"Waiting without Weakening"
Jan.9, 2011 1Cor.1:1-9
IF YOU CAN'T SAY ANYTHING GOOD...
We live in a very cosmopolitan society. Over the past 100+ years Canada has shifted from predominantly native to French to Anglo-Saxon to European until today, if you visit a mall in any major city, you're bound to see a great mix of ethnic races.
Aside from race, we have become cosmopolitan in another sense: I'm thinking of those magazines by grocery store checkouts, one of which bears that name - those magazines generally 'bare' too much. Our morality as a society has shifted; more and more that was once considered 'indecent' or 'improper' or scandalous is now mainstream. Christians find it a challenge to draw the line in defining acceptable behaviour when the culture around us has no qualms in exploring the latest flavour in moral deviation. So there's a strong temptation through our media and peers to experiment with unholy practices.
We have a lot in common with the Christians at Corinth to whom Paul wrote about 55 AD. Corinth was extremely cosmopolitan and trendy. It had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, then rebuilt by Julius Caesar 100 years later because of its strategic location bridging 2 seaports. By means of a stone tramway spanning about 8 miles, small ships or wagonloads from larger ships could be hauled straight across the isthmus from one sea to another. Corinth rapidly became the largest and most important city in Greece, filled with Romans, Greeks, and others; some quarter-million free persons plus 400,000 slaves. Goods and profits flowed through the streets. There were at least 12 temples, including that of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In one period about a thousand religious prostitutes were employed; and when they weren't needed at the temple, they would supplement their income on the streets downtown. Its immorality became notorious, proverbial; in other lands, instead of referring to someone as a prostitute they could be called a 'Corinthian girl'.
So - sounds like an ideal place to plant a church, right? Paul laboured there 18 months during his second missionary journey. But these were young Christians, immersed in the most decadent culture in the world: there were bound to be problems. So Paul sat down during his 3-year stint at Ephesus to address problems and misunderstandings that had arisen at this young church. Things like: divisions within the church, people following 'favourite' leaders; immorality - marriages were in shambles, and one man was even living with his father's wife; whether meat used in idol worship could be eaten; was it OK for Christians to haul others before civil courts; how the Lord's Supper should be celebrated in a way different than an ordinary meal; and, how spiritual gifts could be used to build others up rather than show off.
An uber-cosmopolitan culture; a young, struggling, splintering congregation not totally succeeding in swimming against the tide of immorality. Maybe we have something to learn from Paul as he coaches the Corinthian believers?
Yet, even though most of the book will be spent correcting the church's faults, Paul still starts positively. As in most of his pastoral letters, the apostle begins by thanking God for the church; though not as long as in Ephesians or Thessalonians, it is longer than in Galatians. What does this tell us? Even with all the problems the young church had - and they were many - the apostle still stopped to speak positively, honour them, and thank God for them. Despite all the problems, all the bad, he still began by focussing on the good - that's GRACE, the keynote in this section: v3, "grace and peace to you from God..." and v4, "I always thank God for you because of His grace given you in Christ Jesus."
So, when there's correction to be done, when you have to sit down with them for a heart-to-heart - start on a note of grace, the good and the positive. As Colossians 4:6 puts it, "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone."
Note how Paul addresses the wayward flock - not as miserable sinners, rife with shameful conduct and schism - but as saints: v2, "to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus..." Is he always tearing his hair out over them? No, v4, "I always thank God for you..." Besides the errors, he sees much good in their midst and makes sure to begin by lifting that into the foreground.
DID YOU GET YOUR INVITATION? RSVP!
Communication is a 2-way street; it doesn't happen when the talking goes only one way, there's no response. Recently our youngest daughter who's living in Calgary got married here in Ontario. She and her fiancé sent out many wedding invitations, including their western friends although they realized the distance to travel might be a problem. So they had thought they might hold a reception out west after the ceremony so those more local could attend. But they were surprised that some people (mainly in the west) didn't even bother to reply to the invitation - didn't RSVP. So in the end they decided not to hold a western reception, if interest was so low. There was initiative and invitation, but no response, so no celebration.
When you say something to someone, when you go to the effort to put something out there in an effort to communicate, you appreciate there being some response. A woman wrote to Ann Landers complaining she was married to a clam: her husband would not carry on a conversation. She wrote: "Me: I read in the paper that there was a flood in the Sahara Desert. The Clam: Oh, really? His stock, all-purpose comments are: 'Is that a fact?' 'You can't win for losin'.' 'That's the way the ball bounces.' 'Well, ain't that one for the books!' His responses are a boring assortment of worn-out cliches and platitudes. Half the time he tunes my out totally. For example, last night I said, 'I just got back from a trip on the space shuttle.' He replied, 'That's nice.'" Can you sense her frustration from a marriage partner who wouldn't respond meaningfully?
In this section, Paul sets forth God's attempt to communicate and interact with us. There's initiative, an invitation, and a celebration. In our daughter's case, there was an initiative and invitation, but no reply resulted in a cancelled celebration. In the case of the wife of 'the clam', no meaningful response meant no real communication.
God has taken initiative. V1, "Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God..." The Greek word for will comes from one meaning to intend; there's purpose, initiative. God's divine determination, His sovereign choice, is behind His invitation. God's backing is behind this enterprise. V9, "God...is faithful." He can be trusted. 1Thess 5:24, "The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it." 1Cor 10:13, "And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear." His backing and trustworthiness prompt Him to provide a way out when we're tempted. From God's faithfulness springs His initiative, His calling or invitation.
God willed, so God called Paul (the church-persecutor: least-likely candidate!) to apostleship. V2, "To the church of God in Corinth...called to be holy..." Recall the context: thousands of prostitutes, temple to the love-goddess, public acceptance of immorality - yet Paul doesn't soften the standard, 'you only have to be sort of holy.' 'When you sin, keep it under wraps.' No, Christians (wherever they are) are called to be holy. V2, "To the church of God in Corinth...called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ..." What's God's objective? V8, "so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ..." Blameless.
We are called to be holy. V9 mentions another call: "God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful." Called into fellowship with Jesus. Fellowship is relationship, sharing, partnership, intimacy. You are called into a common experience, an interaction with the Lord of the universe! Out of such fellowship flows good things: Philippians 2:1, "If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit..." One evidence of that relationship is that we 'call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ', v2. We talk to Him. When Paul was watching the first martyr Stephen being stoned he would have heard him call out to Jesus, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." (Ac 7:59) So simple, direct, refreshingly accessible - not like the stuffy distant prayers of the Pharisees.
God initiates; He invites or calls; and for those who respond, there's a celebration. V7, "...you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed." Jesus likened His reunion with the church to a wedding banquet (Mt 22:2-9; 25:10), something to be eagerly anticipated.
PLEASE CONFIRM YOUR IDENTITY
In this complex connection-rich web-woven world in which we live, there are many times we have to prove who we are just to connect. For online banking or account inquiries for other services, we are now used to providing proof of identity 'for security purposes'. On the phone, for my bank I say my home phone number; "At Bell, my voice is my password." In this section Paul notes how the Corinthian Christians are proving their identity, and he's thankful for that. V6, he's thankful "because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you." The word 'confirmed' comes from a root meaning to make stand, stable, make strong - in fact the same word shows up again in v8, "He [God] will keep you strong to the end..." He will 'confirm' you.
Despite the Corinthian church's errors and weaknesses - and there were many - Paul sees their identity in Christ nonetheless coming through. Who they are is being proved to the world. What evidence does he see for this? V4, "I always thank God for you because of His grace given you in Christ Jesus.For in Him you have been enriched in every way..." This grace, this 'enriching', gets unpacked in the following verses. It's also summarized in 2Cor 8:7, "But just as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us..."
Let's take them one by one, these evidences of grace. V5, 'in all your speaking': Paul will be spending considerable time in chapters 12 and 14 on speaking - tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophesy. Let's check ourselves on this area: is our speech gracious? Do we build others up, or if we have a criticism do we just launch in with the attack?
V5 continues, "in all your speaking and in all your knowledge..." Paul prays for the Colossians that they might be filled "with the knowledge of [God's] will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding...that you may live a life worthy of the Lord...growing in the knowledge of God..." (Col 1:9-10) Knowledge is important. Some say, "Knowledge is power." But that can be used against others; in chapter 8 Paul cautions those whose so-called 'knowledge' about eating meat sacrificed to idols could destroy a weaker brother.He also notes, "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." (1Cor 8:1,11) It's important for us to keep studying the Bible, reading (or listening to) helpful Christian material, loving God with our mind. But there's a big difference between hammering someone with Bible verses AND praying for them on a sound scriptural basis, or sharing wise counsel. Be gracious with your knowledge.
V7 continues, "Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift..." Chapters 12-14 deal extensively with a broad range of spiritual gifts that were being used in the Corinthian church: prophesy, teaching, miracles, healing, helping, administering, and tongues. But the 'sandwich' meat, chapter 13, highlights that love is the most excellent gift; tongues will be stilled, knowledge will pass away, but love endures and is the greatest (1Cor 13:8,13). Use your gift, but use it lovingly, not to show off or impress others.
V7 also mentions eagerly waiting for Jesus' return. That's another evidence that we belong to Christ: eager anticipation of His appearing; not the new furniture we're planning to get, or the latest gizmo with blazing apps that we see on a commercial, not even the family vacation we're lining up. Those things pale compared to the eternal satisfaction that will be ours when Jesus returns, if we're following Him.
Last, v8 implies there's also evidence of our identity in God's keeping us strong to the end, "so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." Perseverance of the saints - hanging in there despite trials and temptations. God will keep you strong, despite culture's winds that would blow and suck you off-course. In northern oceans, sailors have often observed icebergs travelling in one direction in spite of strong winds blowing in the opposite direction. How could the icebergs be moving against the winds? With 8/9 of their bulk under the surface of the water, the icebergs were caught in the grip of strong ocean currents that moved them in a certain direction, regardless which way the winds raged. So, in the Christian life, no matter how strongly the winds of passing opinion blow in opposition, the believer who has a depth of living in the currents of God's grace will move toward righteousness. God will keep you strong to the end.
Every so often, life offers us opportunities to respond to God's invitation, to confirm that we are who we claim to be in His Son. Later this month, secondary students will be facing examinations of their familiarity with course material. In everyday life, we can be tested on qualities that should be ours through Christ's grace, even though we may not be very aware it's a test.
One snowy morning at 5:00 AM., a missionary candidate rang the bell at a missionary examiner's home. Ushered into the office, he sat three hours past his appointment time waiting for his interview. At 8:00 AM, a retired missionary appeared and began his questioning. 'Can you spell?" Rather mystified, the candidate answered, 'Yes sir." All right, spell 'baker.' "B-A-K-E-R."
"Fine. Now, do you know anything about numbers?" the examiner continued. "Yes, sir, something." "Please add two plus two." 'Four," replied the candidate.
'That's fine," said the examiner- "I believe you have passed. I'll tell the board tomorrow."
At the board meeting, the examiner reported on the interview, 'He has all the qualifications for a fine missionary. First, I tested him on self- denial, making him arrive at my home at five in the morning. He left a warm bed on a snowy morning without any complaint. Second, I tested him on promptness. He arrived on time. Third, I examined him on patience. I made him wait three hours to see me. Fourth, 1 tested him on temper. He failed to show any anger or aggravation. Fifth, I tried his humility by asking him questions that a seven-year-old child could answer, and he showed no indignation. So you see, I believe the candidate meets the requirements. He will make the fine missionary we need."
Maybe you'll find you're being tested this week - for your self-denial, your temper, your humility. May the Lord keep you strong and help you prove you are His by your grace seen and heard in your speaking and your conduct. Let's pray.