Letters to the church

Do you still write letters? It’s a mode of communication that has been slowly vanishing since the arrival of the telegraph and the telephone, not to mention email and the growing number of text and video messaging apps. We sent a letter to all members of the congregation this week to announce the upcoming congregational meeting. Sure, we could have sent everybody an email, but we took the time to compose and print a letter, stuff it in envelopes, add address labels and stamps, and take it to the post office. Why? It wasn’t only to make sure that those of you who don’t use email would receive the information. We felt that the magnitude of the decision we as a congregation are about to make demanded that we put words on paper, something more tangible than weightless pixels flashing on a screen. And so every member household received a copy of the letter in their mailbox.

In Paul’s day, people wrote mostly on papyrus, a plant whose fibers were woven into sheets and, in the case of long letters or larger documents, were sewn together into rolls or assembled into book-like volumes. Paul was across the sea in Ephesus when he wrote his letter to the church in Corinth, a church consisting of several house churches spread out across the city. Little is known about how a letter like the one we call First Corinthians was read.[1] It probably wasn’t passed around from one member household to the next until all had seen it, but rather read out loud when the congregation gathered for worship and the Lord’s Supper. But we don’t know if the whole letter was read in one setting or over the course of several weeks.

Paul didn’t know that his words would be shared widely and eventually be read by Christians around the world. He wrote what he thought to be an occasional letter to address a specific set of problems among a fledgling community of Christians he had just recently founded; but obviously the letter’s readers didn’t just toss it out or file it in the congregational archives.

When we read First Corinthians, we’re quite literally reading somebody else’s mail. And given the content of the letter, the Corinthian church probably would have preferred, in the words of one commentator, “that this correspondence not be broadcast to the ages, for it portrays them in an unflattering light and divulges a number of things that they might well … wish to have kept private.”[2] The letter addresses serious divisions, sexual immorality, legal disputes, abuses of the Lord’s Supper and other challenges; and it seems we are still reading this letter because other churches also faced similar challenges and because Paul’s response shed light on the character of any community bearing the name of Christ.

Corinth sat on a narrow land bridge between the mainland and the Peloponnese, and its geographic location gave it an importance to international trade comparable with Panama in our own time. The city had been captured and destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE, and re-founded as a Roman colony in 44 BCE – that’s less than a hundred years before Paul’s arrival. Many of the colonists were freed slaves, and so there was an atmosphere of opportunity and upward mobility. The city was a bustling commercial hub and political center of the empire, where human achievement of every stripe was rewarded – from financial success, to sporting prowess, to rhetorical and philosophical persuasion.[3] The house churches, consisting mostly of Gentile converts, but also including Jewish members, reflected the cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the city.

Paul’s letter follows the standard format for the time by naming the sender first and then the recipient and including a greeting, much like we add both the sender’s and the recipient’s address and begin with “Dear John and Sally” or “Dear Vine Street community” and end with another greeting and a signature. But Paul played a little with the standard format. He could have written, “Paul to the church of God in Corinth, greetings.” But he added a few things to remind his readers of their new identity in Christ. Next to his name, the most important aspect of his identity was that he was called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and likewise the most important aspect of the recipients’ identity was their being called to be saints. Whoever or whatever else they might have been before – Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, highly educated or illiterate – now, in Christ, they were called to be saints, holy people. Like God’s ancient covenant people Israel, they, a colorful group of mostly Gentile men and women from across the known world, had been claimed by God as God’s own people, set apart for the service of God. They were called to be holy people, not because they were uniquely qualified or had risen to extraordinary levels of moral performance or spiritual maturity, but because of their relationship with Jesus Christ. It was God who sanctified them for God’s holy purposes, and not only them, but all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul found a way, in the very first lines of the letter, to remind his first readers, and then readers in every generation to follow, that they were part of a much bigger story, a much larger movement than their local struggles and obsessions might suggest. We are called to be God’s people, a people shaped by the good news of Jesus Christ, holy not because of anything we bring to the relationship, but because God is faithful.

The letter you received in the mail on Friday or Saturday includes a final greeting before the signatures, grace and peace. Paul was the first to use this greeting, and the church embraced it. It’s the combination of a common Greek greeting with a common Jewish greeting, a subtle reference to the boundary-crossing work of God in Christ and at the same time an affirmation that we are rooted in God’s grace and intended to flourish in God’s peace.[4] And just as Jewish and Gentile traditions come together in this simple greeting, all of humanity is meant to come together in God’s household of grace and peace.

In v. 4 Paul begins the actual letter, and quite surprisingly for a letter written to address serious problems in a fractured community, the first words are words of thanksgiving to God. Paul thanks God for the Corinthians and for the grace they have been given, specifically the gifts of speech and knowledge with which they have been enriched. From the rest of the letter, we know that speaking in tongues and having knowledge were among the ways that the Corinthian Christians were dividing themselves up, with some claiming rank and status over others. But rather than reprimanding them, Paul emphasizes his gratitude for the community’s giftedness; he states, again rather subtly, that what some might have considered to be expressions of individual spiritual capacity or brilliance were in fact gifts to the whole community and part of God’s work. Paul begins with grace and gratitude, hoping that his readers in turn would begin to live in that rhythm.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together,

… Only [the person] who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts He has in store for us, because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think we dare not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be looking forward eagerly for the highest good. Then we deplore the fact that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experience that God has given to others, and we consider this lament to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. …

If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ. …

The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases. Christian [community] is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.[5]

Paul begins with gratitude for the gifts of grace, hoping that we in turn would begin to live in that rhythm, that we would begin to thank God not only for our fellowship with Christ at the individual level, but for inserting us into the particular community that has been given to us and to which we have been given, flawed and imperfect as we are.

I want to close with words from yet another letter, written in 1963 from a Birmingham Jail. It’s a long letter, so I’ll only read a couple of brief excerpts, in which Dr. King tells the truth in love to the church of God in Birmingham and beyond.

… I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. … I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen. …

I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices … when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.

The closing lines of Dr. King’s letter invite us yet again to live more fully into the grace and peace of God:

… Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.


[1] First Corinthians is not Paul’s first letter he sent to the church in Corinth; see 1 Cor 5:9.

[2] Hays, First Corinthians, 1.

[3] Suzanne Watts Henderson, “First Corinthians 1:3-9” Interpretation 62, no. 4 (October 2008): 426.

[4] A side note: Paul begins and ends all his letters with χάρις (grace), thus illustrating that we are surrounded by it; Rom 1:7; 16:20; 1 Cor 1:3; 16:23; 2 Cor 1:2; 13:13; Gal 1:3; 6:18; Eph 1:2; 6:24; Phil 1:2; 4:23; Col 1:2; 4:18; 1 Thess 1:1; 5:28; 2 Thess 1:2; 3:18; 1 Tim 1:2; 6:21; 2 Tim 1:2; 4:22; Tit 1:4; 3:15; Phm 3; 25.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 1954, 29f.

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