1 Corinthians 1:1-9
New Revised Standard Version
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 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:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He 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.
It is time to restart the liturgical cycle with the First Sunday of Advent. Because Paul doesn’t give any attention to the birth of Jesus, Pauline readings for Advent will be eschatological in nature. They speak not of the first advent, but the second. Paul’s message tends to be deeply apocalyptic, in that he believed that Jesus would soon breakthrough and establish the kingdom of God/new creation. Therefore, he focuses on preparing the communities he founded for the Day of the Lord.
The lectionary reading from the first chapter of 1 Corinthians begins in verse 3, though I’ve included the opening verses for context. Paul begins, as he often does, with a word of thanksgiving to God for this community that he had only recently founded. He offers this word of grace as a representative of “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is a message for people who are called to watch and wait. Isn’t that an appropriate message for the Advent season, which continually calls us to slow down during the frenzy of the season leading up to Christmas? Even in a season that is being affected by a pandemic, is still filled with stuff to do. So, as we wait (are we doing this patiently?) Paul delivers a message rooted in God’s faithfulness.
As Paul opens up this letter, which at times, is anything but joyful, he wants them to know that as they wait for the coming Day of the Lord, they have everything they need as they begin this journey. They have been enriched in Christ in every way. Nothing has been held back. They have “knowledge” (gnosis) and they have “speech” (logos). Finally, every spiritual gift necessary to fulfill their calling. Of course, as the letter proceeds, we will discover that they struggle with how they understand and implement these gifts. They tend to focus on themselves rather than the body as a whole. Thus, as Charles Campbell points out, this word about God’s provision is true, but for Paul “these words of thanksgiving can be said only ironically, with a tone that subverts the Corinthians’ trust and assurance in these gifts, which have themselves become divisive” [1 Corinthians, Belief, p. 26]. Thus, whatever message of thanksgiving is present here, it is offered with a bit of uncertainty on Paul’s part. He knows that this is going to be a tough letter.
While it’s easy to give this early Christian community a hard time for their behavior, we need to be careful if we choose to point fingers. It’s helpful to remember that these are relatively new believers. Most of the members of the congregation are recently converted Gentiles who don’t have the same history and background as Jesus followers who are Jewish. They may have brought spiritualities and religious practices with them that didn’t mesh well with the Gospel. Our contemporary congregations, many of which have a long history and are filled with people who have inhabited them for decades can be just as troubled as this congregation.
One of the big issues that impacted the Corinthian community was the place of the ego. Perhaps it’s a cultural flaw, but humility doesn’t appear to be a strong personality trait in this community. Members of the community seem to embrace the idea that particular gifts, mainly speaking in tongues, held great value. If you had the gift, then you were a person of importance (chapters 12-14). While Paul doesn’t have any issues with the gift itself and likely introduced it to them—as one gift among many—at least
some members of this community held it up as the gift sine qua non. Paul, however, who claimed to speak in tongues than any of them, disagreed. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Here in this passage, Paul simply broaches the point, reminding them that they are all sufficiently gifted to fulfill their calling. Later, he will develop this further, emphasizing the need to under that everyone is gifted. That is, they are all part of one body, and every part of the body is important (1 Cor. 12:12-27).
Here in the opening verses of the letter, Paul offers some hints about the kinds of questions he’s going to take up in the letter, one of which had to do with spiritual giftedness. This conversation set in a word of encouragement. Paul wants them to embrace the faithfulness of God as they prepare for what lies ahead. Again, they have what they need as they await the return of Christ. Even if we don’t share Paul’s eschatological timeline, as Matt Gaventa writes: “In a contemporary landscape in which few Christians are immune from the pressures of achievement—whether preachers longing for elocution, or congregations longing for knowledge, or any of us in late Christendom longing for some revitalizing gift of the Spirit—Paul’s words come as an arresting reminder of God’s provision. We already have everything we need.” [Connections, p. 10].
Paul’s goal here, as I’ve noted, is preparing this community for the Day of the Lord. The end result of this preparation is enjoying fellowship with Jesus. While the Day of the Lord is often envisioned as a moment of judgment (Matthew 25), that part of the story is not front and center here in these verses. Paul wants to present them as being blameless on the day of the Lord, so perhaps that’s assumed. Nevertheless, at least at this point, the letter wants to begin on a positive note. I sense that what Paul means by blameless here is not perfection but maturity. This is a community, that as the letter reveals, shows a lot of spiritual immaturity. So, he invites them to consider what it means to be in fellowship with Jesus. He wants them to know that God is faithful, so as they prepare is to come, they’re not taking this journey alone. Instead, they’re invited to be in partnership with Jesus. Is not that true for us as well?
As we begin this journey through Advent, may we be prepared to join Jesus in partnership. May we set aside the pettiness that keeps us from enjoying true fellowship with Jesus. We might not have quite the same sense of apocalyptic expectation as Paul and these early Christians, but surely, we understand the importance of always being prepared for the coming of God’s realm in its fulness. If we embrace this understanding, we can also find encouragement in the message that we have been provided the spiritual gifts necessary to fulfill this calling.