Commentary: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
The readings for the Second Sunday of the year highlight the relationship between Jesus the "servant" (first reading) or "lamb of God" (Gospel) and those who recognize him, namely the community of Israel (first reading) or the first disciples (Gospel). As with the baptism account on the previous Sunday, the emphasis falls on the announcement of Jesus' mission and the faith that it summons from all to whom it is revealed.
At the same time, the lectionary begins the reading of Paul's first letter to Corinth as a complimentary but separate theme. During the coming weeks it will unfold Paul's detailed dialogue with one of his most prominent local churches about every facet of daily Christian behavior. In this, it is the fitting partner to the reading of Matthew, which is widely recognized as the gospel most concerned with the daily life of Christian communities. The opening lines of 1 Corinthians convey exactly this warm spirit of a local church's koinonia, or sense of community in Christ, that will set the tone for the Sundays to come.
Elements of Structure
Paul is writing a letter. Although he has expanded it into an essay on Christian life, it still contains all the normal elements of a Greek letter of the first century. Just as it ends with the combination of a standard summary, greetings to local people, and a farewell blessing, so it begins with the regular two-part greeting and blessing prayer for the recipient. The greeting includes the names of both the sender and the one addressed, and its salutation, "grace and peace to you," is very common in all ancient letters. It is the equivalent of "Hello," but here the readers understand its Christian depth in that it comes as a blessing from God and the Lord Jesus.
This is followed by the blessing prayer or "thanksgiving" for the recipients. Although the Catholic lectionary ends with the greeting in verses 1-3, the other churches include properly the prayer for the Corinthians in verses 4-9 as an extension of the greeting. In fact, Paul gives thanks precisely for the grace that has come to this church and for their faithfulness and blamelessness that will assure peace in the community. Because this will be a very important letter of Paul outlining his basic positions on a multitude of issues, both greeting and thanksgiving are much more extensive than in typically newsy secular letters.
Message and Exegesis
Paul opens this letter by asserting his authority as an apostle, as he does in almost all of his correspondence. We can note immediately that he does not believe his authorization to write comes from the people of Corinth, but from God's delegation. Yet Paul does not act alone. Here, as elsewhere, he includes his associates and fellow workers, in this case Sosthenes. Perhaps this is the same Sosthenes who was the Synagogue official beaten for failing to convict Paul before the tribune in Corinth in Acts 18:1-17. If so, he became a convert and either joined Paul's apostolic mission to preach the Gospel or became one of Paul's delegated leaders of the local church at Corinth.
In verse 2, Paul names the recipient. It is the church of God which is in Corinth. It is a local church, but it is also part of the larger church, the saints everywhere who believe in Jesus and call upon his name. The idea of the community as a holy people comes from the Old Testament proclamation that God called Israel and set them apart as a "holy people"(Ex 19:5-6; 22:31; Lev 19:1). As a result, Israel called upon the name of the Lord (Ps 14:4; 18:3). In turn the early church identified their new covenant in Jesus by being those who were known by the name of Jesus (Acts 11:26); were saved in his name (Acts 4:12); baptized in his name (Acts 10:48); and prayed, taught, and worked miracles in his name (Acts 3:6; 4:18; 7:59). Finally, three times in verses 2-3, Paul calls Jesus the "Lord."Jesus' Lordship, derived from that of God the creator and Lord of all the world in the Hebrew Scriptures, further confirms that Corinth is to consider itself as one part of the entire church and not become isolated or arrogant in its self-esteem.
The prayer of thanks pointedly notes the Corinthian gift of speech and "knowledge." Their pride in both has led to the dissensions and claims for special insight which have forced Paul to write this letter to correct them and remind them that their knowledge must come from God and be in line with what Paul as an apostle has taught them. Their special "wisdom" will be the subject of Paul's rebuke in chapters 2-4, and their "gifts" will be the subject of chapters 12-14. They are reminded here in the blessing that they have indeed received the strength and the ability to be faithful from their faith in God revealed in Jesus and by being part of the community in Jesus. But as Paul will soon make clear, they must put it into action by trusting in the Gospel and not in their own ideas and special privilege.
That same theme of trust in God's word also stands at the center of both the servant passage of Isaiah 49 and of the Gospel proclamation of Jesus as the "lamb of God' who saves us through obedience.