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Called to be Saints 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
01/16/11

Psalm 40:1-11
1 Corinthians 1:1-9


Seventeen years after the death of Jesus Christ, Paul of Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey, a Jew who had become a believer in Christ about fourteen years earlier, came to Corinth for the first time to proclaim there the Gospel. The year was 50 A.D. You can read of Paul's first visit to Corinth in Acts 18. Paul actually stayed eighteen months in Corinth, establishing there a small church among a group of Jews and Gentiles after they threw Paul out of the synagogue where first he proclaimed the Gospel. (They offered him what an old teacher used to call "the left foot of fellowship.") Corinth was in Paul's time "the second city" of Greece, situated strategically on an isthmus connecting the Peloponnesus to the mainland of Greece. It sat on a key trade route that made it a wealthy city of no small diversity. The second century Greek historian Pausanias reported that Corinth had "a temple for all Gods." Modern day archeologists have uncovered remnants of two dozen temples, altars and shrines which Paul would have walked by on his way to the synagogue where he first preached of Jesus. The most impressive of those was the Temple to Apollos, with thirty-nine huge columns, each made of a single piece of stone, nine of which still stand there today. When I visited Corinth for the first time, and walked down the main street where Paul doubtless walked, I found it overwhelming and profoundly moving. As I absorbed the enormity of what Paul did there, and the sheer courage and guts it had to have taken for him to proclaim the Gospel in such a setting, I was moved to tears.

Paul's letter to the Corinthians is likely written in 54 A.D., just twenty-one years after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. It is a letter Paul wrote from Ephesus, and from what we call 1 Corinthians we can know for sure that this was not Paul's first letter to this young, small, struggling church.

Paul addresses his letter "to the church of God that is in Corinth," and in the body of his letter he makes reference to a prior letter he had sent to them. There is no archeological evidence of a church in Corinth, which corroborates Paul's indication that the church gathered in houses of believers to worship. Some scholars say there were two such house churches, but Duke University New Testament scholar Richard Hays says there were likely three or four such house churches in Corinth, comprising a church of not more than two hundred members. The significant point to make is that Paul writes to them as if they are one church, and he sees them "together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." 

This oneness of the Church is crucial for Paul, for the reason for his letter, which I suspect Paul had no idea would become Holy Scripture for Christianity, were the multiple issues causing divisions and dissension among these early followers of Jesus. The competitiveness and the sudden wealth of Corinthian culture, creating a wide gulf between rich and poor, plus rampant immorality and selfishness in Corinthian society, had begun to infect and threaten this young church. They were now fighting over whose preaching they liked best (Apollos was a more popular preacher than Paul!), they were divided over worship practices, over issues of morality and sexual practices, over how they related to other religions so much a part of this cosmopolitan city, and finally they were in conflict over matters of right belief about the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. They may have been one of the most contentious body of believers ever gathered, except for what has followed in the Church for the next two thousand years, and Paul writes his letter with a desperate desire to keep them together as one Church in the midst of all their smaller differences and divisions. First Corinthians gives us a view into the early Christian Church, and as such it gives us a wonderful way to reflect on our own life as the Church two thousand years later. For the next few weeks in worship we will be looking at these early chapters of First Corinthians with an eye to what it means to be the Church, to be "One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church," as we say in the Nicene Creed.

So let's begin with Paul, for the letter begins in just this way. Last week I asked, "Who tells you who you are?" and urged you to find your identity in your baptism as Jesus did in His. Remember? "You are my Beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." Well, who told Paul who he was? What voice did he hear above all the others? How does Paul see himself? He is clear on this from the start: "Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God." Paul is persuaded that he has been called to be an apostle, that is, one who is sent by God to proclaim in Jesus Christ and His glorious Gospel. This is Paul's whole reason for being. He was knocked from his mount by God and given a vision of the Risen Christ. He was not an apostle like the other twelve, who walked with Jesus, were there to see Him hanged on a cross, and witnessed His resurrection appearances immediately after this. No, Paul met Jesus in a much different way, but that meeting was decisive for Paul. Though Luke admires Paul, he does not see Paul as an apostle, as there can only be twelve for him. Yet Paul understood himself to be an apostle "by the will of God," the "apostle to the Gentiles," as he would also call himself. Paul writes as one with authority, for he has been called by God, but he does not think he is the only one who has been so called.

Who does Paul think these young, struggling, haggling Corinthian Christians are? He sees them as "those who have been sanctified in Christ, called to be saints." Paul may be upset with what is happening among them, but he could not possibly have a higher view of those to whom he writes. Paul begins by reminding them of who they are. They are members of "the church of God that is in Corinth," and members "together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." They are "called to be saints." That is who they are as members of the Church. It is who we are as well. We are people who are "called to be saints." It is no small thing to be part of the Church of Jesus Christ.

We are people to whom "the grace of God has been given in Christ Jesus." We are, like these early Corinthian Christians, people who "in every way have been enriched in Him … not lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ." We are "called to be saints." We are elected by God, set apart by the grace of God to be a holy people. We are not saints because we are so good, or even because we are saintly. None of us are, even though some of us are tempted to pretend that we are. We are called to be saints by the grace of God. "Sola gratia," by grace alone, was Luther's great cry of the Reformation.

That is central to what it means to be the Church, whether in Corinth or in Nashville. We are "called to be saints." God has not set the bar low for us! But we are called by grace alone. It is God's goodness that marks us, not our own. To be the Church is to be a community of grace. It is to realize that you are recipients, debtors as you stand before God. Lewis Grizzard used to say that if you see a turtle sitting on a fencepost, you know he didn't get there by himself! Well, we are turtles sitting on fenceposts! We are not Christians because we are so good or so deserving. We are Christians because in God's infinite grace, God elected us in Christ Jesus "for salvation and service," to quote John Calvin.

And that ought to make every Christian in the Church two things: very humble and very grateful. Are you? 

Let me say one more thing about saints. Paul never uses the word saint in the singular. Never. This is the profound insight of the German New Testament theologian Hans Conzelmann. Paul never says to anyone, "You are a saint." He says we are "called to be saints." As a Church, we are "the communion of the saints," both living and dead. But saints for Paul is always used in the plural. We are only saints when we are together in the Church, "the fellowship of the Holy Spirit." We are never Christian on our own. We love to say in this culture that worships the self, "I am spiritual, but I am not religious." For Paul, that is not a possibility, not if you want to be Christian. To be Christian is to be called to be a part of the Church, the Body of Christ. It is to be called by grace to be a part of a community of grace, and always a community that desperately needs God's grace.

You are called dear friends by God, "called to be saints." Together, as a community that makes our oneness in Jesus Christ larger and more important than all our smaller differences. We are the Church, and "God is faithful," Paul tells us. God will use the Church to proclaim the Gospel until the day Jesus returns. That is our calling, and it is a glorious calling. So start as Paul does by giving thanks for the Church. End by giving thanks for the Church. And while you are doing everything else in between, give thanks for the Church.

AMEN.
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