Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
The consumerist culture in which we exist tends to think of Advent as pre-Christmas, most notably with commercial Advent calendars with 24 gifts leading to Christmas. Certainly, preparing for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas is a significant part of the season, but one look at the lectionary for the first half of this season gives the Latin meaning of Advent as “coming” or “arrival” another perspective.
While the Hebrew Bible and Gospel texts in the Revised Common Lectionary are more explicit on the multiple forms of coming—in the manger, among the poor, again at the final consummation of the world—the assigned epistle readings during this season have a less obvious thematic connection.
On this First Sunday of Advent, the assigned second reading places us literally at the beginning, with the introduction of one of Paul’s early congregational letters. As a skilled rhetorician, Paul follows the rules of Greco-Roman letter-writing in this text. The verses preceding this lection are simple, noting the senders and receivers of this letter. After the standard salutation, Paul continues by greeting the congregation and giving thanks to God for the work they are doing.
Even before delving into the themes of this lection, the preacher could draw on the very genre of the text as content for preaching: just as Paul is at the beginning of his letter and setting things forth for the recipients, we too are at the beginning of a new liturgical year and preparing for what is to come. The rest of Paul’s letter (not to give away the entire story) is about how the Corinthians are (or are not) living out their faith because of the gospel; as we begin afresh the church year, we recommit ourselves to living out our faith because of the gospel.
That may be the reason the beginning of this lection has served as the beginning line of sermons, a custom with which I grew up and continue (with variations) in my own preaching. What is proclaimed in the sermon is a reminder of living this gospel life, a life that is covered in God’s grace and strengthened by Christ’s testimony.
Paul later describes what this life is—one that is free of unnecessary divisions because of the wisdom of the world, for it is “Christ crucified” (verse 23) which is the wisdom that Christians are to profess. The divisions that the Corinthian congregation were facing, and that many of our congregations are facing, originate from forgetting the centrality of this gospel message, one that is to be present in all speech and knowledge.
But what does this gospel testimony mean in the life of the Christian? While the Corinthians think that they have received all the necessary spiritual gifts because of such testimony (which they might, although Paul must remind them of the diversity of such gifts in chapter 12), Paul seems concerned that they are unsure of how to employ them in service to the beloved community. As we begin the journey of the new liturgical year, we must also lean into how we live out in word and deed the gifts we too have received.
Since the beginning of Advent focuses primarily on Christ’s second coming, this text is also a reminder that God is with us and strengthening us to the end. This text provides great comfort and a counter to images of doom and gloom that often accompany descriptions of the “end times.” This is not just “fellowship” (New Revised Standard Version) or “partnership” (New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition) but sharing in Christ, which highlights the intimacy of the beloved community.
December 3 is also the commemoration of Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuit order and a Spanish missionary who brought Christianity to Asia. While some of his practices need to be the subject of critique, he was an early adopter of inculturation and the education of local clergy. Fellow Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola wrote the following in his famous Spiritual Exercises:
God freely created us so that we might know, love, and serve Him in this life and be happy with Him forever. God’s purpose in creating us is to draw forth from us a response of love and service here on earth, so that we may obtain our goal of everlasting happiness with Him in heaven.
All the things of this world are gifts from God, created for us to be the means by which we can get to know Him better, love Him more surely, and serve Him more faithfully.
As a result, we ought to use and appreciate these gifts from God insofar as they help us toward our goal of loving service and union with God. But insofar as any created things hinder our progress towards our goal, we ought to let them go.[i]
Ignatius’ meditative text mirrors what Paul tells the Corinthians, that God has called us into a relationship of knowledge, love, and service.
As we begin this season of Advent, may we continue in this sharing in Christ, walking the gospel way, and using our spiritual gifts for the building up of the beloved community.