Revelation 22:1-5 & 1 Corinthians 1:1-17;

Unity in Vision – 1 Corinthians

For the next couple of months we are going to be exploring Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Well I say first. It’s the first one that we have a copy of in our Bibles. In Chapter 5, verse 9, of this letter, Paul refers to a previous letter that he had written to them, which we no longer have. So, 1 Corinthians is the first of the two that we have copies of, but isn’t actually the first that he wrote to them. This isn’t just nitpicking, it is important to understand that this letter was part of an ongoing conversation, which we are only hearing parts of. Paul also refers to letters that they have sent him, and other reports that he has heard. We don’t have those either, so as we read our way through this letter, and listen to it, we need to bear in mind that we are only hearing one side of the conversation, and whilst we might be able to infer some of the content of the rest of the correspondence, we cannot usually know for sure.

Paul’s first meeting with the people of Corinth is recorded in Acts 18. He’d arrived there on one of his missionary journeys, direct from Athens. He met some other Christian Jews, Priscilla and Aquila, and set up shop as a tent maker with them. He spread the good news of Jesus, firstly in the synagogues and then amongst the Gentiles in various meeting rooms. His friends Silas and Timothy joined him there, and he stayed for at least 18 months. This was long enough for him to establish a Christian congregation rather than just to win a few converts. It was also long enough for him to have developed and built strong relationships with those who made up this congregation.

What about Corinth itself? What was this place? What was it like? There had been a town called Corinth in this area of Greece for centuries. It was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. and then a new city was built, by the Romans, also called Corinth, in the same area. This city was founded in 44 B.C. The reason that the Romans wanted a settlement here was because it was strategically important at the cross roads of key trade routes. By the time Paul got there it had displaced Athens as the most politically important city in the region, and was the provincial capital from which the Roman governor ruled. As a fairly new city, on a trade route it had a wide variety of inhabitants – Greeks, Romans, and Jews. There were many people passing through, bringing all kinds of new religious and philosophical ides. One thing that had carried over from the original Corinth was a reputation for notorious immorality.

It is in this melting pot that Paul had founded a church, made up of Jews and Gentiles – Romans and Greeks. With the pressures of commerce and temptations all around in the surrounding culture. Paul had been gone from Corinth for a while. There had been a few letters back and forth, he’d heard about some things that were going on, and now he decides to write to them again, and in this first section he sets out his motivation for writing this letter.

His core motivation can be seen as we look at the first 9 verses: all but one of them include the word, “Christ”. Sometimes that title is accompanied by the name Jesus, sometimes not, sometimes Paul includes, “Lord”, sometimes not, sometimes all three are there. The point is that Paul is focussed on Jesus, and particularly on Jesus as the Christ, the chosen one of God, the one anointed by God to bring salvation and rescue to the world in fufilment of the promises of the Old Testament, and on Jesus as Lord, the one who rightly commands our lives. Everything else Paul says in the whole letter is about calling the Corinthian Christians towards the Lord, Jesus Christ. And not just the Christians in the church at Corinth. At the end of verse 2 we read this, “together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “All those everywhere” – doesn’t that include us? Paul did write this letter to a specific group of Christians in a specific place, facing specific issues, but he also had a wider view, a more general application, one that includes us, here in Wellington in 2019.

Building on his foundational motivation of pointing us to Jesus, it seems to me that there are three themes that we can pull out from these opening verses which we can helpfully explore and reflect on for our own lives. These are the themes of holiness, thankfulness, and unity.

We have already noted that Corinth was infamous for its culture of immorality and unholiness. As the letter develops we will see some of the ways in which this culture seemed to have infected the church in Corinth, and how Paul calls the Christians to resist this and to live holy lives. This call begins early, as early as verse 2, where Paul addresses his friends as, “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people.” In this Paul is reminding his readers of what Jesus has already done for them, Jesus has made them holy. That is what “sanctified” means.

I don’t know about you, but I know that I am not, of myself, very holy. I get angry, I want things other people have, I’m ungrateful, I lie. Paul knew himself, he knew what people were like. He knew that when people become Christians they don’t become perfect. In all of our lives there is an ongoing work of being more holy, of being sanctified. This is one of the things that the Holy Spirit does in our lives. But Paul still says that those who are Christians have been sanctified in Christ. How can this be? That word, “in” is really important. Somehow, when we become Christians, we are included in Christ. And we know that Jesus is completely holy, completely perfect. So, if we are in Christ, when God looks at us he sees Jesus’ holiness and righteousness, our sin is forgiven and we are judged holy.

What’s more, this is our real identity. That is who we really are. The parts of us that continue to sin, and succumb to temptation, and are unholy, are not who we really are, they are not our true identity. As the Holy Spirit works in our lives we are more and more released into living out of our true, holy, selves. As we shall discover in the coming weeks this can be a long and difficult process, but it is one that we are called to continue persisting in, as those who called to be God’s holy people.

So, that’s holiness. What about thankfulness?

We find this in verses 4-10. “I always thank my God for you…” This is Paul’s default position. We find it again and again in his letters, he is thankful. But what is he thankful for? What do we find as we read through? “Because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.” Paul is thankful for the riches of God poured out on those who don’t deserve it, and again we have that phrase, “in Christ Jesus.” And what examples of grace do we find in the following verses? – speech and knowledge, spiritual gifts. God’s faithfulness to keep the Corinthians firm to the end, when they will be found blameless (there’s an overlap with the holiness theme). A call to fellowship (an overlap with the unity theme we’re going to talk about in a moment). Paul is grateful for the work of God in the past, the gifts of God in the present, and the promises of God for the future.

A creatures living in time, it is tricky for us to get the right balance of perspective on the past, the present and the future. If we’re not careful we end up living too much in one, without adequate regard for the others. Some folk live in the past, despising the present, and fearing the future. Some live in the present, forgetting the blessings of the past and careless of the future. Others live in the future, oblivious to the past, and wishing away the present. God is the God of all time, of the past, the present and the future. God has saved us, is living in us, and will hold us firm. Whatever else we feel about our lives, these are foundational truths for those who are in Christ, and they are things for which we can be grateful for God, and which can help us to live balanced lives.

So, that is holiness and thankfulness. What about unity?

It is fairly obvious from verses 10 to 17 that there is a problem with unity in the Corinthian church.
The problem is that there isn’t any, or at least, not nearly enough. It seems fairly clear that the members of the church have picked a “favourite” apostle and got themselves into little cliques. There’s no suggestion that this had been encouraged by the apostles themselves, but somehow the church had started splitting into little factional groups and quarrelling over who was the best apostle. Paul is in such a tizz about this that he can’t even remember who he baptised. For Paul unity is one of the most important signs of the kingdom. Paul took seriously what Jesus said when he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane for those who would come to believe, “that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them.”

Paul took it so seriously that he sets the bar pretty high. He asks his readers should, “all agree … there be no divisions … be perfectly united in mind and thought” We know that Paul didn’t even live up to this council of perfection himself, there are plenty of accounts of him having arguments, disputes and falling out with friends like Barnabas, John Mark, and Peter.

Having said that, just because something seems difficult and we know that we have failed at achieving it in the past, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim for it. And when we do disagree to do so well, without quarrelling, back biting or gossiping.

There are a lot of us in All Saints, we have a number of congregations, and we have a variety of projects going on. It would be surprising if we all had exactly the same priorities, the same preferences, the same ideas. What is really important is what we do about those differences. One of the ways in which we seek to foster unity is by having “loving each other” as one of our values. As part of this we value forgiving, humility, kindness, being encouraging, listening and talking to each other and not about each other. I believe that as we live out these values, even and especially when we disagree, so we will grow in unity and holiness and we will find more and more to be thankful to God for, in our Lord, Jesus Christ.

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