To God’s church that is in Goshen: 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.
With just a simple tweak, this is the very same greeting used by Paul in his letter to address those in the Corinth congregation, a portion of which we will hear in just a moment. And a letter that we will be spending the next three weeks in.
We believe that this letter was written a couple of years after Paul had left Corinth. He first arrived there in approximately 50 CE. Scripture tells us that he stayed there for a “considerable time.” It’s estimated he was there for about a year-and-a-half. At first, he was duo-vocational, meaning he worked both as an apostle and as a tent-maker along with Aquila and Priscilla, two Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Rome, along with others. Tent-making was Paul’s trade. We often think of him as an elite, highly educated as a Pharisee. But, by trade, he was working class. So, he began his stay in Corinth working in his trade and spreading the good news. While Paul was there, he received an offering that had been taken up by the churches in Macedonia (including from the church in Thessalonica in last week’s story). This allowed him at some point during his stay to begin preaching and teaching full-time.
Corinth was an important city. It was located in a strategic location, on a road that connected two ports on the Isthmus of Corinth. This isthmus connected the Peloponnesian peninsula with the rest of Greece. Merchants would arrive in one of the ports, unload their cargo and transport it across the land, through Corinth, to the other port. It was a preferred route, much easier and faster than sailing around the entire peninsula. Corinth was also a strategic political and military location for the Romans. It was the seat of the governor of the entire Roman province of Achaea. So, Corinth was a large, important, powerful, prosperous, diverse, busy, cosmopolitan city. And it was here that Paul settled for some time to build and pastor this young congregation.
In our Acts narrative, we see a growing, vibrant congregation. After some time, Paul left Corinth and moved on to Ephesus. In the time between his departure from Corinth and his letter in 1st Corinthians, the church in Corinth was visited by another Christian preacher named Apollos. It began to face various internal tensions and quarrels and experience much division. So, they wrote a letter to Paul asking for guidance in how to deal with these issues. Paul’s letter, and subsequent letters, are his attempt to deal with these very practical issues. But along with practice advice are deep and important theological statements. Let’s listen now to the first part of 1st Corinthians, chapter 1.
Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? Thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, except Crispus and Gaius, so that nobody can say that you were baptized in my name! Oh, I baptized the house of Stephanas too. Otherwise, I don’t know if I baptized anyone else. Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning.
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. --1 Corinthians 1:10-18 (NRSV)
The central problem in the Corinth church revolved around status. Whether those converted by Paul were the most important? Or those by Apollos? Or even those by Cephas, who we also know as Peter. Each group wanted to be first. Most important. The highest status. This need for status was something that they had learned from the surrounding culture in Corinth, which was filled by those with “new money.” The cultural lessons were those of individualism, of self-importance, of the status one achieved by pulling oneself up by their own bootstrap. Get the picture? Sound at all familiar?
The first part of Paul’s message to the Corinth church was to remind them that they were both holy and called to be saints. To be called has the same sense as being holy. And holiness is not a quality of the individual, but a communal state into which we are placed by our baptism. Paul never uses the word “holy” in reference to the singular of the individual Christian, but always in reference to community. That holiness, that sanctification, that becoming God’s disciples happens in community. Our salvation is wrapped up together, as a community, as the broader church, and ultimately with that of all creation. Paul’s message and that of Christ is not about our individual salvation, but about the salvation of the whole community.
It is this communal idea, then, that moves Paul to his message of the cross. Of the foolishness of the cross. That a condemned and crucified man, one with the lowest possible status in the world, would be God’s vehicle for this communal salvation. This message of the cross was intended to teach the believers in Corinth (and us) that God’s status markers are not those of the world. These markers of the world - class, wealth, wisdom, rhetorical skill, physical strength, beauty are the status markers important to the world. By contrast, God chooses and places the highest status on those whom the world despises: the weak, the lowborn, the foolish, the poor. Paul’s argument to the church in Corinth doesn’t eliminate the status hierarchy. It inverts it. It turns the world’s status markers upside down. So that the last or the lowest of the world are now the first and highest. This is how our communities are to be. Embracing the message of the cross. Embracing it’s foolishness in the eyes of the world.
What might this mean for us in our current time? As there are so many questions to think through? As the world seems, as usual, to be so divided? Are we all to agree? Is this what Paul is telling us?
I don’t think so. But, what I do believe Paul is saying to us is that even in our disagreements it is important for us to understand and to know, first, where our ultimate allegiance is to lie. It’s not with the world, or with other human leaders, even with your pastor. But our allegiance must be centered, must be grounded in Christ. Christ is our leader. Perhaps this is why God deemed it so important to come to us in human form. Because our natural tendency is to attach ourselves to human leaders. But Paul asks the question, “Was I crucified for you?” We might ask that same question of those human leaders we follow. If our answer is no - and it can only be no - then, we know where our source lies.
Then, finally, Paul calls us to embrace the logic of the cross. To, as a community, accept weakness and humility as marks of God’s favor. And that, in so doing, to seek to eliminate and end the status-seeking behavior that is taught by the world, that is so easy to fall into, often unknowingly.
Perhaps if we do this, if we both remember where our allegiance is to lie and then to seek to engage and discern our answers to the questions and disagreements in our community, then we, as Paul reminds the church in Corinth - perhaps then, we and they, might recognize that we are already of the highest status in God’s eyes. Already rich. Already been given the gift of life and all we need through the abundant grace and love of God through Christ Jesus.
What more do we need?
Preached May 10, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Mark 9:34-35; Psalm 54; Acts 18:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18.