First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 2

William Loader

Epiphany 2  19 January  1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Paul's letters begin in a standard way, reflection conventions of the time. The standard beginning, which we might simply as, "X to Y, Hi!", expands to "Hi" to include a greeting of "grace" (charis, similar sounding to the common greeting, chairein, which means, rejoice) and "peace" (reflecting the Jewish greeting, "Shalom!" ("peace"). This Jewish version of the standard greeting then comes to us in a Christian version. Paul sees God and Christ as the source of true grace and peace.

It is also interesting to notice how Paul expands the other elements. The Corinthians are the church of God. The focus is not on one of their house churches but on all of them together and their belonging to the wider assembly (ekklesia) of God's people. We will later read that the Corinthians placed great emphasis on their connections with the wider church. They are sanctified and called to be saints. "Saints", "holy ones" was a common designation of the church in its wider sense. Paul emphasises the connection with others in other places who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. For some this would remind them of their baptism and confession of faith, that "Jesus is Lord". So Paul is reminding them of their identity right from the start. These words are much more than rhetorical flourishes. This also applies to Paul's description of himself as the sender. He is an apostle - not all would have acknowledged that. But it is so and it is God's will! No mistake about where Paul starts. In Corinth he needs to assert this, but this has less to do with Paul have an identity problem where he seeks recognition, and more to do with the gospel and theology which Paul expounds which is in conflict with some other popular Christian theologies of his day.

Another standard element of letters was an initial statement where the sender thanked the gods for the well being of the recipient or prayed for it or both. Paul reflects his education in such patterns and usually commences his letters with such a flourish. Often his language is rather elaborate, verging on becoming flowery, but what seems to be a sort of baroque style reveals very real concerns when we look more closely. In fact it is typical of Paul to incorporate some of his major concerns which become themes in the letter at this point.

Thus, while it sounds innocent enough, to thank God for the grace given the Corinthians (so 1:4), Paul also knows that for some this has led to a false self assurance about their spirituality. the same is true of his language about their rich endowment in word and knowledge (1:5). Indeed many were claiming a superior wisdom and prided themselves in most of the most highly valued skills of the day: the ability to speak impressively. Some would mark Paul rather low on that scale and continue niggling about it, much to Paul's frustration. 1:7 continues the same congratulatory theme. They are so well endowed in spiritual gifts they lack nothing. Paul is not being deceitful here. This is all true and immensely beneficial if understood and applied in the right way. Paul will go on to point out that it is being applied by some in ways that are destructive for themselves and others and show that the Corinthians are in danger of missing the point of what faith is about. Paul does this most dramatically in 1 Corinthians 13, which in some ways functions as a summary of the main issues of contention.

Even 1:8 which focuses on the day of the Lord most likely contains some hint of another problem to be faced: some Corinthians were denying a future resurrection. Their understanding of the future was so much bound up with the notions of eternal souls, it seems, that they saw no need for anything beyond the salvation of individual souls. Who needs embodiedness? Who needs a community? Who needs a day of the Lord, which would establish a kingdom of justice and peace? Isn't it enough to know that my soul will go to heaven? Here in 1:8 and in 1:9 Paul celebrates the future with Christ and the future in community (koinonia).

Some Corinthians had difficulties with such images of the future and any literal interpretation is likely to meet similar hesitations today, not without ground, but Paul's logic is driven by an understanding that salvation has to mean something bigger than the individual. Many Christians still have difficulty making it to this level of understanding. It opens up too many questions about the social and political implications of the gospel. Private faith of a personal future is more comforting and marketable, but has little to do with the hope Jesus came to bring and doesn't really spell good news for the poor except in another life.

Gospel: Epiphany 2  19 January John 1:29-42

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