Preaching 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Think of a church where the governing boards are at war with one another, the generations cannot stand each other's music, there is flagrantly unethical behavior among some of the members, various groups think they have the true gospel while the others do not, the spiritual credentials of the clerical leadership are in doubt among the members, and when they gather for church suppers they group themselves in little cliques, never passing a dish to share. Get such a church clearly in mind, and then picture yourself called in as a consultant to straighten out this mess.
Where would you begin, what would be the first thing you would tell these people about their corporate life? Would you start with an analysis of group dynamics, with material about the relationship of group to leadership, with theories of why any group of people can become a dysfunctional system? These all are possibilities, and they often provide invaluable insight in untangling a knotted web of twisted powers and bitter resentments.
But none of this is where Paul starts his letter to the church at Corinth. Later in the letter he will name things as they are and call people bluntly to account for their wretched behavior and attitudes. He will identify how people have to change the way they treat one another, and he will attempt to inspire them to those transformations through some of the most sublime passages about love and life and death that were ever penned. All of this is coming. But it is not the start of the letter.
The letter begins neither with accusation nor analysis nor exhortation. It begins with a greeting, an astonishing greeting that describes the Corinthians as "those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints." The two underlined words both come from the same root, hagios, "holy," so that the effect in Greek is literally "those who have been made holy in Christ Jesus called to be holy ones." That is a lot of holiness in one brief line. Recall now to whom this is being applied: that messed up, dysfunctional church that we just finished describing. What is Paul up to, ascribing all this holiness to this cantankerous, conflicted conglomerate of Corinthians?
how they have been "enriched" in Christ and promising that Christ will strengthen them so that at the last day they will be "blameless." Corinth, that distorted, crazy church: blameless? No way!
No way, unless you understand that for Paul the starting point is not the human mess of the Corinthian congregation, but rather what God has done in Christ, the God, who as Paul says in verse 9, "is faithful." Because Paul begins with the grace and peace and faithfulness of God, he is able to see the church for what it is, not just the perfectly obvious mess, but the sublime and mysterious reality that is already fully present in the congregation.
I imagine a sermon entitled What Is Right with the Church. It would name exactly those qualities that Paul names in this passage. The sermon would not exhort people to live this way or command them to do it. The description would be, like Paul's, entirely in the indicative voice, indicating this is a reality already achieved in Christ. The whole sermon would be an effort to give the congregation a positive image of themselves as the corporate body of Christ. And it could be presented as a prelude and motif for sermons in the coming weeks that will be looking at those passages where Paul names with candor all the distortions of this holy reality.
In short, Paul gives us in this salutation a theology of the church that can serve as a pastoral strategy for facing up to our own distortions and dysfunctions. To see each other as saints, as ones made holy by God who will find us blameless at the last day is to call us here and now to be and act as the new creation that God has made us through the grace of Jesus Christ.
Thomas H. Troeger