Sunday, January 19, 2020

Strength to the End: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 - Second Sunday after Epiphany

1Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2To 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:
3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9
God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (NRSV)
Resurrection by Jaegar Moore on flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

As a pastor, I rarely worship from the pews.

When I have a Sunday off, my ideal place of worship is my home congregation. Last time I was there, minutes before worship began, I realized someone important was missing: the organist. It turned out that she was recovering from surgery—and I’m thinking to myself, “this is going to be interesting…”

It turns out that my fears were completely unfounded. The organist had been on leave for some time, and the congregation adjusted remarkably well to her absence. To me, there was something beautiful and powerful about those forty-five voices singing the hymns and the liturgy together.  The silent organ was no match for the Holy Spirit. What I thought was a crisis became a blessing.

In our second reading for today, the Apostle Paul is writing to a church facing challenges far greater than a convalescing organist. The fledgling congregation at Corinth was in chaos. There was conflict, competition, controversy, factions, dissensions, you name it. This church was coming apart at the seams.

And it’s surprising that the greatest threats to the Corinthian Church were not from without—but from within. Corinth was the “Sin City” of the Greco-Roman world, tempting early Christians to compromise their faith in exchange for wealth, pleasure, and personal advancement. False teachers infiltrated the ranks of believers and led many astray. Paul, the apostles, and Christians from all over were coming under brutal persecution on account of their faith and public testimony. But still, for the Corinthian church, the biggest threats were themselves.

Given immorality and dissension in this church, Paul could have easily opened his letter with by warning the Corinthians to straighten up, fly right, or be destroyed. So why all the happy talk? Why all the gratitude and encouragement? Is this a trick to get people to read the letter? Buttering them up before delivering the bad news? If you read no further into 1 Corinthians than the first nine verses, you’d probably think all was well in Corinth.

Let me be very clear here: the message of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is not to say, “all is well,” when all is clearly not well. Paul will lay it all down for the Corinthians: that the conflict and competition is detrimental to their shared experience of God’s love and the effectiveness of their mission. And yet—all those problems do not change who God is and what God seeks to do in and through their life together.

It is undeniable fact that God is being gracious toward them, enriching their lives in speech and knowledge of every kind. Despite all their problems, they lack not a single spiritual gift as they wait for his glorious revealing.

There is no crisis, not even one of your own making, can change who God is and who God will be. This is why Paul is hopeful for the Corinthians.

We are facing this same chaos—in our governments, in our institutions, in our schools and workplaces, and even here in church. We are consumed by fear, confusion, and rage. We have lost the ability to see ourselves as interdependent beings. We’ve turned life into a competition, where the winner takes all, and the losers go back to where they came from.

What’s destroying this country, I believe, is our certainty in the rightness of our side—and our certainty in the complete depravity of the other side. It’s easier to blame your political rivals for all of society’s problems instead of owning the fact that we’re all in this together—and that we need each other, and God’s help, to build a better tomorrow.

Congregations are closing left and right because we’ve forgotten that we exist for the sake of the world—yet, we’re stuck in a mindset that the world should serve us. Jesus never promised the apostles that the world would be friendly or accommodating to his church.

I truly believe that one of the biggest ways we reject God’s grace is by denying our need for it. As sinners, we are experts at hiding the truth of our own brokenness, particularly from ourselves. We cannot follow Christ faithfully into the future without confronting our challenges and the willingness to change.

Paul forces the Corinthians to confront two truths: their brokenness, and God’s faithfulness. When you trust in God’s faithfulness, you can confront your brokenness with hope and without despairbecause nothing change who God is and who God promises to be. God’s faithfulness makes it safe for you to name your brokenness and own it—because God’s grace is made perfect in weakness; and because God’s mercy triumphs over judgment. God will see to it that you lack nothing to live every day in God’s love, and participate within the Body of Christ for the sake of the world. You will lack no spiritual gift as you wait upon God’s promised future.

So I ask you: are there hard truths you must confront? Can you own the fact that there are things in your life that aren’t right; there are false gods you are pursuing; there are wounds that have not healed; there are difficult changes that must be made. What in your life do you find most difficult to entrust to God?

And to anyone who’s concerned about the future of our church, I ask you: do you believe that God has a promising future in store? Do you believe Jesus will still be in this community, even if, God forbid, this church ceases to exist? Are you willing to endure change and suffer loss if that’s what it takes for your children and grandchildren to live fully in the love of Christ?

I invite you to meditate and pray on these words:
“I believe that ___________________ is no match for God’s love in Jesus Christ. God will strengthen me to the end.”

The grace of God is yours to claim.