This is the last instalment of our series looking at Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. It’s been quite a journey as we’ve looked at how they and we can come together from our different cultural backgrounds, different socio economic groupings, with different worldviews and theological understandings, and be One, be the new people of God that Christ has called us to be.
To a church split and squabbling, Paul spoke of sharing the grace they had received from Christ with one another. He hadn’t sidestepped the issues that divided them, he talked of church discipline, he had been prepared to tackle deep theological misunderstandings and perplexing moral issues. But at the heart of all this he called them to show the love of Christ to each other.
In 1 Corinthians 16 Paul deals with a couple of practical matters, a collection for the poor in Jerusalem, travel plans and personnel issues, and he finishes the letter off by bring personal greetings, exhorting his hearers, and a final statement and signature in his own hand writing. If this was a TV series or a movie, you’d get the idea that not everything has been bought to resolution, not all the conflict had been resolved, that there is plenty of room for a sequel. And we know that Paul continues to work with the Church at Corinth, wrestling with the difficulties and issues they have. There is further correspondence and another big letter, there are visits and arguments and disagreements. The road to unity is one of continued compassion, conversatios and commitment.
Let’s have a look at what Paul says in this passage and how it speaks to us today.
He starts by looking at a collection for the poor. At the council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15, one of the things that the gentile had been asked to do was to remember the poor. So in what is called his third Missionary trip, Paul’s raised a collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem. Paul asked the churches in Asia Minor and Europe to give. It wasn’t just about care for the poor but also as we see from passages like Galatians 2:10 it was a way of showing the Jewish and gentile churches that they were family, they belonged together, building unity across the social barrier of their time. Compassion and care can bridge even such divides.
Paul starts with “now about” which tells us that he had been in conversation with the church at Corinth about the collection before, and they had written to him about it. Paul basically gives them some practical instructions about how they are to put money aside for the collection and how it was going to be taken to Jerusalem.
This is the first mention of the first day of the week and systematic giving in the New Testament, so it’s worthwhile taking a minute to explore it. Christians from an early time had set aside the first day of the week Sunday, when Christ was raised, for public worship and the Lord ’s Supper. Paul says that it’s a good time to set something aside for the collection for the poor. Whether it was collected on the day or set aside at home is a moot point. But the idea is that as they remembered what Christ had done for them they were to set money aside for others. It helped the people see systematic and regular giving and generosity as part of their worshipping life, there response to God. Money in the New Testament church was given for the care of the poor and for the support of those in ministry.
Paul asks them to consider what they want to set aside from what God has provided for them in the week. In the New Testament there is no idea of a tithe being what is expected from people, the only time tithes are mentioned in the New Testament is when Jesus talks to the Pharisees about it, because they were using it to limit their generosity. God’s blessing or cursing does not depend on whether you tithe, despite what some churches say, the call is to be generous givers because of the lavish generosity and grace of God.. It calls us to look at how we spend our money, to simplify our lifestyles for the common good. It calls us to ask questions about how we budget, do we include a compassion component? Do we see it as important to support the work of the gospel? If we are talking about unity and love for one another, does that love reach down to our zips… the zips of our wallets that is.
Paul outlined how the collection will be taken to Jerusalem. Practically in a world where most of it was in coin, not electronic transfers, or bumping phones, it had to have people accompany it for security. Getting people to accompany also guarded his integrity. Churches and mission or aid groups need to be scrupulously honest, and efficient, when it comes to handling money. But also by having people go to Jerusalem, it was not just about money but relationship. We can often think the solution to poverty is to throw money at it, but the gospel calls us to go and bring good news and embody that Good news. People often look for someone to stand in solidarity with them as well as to help out.
Paul moves on to talk of travel plans. This is of some interest to Bible historians as they try and work out where Paul was at different times. It shows us that Paul wanted to spend time with the Church at Corinth and intended to spend a whole winter with them. Paul is aware that for the church to grow in their love of Christ and love for one another there is no quick fix. He is willing to commit himself to them. Often when there are difficulties and issues within a church it is easy for one side to simply leave and go somewhere else, particularly when there is such an array of different churches in a city and we live in a consumer society, where we can pick and choose what is best for us. But Paul’s love for the church means he cannot simply write them off, Christian community calls us to be committed to one another, warts and all. In fact I tell people if they are looking for the perfect church, if they find it, don’t join it because it will ruin it. The gospel calls us because of Christ’s great love to show that love to one another, forgiveness reconciliation, tolerance, patience, long suffering, compassion these are some of the fruit of God’s Spirit working in us. They grow as we commit ourselves to this imperfect rather ragged thing we call the church.
Paul then moves on to personnel issues. This is helpful because in this passage Paul shows us a lot about Christian leadership. The churches at Corinth you’ll remember were impressed by appearance and status, up front ability and in the leaders Paul talks about we see a different understanding.
He is concerned that Timothy will not be treated well, Timothy we know was rather young and timid and di not fit what the Corinthians thought a leader should be like. With the last Now about in his letter Paul answers the Corinthians request that Apollos be sent. We know from Acts that Apollos was a great orator and obviously fitted the churches idea of a leader. Apollos was also one of the leaders that a faction had formed round. There may have been some thought that Paul wasn’t happy with him going to Corinth because of that issue. But Paul had assured the Corinthians thatthere was no conflict between them, Paul had planted and Apollos had watered, but it God who brings the growth. So now Paul tells them that he had urged Apollos to go but Apollos did not see it was the right time.
Then Paul speaks of a third group of leaders and in particular Stephanus and his household, Fortunatus and Achaicus may have been part of that household. It seems to fit the early church to have leaders from amongst the free and slaves. These are the brothers who have been mentioned before and are the ones who would have bought the letter from the church in Corinth to Paul. Paul affirms their leadership, and the basis of Christian leadership, that of faithful service. His affirmation echo Jesus words “if you want to be great in God’s kingdom learn to be the servant of all.” The church then and now can easily mistake giftedness and outward appearances and confidence as signs of the Christian maturity needed to lead a diverse church. Yes we need people to use the gifts God has given them, but the central need is people who have matured in the faith and know that it is about love and serving others.
Paul finishes his letter off with a general exhortation, in verse 13 and 14 where he uses metaphors of a city guard, a watchman to encourage the church to stay strong in their faith. That it takes diligence and courage to follow Jesus. Then he again points they to how that is to be worked out in community, by doing everything out of Love. It takes courage and strength to do that. This whole epistle is a reflection of that as Paul had had to say some very harsh things, but always the motivation for that is love. It takes courage to change how we treat each other. It takes courage to change our use of liberty so it does not adversely affect other people. It takes courage to use our gifts alongside others for the common good.
He brings some greetings from Pricilla and Aquila who had ministered with him at Corinth. He brings the greetings of the churches in Asia Minor. It is good to know that we are not alone in the faith that we are part of a wider family of brothers and sisters who are on the same journey of following Jesus.
He tells the church to greet one another with a holy Kiss. Now relax we are not going to change the job description for our greeters or start doing training sessions for people in Kissing. In saying this Paul is asking that when they gather there is an expression of reconciliation and love. It’s not the faux air kissing of Hollywood. Church services in our denomination used to be very stayed and formal, you’d come to worship and it was like a collection of individuals, but now we’ve rediscovered something of being the body of Christ together and its highly appropriate that we greet each other and welcome each other with warmth. Instead of being an intermission in our service our greeting time I think is an important and essential part of being church not just doing church. I hope it blossoms into hospitality and opportunities for ministry.
Paul finishes by adding something in his own hand writing. He would have used a trained scribe to write the body of the letter. The original Christian rocker Larry Norman wrote a song about the music scene in the early 1970’s. One of the lines says “the Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up”. Paul is not like that.
Despite his final warning and all the stuff that Paul had to work through with the Church, this is the only letter we have from Paul that finishes with such a warm expression of grace and personal love… The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love to you all in Christ Jesus.” Within a community, the road to unity is an on-going commitment to one another in love. A love that is willing to keep talking and work through the difficult issues together relying on and flowing out of the grace of God. May we continue to Journey together in love by the grace of God may we be One, may we become the vibrant, authentic, sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring other to join us on that journey”, That we are have a vision to be.