By Derek Weber
Greetings! There is so much in the words that we use when saying hello that we often overlook the complexity. We can tell, for example, when someone is genuinely glad to see us or when our appearance is a burden. We know whether we can continue from where we left off the last time together – whether that was a day ago, or a week, or ten years – or whether we have to start all over and repair what was broken. When we are summoned into a superior’s office, we know whether we are in trouble or in line for a promotion. When we greet our children, we know whether they are just happy to see us or awaiting a promised punishment – “just wait until your father gets home” or “we’ll sit down and discuss this when your mom gets back!” A greeting is often laden with meaning beyond the words.
The introduction to the first letter to the Corinthians is no less laden with meaning. Don’t be upset that the lectionary assigned “only the greeting” for this week. We could do a whole series on these first nine verses. But before we get too carried away, let’s take a look.
On the one hand, the salutation is standard Paul. From me and maybe someone else, to you, grace and peace! But none is exactly the same. He uses the labels as a way of setting the tone. “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes.” This may sound like small talk before he really gets to the point, but he’s already there.
The church in Corinth is a church divided. We can debate what is actually going on and probably not all agree, but that there is division, factionalism, and an air of elitism seems undeniable. Paul wades in by establishing his credentials. He’s an apostle, not just a traveling preacher off the street. At the same time, he doesn’t want to play the elitist game with them. He’s an apostle, yes, but called by God. This isn’t something he’s done; it is a call. It is by the will of God. So, he is both flexing his authority and giving an example of humility in action. It is a lesson he hopes to return to more than once in this letter.
He also mentions Sosthenes in his salutation and calls him a brother. Actually, he calls him, “our” brother. Is that an editorial we? Or does he mean the brother of those reading as well as the one writing? Is Sosthenes supposed to be a connection between them? We can’t be sure who this Sosthenes is, as not much is said about him. But there is a quick reference in Acts (18:17) of a synagogue official in Corinth who was beaten by a mob that wasn’t getting the justice from the Roman proconsul that it sought against Paul. Earlier in that chapter, there is a Crispus, who is called the official of the synagogue, who became a believer because of Paul. Is Sosthenes the next in line, and this was a warning attack? Or is Crispus and Sosthenes the same person? It’s not really clear. But if Sosthenes is one who became a believer because of Paul, but was once a leader in the Jewish community, then he could be a link that Paul wanted to use with the Christians in Corinth to remind them of their beginnings and their commonality and connection.
Then, having introduced himself and his “brother,” he turns to the audience. “To the church of God that is in Corinth,” he says. Sanctified, called and together. Those are the words he uses to describe his readers and hearers. Sanctified, not by their own efforts, not by their own hand, but by Christ Jesus. Called, as he is called, to be saints, to a way of living, a way of being. Together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. A part of something much bigger than themselves, bigger than their church, bigger than their collection of churches in Corinth, bigger than their egos and their divisions and their attitudes. Paul is gently and pastorally putting them in their place as he greets them. Grace and peace, he says.
“I give thanks.” That’s how he begins his conversation with them. Having identified everyone, having reminded everyone of their place, he expresses gratitude. This isn’t avoidance, let’s be clear; this isn’t softening them up for the blows to come. No, this is a strategy; this is an approach; this is the life of the follower of Jesus. Begin with gratitude. One of the revelations in Diana Butler Bass’s Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks (HarperOne, 2018) is that there is a gratitude gap. Apparently, we are good at being grateful when things happen to us, but we find it more difficult to let that gratitude shape “our larger common life.” We live in a general state of dissatisfaction (Bass, xix).
Paul attempts to show a different way of living. He is grateful for the life they live in Christ. He gives thanks for the faithfulness of God at work in them. And this is evidenced by the reality that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift. What an incredible statement. We could argue that Paul is writing this whole letter because of a lack of spiritual gifting. Humility seems in short supply, we might argue. Peace doesn’t seem to reign in their hearts. Paul seems to avoid many problems here in such a statement --not the least of which is that gratitude doesn’t seem to be shaping how they live together!
But look again. You (or more properly all y’all) are not lacking in any spiritual gift. It’s a plural you. Paul is writing to the body, not to individuals. And it is as a body that they will fulfill their calling. It is as a body that they will find their strength and the ability to be blameless. It is as a body that they will respond to the faithfulness of God. That is the only way they can respond to the faithfulness of God. I may be lacking in all sorts of spiritual gifts, but we are not lacking in them. And, Paul argues, it is time to reclaim those gifts in the life and mission of the church.