The Set Up

The Sunday Sermon:  Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2017

Scripture:  1 Corinthians 1:1-9

The Set-Up

Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Let me ask you a question as I begin this morning that may seem a bit odd. It’s a set-up of its own: Have you gone out to your neighbor’s mailbox, taken out a letter that you knew was a personal one – that is, not a flyer or business mail – and read it? Maybe one of their Christmas cards last month? Well, I thought not. (I was a little worried that maybe Jim would confess something that would get us off track, but …).

Well, here’s why ask: We just read somebody else’s mail, the opening line or two of somebody else’s letter. When we read the First Letter to the Corinthians – and churches all over our state, country, and around the world read it often – we are literally reading somebody else’s mail. This letter wasn’t addressed to us, Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church in Pewee Valley, Kentucky. This letter was originally addressed to another church, a fledging mission church, a small band of people in the ancient Mediterranean city of Corinth, who almost certainly would not have liked other people reading their mail – this letter in particular. But we’re doing it … again.

We’re going to spend some time in this “letter to someone else” in the weeks ahead in an effort to explore ourselves more deeply. And as we read on after today (in fact, beginning with the very next verse) we may better understand why the Corinthian Christians of Paul’s day would have preferred that this correspondence not be broadcast “to the ages.” The Corinthian Christians, you see, are not portrayed in a very flattering light. Paul’s letter to them divulges a number of things that they surely would have hoped to keep private.

That might surprise some of you. First Corinthians is one of the “most read” books in our New Testament, second probably only to the Gospels, but maybe even read more than one or two of those. We read, or more accurately I “recite,” from it at least once a month when we gather around our Communion table: I pass on to you what was also given to me … But, Paul’s writing on “Christ Crucified,” the “One Body with Many Members,” and “The Gift of Love” (patient, kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude), are among the most familiar of all biblical teachings. Why would the Corinthian Christians want to keep these teachings private? In the verses we just read, the opening verses, Paul’s “salutation,” the Corinthian Church sounds like a model community: I give thanks to my God always for you … you are not lacking in any spiritual gift … called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Well … those opening verses give us the title of our sermon this morning. They are a “Set Up.”

Pray with me …

As we will see in the weeks ahead as we continue reading someone else’s mail, the Church of Corinth, with its teachings of Grace, gifts of the Spirit, and knowledge of Christ, is having problems. However, if the Corinthians would find it unfortunate that this letter was preserved, we find it fortunate. We are given a glimpse through this writing of one particular tension-filled moment in the life of the first generation of Christians. And not only was the letter preserved, it was widely circulated early on in the movement, and eventually canonized as part of our New Testament. Let’s step back again, briefly …

Can you imagine? Knowing what we know about this letter – even if you’ve only just learned it this morning – that it is was written to address the problems, tensions, and troubles of this congregation, can you imagine if this still happened? What if Tom Farmer or Wayne Willis wrote a letter to Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church in the mid two thousands that addressed the divisions, the tensions, and the hostilities in this community at that time (plenty are still hear to remember the tumult of 2005 and the years that followed)? Then that letter was shared with every church in the area, through the country, and eventually around the world. And then that letter was canonized and became part of the Bible?! (Bad enough they’re in Session and Presbytery minutes somewhere, but part of sacred scritpure!)

That’s what happened to the congregation in Corinth. And we’re going to take a closer look at their problems and ask ourselves “what are we to do with the information we get from eavesdropping on this conversation, from reading someone else’s mail?”

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who re sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints … Grace to you and peace.

When we opened the Corinthians mail, once again, a few moments ago we hear some remarkable claims about this community: they are summoned by God for service, called to be saints. The summons to service is not unique to them, all new churches are so summoned. And the call to be saints is not a call to a special few “holy” individuals, but to all the members of the gathering community. Paul’s greeting makes clear that this church, this community, this group of men and women, boys and girls, are special (like all other churches gathering in Jesus’ name). They are set apart from a confused and cold world, marked as the people of God in Christ. Paul begins with genuine love and honest praise.

He knows what he’s doing, of course. He’s about to rollup his sleeves and begin criticizing the people and practices of the Corinthian Church. These first verses are a set-up, heartfelt and full of honest love, but a set-up. Paul begins this way, uses this “rhetorical strategy” before beginning his criticisms, to tell them the good news about themselves and the truth of who they are in the calling of God. All the criticism that is to come proceeds from this truth and no criticism undermines it: you are beloved – by me, by Christ, by God.

I’m sure by now a few of you who are paying the closest attention to my words this morning are starting to get a little worried or, if your conscience is clearer, at least a little curious. What have we done? What is he getting ready to unload on us?! (And, let me note right off the bat, that I’m included in this community, called out for special pastoral and preaching duties, but “you” includes “me.” Unlike Paul, I haven’t dropped in to set up a Christian agenda and then left, wishing you “good luck” and promising I’ll write! Any exploration and critical engagement of our community will include me.) And in any case, I’m not going to unload anything on us yet. That begins next week (!).

In this letter, Paul talks about divisions in the church, matters of following different leaders with different claims, matters of morals, matters of right worship, and matters of right belief. And, even without knowing exactly what I’m doing going forward, I think an exploration into some or all of those matters as they are a part of, or not a part of this community, is a fascinating pre-Lenten exploration of our church. Maybe get us ready for our annual journey to the cross with a better understanding of who we are and what’s next, where are we headed, and is that a good destination? But …

As I’ve said, that’s for the weeks ahead. This morning is about reveling in the fact that whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever we are doing at the moment, we are beloved of God – beloved of that intangible but undeniable reality in the world, that invisible but invincible force of Life and power of Love. It’s critical that we hear Paul’s opening salutation to the church in Corinth, and to us, not as a set-up to a heartless condemnation, but as a heartfelt set up to a call to be self-aware and to be open to being better people of God. This self awareness is a crucial dynamic in any relationship – ours with each other and ours with the divine. If we think of ourselves, if we perceive ourselves as “fumbling and inept,” then we will interact with others and respond to others very differently than if we perceive ourselves as articulate and competent. If we think others, including “God,” believe we are “incompetent and ill-informed,” then we will not listen to critical engagement from them very well. If however we are told, we are reminded over and over again, that we are informed, that we are able, that we are beloved, well, then … we jus may live up to the high standards that are required for our Christian life.

In Paul’s set-up to his first letter to the community in Corinth, he reminds them, and so reminds us, that we are people set apart and sanctified, blessed, made sacred. The Church, we, can be called to be what God intends us to be only when we have a clear perception of how we are “seen” by this God. And Paul reminds us that we are “seen by this God” as good and trustworthy, not without fault or failure, but with fortitude and faith. With this self-awareness we are able to hear what is to come with an openness to changing ourselves and with the hope for a better future.

We give thanks to God always because of God’s grace given to us in Jesus, the Christ. That’s the set-up: From Paul to the Church in Corinth. From me to the Presbyterian Church in Pewee Valley. From God to Us.

Amen, for now. With excitement about the weeks ahead.

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 15, 2017