Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
It may seem odd to preach Paul during Epiphany, when the Church customarily focuses on the explicit gospel narratives of the revelation of God in Christ.
But the sequence of readings from the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians in Year A might help a congregation widen their sense of how Christ might be revealed, not only in the first century, but through the power of their life together now, the shining out of grace through a community of ordinary people called to holiness.
Preaching vs. teaching
These opening verses of 1 Corinthians clearly demonstrate the need for a distinct approach to preaching as opposed to teaching.
- In teaching 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, it seems obvious that one would point out how the major themes of the letter are all introduced here: Paul’s desire to dampen some of the community’s enthusiasms and to re-center them on Christ, the need for a renewed commitment to practical holiness, and the transcendent framework of God’s ongoing salvation of the world, of which their life together is one part.
- But the demands of preaching bring out an equally significant aspect of Paul’s writing generally, that it is fractal-like: the whole of the gospel he wants to convey is expressed in each of the parts.
The meaning of the first nine verses of 1 Corinthians doesn’t lie outside of it, in fuller exposition of the themes; it’s right here, packed into the dense beauty of the opening greeting and thanksgiving.
The sound of salvation
There is a lot of sound in these nine verses.
- They open with Paul’s declaration of his having been called by God as an emissary (apostle) of Christ;
- they continue with God’s calling of the church to holiness (“called to be saints,” verse 2);
- with the sound of the church itself calling out the name of Christ;
- and close with God’s calling the church into partnership with Christ (verse 9).
While some theologians used to make much of the theological import of the word ekklesia (translated “church”) as signifying a people uniquely “called out” by God (the literal meaning of the word), that view has largely been dropped as it became recognized that ekklesia was a widely used term in Greco-Roman contexts for a simple assembly of citizens or their representatives, what we might call a “town hall meeting.”
Yet participants in such assemblies were customarily called out from their homes by the sound of a trumpet. Paul’s greeting to the “ekklesia of God that is in Corinth” retains within it that sense of sound reverberating from heaven to earth, calling Gentiles out from injustice, into a community of holiness.
Gentiles called into holiness
The shock value of verse 2 depends upon some awareness of the unlikelihood of Gentiles being called by God into holiness (“called to be saints”).
- The shock is lost in a present-day North American context, where the term “Gentile” is basically synonymous with being Christian, as opposed to being Jewish.
- In the first century, the definition of “Gentile,” to a Jew like Paul, was all that was other: people without a relationship with God, people without the guidance of Torah, and therefore people without a capacity for holiness and all that goes with it (justice, peace, fullness of life).
But here is the ekklesia of God in Corinth, a group of Gentiles from all levels of the social scale (1 Corinthians 1:26-29), called specifically—together—to a path of holiness in Christ.
- I have heard many a preacher or teacher give the definition of holiness as “set apart.”
- But that way of rendering the word into English is misleading. A more accurate definition might be “dedicated,” because holiness is not about putting a distance between oneself and others; it refers to being dedicated by God to a specific purpose in the world for the benefit of the whole creation.
- That sense of being dedicated to God’s purposes for one’s whole community is seen here where Paul congratulates the Corinthians for the strength of their witness (martyrion) to Christ—not in words only, but in how they treat one another, how they come together as the ekklesia of God. Their actions toward everyone they encounter are a witness to God’s desire for all to know and live in accordance with God’s justice, peace, and fullness of life.
The spillover of holiness into the wider community is also echoed by the use of charisma in verse 7.
- The NRSV renders charisma as “spiritual gift,” but again we run up against the challenges of translation. Neither the Greek word for spiritual (pneumatikos) nor the word for gift (dorea) is actually present here.
- A charisma is, literally, a “grace-thing.” It is not a gift that becomes a person’s personal property; it is not some kind of special spiritual skill.
- A charisma is the gracious power of God for fullness of life: on the move, seeking out every part of the creation where God’s grace-bestowing life is needed.
- The Corinthian church has been dedicated and empowered by God for this purpose: to bring fullness of life to their part of the creation.
This is the purpose of every church, every ekklesia of God: to be a conduit for the powerful grace of God in their place and time.
“Communal participation” in Christ
Verses 8 and 9 establish the transcendent frame for the call to holiness and grace: partnership (koinonia) with Christ, or what scholar Anthony Thistleton calls “communal participation” in Christ.1
- Interpreters of Paul often treat his letters as a compendium of ideas, and they lose the ways in which he is really always talking about and referring to experiences of God in Christ, experiences of the power of the Spirit.
- The Corinthians know the faithfulness of God not as an idea, but as a physical reality when they gather together in Christ for the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) and for prayer and song and counsel (1 Corinthians 14:1-33a, 37-40).
Today, as in first century Corinth, it is important for people to grasp the wide frame of God’s faithfulness, as we contend with issues that exceed our ability to solve in a generation: climate change, a culture of violence, division, competition for natural resources. Now, as then, our hope rests upon the concreteness of our daily partnership with Christ, our lively response to God’s call to practical holiness in our particular context, and our empowerment by grace to embody God’s love all the way to the end.
- Thistleton, Anthony. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, in
the New International Greek Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
2000). I commend this commentary as the ultimate guide to 1 Corinthians.