November 29, 2020

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

“A Letter of Hope”

In the Season of Advent, I typically preach on the Gospel texts in the Revised Common Lectionary, and sometimes on the prophets. You’ve heard sermons about John the Baptist and Mary. You’ve heard sermons about waiting, and watching, and preparing for the Messiah to come and to come again to make the world right.

But this year, I’m going to preach on the Epistles instead – the snippets of letters written to the early Christian communities that brought them hope and encouragement in the context of their struggle, persecution, and desire to be faithful until the coming of the Lord.

Like the early Christian congregations that first received the letters, we know about Jesus and his love. Like them, we live in the in-between time after Christ’s incarnation and before his coming again to complete the Reign of God.

This year, perhaps more than many others, we are struggling. While we may not face the same danger and persecution that Christians did in the first century, we are suffering more than we are used to, and we are not as distracted by the usual frivolity of the season – by parties and social gatherings and concerts and family events.

Remember back at the beginning of the pandemic when we were hoping that things would be back to normal before Easter? Now we’re coming up to Christmas, and we know that it will be quite a while yet before vaccines will be available for broad distribution.

Although we’ve all been impacted differently, there is a general frustration with the need to keep on waiting. People are missing their friends and families, their church communities, their usual social contacts and activities. Others are suffering more because of loss of employment, limited access to social services, or total isolation due to illness or medical vulnerability.

And, of course, there are those who are sick with Covid, those whose loved ones have died, and the many people who (for so many months) have continued to put themselves at risk to provide medical and other essential services.

While many of us spend most of our time inside our homes – attending Zoom meetings, making-do with online worship, and anxiously watching the daily news cycle – the world seems to be spinning out of control with violence, hatred, racism, and political strife.

And it seems like every difficulty and struggle in our personal lives, our congregation, and our world seems to be compounded by the Covid-19 Pandemic. We need encouragement. I need encouragement. And the Advent Epistle readings are a perfect source if we will receive them and let their messages into our hearts.

The opening section of Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth provides our assurance on the first Sunday of Advent. And 1st Corinthians is actually my favourite book in the Bible. I like 1st Corinthians because the church Paul describes sounds just about as messed up as the church is today.

You may remember that the Church at Corinth was the epitome of a congregation in conflict. In the first chapter we hear that some say they belong to Paul, others to Apollos, and others to Peter. They have divided themselves into different groups with different allegiances, and they aren’t being very kind to one another.

Sound familiar? Whether it’s our ongoing denominationalism that divides us from our Christian siblings, or our current divisions within the PCC, we have followed in their footsteps of continuing conflict and acceptance of separation.

In Corinth, some of the Christians think that they are better than the others because they have special spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues. When they get together for the Lord’s Supper, some are getting well fed while others go hungry. And when they share times of worship, there is chaos happening too – a kind of power struggle over leadership and who gets to interpret God’s Word. They are even having arguments that lead to lawsuits.

Things are not good, and scandalous divisions abound, but Paul begins his letter with encouragement and hope.

So, I’ve been reflecting on encouragement. And I have to say that I’ve received a lot of encouragement from Presbyterians over the year and a half that I’ve been serving as Moderator.

But I’ve noticed that much of that encouragement goes something like this: “Thank you so much for everything you are doing to support the church. You’re doing an amazing job! Thank you for your faithfulness and leadership. You are just the Moderator that we need right now.”

So, the encouragement is rooted in the idea that I’m hard-working, and I’m awesome, and I’ve got this! I admit that this kind of encouragement does make me feel good. It makes me feel good about myself. It strokes my ego.

But I also know that it isn’t really true. I can’t hold the church together when our theological differences are driving us apart. I don’t know how to help struggling congregations, and those facing dissolution because of the added challenges of the pandemic. I can’t bring about the healing and reconciliation needed between the church and Indigenous Peoples, or mend the pain and brokenness caused by systemic racism, sexism, or homophobia.

I, and the church as a whole today, are just as broken and divided as the leaders and people of the Church at Corinth in the first century. Which means that our encouragement and hope cannot come from an assurance that we are wonderful and talented and wise and so very committed to the mission.

Whereas in some of the other letters that Paul writes, he does commend the congregations for their faith and faithfulness to the gospel, he doesn’t do so with the Corinthians. Still, he does encourage them, and his words are full of hope.

Their hope, and ours, is rooted in the grace of God that has been given to us in Christ Jesus. No, we can’t save ourselves, preserve the church, or mend the world through our own efforts and skills. Our hope is in God’s grace alone.

Then Paul does note that the Corinthians have been well-equipped with spiritual gifts. He doesn’t congratulate them for having gifts of speech and knowledge, but he thanks God that together, they are not lacking in any spiritual gift. That’s the grace of God again, not only forgiving our faults but equipping us to become the church that God intends for us to be.

Once in a while, I appreciate hearing the text in a contemporary paraphrase like the Message. Paul says something like this:

7-9 Just think—you don’t need a thing, you’ve got it all! All God’s gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that.

The hope and the encouragement is that even when it seems like everything is broken and falling apart in the church and the world… we’ve actually got everything we need! God’s gifts are right in the front of us as we wait for God’s Reign of Justice and Peace to be established. God’s right beside us to keep us steady. Jesus is with us, and is never giving up on us no matter how many times we mess up along the way. We can’t say “we’ve got this” but we can say “God’s got this” with confidence and with courage. Let’s never forget that.

This is a very unsettling and uncertain time for all of us. We are worrying about our families, about our church and its ministry, about our communities and the world around us, and about the future. There is a lot to be worried about, and so much seems beyond our control! But our hope lies in God’s grace to us, not in our wisdom to figure things out and strategize a successful plan. Our encouragement lies in God’s faithfulness and promise to strengthen us to the end, not in our ability to triumph over all the challenges of our time.

May God bless us in this season of Advent waiting and watching. May God bless us with more words of encouragement and hope. And may God’s kingdom come.