You see, when your unity and fellowship is based upon anything other than your common allegiance to Jesus, you are in trouble. You are setting yourself for sure division! Because circumstances change, people change, and new generations emerge. But fellowship based on a common allegiance to Jesus will never fail, never change, and never fall apart. The Corinthians needed to be reminded of this, because their “community” was in jeopardy. Paul is going to build upon this theme in great detail when he discusses the Lord’s Supper—the communion meal.
Speaking of the Lord’s Supper, I want to share something with you this morning. In an effort to build upon this idea of fellowship and community that runs through the first letter to the Corinthians, we are planning something here at Glenwood. In the coming weeks, we are going to invite you to participate in a special effort to build community around the table. On a few consecutive Sunday evenings, we are going to encourage your connection groups to share communion together. We have a recipe you can follow to make your own bread. We have some topics you can discuss around the table together as you eat. Yes, we’ll still take communion together here in the morning, but in the evening, we want to invite you to meet together in your connection groups to eat the meal together. If you do not have a connection group, we’ll help you find one! In fact, on September 20, our Bible class time will be devoted to helping you find a group, so make sure you are here on that Sunday! It seems appropriate in the midst of a study of Corinthians to make special efforts to be in community together and what better vehicle to foster that community than God’s communion meal? I think Paul believed this, and that is why he spent so much time talking about communion in this letter. We’ll have more details about this in the next few weeks, but I couldn’t wait to mention it.
So, fellowship is the 3rd element Paul mentions (along with grace and the end times). Church do you hear a common thread in these three foreshadowing elements? Because the reality is each of these three simply supports Paul’s main purpose in writing this first letter to the Corinthians. A church that forgets that all of their gifts come from God, a church that forgets that this present reality is not the end, a church that forgets that real community finds its basis only in a relationship with Christ… That kind of church has not been transformed by the power of the cross! Brothers and sisters, this is the message that drives Paul’s letter. In fact, this is the message that drives Paul’s entire ministry. Christians, he writes, view this world through the lens of the cross. And that changes everything!
So, what does that mean? What does that look like?
You know, I’ve become convinced of something about us, “Christians.” Most of us are very comfortable with the Resurrected Jesus. We love the celebration that comes with Easter morning. We love the victory that comes with death’s defeat! We love that fact that God won! Fewer of us are comfortable with the crucified Jesus, or, at least, its implications for us. In Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture, Michael Frost writes:
There is a Christianity expressed by the ‘Sunday Christian’ phenomenon wherein church attendance has very little effect on the lifestyles or values or priorities expressed from Monday to Saturday. This version of Christianity is a façade, a method for practitioners to appear like fine, upstanding citizens without allowing the death claims and teaching of Jesus to bite very hard in everyday life.Here is an important question: have you been transformed by the cross? Many of us in the room have been baptized, and many of us have confessed that we believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God. OK, but has that confession, has that ritual led to transformation in our lives? Has that confession changed the way you interact with this world? Because the reality is this: that confession should change every detail of your life!
It should change the way you relate to your family.
It should change the way you approach your job.
It should change the way you view injustice in the world.
It should change the way you view politics.
It should change the way you dress.
It should change the way you talk.
It should change the way you spend your weekends.
It should change the way you spend your week.
It should change your heart, your mind, your thoughts, and your actions.
The reality of the cross in your life should transform you completely! And if you find that you look surprisingly like your unbelieving neighbor, if you notice that you do the same things, go the same places, react the same ways as the rest of the world, you must be honest with yourself. And you must address this question: Have you really allowed the cross to transform your life?
Many years ago, Paul sat down at his desk to write a letter to his spiritual children. All of these years later, the words he wrote are still so applicable to us. We need to be reminded of the power of the cross! We need to be reminded the cross has the power to make you a different person. I have a feeling that this letter was difficult for the Corinthians to read at times and it will be for us too. But, let’s pray that God’s Spirit will give us wisdom, humility, and strength as we take this letter out of its envelope and begin to read together.