I’m not sure this is “breaking news” or a “developing story” but I need to say that many people believe that 1 Corinthians is one of Paul’s most valuable letters for the Church today. I agree. Paul’s clarity on the character and mind of an apostle, his vigorous presentation of the gospel, and the vivid pictures of the of the actual life and problems of a particular local church at the middle of the first century generate and illustrate its value when Paul wrote it and its continued significant today.
Paul was writing this letter to the church in Corinth, a mostly Gentile congregation and a congregation in a city where the most of the people had been, or were still, adherents of pagan religions. In the opinion of Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring (People’s New Testament Commentary), these folks, likely, did not leave the previous understandings of religion and ethics behind when they were baptized. Paul’s articulation of the basic Christian understanding in this letter, however basic it seems to us today, was radical and unorthodox to the people in the church at Corinth.
Paul was writing this letter to the church in Corinth as a response to particular practical problems of Corinthian church life. Reading this letter is our best window into the life of a first century Christian congregation. Paul responds to these “practical” issues theologically, according to Craddock and Boring, illustrating Paul’s conviction that all life is to be understood in light of the gospel.
In addition to an introduction and some concluding remarks, 1 Corinthians is divided into two parts. The first part (1:10 – 6:20) is Paul’s response to what he had heard. Paul was in Corinth to establish the church. He stayed there about a year or so to get things going and stable. Paul continued on his journeys but kept up with the congregation through people he had sent there to report back. The people reporting back to Paul gave their understandings of the issues facing the congregation. In this first part, Paul seems to be addressing these concerns.
In the second part 1 Corinthians (7:1 – 16:30) Paul responds to the issues in the letter the church had sent to Paul. While that letter was not preserved for our reading, we do have some idea about its contents. Paul responds to issues concerning a) marriage, b) food offered to idols, c) forms of worship, and d) the resurrection.
Woven throughout the letter is the theme of unity. Paul talks often about the “bond of unity,” which, contrary to our thinking today, is NOT good-natured tolerance of one another, but the common gospel and a common baptism already shared by all Christians. Let me more direct — the Unity of the Church is the gospel and our baptism. Nothing else matters. Throughout history in the Church, think about all of the disagreements, fights, divisions we have created and why they happened. None of it ultimately matters because the Church is unified. Think about the ways First Christian Church has disagreed, fought, and divided itself. None of that matters because we are still one because we were all baptized into the same water and we will all be treated by God with grace. Sometimes we lose perspective on that point.
1 Corinthians 12 illustrates this unity and this grace beautifully. Paul writes that there are many gifts, but the same Spirit who gives these gifts. Each of the gifts given is important and necessary for the unity of the Body of Christ. Paul delivers his vision for the unity of the Church, the Body of Christ, as a wholeness of a body. Each part of the body plays a different and important role in the health and wholeness of the body. As members of the Body of Christ, we are all important, no matter what role we play. There are parts that are more exalted and other parts that are less respected. There are parts of the body that are central to the health and stability of the body and parts that are on the periphery but are still needed for health and stability to maintain wholeness. We need the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the feet to move us and the hands to get work done.
Following his chapters on unity, Paul moves to love. 1 Corinthians 13 is often read at weddings as it describes a deepness and bondedness in love. Unfortunately, we have relegated “The Love Chapter” to talk about romantic love between married couples. While it’s very applicable to marriages, the depth of love Paul talks about goes way beyond love in a family unit. As Paul writes, he applies his view of love to the spiritual gifts given by the Spirit, the unity of the body, and how we are to love one another in a way that is inspired by God’s love in Christ for us through the Holy Spirit. Maybe the next time you hear 1 Corinthians 13 read at a wedding, remember where in Paul’s letter it comes and hear a greater call to love than just to your spouse.
Paul’s discussion of the resurrection, to me, is more important than the Gospel accounts. I treasure the story of Jesus’ resurrection as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell us but I think Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, tells us what it means to believe. The discussion toward the end of the chapter about things perishable and imperishable, mortal and immortal gives us a glimpse into the significance of daily living and ongoing faith. While I am sad at the death of a loved one, I am confident and hopeful that their spirit will live on forever. The stories, the memories, the values, and the character remain on this earth to inspire, to comfort, and to console those who are left on earth to continue to live our days. Those we encounter on our journey, those who have gone before us on the path of faith provide a model and a framework for how we are to live. Our faith in God remains strong through their witness and the telling of their stories keeps their witness alive. Through it all, Paul assures us that there is no death, just life changes.