People love to talk about their favorite subject, themselves, and what makes them tick. You have noticed how people give themselves away by what they talk about, almost to the point of obsession. It does not take long in someone’s company, or even in a phone call, before you discover what really excites them, what is at the center of their waking thoughts.
In the first chapter of this epistle to the Corinthians, Paul shows he was no different. And in case you had any doubts about what excites Paul, what was the center of his thoughts and intentions, from what he drew his personal identity, sense of belonging, and purposes, then this first paragraph of 1 Corinthians puts the question to rest at once. In this way, the Apostle makes preaching the Gospel from the epistle lesson over the next two weeks easy and clear. One name repeatedly emerges from the heart and mind of Paul: Jesus. Jesus is Messiah, Jesus is Savior, Jesus is the world’s rightful and reigning King.
But there is Law in here, too. The Corinthians have not fully learned or embraced what it means to live by the Spirit in the ethic of Christ’s kingdom, so Paul admonishes and instructs them. His central concern is for their lives to flow from the power and knowledge of Christ. In fact, the name of Jesus occurs eight times in these first 9 verses. Paul could not stop talking about Jesus because without Jesus, known and extolled as the King, nothing else Paul has to say or do makes any sense whatsoever. Furthermore, he does not want them to conflate the Law with the Gospel, so he has to set forth Christ to them afresh and with perfect lucidity. What he wants the Corinthians to get hold of most (which is what that preacher wants to convey to his auditors) is what it means to have Jesus at the center of your story, your thoughts, and your imagination. If they could do that, indeed, if your auditors can do that, all the other issues which rush into life, including living in accord with the ethic of being a citizen of the Kingdom of God, are easily managed, rightly understood, and properly contextualized.
In particular, Paul wants them to have King Jesus at the center of their understanding of the world and of history. Most of the Christians in Corinth (like most if not all of us) had not been Jews, but ordinary pagans and heathens. The Corinthians had been gentiles, believing in various gods and goddesses, but without any idea that history—the story of the world—was going anywhere (theirs was a cyclical understanding of time) or, for that matter, that their own lives might be going anywhere. Paul wants them to learn this lesson, just as you do for your auditors: together (and as individuals) we have been caught up into a great movement of the love and power of the one true God, the God of Israel, whose work for the whole world has now been unveiled through the events concerning His Son. That is why Jesus is at the center of the picture.
Preachers may want to set worldviews in contrast, to give the Gospel and Kingdom of God richer clarity. Polls evidence how college students increasingly agree there is no hope, no purpose, no meaning, no truth, no objective good, and no objective evil as real features of our world. Besides, they say, none of those things really matter anyway. All laws, all morals, every ethic is just a matter of taste and preference, all of which may and can and probably will change in the near future because there is no foundation, no standard, no ground, no God, no redemption, no salvation, and no need for any of it anyway because we are going nowhere. The next stop on the blind and random evolutionary freight-train is the self-asphyxiation or alien annihilation of humanity. We are not special, loved, or desired, much less intended. The freak accident of mankind will come to its inevitable merciless oblivion. In the meantime, tonight we’re gonna’ party like it’s 1999! This worldview says we live in a closed universe. Nothing enters in, nothing goes out. There is a lid on life. To have no future with no meaning in a non-story not going anywhere is why Facebook was invented. There is no metanarrative, no overarching storyline of history, told and explained by the grand narrator—God. Instead, there is autobiography. There is only my story because there is no history.
Not so for the Christian, not for those in Corinth and not for those in California or Columbus or Connecticut. With a few deft strokes of the pen, Saint Paul sketches a picture of the Christians in Corinth so at every point their story is intertwined with Jesus’ story; just like yours would be if I were now writing an epistle to you.
With a few deft strokes of the pen, Saint Paul sketches a picture of the Christians in Corinth so at every point their story is intertwined with Jesus’ story; just like yours would be if I were now writing an epistle to you.
To begin with, he says, God has set them aside for His own special purposes in Christ Jesus - which is exactly what it means to be “holy” (v.2). This happened when they heard the Holy Gospel and received Holy Baptism. These are the line of demarcation between purpose and purposelessness. God has set them aside for special purposes and such people, like your auditors, are expected to cooperate inside this fact and reality. No baptized person is on the sidelines looking-in anymore. They are in the game: a most meaningful and hopeful and purposeful life which is, in fact, going somewhere. That is what most of the letter is all about and what most of pastoral ministry is about: convincing the baptized they are truly bound-up as participants in the manifestation of God’s kingdom rule on earth and there is meaning and purpose behind their baptism, their catechesis, their place and participation in the life of the Church and it is not slipping in and out as a spectator. It is not an occasional affair like an afterthought from their “real” lives, the one the world tells them is so much more important. As Christians, we are going somewhere together and, in the meantime, we have work to do. Even then we need each other, and this Kingdom called the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church every step of the way.
But once the Corinthians have been set aside as special, they discover how they are part of a large and growing worldwide family, brothers and sisters of everyone who, “calls on the name of our Lord, King Jesus.” In fact, “calling on” this name, the name into which one is baptized, is the one and only sign of membership in this family, though people in Paul’s day and ever since have tried to introduce other signs of membership as well. The idea of “calling on His name” links a worldwide family back to the earlier story of Israel, the people who, “called on the name of the Lord,” in the sense of YHWH, Israel’s God. Right from the start, Paul shows what is going on in Jesus, Israel’s true King, the world’s true Lord, summoning all people into His family. This is what bonds us together, not loosely but deeply, significantly, in what the world should recognize as love. The concept is so central to Paul’s thinking, and to the life of the communities chartered by his royal announcement of Jesus’ kingship, he has developed ways of talking about it which sound to us like gloss-over texts but for him are totally formulaic. Verse 3 is one such way he talks about it when he says grace and peace will come to them, “from God out Father and Christ Jesus the Lord.”
As in most of his letters, Paul follows the opening greeting by telling them what he thanks God for when he thinks of them. He uses the opportunity, in the process, to hint at some of the things he will be talking about later. He thanks God they are family. Paul is thankful this family has meaning, purpose and hope precisely because we have come from somewhere, are someplace and moving into the future God has planned. Notice how Paul moves from what happened to them in the past, through the sort of people they are in the present, to the hope they have for the future, with Jesus at the center at every stage. God gave them His “grace” in King Jesus (v.4), through the Word of the Gospel and in the waters of Baptism, regenerating them. “Grace” is one of those little words containing a whole universe of meaning, summing up the fact of God’s love for them and who acted decisively on their behalf even though they had done nothing whatsoever to deserve it, but rather the opposite. That is where they came from. Paul says to God: ¡Muchas Gracias!
“Grace” is one of those little words containing a whole universe of meaning, summing up the fact of God’s love for them and who acted decisively on their behalf even though they had done nothing whatsoever to deserve it, but rather the opposite.
The result of this “grace” was the encircling of God’s riches around them (vv. 5, 6). This is where they are now: blessed by God and being sanctified in every station of life, every good and worthy vocation, in all privileges and in every hardship. They had become a community of disciples through baptism. They had become learners of the way and will of the King through devotion to His Word. They are growing eagerly in the knowledge of God and His new life, able to teach one another, and so strengthening and confirming the original royal proclamation made to them. Therefore, they know meaning, experience purpose in life, and savor hope. Consequently, life can be sweet even when it is bitter.
God called them in the past, God equips them in the present, and God will complete the whole process in the future. This is the Gospel story the preacher must tell. It is your commissioned message. No other message brings life, indeed, is life. Human history and especially the Christian life have a shape, and Jesus is its shaper at every point, infusing even the mundane and the difficult with sanctifying purposes, ultimate meaning, and enduring hope. It is not a Pollyanna existence but because it is going somewhere and Christ has made us part of His Church that is the principle instrument in altering and shaping the world, it will never leave a person despairing or not caring about life or death. The Christian, then, must always be leaning forwards towards God’s finishing line, “eagerly waiting for our Lord, Christ Jesus to be revealed.” There is a day coming—like the Day of the Lord in the Old Testament, only more so—when the hidden truth about the world will be unveiled. This truth will turn out to be a person, and the person will turn out to be Jesus.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching I Corinthians 1:1-9.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Corinthians 1:1-9.