THE FIRST LETTER OF PAUL TO THE CORINTHIAN CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY – an introduction
If Paul’s letter to the Roman Christian community was his longest, his letters to the Corinthian Jesus community/Christian community are the most extensive when put together. And to think these are not all the letters he wrote them (see 5:9, for instance). These letters contain some of Paul’s most moving writing, as well as some of his most controversial writing. A little introduction to Corinth and Paul’s relationship with the church there seems in order.
According to Acts, the church at Corinth was founded by Paul, Silas and Timothy, sometime in about 50 CE. Paul stayed in Corinth for about a year and a half. After founding the church, he continued to correspond with it. This letter was probably written from Ephesus in the winter of 53-54 CE. No one seriously doubts that this is an authentic letter of Paul’s.
The city in which Paul founded this church was a city of great status. It was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia, and a center of commerce and the arts. The ancient Greek city of Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE, but it was rebuilt under Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. Caesar populated the city with Roman military veterans and freed slaves. The city had a reputation as a center of sexual immorality, but it was probably no better or worse than many other Roman cities. It was also a place where a variety of Roman gods were worshipped. “Corinth developed a reputation for possessing wealth without culture and for abusing its poor” (New Interpreters Study Bible).
The church that Paul founded was predominantly Gentile. Paul had begun his work in Corinth in the synagogue, but when his message was not well-received there, he turned to the Gentiles. The recipients of the letters “had for the most part been adherents of pagan religions who did not entirely leave their previous understandings of religion and ethics behind when they were baptized” (People’s New Testament Commentary). “The congregation at Corinth was a cross section of the socio-economic and religious makeup of the city – indeed, of much of the Greco-Roman world, in which a few wealthy people sat atop the social pyramid, most were poor, and there was no middle class as we know it” (New Interpreters Study Bible).
As already mentioned, Paul wrote other letters to the Corinthians than those we have in our New Testament. This letter is not really the first (see 5:9). It is written in response to questions the community has asked and to reports Paul has received about the church. There are no deep tensions between Jews and Gentiles in this community, but there are divisions within it that need addressing. Other teachers have come after Paul, and people seem to be dividing themselves according to who passed on the Christian faith to them. A host of more concrete and practical issues are addressed, but these also give Paul the occasion to write more broadly about significant issues. Some see this letter as one of the best views we have into the life of a first century church. If that is the case, those who wish to go back to the first century church had better be careful what they ask for!
I Corinthians 1
I Corinthians 1:1-9: Paul begins his letter in typical Roman fashion. He identifies himself as an apostle, not of his own initiative, but by the will of God. He is writing to the church of God in Corinth. People who belong to the church are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” All Paul is saying here is that those who belong to the church are, indeed, people of God, called to be about God’s work in the world, called to be a community that reflects God’s intention for the human community. But the Corinthian Christians are not alone, they are a part of a larger movement of all those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Again, to call anyone other than the emperor or a high public official “Lord” would have had a subversive quality to it. Paul begins by wishing these people “grace and peace.”
These people have been given grace by God in Christ. They have been enriched in all kinds of ways and lack no spiritual gift. This God who has given them grace will keep them strong in that grace “to the end.”
Paul writes a lavish and generous description of this church. As we shall see soon enough, this place has problems. Can we see our own lives as being filled with the grace of God and the gifts of God’s Spirit? Can we describe our own church community in such terms? While we may want to change the language some, we, too are persons to whom God’s grace has been given. We, too, have been given gifts of the Spirit, as individuals and in community. Perhaps Paul reminds them of this because he is convinced that they will need to remember who they really are if they are to address their problems creatively and constructively.
I Corinthians 1:10-17: It doesn’t take long for Paul to begin addressing issues and problems. His first appeal is that the church be in agreement and that there be no divisions among them. Is Paul suggesting that we have to agree on everything? I don’t think so. The image suggested by the Greek language is that of mending a net, restoring it to its original unity. We need not be united in all our theology to share in deep community in Jesus Christ. It is amazing how the human tendency to engage in oneupsmanship finds its way into the church – here in the form of claiming that the one who taught you the Christian faith is better than others who have taught the Christian faith. It is not the eloquent wisdom of the teachers of the faith that matters, but the message about Christ that is powerful.
I Corinthians 1:18-31: The message about the cross can seem like sheer foolishness. Two thousand years of usage as a positive religious symbol, as decoration, and as jewelry have dulled the impact of the words “cross” and “crucify.” The Romans used crucifixion to make an example of those who disturbed the good life of the Roman peace… as a public display of how important they considered “law and order.” Roman citizens who committed crimes were not crucified. The punishment was reserved for revolutionaries, terrorists, the worst criminals, and slaves. “Cross” has the connotations of ugliness, contempt, weakness, loser, criminal, slave, unpatriotic lowlife. (People’s New Testament Commentary). How can your teacher of wisdom, how can one who teaches you about God, embodies God, be such a loser, a crucified criminal in some backwater of the empire? Absurd, foolish, at least to those who are “perishing,” and by that Paul does not necessarily mean those destined for some kind of eternal punishment. Those who are perishing are those who just don’t know how God’s love and power really work so they can’t avail themselves of it fully and their lives suffer for it – even if some of their lives may seem o.k. on the outside. For some Jews, the fact that Jesus was crucified was a stumbling block. Surely God would not have allowed such a thing to happen to a messianic person. For some Gentiles, that fact that Jesus was crucified meant that he stood outside the usual ways of wisdom and power. Yet the way of Jesus is the way of life, the way of God’s “salvation.” For those in the Corinthian Christian community, however, this very foolishness has made all the difference in their lives. In this crucified Christ they have experienced the wisdom and power of God. The term Paul uses for “stumbling block” is the root of our word “scandal.” There is something scandalous in God’s love as seen in Jesus Christ. Part of that scandal is that those who would have been seen as on the lower rungs of society are a part of the people of God in Corinth.
In many ways these verses are difficult because in the United States being Christian and being respectable have often been synonymous. That’s not all bad, but have we lost something in wanting to maintain both our respectability and our faith? Are there times when we, too, need to be counter-cultural? Are there times when we need to risk looking foolish in order to live our faith? Questioning the god of national security may seem foolish, but perhaps we should question anyway. Questioning the equation of success with material possessions may seem foolish, but perhaps we should question anyway. Questioning the need for economic growth regardless of environmental cost may seem foolish, but perhaps we should question anyway. Questioning the ever expanding use of sports metaphors of winning and losing into more areas of our lives – politics, relationships, may seem foolish, but perhaps we should question anyway. In none of these cases am I dismissing legitimate concerns for national security, a certain level of material well-being, or economic growth. Nor am I rejecting sports as one legitimate form of entertainment. I am questioning our faithful allegiance to whatever happens under these banners. I think Paul questioned such things, in his own way, in his own day and time.