1 Corinthians 1.1-17
How good are you at waiting? I’ll be honest, it’s not my greatest strength. I hope that over the years I’ve grown more patient – though I still don’t like waiting for things, especially traffic.
Did you hear about the duck waiting to cross the road? The chicken walked past and said, ‘I wouldn’t bother mate, you’ll never hear the end of it.’
Our experience of waiting varies from the minor irritation of a long traffic light, to years of praying for something to happen. Sometimes God seems so slow to act – or he seems not to act at all. We’ll come back to the theme of waiting later, but first let’s dive into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
(A brief footnote for those of you of a pedantic nature – this isn’t actually Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth – but it is the first one we have. What we call Second Corinthians is most likely at least the fourth of Paul’s letters to that church. What does that tell us? Not a lot – except that Paul wrote a lot of letters, and that God decided we don’t need to know what they all said!)
Today I’d like to pick out three words: Called, Graced, United – and then we’ll return to see what we’ve learned about Waiting.
We are... Called (1-3)
First then, we are called. Paul begins most of his letters the same way: with his name (Paul), his job (apostle), and his boss (Jesus) – for example (1), Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus.
Paul didn’t choose to be an apostle – he was called, by Jesus, and according to the will of God. He was called, and sent (for that’s what the word ‘apostle’ means – a person who is sent).
What about you? Do you feel ‘called’? Too often in church circles we limit the word ‘calling’ to describe those called – like Paul, like me – to be church leaders.
But when we do that, we make a lesser calling more important than a greater calling. For the greater – the greatest calling – is into God’s family. Verse 2:
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people...1 Corinthians 1.2 (NIV)
In Jesus Christ God is making a new people, a new family – one that doesn’t depend on your parents or where you are born, which anyone can join – if they respond to God’s call.
Now, there’s a little pun here that is lost in translation – and I think you are all starting to realise, perhaps with a sinking feeling, that I like a pun.
Verse 2 could be translated like this:
.. to those who have been made holy in Christ Jesus, called to be holy people...1 Corinthians 1.2 (my translation)
Wait a minute. Are we holy already, or is God calling us to be holy? Yes (!).
Think of it like this: are you married on your wedding day when you’ve said your vows and signed the register – or are you married after a lifetime of faithfulness and love? Yes!
Am I married to Jess? Yes. Is my marriage to Jess complete? No. In a sense then, my marriage has already happened, on 1 August 2015, but it is not yet complete. And so as Jess’s husband I live out the day-to-day reality of something that has already happened in the past.
It’s not a perfect picture but hopefully it illustrates something of what Paul is talking about here.
God’s people are already holy because of what Jesus has already done when he died on the cross, rose to life on the third day, and ascended into heaven. That has happened, it cannot be changed, it can never be taken away, it is solid rock, a concrete foundation.
God’s people are called to be holy, to live out the reality of what has already happened, amid the pain and the mess and the sin of this world, to be a sign to that world that there is something more, something better, which can be found in Jesus.
The Christian life is not about striving for something we don’t have, but taking hold of something we’ve been given.
The Christian life is not about building up enough credit to buy the life we’ve always wanted, but receiving that life from Jesus for free, through daily repentance and forgiveness.
The Christian life is about responding to a call, the call to be what we already are, the call to live out daily what God has already done for us in Jesus, to be every day who we already are in Jesus.
As Paul puts it elsewhere: live a life worthy of the calling you have received... you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 4.1, 5.8).
What we do matters – but who we are in Jesus comes first.
We are... Graced (4-9)
I said we would be picking out three words from this passage today. The first is called – can anyone remember the second?
Grace. We are graced.
A vicar was invited to lunch by one of his parishioners. As he sat down at the table with the family, the mum asked their daughter to say grace before the meal.
She sat in silence for a while, looking worried. ‘I don’t know what to say, Mummy,’ she said.
‘That’s ok, darling,’ said her mum, smiling at the vicar, ‘Just use what Daddy said before we ate breakfast this morning.’
The little girl folded her hands, bowed her head, and said in a loud voice, ‘Oh God, why did you invite that idiot over for lunch?’
But what is ‘grace’? It’s clearly something more than the prayer some of us say before we eat, because Paul says in verse 4:
I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.1 Corinthians 1.4 (NIV)
Some clever person once figured out you could turn it into an acronym: ‘God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense’. G.R.A.C.E. Sometimes it is described as ‘free unmerited favour’ – something we don’t deserve, and don’t have to pay for.
Those descriptions are right and good – but grace is also more than that. Grace is not simply an undeserved gift – it is the transforming power of God, it is an effective gift.
The 20th century theologian and philosopher Bono wrote this:
Grace, it’s the name for a girlGrace, U2
It’s also a thought that changed the world.
Look again at v4 with me – only this time we’ll carry on into v6:
I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way – with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge – God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you.1 Corinthians 1.4-6 (NIV)
Grace isn’t simply something the Christians in Corinth have been given – it has changed them, enriched them in every way, and that change proves that what Paul said about Jesus is true.
It’s like yeast. If I gave you a packet of powder and told you it was yeast, you might believe me – you might call the police. The way to ‘prove’ it is to mix it into some dough.
As the proof of the yeast is in the rising, so the proof of the gospel is in the lives of those who believe it for we are transformed by it. Grace is both the way God creates his family, and how he enables us to live in his family as his children.
Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.1 Corinthians 1.7 (NIV)
Those spiritual gifts, which include among other things speech and knowledge (5) – Paul talks more about them all later in the letter – are given to help and enable us to be the people we are, to be the people God has made and called us to be: his children.
Paul says to the Corinthians – and to us – don’t think you do any of this yourselves, don’t get ideas above your station; for all you have comes from God in Jesus. It is a gift, an effective gift, that transforms us into a family, a fellowship with his Son, Jesus (9). Our part is to join in with what God is doing.
We are... United? (10-17)
(1) We are called. (2) We are graced. (3) We are... united?
Why do all Maths teachers wear glasses?
Because they help with di-vision.
A Christian is stranded on a desert island all by himself.
After many years he is rescued. As he’s pulled aboard the rescue ship, the captain asks him what the three buildings on the island are.
‘Ah, that one’s my house,’ says the Christian, ‘And that one’s my church.’
‘What about the third building?’ asks the Captain.
‘Ah,’ says the Christian, ‘That’s the church I used to go to.’
If I asked you to describe the global Church, I doubt many of you – if any – would use the word ‘united’. Even within the same church there are often many divisions. Corinth was no different:
One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’, still another, ‘I follow Christ.’1 Corinthians 1.12 (NIV)
It hurts Paul that the church family he planted in Corinth is now so divided. I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, he says (10), my brothers and sisters he begs (11)... Don’t forget who you are,
agree with one another in what you say... be perfectly united in mind and thought.1 Corinthians 1.10 (NIV)
Now Paul doesn’t mean that every Christian should be the same.
It’s like the difference between a choir singing in unison and in harmony.
When we sing in unison, everyone sings the same words and the same tune.
When we sing in harmony, we sing the same words but with different tunes that work and weave together to create a beautiful harmonious sound.
Later in this letter Paul uses the example of a single body, made up of many parts. The parts are not all the same, but all work together in harmony so the body can see, hear, taste, smell.
The thing that unites God’s people – or at least the thing that should unite us – is the same person through whom we are called, the same person through whom we receive grace: Jesus Christ.
Look with me at verse 13:
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised in the name of Paul?1 Corinthians 1.13 (NIV)
No, no, and no!
First, every Christian receives all the blessings of Christ (5) – there is no hierarchy or favouritism. Jesus is not divided.
Second, many people were crucified by the Romans – but only Jesus’ death brings forgiveness. Paul was not crucified for us, nor anyone else; only Jesus. The power to save is not in clever words or fancy arguments, but only in the cross of Jesus Christ (17).
Third, when we are baptised in God’s name we pass from the kingdom of this world into the kingdom where Jesus is Lord. Six times in these verses Paul calls Jesus Lord (2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10). Our Lord is not Paul, nor anyone else, but Jesus.
Forget your petty divisions, Paul says, see past your differences and your preferences, put aside your arguments and your earthly desires: and be perfectly united in mind and thought (10), by seeing Jesus.
We are... Waiting (7)
We are called. We are graced. We are – or should do our best to be – united. And, we are... waiting. Paul says (7):
..eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.1 Corinthians 1.7 (NIV)
This brings together everything we have thought about so far this morning. Waiting is a regular theme in the Bible, particularly in the psalms and prophets when they talk about the night watch waiting for the dawn.
The night watchman can do absolutely nothing to hasten the dawn – but while he waits for the dawn he gets on with his duties, staying alert to dangers, looking forward to the light of the new day, trusting that the dawn will come.
Sometimes the wait is over in a blink – other times the night drags on, in seemingly never-ending darkness. In those times when we feel so far from the dawn, so far from God, when our strength and our faith are failing, we need to let go and let God hold us. As the psalmist says, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast (Psalm 139.10).
Who we are depends not on how tightly we can grip onto God, but on he who holds us fast. Maybe today you need to let go, and let God hold you. Maybe today you need to look up from your pain and your troubles, to see Jesus by your side.
We wait eagerly by focusing on what matters:
- we are called, called to live out who we already are in Jesus;
- we are graced, transformed in Jesus so we can live out the life he gives to all who repent;
- we are united, so let’s fix our eyes on Jesus.