Preaching 1 Corinthians through Epiphany

wisemen_17(Creative Commons Image by Waiting for the Word on Flickr)

The star that led the sages to the Christ child was at once part of the natural world and a wonder. The weeks after the Epiphany call us to notice the wonder of God-with-us in our everyday lives.

There is nothing more ordinary than followers of the Way encountering bumps in the road, and there is no church more famous for their bumpy ride than “the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). During the Sundays after the Epiphany in Revised Common Lectionary Year A, the epistle readings invite us to tag along after the Corinthians with an eye out for the light of Christ. The readings provide an opportunity to consider a series of questions that accompany attempts to be part of a church together.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Why not go it alone? After the second or third conversation in which Marilyn has told me that her “church” is the forest and her devotional practice is hiking, I begin to wonder. I don’t think it is that the grandeur of the mountains pulls her from the Sunday assembly. It is more that she sees at church people who are at least as needy as she is and who are bound to be a disappointment to her. Better to go it alone.

I do not dispute that the mountains are more impressive and less often disappointing than the saints in Corinth or in our little mountain town. Like the Corinthians, we are caught in games of weighing and measuring self-importance. Like Paul, we are quick to perceive slights and we worry too much. Still, Corinth’s rag-tag community of sinner/saints, like the one we are a part of, offers a testimony to Christ, and for that Paul is grateful. Grace — God’s unearned favor, freely given — shapes that flawed and fractious group. Because of that grace, the same Christian community that is a burden is also strength and joy.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18.

Do I belong? It is possible to go through life forever concerned that “one of these things is not like the other.” Many of us are pretty sure we are the thing that is out of place, but it can work the other way as well: sometimes we daydream about how much better our street would be without few particularly troublesome residents. Brushing aside all of the ways the Corinthians are imagining their own belonging, or not, in the same group, Paul reminds them that whatever else is different about them, they belong to — and in — Christ. None of the things that divide them say as much about them as does the death and resurrection of Christ (see also “the message of the cross” in 1 Corinthians. 1:18). Baptism is the external sign — then and now — of being in Christ together. 

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

What the what? This was often Liz Lemon’s question in 30 Rock. One might say something similar with the words, “What the heck?” Or “What on earth is happening?” The reading from 1 Corinthians focuses on the difference between the cross and the wisdom of the world. This reading is about looking for the light of the Epiphany star and finding it in God’s choice of weak, foolish, and despised things and people.

1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Does anything make sense? The short answer to this question from 1 Corinthians 2 is, “No,” or at least, “Things don’t make sense the way you think they should.” Paul contrasts the “spirit of the world” with “the Spirit that is from God” (2:12), and points out that the two spirits seem to work in opposite directions. Last week, we focused on how the cross upends expectations about status among humans. This week, we consider how the Spirit defies our expectations about where true wisdom is found. God has granted those in Christ the mind of Christ, a collective imagination for acting not out of concern for status but out of love (see also 1 Corinthians 13).

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

What does it mean to lead? The retired executives in the church think their pastor should be more of a chief executive. Those worried about the advancing median age of the congregation want someone “reaching out” to families with young children. The people who always come to Bible studies want more Bible studies.

Even a leader as eager to please as Paul knows that the search to be, or to call, the perfect leader is silly. In chapter 12 of this letter, he will talk about the same Spirit giving different gifts, all for the building up of the body of Christ. In chapter 3, he lays the groundwork for that argument, declaring that the most important thing to say about the leaders of the church is not anything about the leaders at all. The most important thing is this: “God gave the growth.” Leaders are servants of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Are we enough? There have always been flashy congregations and boring ones. The flashy ones these days have more tattoos than the boring ones. In years past, the flashy congregations were the ones with more executives, college professors, and chamber music.

When Paul tells the Corinthians, “You people are God’s temple,” he is declaring that their flashiness (or not) as a congregation has nothing to do with the knowledge, spirit, wisdom, or leaders they seem so invested in and divided by. Even though they look like a mishmash of fussy eaters and party animals, hyper-intellectuals mixed in with those enthralled by the charisma of good speakers, the things that divide the Corinthians do not define them.

The news here is about discovering that what you so badly wanted to earn is already yours. The Christians in Corinth are together a temple of the Holy Spirit, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. All things are theirs, and they are Christ’s. All things are yours, too: your congregation (with or without body ink or the occasional string quartet) is a place God has chosen to be and a temple from which God will share with the whole world the unifying, renewing Spirit of Christ crucified and risen.