God is Faithful
Rev. Doug Goodwin
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
University Hill United Church : Sun, January 20, 2008
This is such a great positive, text. There is nothing negative here, not a dark word or hint that anything might be wrong, that there might be trouble anywhere. It begins with a blessing, moves on to thanks, points out gifts and strengths, and ends in promise and confidence. I made a list of all the positive words that appear; this is just some of them: peace, grace, saints, thanks, enriched, knowledge, strengthened, spiritual gifts, blameless, faithful, fellowship… never mind all those other references to God and Jesus Christ. The text overflows with just about anything positive and good that Paul can think of. If we just had these few verses to tell us about the church in Corinth, we would conclude that it was pretty well heaven on earth. But we have 16 more chapters in I Corinthians… but we don’t need anywhere near that many to discover that the church in Corinth was very far from anything resembling heaven. In fact, it was pretty troubled. In fact, it resembled us. In the very next verse, verse 10, Paul’s tone changes from praise to pleading: “I appeal to you, sisters and brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: agree among yourselves and avoid divisions! I have been told that there have been quarrels among you….” And for the rest of the letter Paul tackles one major, destructive issue after another, all of them things the Corinthians had been fighting about, dividing up over: choosing different leaders to follow, sexual practices that folk didn’t see eye to eye on; suing one another; eating food that had been consecrated for idols. They divided up over marriage – check out chapter 7… and whether the minister should be paid or not; whose skills were most needed and honoured by the church; what happens when you die… You get the idea. This was a church divided. This was a church badly divided. This was a church that no matter how smart people were or how hard they tried or how many of the right books they read or how right they tried to be… they just couldn’t get along. They were divided and fighting. No surprise there, I guess, when you look at Christian history. No surprise, either, when you look a bit closer to home. They sound just a wee bit too familiar. And that is why these first nine verses of the letter to the Corinthians appear as a shock. In the midst of a church divided, among a people who can find a hundred reasons to fight, we hear one of the most loving, generous, gracious approaches in all of scripture. Right when anyone in their right mind would expect chastisement and anger, discipline and condemnation, we hear of grace and spiritual gifts abounding. It may be that Paul knows that you are best heard when you start with compliments – you know, butter up the crowd, get them to trust you… then let them have it. But he doesn’t always do that. He can start off pretty straight when he wants to – just read his letter to the Galatians. And if we read carefully, we begin to notice something pretty interesting, and I think central, even crucial, in these verses. The church isn’t really being complimented. There isn’t a line in there that says, “you did” or “you made” or “you achieved.” Did you notice? The language is very careful and, I think, very deliberate. It is all “you were sanctified”; “you were called”; “the grace given you”; “you have been enriched”; “you will be strengthened”; “you will be blameless.” Can you hear the difference? We hear all these positive things not because the church has achieved them earned them, made them. The church receives them. The church is not the doer of good things; the church is the recipient of good things. Paul looks at a church that at minimum is deeply troubled and, perhaps more accurately, almost dysfunctional. And he gives thanks and praise… not for what the church is or has done but because God is faithful. God is faithful. We hear a hymn of praise and thanks right here in the midst of trouble… because God is faithful. God calls, God sanctifies, God strengthens, God gives, God “graces”… God is faithful. Not faithful because we are faithful. Not faithful because somehow we got it all figured out and finally adopted the right theology and began the right programs and hired the right people and finally got the landscaping finished. God is not faithful because we measure up. That is the remarkable, and perhaps even startling thing, here. It is not to the perfect that God turns; it is to the sinners. And this is right up front, right at the beginning. This is the vision and truth that not only shapes this letter but everything we know about God’s relationship to the church: God is faithful. Look around; you won’t see it unless you hear it first – God is faithful. But now that you have heard it, see it. Know it. Use it as a lens you see through. You are not putting on rose-coloured glasses; you are not putting a bright spin on something dark. You are looking through the eyes of a God who is faithful, who isn’t sitting way up there, somewhere aloof and distant, pointing out good and bad, success and failure, accepting only those the rest of the world deems acceptable while rejecting all those everyone knows is bad. You are looking through the lens of One who came amongst us and dwelt amongst us, lived, breathed, laughed, cried, amongst us; was baptised like us; who died amongst us, like us. Before you look any further when you walk into this congregation – or any congregation anywhere – before you look at your family and pass judgement; before you look at your own life and fall into depression or defensiveness – look through the eyes of the One who is faithful, who calls, saves, strengthens, gives gifts more than we need, long before we could ever be said to be deserving. When faced by a people enmeshed in trouble, we hear Paul go direct to the centre of the gospel first and foremost, because no matter what the trouble we are in, our own, that surrounding us, that which frustrates us or captures us or dominates us, no matter what we face – God is faithful and is even there, here, now, at work. God is at work… even when we don’t even know what good work looks like. Paul will get at, in a very direct way, all those troubles plaguing the Corinthian church. He doesn’t just talk about God and leave it at that. This is one of his longest letters, and one of two to this congregation. He doesn’t just say, “God loves you so be good now.” He jumps into the fray, and has some pretty harsh things to say at times as he does. Troubles need to be addressed. But it matters where you start, and it matters whom you see at work, and it matters where your hope lies. And today at least as we hear this text it is clear: we start with praise and thanks, with acknowledgement of the multitude of gifts God has given, and with the fact that the faithful One has not ever lost faith but is even here and now at work: at work calling, as usual: calling you and me and our neighbour and those beside us in classes or at work or at our kitchen table, calling us to a life of passionate discipleship to the One who lays down his life for others; at work sanctifying, that is, calling apart, setting aside for a particular purpose, not just to survive day to day but set aside to ensure the whole world, starting right here, knows the God filled with grace and peace; at work setting aside so-called saints, who are simply – but profoundly – those who know God’s grace and therefore radiate God’s grace; at work enriching the church with every gift, and those in abundance. Look around, now or at coffee, at this plethora of gift; at work strengthening, for God knows we need it, and no matter how many plans we have or how good we are at getting things done or how much money and other resources we may have, and no matter how good our intentions and our desires and our dreams, we need God’s strengthening. It is a long journey; like the Israelites we need manna on the way. I am not telling you God is at work here because I want you to feel good. I am not telling you because I have such good insight and can see what you cannot see. I am telling you this because it is so. It is not up to me; it is not up to you; it is not up to us. It is up to God. So, as simply and as directly as I can, with no interpretation: hear God’s word for us: “God will strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful.” Thanks be to God. Amen.