1 Corinthians 1:1-19
When we read Paul’s letters in church, we tend to gloss over the first few verses. After all, reading the first few verses of a Pauline letter can feel a bit like reading the address on an envelope. But the greeting section of Paul’s letters (1:1-3) can often give us clues about Paul’s purpose in writing the letter. In 1 Corinthians, for instance, Paul proclaims that he is a “called apostle of Christ Jesus,” one who has a commission from God to proclaim the gospel. It is only in 1 Corinthians and the letter to the Romans that Paul takes the opportunity to mention that he is a “called apostle.” In other words, Paul is highlighting the fact that he did not invent the gospel that he preaches, nor did he simply decide to become an apostle; his commission comes directly from God. In the next verse, Paul highlights the fact that the Corinthians are called to be saints together with everyone who calls upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul stresses that the Corinthians should identify with everyone who has received the gospel. In these first few verses, therefore, Paul articulates that his apostleship is from God and emphasizes the unity of the Christian community.
The next few verses (1:4-9) are the thanksgiving paragraph, and are a typical part of a Pauline letter. It is easy to skim through these verses, but they serve a very important purpose. Paul generally uses the thanksgiving paragraph to set the agenda for the letter. In the case of 1 Corinthians, Paul begins his letter by giving thanks that members of the community have been “enriched” in “speech and knowledge of every kind” so that the Corinthians “are not lacking in any spiritual gift” as they wait for the coming of Christ. It’s important to know that there were members of the Corinthian community who believed that they had exceptional spiritual knowledge, and so they would have nodded approvingly when Paul mentioned that they were full of spiritual gifts. Yet, by mentioning it in this thanksgiving paragraph, Paul indicates that he wants to address the question of spiritual knowledge and gifts in this letter. We can, in other words, assume that there is a problem that needs to be resolved.
In the next section (1:10-19), Paul goes on to exhort the Corinthians not to have any divisions in their community. He explains the reason for this exhortation: some of Chloe’s people (Chloe is probably one of Paul’s co-workers), reported that there were quarrels within the Corinthian community. Apparently, members of that church had organized themselves according to which apostle had brought them the gospel. There were groups, or “apostolic parties” that said things like “We belong to Paul,” or “We belong to Apollos.” It might be helpful to think of these as political parties; we might imagine a group of Corinthians holding up a sign that says, “Local 3737 Supports Apollos.” Paul points out the ridiculousness of organizing the Christian community into parties. If Christ has not been divided, why on earth would we divide the Christian community? Paul explains that Christ did not send him to baptize but rather to proclaim the gospel. And then, he makes an important point. Paul claims that he did not proclaim the gospel with eloquent wisdom, because then the cross of Christ would have been emptied of its power. We’re left asking, “what power is he talking about?” Paul’s enigmatic answer is that to those who are perishing, the cross is foolishness (insanity is also a good translation), but to those who are being saved it is the power of God. He then quotes Isaiah 29:14, a verse from the Hebrew Scriptures that seems to indicate that God is turning the wisdom of the world on its head.
“Division has done more to hide Christ from the view of men than all the infidelity that has ever been spoken.” –George MacDonald
In George MacDonald’s succinct and eloquent summary of Paul’s point, he points to a reality that we often forget in the Church. We are often so preoccupied with discerning the “correct” interpretation of Scripture or acheiving the “right” theological perspective or honoring God with the most “appropriate” liturgical expression that we lose sight of the central mystery of our faith. Paul argues that the center of our life as a community should be the cross of Jesus Christ. We (and the Corinthians) tend to get bogged down arguing for the “correctness” of our theological or political position. We tend to focus on what we “know” to be true. And we may very well be technically “correct” when we argue for our theological positions. Our attempts to be “right” may be very faithful. Paul, however, suggests that instead of focusing on being right, we should focus on the fact of the Cross and how that has impacted our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
During Lent, it is easy to adopt a “lone ranger” mentality. It is easy to say, “This is my Lenten discipline; this is how I am going to honor God during this season of fasting and penitence.” The problem with this attitude, however, is that it prevents us from focusing on the other members of the Christian community, the other people whose lives have been changed by the cross of Christ. What Paul and George MacDonald remind us is that during our journey to the Cross during Lent, we cannot just be inwardly focused. We must walk this Lenten pilgrimage with our Christian community. We must keep in mind that we have been joined to a family of believers for whom Christ died. We must remember the power and the centrality of the Cross.