For this Sunday and the following four Sundays, the Revised Common Lectionary offers us continuous readings of 1st Corinthians that begin with 1:1 and conclude with 3:9. Since Paul intended his epistle to be read aloud as a whole, consider taking the time between now and the Transfiguration of the Lord to preach through this first section of 1st Corinthians.
In the greeting and introductory remarks that comprise our text, it is easy to overlook that Paul is writing to the church at Corinth because of a whole host of problems there. The Christians at Corinth have divided themselves into a number of factions based on various itinerant teachers who have come among them, Paul being one. A member of the church is in an incestuous relationship with his step-mother. There are flagrant abuses when they gather for Communion, with some getting drunk and others going without, which further divides the Corinthians along lines of rich and poor.
But before Paul launches into enumerating and reproving these various problems, he begins with thanksgiving. He “gives thanks to [his] God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1:4). Paul’s beginning place is not human sin among the Corinthians but God who is at work among them nevertheless. While there is plenty of blame to go around, Paul firmly believes that God “will also strengthen [the Corinthians] to the end, so that [they] may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8). Why does Paul believe this? Because despite the Corinthians’ faithlessness, “God is faithful” (1:9a). There is nothing among the Corinthians that is beyond God’s redeeming grace.
What is left out of view from the bounds of our passage is what Paul sees as essential to this work of God in the world: the cross. Paul states that his ministry is primarily “to proclaim the gospel, not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1:17). The proclamation of Christ crucified is the power of gospel. It is how people turn from sin and death and to this faithful God revealed in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). So as you contemplate your sermon for this week based on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, ensure that the cross is central to your proclamation.
There are at least two themes within this text that a sermon could focus on: the faithfulness of God and sanctification.
Paul concludes our passage and will pivot to addressing the Corinthians’ divisions in verse 10 with stating: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9). God is faithful because, as the United Methodist communion liturgy puts it, “When we turned away, and our love failed, your love remained steadfast.” Through Jesus Christ crucified and risen, God has revealed that God is for us even in our captivity to sin and death. God has not abandoned God’s creation or humanity. Rather God has entered into creation and into our humanity in Jesus Christ in order to decisively deal with our sin and our death so that we might live eternally with God. For more on how Paul understands the gospel in 1st Corinthians, look at chapter 15.
A sermon on God’s faithfulness could boldly claim that this is who God is, despite our own faithfulness. Despite all the problems the church at Corinth is having, God is still at work among them. God is still faithful to them. Despite whatever problems your congregation (or you yourself are having), God is faithful to you all as well. It would help in such a sermon to guide people into understanding that “you” throughout 1 Corinthians is plural, better captured in English by “y’all.” By God “y’all were called into fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Because God’s faithfulness is about God’s desire to establish a people, a community, who reflects to the world who God is. While yes God is faithful to us individually, those of us in Western and North American contexts must work hard against the tendency to individualize and privatize the gospel of Jesus Christ. God is faithful to us and to this fellowship called Church. It is only in the context of being part of the Church, Christ’s body on earth, that God is faithful to us individually.
Another theme present in this text is sanctification. God is not distant, aloof, or some genie to be conjured when life gets hard. God is actively at work in the life of the Corinthians so that they might be “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God’s grace is transforming the Christians at Corinth. Paul mentions a number of areas of their life together that has seen growth and sanctification: speech, knowledge, testimony of Christ, and spiritual gifts. A sermon on sanctification could begin with proclaiming who God in Christ is: faithful, at work in our lives through the power of Christ’s cross. God desires to perfect us in love. Then the sermon could move to particular practices (i.e., means of grace) that open our lives to the power of the cross and God’s transforming grace. Then it could focus on a couple of the focus areas that Paul mentions. What does growth in speech, knowledge, testimony, and spiritual gifts look like? How does someone assess where they are and how to take a concrete next step in their spiritual life and sanctification?
This passage and the subsequent ones over the next four weeks offer and opportunity for you both to explore 1st Corinthians but also help your congregation gaze inwardly at themselves as a community. God is faithful. God is at work here. Yes there are problems, but if we are willing to face them and rectify them, the power of the cross will be there to do what we cannot: overcome our sin and death.