We started a sermon series on Sunday looking at pieces of 1 Corinthians. It’s not my ideal – I really love looking at scripture in a linear and continual way – but we have five weeks before the Transfiguration and beginning of Lent and I figured it would be too choppy to get through the whole thing with breaks for Mardi Gras, Palm Sunday, Easter, etc. So hopefully this will give everyone a flavor! I say this in my sermon, but I would encourage you to fill in the gaps that we miss so you can read the letter in its entirety over the next five weeks!
Rehoboth Congregational Church
January 19, 2020
1 Corinthians 1:1-17
United To Tell This Story
One of the things that has been nice, in wandering away from the lectionary over the past two years and settling into longer sermon series in worship, is that we have the opportunity to look at larger pieces of scripture in a continual and linear way. This not only allows us to see scripture more as a whole, but it really gives us a better context for what we are reading. We know what type of literature it is, when it was written, who wrote it, who it was being written to, in some cases why it was being written and what the entire book says and not just one isolated passage.
Which brings me to the sermon series we are kicking off today. The Greatest of These is Love: a look at 1 Corinthians came out of a recurring theme I noticed in 2019 at RCC – love.
Love God. Love people.
Love each other.
Love. Love. Love.
Earlier in the year, during our sermon series on the Gospel of Mark, we read the story of the Greatest Commandment, where the Pharisees ask Jesus what the most important law is and Jesus says to love God with all your heart, mind and soul and then to love your neighbor as yourself. From there, this call to love – and the practical ways we can live out that call – really leapt to the forefront of our community and our identity as a church. We lived out this call to love in ways that were both big and small, both inside our community and outside, but all that made a difference in people’s lives.
I started to think about some of the other scripture that talk about love – and, of course, 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient [and] love is kind”) was one of the first I thought about.
Most people have heard this particular scripture read at weddings, though, ironically (and we will talk about this more in a couple of weeks when we look at it), it is not about a couple getting married. It is, in fact, about a group of people; about a church that Paul founded that was experiencing conflict, that have a hard time being in community together. When Paul talks about love in that scripture, he is not talking to two individuals in a relationship with one another, he is talking to a church; to a group of people committed to working together to live out their faith and share the Gospel with the world.
And so I thought it would be fun to look at more of this letter than we usually hear read at weddings. After all, we are a church; we are a group of people committed to working together to live out our faith and share the Gospel with the world.
Is it always easy? Of course not! But this is precisely why this scripture speaks to us so poignantly today.
A little bit of housekeeping before I talk about the scripture, itself. We are not reading the entire letter, we are only looking at five sections. This is not ideal, because there is stuff we are going to miss. The problem is, there are 16 chapters in this scripture and, even if we looked at one chapter a week and spent the next four months going through it all, we are going to get interrupted by the Transfiguration, Mardi Gras, Palm Sunday, Easter, etc. and so it made more sense to me to wrap up our discussion before Lent begins so then we can really focus on that.
That being said, I would strongly encourage you to fill in the gaps throughout the week. The schedule will be printed in the bulletin, so if you get a chance throughout the week, get yourself caught up to where will pick up the following Sunday. This is more for your own curiosity; if I reference anything we’ve missed from week to week, obviously I will explain what I am talking about. Reading during the week and filling in the gaps just gives you an accessible way to read scripture and follow along with something we are already doing.
Okay – so let’s talk about 1 Corinthians!
1 Corinthians is in the New Testament; it is a letter (they are called Epistles). It was written by the Apostle Paul to a church that he founded in the city of Corinth. Corinth was a large and prospering city; it was very diverse, ethnically, culturally and religiously. The church, itself, was predominantly Gentile – so this whole narrative was all very new to them and they were not used to Jewish laws and customs. Paul wrote this letter in response to reports of disputes in the congregation – of people rivaling for control and disagreeing about proper etiquette.
You know … church stuff.
The passage we are looking at this morning is the very beginning of the letter – and Paul does not beat around the bush. He says in verse 11, “For it has been reported to me … that there are quarrels among you.” This is essentially his way of saying, “I’ve hear you’ve been spatting and now we’re gonna talk about it.”
The thing that I love so much about this salutation is how clear it is just how much Paul loves this church. He says in verse 4, “I give thanks to my God always for you.” This is a church that Paul not only founded, but that he still loves very much. In fact, this statement almost bears witness to Jesus’ commandment to love God and love people, because he is demonstrating in his leadership what this kind of love looks like. Despite the fact that he might be frustrated with the church in Corinth because of their behavior, he still loves them and believes in them.
I think this is helpful for us to remember as we read the entire letter; even if we get to a point where Paul might be criticizing the church or calling their behavior into question, he is doing so out of love, not out of anger.
One of the issues Paul addresses here, at the beginning of the letter, is the fact that his apostolic authority is being called into question – that is to say, people are questioning whether or not he is an apostle of Jesus and what, in fact, that means. Paul responds to these “allegations” by immediately reminding the Corinthians that following Christ does not mean we have to divide our allegiances to people or churches; our allegiance is to Christ. We are all baptized in Christ’s name and called to proclaim the Gospel, no matter how different we may be or where our faith journeys may take us.
The last verse of this passage is one that I think packs the biggest punch. Paul writes:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. [1 Corinthians 1:17, NRSV]
So that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
I say this all the time, but it is worth repeating: The work we do here matters. This story – this narrative of love and redemption is one that changes people’s lives. Through Jesus – through his life, death and resurrection – God has given us this gift and this opportunity and it is not one that we should take lightly.
It is important.
It is important, not only that we live out our own faith, but also that we share this faith with others so that their lives might be changed, so that the world might be made whole again.
Are we all always going to agree on what this looks like or how it should be done? Of course not. But, like Paul says in verse 10, we are united in the same mind and purpose.
We are united in Christ.
The beginning of this letter kind of reads like a sports pep talk that a coach might give his team when they are down. Because the game is not over, right? And, in this case, the story of the church in Corinth is not over yet, either. Christ’s story – a story of love and redemption – is not over yet. It is still being written. It is still being written by the Corinthians Paul is writing to.
And it is still being written by us, today, as we seek to do the hard work that is required to nurture our community of faith and share the Gospel.
So think about this scripture as a pep talk to us – as we stand at the dawn of a new year, inspired by this theme of love that permeated our identity last year. Remember that, just like the church in Corinth, we, too, are loved and cherished. We are not perfect, but we are united. We are united because we believe that Jesus’ story is one that is still worth telling, we believe that it is a story that can and will change lives, starting with our own. We are united because we are the Body of Christ, the church in the village. We are united because we have seen the tangible expression of love lived out in this community and we know the difference it can make. We are united because we are ready for the new year, ready to listen to God calling us to do church and to share the Good News with a world that so desperately needs to hear it. We are united because, like Paul says in verse 9, “God is faithful; by him [we are] called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Paul says that he gives thanks to God for the church in Corinth. Today I offer this same sentiment – I give thanks to God for you, the Rehoboth Congregational Church, United Church of Christ – the church in the village.
Thanks be to God!