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06.20.21 Paul’s Assumptions about Church 1 Corinthians 1.1-9 Sermon Summary

by on June 22, 2021

We’re going to listen to 1 Corinthians for a while because we need guidance. The Apostle Paul was dealing with a challenging church, and today we are dealing with challenging times.

Corinth was a large city. It was primarily Gentile, wealthy, and diverse. This created friction in the churches. As trade center, the Corinthians had cultivated exalted expectations. This was a problem for Paul who apparently was not an eloquent speaker.

First Corinthians appears as the second of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. That’s because it’s his second longest. In terms of chronology, 1 Corinthians is, among the letters that have survived, probably Paul’s third after 1 Thessalonians and Galatians.

First Corinthians was written about 53-55. Paul had founded the church in 50. It is an “occasional” letter, which means Paul was addressing particular matters as he wrote. But reading behind the text and between the lines we can discern a coherent theology; Paul’s theology.

Very quickly the wider church discerned God spoke to us through Paul’s writings and so we continue listen for God’s Word in Paul’s letters. In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians we discover a couple of assumptions Paul makes about the church in general. 

“To 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.”

Our first observation is that church people are “sanctified.” Paul never writes about joining a church or being a member of a church. Instead he uses language of joining the Body of Christ, being a member of the Body of Christ. One of his favorite ways to refer to this is to be “in Christ.”

If someone is “in Christ” it means he or she will be “in church.” For Paul, if you were “in church” you were also “in Christ.” This is because in Paul’s day, people chose Christ over many options; over other deities, over other lords and kings presented as deities, and over the typical distractions of status, wealth, and leisure.

To choose Christ, to be in church, was counter-cultural, anti-government, and unpatriotic. It led to persecution and could cost you your life. This made it hard to be Christian. You needed support. You needed others. You needed a community. You needed the church. 

Many have observed that we are returning to that reality today, where being in church is counter-cultural. When Christians stand for peace, justice, equality, and love, we may be called unpatriotic. For many of us this is not a bad thing. It suggests a purifying of the church and of Christianity.

All this is why Paul writes that church people are “sanctified.” This a word that simply means “made holy.” You might think “holy-fied” when you hear “sanctified.”

Something is holy only as it belongs to God, because God alone is purely holy. Kingdoms of the world are not holy. The Kingdom that belongs to God is holy. Those who belong to the Kingdom of God are holy. They are “sanctified.”

While we are already sanctified, Paul yet calls us to be saints. We are already holy, and we are called to be increasingly holy. We already belong to God, and we are called to belong to God more and more

Our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith expresses what we’ve said thus far: 

“In life and in death we belong to God. . . [T]he Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives.” 

Notice how in the famous first line is the assertion that “we belong to God.” In the final section about the role of the Spirit in our lives, the confession calls us to increasingly exhaustive holiness (and joy!) in our lives.

We are “holy-fied” and called to be holy. And we are not alone. We are church, “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours,” Paul asserts.

My second and much shorter observation is that our sanctification, our holy-fication, is a gift from God. This is what Paul means by “grace.” Notice Paul’s emphasis on the passive voice, which means the action is happing to us. We are not doing it ourselves.

Paul is an apostle “by the will of God.” The church is comprised of those who “are sanctified” and “are called” to holiness. The “grace of God has been given to you,” Paul writes, and the Corinthians “have been enriched in Christ.” Paul’s testimony “has been strengthened” among them and God will also “strengthen them to the end.” By God they “were called into the fellowship of Christ.”

This is Paul’s understanding of “grace;” it is something that is given. It cannot be achieved. It is to be received.

The Corinthian churches were challenging churches, and we are in challenging times. But before dealing with the challenges of his day, Paul lays the foundation in these opening verses. The church is sanctified. And it is sanctified by God.

What does the future of the church look like post pandemic and after online ministry?

What does the future of the church look like now that we are waking up white?

What does the future of the church look like now that we are taking responsibility for the environment?

What does the future of the church look like now that we realize “boy” and “girl” don’t fully describe all people?

What does the future of the church look like now that we understand brain chemistry and the overwhelming effects of trauma?

What does the future of the church look like now that we’re taking Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, and to love our enemies, and to love ourselves, and to love God with everything—and he means everything?

I don’t know what it looks like and it scares me. It makes me nostalgic for simpler times. It makes me defensive. It makes me closed-minded. And so I look to Paul and he tells me, “You are already holy. You are to pursue holiness. The church is already holy. It is to pursue holiness.

“God has given you what you are, and God will give you what you will be. You have only to believe. You have only to receive.”

“Do not worry,” Jesus said. “Desire first God’s Kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

“Do not be anxious about anything,” Paul wrote in another letter, “but in all things, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God, which transcends understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Spirit, give us to desire first God’s kingdom. Then add to us what you will, not what we will. We thank you for calling us to be in Christ, to be members of his Body, to be your church in the world today. We present our requests: Lead us. Guide us. Give us vision. Ease our anxieties. Calm our fears. Increase our faith. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour. For we are a challenged church, and we are a challenging church. And we need to remember that by your grace, and your grace alone, we are holy, and we may be holy. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

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