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Sermon for Wednesday in Pentecost 11

JesusSermon on 1 Corinthians 1:1-25

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Forgive me, but my wife and I just celebrated our wedding anniversary last weekend and so I’ve been thinking back about how we met and the many events that led up to us getting married.  Back then, I’m sure that if anyone had been listening at all to anything I was saying, her name would have kept coming up in conversations.  That’s usually the way it is with people.  They usually talk about think they are thinking about most, the thing that’s really exciting for them, the center of their thinking.

And so it is with Paul here at the beginning of his letter to the Christians in Corinth.

“If we had any doubts about what Paul was excited about, what was at the center of his thoughts and intentions, this first paragraph of one of his most varied and lengthy letters would soon put us straight. One name keeps coming up, over and over again, like a recurring theme in a symphony.  It’s good to remind ourselves where Paul’s heart lay, because we can easily read the whole letter merely as an argumentative tract, almost bossy sometimes, setting the Corinthians right about this and that, as though his only concern was to lick them into shape.

It wasn’t. Paul’s central concern, here and throughout his life and work, was quite simply Jesus. The name occurs eight times in these nine verses. Paul couldn’t stop talking about Jesus, because without Jesus nothing else he said or did made any sense. And what he wants the Corinthians to get hold of most of all is what it means to have Jesus at the middle of your story, your life, your thoughts, your imagination. If they can do that, all the other issues that rush to and fro through the letter will sort themselves out.[1]

There is a concerted effort out now by many modern scholars to drive a wedge between Paul and Jesus.  Jesus they like.  Paul not so much.  They say that Jesus teaching was wonderful but Paul took what Jesus said and went too far.  Some go so far as to say that Jesus could have never imagined “Christianity” and that it was Paul who really created something new out of Judaism.  All of this is to misread both Jesus and Paul, that is, it is reading the Gospels as Christian constructions on the foundations of the sayings of Jesus and to suggest that Jesus never really saw Himself as the Son of God.  This is a deconstruction of the core truth of Christianity and in effect negates any unique truth claims about God we Christians have putting Christianity in context with and on a par with ever other world religion.  On the contrary we believe that all of Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, speak of Christ and specifically of Christ Jesus.  There is no great divide between Paul and Jesus and those who go looking for one are usually trying to attack the apostolicity of the Christian Church.

If you want to do one thing to understand the Scriptures better, learn to read them Christologically, that is to say, learn to look for Jesus in them.

Some people love the show, Wheel of Fortune.  It’s showing its age a bit, but it’s still good fun.  For over 30 years Pat Sajak and Vanna White have hosted the show.  In fact, they’re so integral to the show, Pat and Vanna are not just the hosts but the show’s “stars.”[2]  When Pat and Vanna’s names are announced, the audience erupts in applause.  Would the show be the same without them?  I think we could argue, not.  In the same way, if you will, Jesus is the star of the Scriptures. Now you might be thinking, “Well of course, Jesus is the star, the center, perhaps more properly, of the Scriptures.”  But this is not always the case for many readers.  Take the so called scholars who are looking to drive Paul far away from Jesus.  Others forget that Jesus is the center of the Scriptures and as a result really misunderstand and often misuse the Scriptures.  Some folks read the Scriptures as if they are nothing more than a collection of ancient wisdom with lofty moral applications, a Spiritual Aesop’s Fables.  It’s very difficult to read the Scriptures that way so they have to work hard to shuck the husk and find the kernel of “God’s Word,”  the broader moral truth, which more often than not mirrors the sentiments and sensitivities of the broader society.  Any Word from God that offends popular sentiment gets treated as chaff.

Unfortunately even those who read the Bible without trying to deconstruct it can fail, too, by reading the Scriptures as a comprehensive instruction book on how to live a pious and God-pleasing life.  The B-I-B-L-E, Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.  Yuck!  Now while these folks certainly believe that Bible is true and not just a collection of old myths, the result is the same: it’s still just a book for a moral life, just old fashioned morals rather than the morals of the moment.  They are just as guilty of missing the point that the Bible is about Christ Jesus, it’s about God’s divine intervention to rescue His people, all His people, from sin and its consequences, death, it’s the revelation of God’s plan to rescue His people through His Son born into human flesh, to suffer unto death and be raised again to new life.  To read Scripture with any other goal in mind is to misread it, to misuse it, to read it apart from its center, Christ Jesus.

Paul is then writing to the Christians in Corinth.  Some of them had been raised Jewish but most it is thought had not been Jews, but ordinary ‘pagans’. They had been Gentiles, believing in various gods and goddesses, but without any idea that God had a plan to rescue people from sin and death.  Paul writes so that they might learn this lesson: that they have been caught up into the great movement of the love and power of the one true God, the God of Israel, whose work for the whole world had now been unveiled through the events concerning His Son, Jesus. Jesus is at the center of what Paul writes to the Corinthians.

In just the first 9 verses look at what this letter is about.  Paul writes to remind them that God has made them holy; He has set them aside for His own special purposes.  They are now a part of a large and growing worldwide family, brothers and sisters of everyone who “calls on the name of our Lord Jesus.”  Do you remember last week in the account of Paul on the steps of the temple?  He was addressing a large crowd of Jews there and telling them why he believed the way He did.  That the Lord Jesus appeared to Him on the Damascus road and spoke to him and appeared to him in another vision too.  And the crowd listened patiently up until the point that Paul said that God intended to include the Gentiles into the people of God.  That they could not stand and the crowd erupted in a riot.  Later at the end of the Book of Acts, Luke records much the same thing happening in Rome.  This is from the last chapter of Acts:

17 After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans. 18 When they had examined me, they wished to set me at liberty, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. 19 But because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar—though I had no charge to bring against my nation. 20 For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.” 21 And they said to him, “We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken any evil about you. 22 But we desire to hear from you what your views are, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.”

23 When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. 24 And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved. 25 And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement: “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:

26   “ ‘Go to this people, and say,

     “You will indeed hear but never understand,

and you will indeed see but never perceive.”

27   For this people’s heart has grown dull,

and with their ears they can barely hear,

and their eyes they have closed;

     lest they should see with their eyes

and hear with their ears

     and understand with their heart

and turn, and I would heal them.’

28 Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” [3]

 For Paul it is clear that the Gentiles are now part of the kingdom of God as a result of Jesus Christ coming into the world to die for sinners.  Jesus is not a Jewish Savior; He is the world’s Savior.  And so Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, as part of those newly brought into the people of God, so that they understand that Jesus is the new center for them.  And as a result of Him, every point their story is intertwined with Jesus’ story.

And so it is with you.  You who were far off, have been brought near “because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.”  Just like the Corinthians, past, present, and future, you are a people with Jesus at the center.  God has given you His ‘grace’ in Christ Jesus (verse 4). ‘Grace’ is one of those little words that contains a whole universe of meaning, summing up the fact that God loved you and acted decisively on your behalf even though you have done nothing whatever to deserve it.  The result of this ‘grace’ was that God’s riches has enriched you (verses 5, 6). You too, have become a community growing eagerly in knowledge about God and His new life, able to teach one another, and so strengthening and confirming the original royal proclamation, ‘the kingdom of God has been brought near’, that has been made to you.  God called you in the past, God equips you in the present, and God will complete the whole process on the appointed future day.  World history, and the story of the Christian life, has a shape, and Jesus is its shaper at every point.  The point of the Scriptures is Jesus.  That’s why it’s the central Christian badge or sign to ‘call on him’, to pray to the Father through him, to learn to love him, to know His friendship and love throughout our lives, to have His name always in our hearts and often on our lips.

When two or three people like that (or more!) get together, they have much to share, much in common. The early Christian word for that was koinonia something that is much watered down by today’s use of the word “fellowship”.  It’s closer to “business partnership” or even “corporation” where every part has a common purpose and shares in a common outcome.  That’s what Paul says they now enjoy: koinonia, membership in the family that has God for its faithful Father and Jesus, His unique Son, as its older brother.

This opening holds together a view of the whole world (God’s world, with Jesus at the center as its true Lord) and of the individual (called to faithful holiness, equipped for God’s service). It also brings together Paul’s task (being responsible to God for the Christian communities that have come about through his work), and his gratitude to God for what he has already done and for what he will continue until all is completed. For Paul, writing this letter, and for us, hearing this letter, is part of the process by which God intends to take us from the one to the other, from God’s past achievement to God’s future finishing of the job with Jesus permanently at the center, in Scripture and in life.  Amen.

[1] Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 1-5.

[2] Ref from 5 Things to Understand the Bible Better, p. 7ff.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ac 28:17–28.

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