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By God's Design

From Paul, called by God's will to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, and from Sosthenes our brother. To God's church that is in Corinth: To those who have been made holy to God in Christ Jesus, who are called to be God's people. Together with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place-he's their Lord and ours! Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always for you, because of God's grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. That is, you were made rich through him in everything: all your communication and every kind of knowledge, in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. The result is that you aren't missing any spiritual gift while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and you were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

So we're looking at Paul's greeting and introduction to the first letter that he wrote to the church in Corinth. Nice, gushing, flowery greeting. Very uplifting, very encouraging, but we need to back up for a minute and consider this church that Paul is sending this letter to. Corinth, as many scholars have shared, was considered the sin city of the Mediterranean, it was the Las Vegas of their day, so all kinds of unhealthy things took place there. And yet in this city, Paul went and proclaimed The Gospel of Jesus and started a church. But as often happens, there were some challenges, some struggle, some conflicts that erupted within this church. In fact, Wesley says there was outright sin going on there, there were some deviant people involved in the church, there were some scandals taking place, there was fighting over doctrine and teachings and who was in charge and who had better spiritual gifts than the other one.

And so the church in Corinth, this fledgling church that Paul had founded, had become his problem child. And Paul begins this letter, not rebuking them, but praising them and lifting them up and saying that he gives thanks for them every day. If ever there was a church that needed told off, it was that church, but instead of telling them off, Paul took a different approach, and he began to tell them who they were, and more importantly whose they were. And so he offers them these words of encouragement to help set them on the right path. In this text, if we're questioning what Paul's focus is, what are the most important things about what's going on, we could just start counting words. In these nine verses, Paul uses the word "Christ" nine times, the name "Jesus" eight times, the name "God" six times, and twice he refers to the people being called.

And so using those thoughts, those ideas, Jesus Christ and God and calling, Paul begins to set the stage for what's going on. Certainly there were problems that were going on, certainly they had things that they could be doing better, and yet Paul tells these people, "To you, the church in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Jesus Christ... " Sanctified means made holy, set apart, cleansed, made perfect. You who are sanctified in Christ and in our minds, we need to also think in spite of all of those rotten, terrible things that you're doing, you who are holy and sanctified because of Jesus, called to be saints together with all of those who everywhere call upon the name of Jesus." This idea that Paul is setting them apart and saying, "Look, you all are saints together."

Now, we need to understand that when we hear that word "saint", it's a plural, particularly in Paul's reference to it. In the world today, we hear about saints and we have even Methodist Churches named for saints: St. Luke, St. Matthews... But there's all of those other saints too who have lived faithful, holy lives that have been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and set apart and recognized for the things they've done. But Paul isn't talking about saints in that sense, he's not talking about superheroes of our faith, he's not talking about one individual who's been picked up and said, "Look what this person has done, they should be a model, an example to all of us." In fact, for Paul, there's no such thing as a singular saint. The saints exist together in community for one another and for the good of the church.

He talks about all of those spiritual gifts, the abundance of gifts that have been provided as they wait for the appearing of the Lord, and again, those gifts aren't necessarily given so that you have one and you have one and I have mine. They're not individual gifts but rather it's a gift that's given to each as they have need for the good of all. The gift is given to an individual but yet the blessing is for the community. When we look at this church and the issues that Paul will be addressing during the rest of the letter, he's reminding them first that, "You are a community set apart, made holy by God, gathered by God, called by God, belonging to God and God alone." And with that basis in mind, he's telling them, "We can do better, we can address these issues that you're dealing with because you need to recognize who God has created and intends, and in fact designed you to be together."

When we gather as a church, many of the things that Paul says about this church in Corinth should resonate and ring true with us, the ideal, the plan, the design that God would have us be a people who gather together in community, who care for one another, who worship together, who grow together, who share our gifts with one another as a blessing to build up this community of faith and to share Jesus with the world. You saints of God. It's not something that you have done, but much like Pooh being told by Christopher Robin, this is who you are. We too have not earned this title, we too have not done anything so great and grand and glorious that we have been stamped with the name saint because we've been so good, but rather because God has, God has declared, God has called us and said, "You are my people. Through my son Jesus, in him, of him, by him, I have called you to be my people."

Now, it's easy sometimes for us to look around and find those differences, our world's great at it, our world is great at segregating and separating people and saying, "You belong here and you belong over here," but yet Paul wants this church to never lose sight of the fact that they're called to be one and united in and through Jesus. When we think about the segregation and divisions that exist between people for all sorts of reasons, we get into the habit of creating us and them. With Paul's understanding of what it means to be God's people, Paul would say, "You know what? There's no such thing as them," but for that matter, he would also say, "We shouldn't think of ourselves as us, but rather we should think of together our belonging to God. That the first and foremost hallmark of who we are should be our identity in Christ Jesus above all else."

Paul takes a tactic that many educators know that when you have something difficult to talk about, you focus on the positive first, you point to the good things, say, "Well, you're doing this well, and you're doing this well, but you know what? We've got something over here we need to work on," and that's exactly what Paul is doing with this community of faith, before he begins bringing up all of the issues and boy are there issues, he first says, "You know what, let's talk about the positive." But the positive isn't necessarily, you're all right, but it's rather, your God's alright. Your God has a plan. Your God has called you and set you apart, He's offered you his son, but at this moment you're not living up to that. We can do better. And so he continues by saying, "He will strengthen you so that you'll be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will strengthen you because of His efforts, because of His will, because of God's intention, you will be blameless on that day, not because you finally figured it out or gotten it right, but rather because God will be the one working in and through you."

And the final verse that we heard this morning affirms that. He says God is faithful in him. By him, you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. We often talk about being faithful, being faithful to God, being faithful to commitments, being faithful to our word and the things that we do, but Paul wants us to remember that faithfulness is rooted and grounded in God above all else. God is faithful, God is the one who has called us into this fellowship. Fellowship with his son, and fellowship with one another. So what do we do with this? Paul is talking to this ancient church so long ago, in a time and a place as vastly different, and yet the circumstances maybe aren't, maybe we too fall short of what God's intention and desire is for us in our life together. Maybe we need to spend a little bit more time thinking about what it is that God is calling us to be and do for the sake of his world. Culture defines success by the sum of our choices, the strong individual pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, we get so hung up and so focused on I and me being the defining character of who we are.

Paul is suggesting that our lives and the gifts that we have from God are not a sum of what we've done and who we are, but rather they're the sum of God calling us in Christ Jesus to be a part of this community, to be a part of this fellowship. And to what end? That God's love would be spread and shared, and His good news echoing throughout this community and around this world, we have been gathered together because together we can do more. Together we can be who God has called us to be. We still have disagreements and dissensions within the body of Christ, it's been on the radar for some more than others about the divisions and the conflict that are taking place even within the United Methodist Church.

There are different ideas about what it means to be a Christian and how we express that faith and how we live it out, and I'm not advocating one way or the other, but simply to say that Paul would point to the fact that division is not God's plan. That God has declared that together we are one body, that together we should be able to sort through and work out whatever those differences are because those differences are more about us than they are about God. That's God's design and God's plan is for his church, for His people to seek His will, which is that all people would know His love, that all people would be welcomed and braced into this fellowship, that all people would know the life saving, life-transforming work that God alone can do.

We often have in mind how we want things to be, the direction things should go, and we work hard at times, and we wrestle and struggle and disagree and fight to try and push things in the way that we want, but sometimes we have our head down so much and are working so hard that we aren't noticing that Maybe God's not pulling in the same direction. For this church in Corinth to get unstuck from the struggles that they were facing, Paul begins his letter by pointing to Jesus in nearly every verse, Jesus the Christ, God's will, God's church, God's people. Not once does he say, "You've done a good job. You've got great ideas." Paul says, "Because of God, God who called Paul to be an apostle, God who called the church in Corinth into existence, God who declared them to be saints because of His working in their lives, continues to do the same in communities of faith around this world." Our identity is not wrapped up in who we are or what we believe, or what we've done in the past, or what we plan to do in the future, our identity should be in one thing alone, in Jesus Christ.

Our call to worship began this morning with kind of paraphrasing from this letter that Paul said to the Aldersgate Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Getz road, you who are saints who have been set apart are called and blessed to be God's people. There are things that we have done well, there are things that we continue to do well, but there are many things that we could do better or differently. That's for God to direct and God to decide. And it's for us to listen and discern and to trust this faithful God who will lead us each step of the way. God has created this church for a reason. God has created us and placed us where we are, so that through us God's will and work and blessings can be shared with those who need it. So may we respond in faith as well, trusting who God has declared us to be, trusting His faithfulness to strengthen us and equip us and provide for whatever it is that God has designed to be next for us. Amen.

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