Advent 1: 29 November 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Paul’s letters are highly stylised, much more so than the minimal conventions which frame our correspondence of ‘Dear Sir’ and ‘Yours sincerely’ or the equivalent. ‘Grace and peace’ is a variant of the written, ‘hello’, in which we catch echoes of the Greek, ‘Greetings;’ and the Hebrew, ‘Shalom/Peace’. Even the report of praying or giving thanks for the recipients’ well being belongs to a standard form. Nevertheless Paul shows himself as one who fills conventions with substance and what at first might look only like polite rhetoric has spice.
As the rhetoric frames Paul’s opening comments, so the theology of grace embedded in it provides the context of Paul’s concerns, indeed, his way of relating to those to whom he writes. Within that context and framework Paul affirms the grace given the Corinthians. What he means by this grace is spelled out in what follows. Grace is more than kind attitude. It is a way of describing God’s engagement with people and the effects it produces. So Paul highlights the way the Corinthians responded to the message or testimony of the gospel which he had addressed to them: they are able to articulate their faith and they have a deepened understanding or wisdom. In fact Paul suggests that they have all they need: they lack nothing, but then comes a slight turn: ultimately it will be Christ who will really put them on a firm footing when he comes and God is the one we need to rely on ultimately. God is the one who really constitutes the community as a community of Christ, a Christian community. It began with God through Paul and it ends with God.
As we read on into the letter we can see that Paul knows what he is about to write. Far from being polite generalities, the opening words we find in 1:3-9 have direct relevance to some of the major issues. For while it is true they are good at talking about their faith and pursuing wisdom, they are also distracted by a sense of their own importance and their own rhetoric. Not so subtly Paul is targeting the self sufficiency of at least some Corinthians who think they have arrived and who have become the source of division.
He confronts such arrogance with the traditional future expectation. That future expectation implies: we have not arrived; we are still on the journey. We haven’t got it all; there’s still a lot of growing and learning to do; it’s not only OK not to have arrived, but it is of the essence of being human Whether we share Paul’s form of future expectation or not, the life of faith for Paul is about an openness to God’s goodness (grace) which leaves plenty of room – for God, for others and for ourselves. Paul is prising open a closedness which ultimately leaves little room for God, for others, for ourselves – even though no one would doubt it is intensively religious. One of the things love does is free us from the obsession that we have to have arrived or have the answers to everything to be people of value. Such people are a pain to themselves and to others. Paul sets the parameters well, including an implied reminder that they should also still listen to him. After all, he got them started!
Gospel: Advent 1: 29 November Mark 13:24-37
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