Return to Sermon Archive
January 17, 1999
Bible Study 09/18/02
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
by Tony Grant
Architect Mies Van der Rohr said "God is in the details." If that is so, then the Devil keeps an itemized list. Hard life-lessons teach that the longer the list of "options added" or "luxuries included" the more carefully we need to check out what it is we are getting and getting into.
Remember the last time you visited the new car lots? Remember those long lists with their roll calls of goodies stuck on the side window? Those specially added "options" usually include windshield wipers, carpeting, horn, radio. Even integral parts of the engine itself are sometimes separated out and added as featured details to make the list look more substantial.
Once burned, we become suspicious about flowery language and gushing promises. If we are renting a vacation house for a family get-away, the longer the list, the more careful we are. Is this "beach house" actually on a beach? Or is it on a busy street leading to the beach but a mile away from the water? Does "rustic mountain lodge" translate into "no modern appliances and an outhouse instead of a bathroom"? We have been trained by the Devil's long lists not to trust the details. We learn early in life that if small things are highlighted, then something big must be missing.
In today's lesson, however, the apostle Paul refuses to get caught up in the game of listing detail after detail in order to reveal the presence and power of God in the Corinthian community. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul is dealing with some thorny situations in the Corinthian church. Instead of simply identifying himself by name, Paul adds personal qualifications to denote his authority. His official designation "apostle" was granted "by the will of God." He includes also the name of another follower alongside his own. In Acts 18:17, a "Sosthenes" is mentioned as an officer in the Jewish synagogue in Corinth. Although no definitive evidence suggests that this is the same individual, perhaps he is, and Paul is reminding the Corinthian church that he has close connections with Corinth and with that church.
Paul's careful theological vocabulary of words and images is evident in his use of the term ecclesia ("church" or "assembly") and in his designation of these Corinthians as standing among those who are "in Christ Jesus." Among first century Greeks, ecclesia was essentially a political term, most commonly used to designate an assembly of citizens of a Greek city-state (polis). Ecclesia was also used by Greek-speaking Jews as a reference both to individual synagogues and to the wider identity of Israel itself as the covenant people of God. By referring to the Corinthian believers as an ecclesia or an "assembly of God" which stands, as he says in v2, "together with all those ... in every place," Paul's language intentionally draws the Corinthians' attention away from their own internal factions and quarrels.
Further, Paul's reference to these believers as being "in Christ" stresses the communal component of their faith identity. The Corinthians are both "sanctified in Christ" and "called to be saints" because they are joined together as part of the baptized community. The work of Christ's sacrifice was to transform confessed believers from their individual identities as sinners to a new communal identity as "saints."
In the formal salutation in verse 3, Paul extends his hope for "grace" as well as "peace" to this strife-torn community. "Grace" is the quintessential sign of God's appearance and activity in the Hebrew Scriptures. Taken together, "grace" and "peace" speak of the new state of salvation now made available to all who confess Christ and believe.
Verse 4 begins the thanksgiving section. Anticipating arguments over various types of spiritual gifts, Paul emphasizes here the greatest gift, the gift that goes before all others: the gift of grace itself. Grace is freely given by God through Jesus Christ. God is grace. But God transmits grace to believers through channel of Christ.
Believers experience this grace as a mystical state, but this mystical state produces tangible gifts. In verse 5, Paul skillfully puts the special gifts enjoyed--but much argued over--by the Corinthians in a positive light. Here at the very beginning of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul lauds these gifts of "knowledge" (gnosis) and "speech" (logos) but he adds that we should always remember the true source of all spiritual giftswhich is Christ himself. The Corinthians themselves are merely the grateful recipients of these "gifts of grace" (charismata).
At the outset of this letter, Paul is careful to avoid fueling the flames of pride and boasting about spiritual gifts that have spread like wildfire throughout the church. The apostle specifies that the riches enjoyed by the Corinthians are "in him" (v5)--that is, "In Christ Jesus." They are not due to any human acts or abilities.
In v6, Paul continues to commend the Corinthian church for what it has received from God. The "testimony of Christ"--that is the gospel news upon which the church is founded--has also been confirmed or strengthened as it flourishes within the faith community. The strength of the gospel is reflecteed by the strength of the church body it resides within.
Verse 7 emphasizes that the Corinthians are "not lacking in any spiritual gift," but these gifts are only present by virtue of being "in Christ." Paul pointedly reminds these believers that the full expression of these gifts will come about only at the time of Christ's return. Paul's unusual use of the term "revelation" (NRSV "for the revealing") here emphasizes his eschatological outlook. The spirit now at work is only a portent of the future. Paul clarifies that the here and now possession of spiritual gifts does not mean the the end of the age as arrived. As impressive as they seem, part of Paul's thankfulness is that these are only tokens and symbols of what is yet to come.
Again in verse 8, Paul refers to the end that waits in the future--"on the day of our Lord." Only on that "day" may we finally look forward to being proclaimed as "blameless" by Christ, who will act as divine Judge. Until "that day" of final judgment, however, all believers exist entirely by the grace of God.
Paul concludes this thanksgiving section by reminding the Corinthians once more that their identity is communal. They have been "called" to become part of a unique relationship, a "fellowship" with "Jesus Christ our Lord." Only God's abiding, amazing grace makes possible this invitation to join a covenant community that belongs to God.
Belonging to this community carries with it an obligation to be holy. The true church of God contains all those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus. The true church contains those called to be saints, and who call upon Christ as God manifest in the flesh. The true church acknowledges and obey Christ as Lord of all. A Christian is someone who dares not live without prayer; and who lives by the name of Christ. Observe how often in these verses the apostle repeats the words, "Our Lord Jesus Christ." Paul does not think that he can mention Christ too frequently. To all who call upon Christ, the apostle gives his usual salutation, desiring, in their behalf, the pardoning mercy, sanctifying grace, and comforting peace of God. Sinners have no peace with God, but Christians do. Paul then gives thanks for the grace given to the Corinthians by Jesus Christ. Christ had enriched them with all spiritual gifts, and they will be kept by his power until he returns in glory.
When Paul speaks of their spiritual giftedness, he mentions only two gifts by name: "speech and knowledge." Even then, and even though these are wonderful gifts, he generalizes them as being "of every kind" (v. 5). The next time Paul emphasizes spiritual gifts he uses even less specific language. In fact, instead of itemizing a positive list of the Corinthian gifts, he offers a sweeping negative as proof of God's unbounded grace. You are, Paul asserts, "not lacking in any spiritual gift" (v. 7).
Would your suspicious nature allow you to buy a car whose side-window sticker read only "not lacking anything"? Would you pack up your family for a vacation jaunt to a place advertised simply as "not lacking anything"? Would you relocate to a new community and start a new life based on the Chamber of Commerce's insistence that the area was "not lacking anything"?
Our need for details, particulars and proof makes us demand more information yet leaves us feeling that we still lack something. Paul insists that as confessed believers gathered together "in Christ" we are already "lacking in nothing." Paul promises that we have at our disposal all that we could ever possibly need to live a life filled with hope and strength and power.
But if we really lack nothing, why do we lack? Why do we feel so acutely that so much is missing from our life, our career, our community, our church?
There is an old joke about the man who finished a meal in a restaurant. "Waiter!" he called out. "Waiter, first of all, the food here was absolutely vile! Second, the portions were too small." The man did not like the food but he wanted more of it. Many people are the same. We complain endlessly about this and that, but want our fill of it.
Or, we may have a lot of success and be unhappy with it. Victoria Husted Medvec, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, has done research on the Olympics that shows that silver medalists are less happy with their success, less satisfied with their performance, than bronze medalists. In other words, sometimes those who achieve more feel less worthy, feel worse about their achievement. "Silver medalists think about what might have been," Medvec says. "Bronze medalists think about how lucky they are to have a medal at all." [As quoted in Fast Company, June/July 1998, 144.]
We use our feeling of lacking to paralyze our service to God. We say, If I just had more time, If I just had more money, If I just had more power, If I just had more confidence, If I just had more influence, then I could really be something for God.
But, our problem is not that we are lacking. Our problem is not that we need things that we do not have. Our problem is that we have things that we do not know we have.
In James 1: 4, we are told that we should be "mature and complete, lacking in nothing." This is the bold promise of the scripture. It is a promise that no ordinary human being would dare to give. We are not called to be poor week sinful creatures. As Christians, we are called to be "mature and complete, lacking in nothing."
The grace of God, the gift of salvation, has been handed to us on a silver platter called the cross. The problem is not God's giving. The problem is our receiving. We are so busy worrying about checking an itemized list to see what we have that we are incapable of comprehending that we already have it all.
Eternal life, grace and peace, the love of God, the power of Christ--life's ultimate riches are all ours for the taking. "It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom," Luke 12:32 reads. Our problem is a receiving problem: We have not learned how to receive the immeasurable riches of God's grace.
At some time every little kid on a shopping trip with Mom is taught the lesson: "Keep your hands to yourself; don't touch anything." Some parents teach their children to put their hands in their pockets or clasp them behind their backs when they enter a store with expensive and breakable items sitting around. Unfortunately, most of us take this lesson too much to heart. As people of faith we have to unlearn this hands-off, don't-touch attitude. The Lord of the Universe has graced us with a superabundance of gifts. But we must be open to receiving them. We must be able to reach out our hands and accept what God would deposit in them, what God would put at our disposal.
Too often we have a cramp in our grasp that keeps us from opening our hands to receive what is already there, what is already ours. Here are some suggestions to help us receive what God offers so that we are "lacking in nothing."
Let go of what your hands are squeezing. When God offers us gold, we have to let go of the brass baubles we may have already managed to scrape together. Letting go of something inferior to claim a gift of superior quality doesn't sound like it should be difficult. But for most of us, emptying our hands of our petty prizes, emptying our pockets of tawdry treasures is a tough exercise.
If we are holding tightly to a way of life just because it is familiar; if we are clutching a conviction that money is the ultimate safety net; if our hands are filled with lists of things "to do" so that we don't have to think about what we have become: Let's open our hands and let all this dross drift through our fingers. We cannot receive what God offers us until we can let go of relationships, attitudes, dependencies, that are destructive, that suck out our strength and our love without ever helping rebuild our reserves.
Open your fist clenched from fear. When Paul asserts to the Corinthians that they are "lacking in nothing," the lack of detail in that statement is enough to make many of us clam up with fear. As long as our hands are clenched together, we believe we are safe from any unknown surprises dropping into them.
In his inaugural address, Nelson Mandela spoke about how fearful we are about living a life that is "lacking in nothing." Mandela asserted that:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in everyone, and, as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
Take your hands out of your pockets. Hands in the pockets is the posture of those who would keep the world away by keeping away from the world. With our hands stuffed in our pockets, our mothers knew we were safe from accidentally knocking anything off a shelf. But if we continue to keep our hands in our pockets, we also will never feel the soft, cuddly fur of a stuffed animal, or feel the scratchy stiffness of a starfish. If we are to "lack nothing," we must reach out to holy mysterious God.
The promise that we will lack nothing means God intends our lives to be full, not flat; fluid, not stagnant; surprising, not boring. The promise that we will be "lacking in nothing" does not mean that we will be in total control at all times. Our first identity is as one who is "in Christ." Thus, Christ is in control. The promise is though that if we hold out our hands to Christ, he will fill them with the richest spiritual blessings and we will be lacking in nothing. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 09/18/02