When we read 1 Corinthians, we are quite literally reading someone else's mail--in this case, a letter sent in 55 A.D. by Paul to "the church of God that is in Corinth" from Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8), a few years after he had founded the church (see Acts 18:1-17).
Corinth was a city strategically located on a high plateau at the western end of the Isthmus of Corinth, a four-mile wide strip of land that joined the mainland of Greece to the Peloponnesus, a big bulge of land that sticks out into the Mediterranean Sea. In Paul's day, it controlled trade conducted both on the road that passed by it and (especially) via sea at its two sea ports (one to its north, the other to its south). It was a thriving economic center inhabited by people from all over the Mediterranean world. Like port cities throughout history, the city also had a reputation for vice, so much so that some wag coined the verb korinthiazesthai, which meant "to fornicate." While reputations can be overblown, it is probably the case that Corinth suffered from the moral challenges that characterize many port cities with lots of money and transient populations, many of whom were far from home.
The reading for this Sunday includes the salutation (1:1-3) and the thanksgiving (1:4-9) of the letter, both standard parts of ancient letter form. It is meant to set table for a letter intended to challenge the church at Corinth to live faithfully in the context of a city (and a broader culture) that made living faithfully before God difficult. Indeed, the letter addresses a variety of issues that were troubling the fractured church of God at Corinth. Divisions within the community were evident in many particulars of the community's life, including, for instance, adherence to different human leaders (see 1:10-17), different judgments about what Paul saw as the scandalous sexual behavior of a significant person in the church (5:1-13), members of the church suing one another in public courts (6:1-8), the unequal treatment of people of higher and lower status at the celebration of the common meal (11:17-22), and different judgments about the gifts of the Spirit and practices in community worship (12:1-14:40).
At the beginning of what will turn out to be a sometimes difficult letter that deeply challenges his Corinthian audience, Paul reminds the church of things that God has done for them. First, God has called them. They have been "sanctified [by God] in Christ Jesus, called [by God] to be saints." The words "sanctified" and "saints" (or "holy ones") are related words in Greek, both of which refer to the theme of holiness that pervades scripture. To be "holy" is to be set apart from worldly things for a special, divine purpose. Holiness is practical, and shapes all aspects of the way "saints" live. Throughout the Old Testament, God desires that Israel be different from the peoples around them and engage in practices and locate themselves within a narrative that marks that difference. It's the same in the New Testament, in which the church is called to be different from the culture that surrounds us. Later in the passage, Paul notes that the church at Corinth is called not only "out" of the world, but "into" community: they were "called into the fellowship of [God's] son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (1:9). Faithfulness, it seems, is a team sport that requires the unity of the church.
Not only have the Corinthians been called to holiness and community, they have also been equipped extravagantly for the task. They have been given the grace of God (1:4). They have been enriched in Christ (1:5). The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among them (1:6). They are not lacking in spiritual gifts (1:7, an ironic claim, given the problems Paul points out in their experience of the gifts in chapter 12). As can be seen in even a cursory reading of 1 Corinthians, being set apart for God and toward each other has been and remains difficult for the Corinthians. But God has given them the means to those ends. And Paul expects them to use that means.
A final important part of this passage is the context in which both the call and the equipping of the Corinthians makes sense: it is an eschatological context. That's the point of 1:7, 8, in which Paul notices that they "(eagerly) await the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ," and that God "will strengthen [them] until the end so that [they] may be blameless on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ." Paul thinks that the common life of the church at Corinth makes sense especially when it is seen as pointing toward the eschatological presence of Christ, and that this eschatological hope has ethical ramifications for the church. In light of the approaching day of the Lord Jesus Christ, God strengthens them, helping them to be blameless.
The trick in reading someone else's mail--in this case, that of the Corinthians--profitably, is finding points of contact between ourselves and those people in a far away place and long ago time. In spite of the obvious points of discontinuity between us and them (e.g., time, distance, culture, etc.), there are many points of continuity. The church in our day (or in our town), like that in Corinth, has been called by God. We, like the Corinthians, have been extravagantly equipped for faithful living. We, like the Corinthians, live in the midst of a culture that makes faithfulness a moral and intellectual challenge. We, like the Corinthians, are (or ought to be) committed to the truth and life-shaping power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which puts our lives in the world into a context that helps faithful living make sense. And we, like the Corinthians (sigh!), routinely fall short of the expectations of the Gospel and need to be called to greater and more difficult (and perhaps more creative) faithful living.
Today's passage is a hopeful one that emphasizes God's call and provision, and assumes that it is, indeed, possible to live a sanctified life in the middle of an unsanctified culture. This is a good message for the season of Epiphany, in which Christians celebrate the revealing of Christ to the world.