by Ellen Sims
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Parent and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.9 God is faithful; by God you were called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Today’s text is the opening of a letter Paul wrote to the church he founded at Corinth. Tradition names this epistle 1st Corinthians, though it was probably written after an earlier letter from Paul, now-lost, but prior to the follow-up epistle one famous person recently misnamed “Two Corinthians.” Second Corinthians might actually have been preceded by an additional letter to the church at Corinth that has not survived.
The Apostle Paul did what I will not do: he continued to advise the church he started after he moved on. The Corinthians, of course, had no new pastor replacing Paul at that time nor a Conference Minister to turn to. The Corinthians also lacked 2000 years of Church history and Christian scripture to ground them in the ways of Jesus. The Gospels had not yet been composed! While Paul was planting other churches in other parts of the Roman Empire, he continued to write a few pastoral letters to that fledgling congregation whom he loved but who were struggling to be Christ’s church. In those unimaginably challenging circumstances, the church at Corinth—and others like it in other locations—were the beginnings of the universal Church of Jesus.
During Advent I usually choose to preach from the lectionary’s Gospel readings or the Hebrew prophet scriptures assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary, but today’s Epistle lection spoke to me this week in a fresh way about hope, the gift we celebrate every year on the first Sunday of Advent. At a difficult time, Paul was offering hope to the church he founded. He did so by expressing thanksgiving for them, encouraging them toward the work ahead, assuring them they were gifted to do all that would be required for the next phase of their journey. Which is what I want to express to you, my friends. I want to use Paul’s very words to say to you that “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end” (I Corinthians 1:7-8).
Paul’s words might sound to you all the more daring when you recall they were uttered to a floundering group of early Jesus followers forging a branch of Judaism that included non-Jews in a time of religious persecution. Just a year or so after founding the church, Paul had left Corinth to start another church. How could he have had such high hopes that his fledgling congregation would survive this transition?
For the answer to that question we return to Paul’s words to the Corinthians. These church members were “not lacking in any spiritual gifts” (I Corinthians 1:7)—the greatest, as he would name later in this missive, being love (1 Corinthians 13:13). Friends, you have demonstrated this greatest of spiritual gifts. Open Table is not a perfect faith community, but you have loved one another selflessly and extravagantly. You pray for each other and encourage and forgive and patiently serve one another as well as the larger world. Paul said it better than anyone: “Faith, Hope and LOVE abide, and the greatest gift is LOVE.” But right next to that foundational virtue of love, Paul placed HOPE, which makes love possible. If you don’t have hope that your child or spouse or friend can do better next time . . . if you don’t have hope that your church can be more than its least Christlike member . . . if you don’t have hope that the church’s future can be greater than its past . . . then you cannot persist in the work of love, you cannot risk your whole heart, you cannot forgive and move forward, you cannot work toward deeper a relationship, you cannot live into God’s future.
Paul’s hope for the Corinthian church was also founded on his practice of entrusting others to lead as he moved on from one church to the next.
Paul’s hope allowed him to thank God for the grace given to the Corinthians because they could imagine a new thing, a new way for them to be the church without him. Paul’s hope was bolstered by his boundless gratitude for the Corinthians bold response to Jesus’s inclusive Gospel. Paul encouraged them to “wait” (v. 7) for what was yet to be revealed–something new and maybe completely unexpected. Paul was absent from them, but he assured them more was yet to be revealed. As the rest of this epistle will show, this kind of waiting is not passive, nor is HOPE.
Many of us read some months ago the book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy (1). The authors’ intention was to address climate change not by passively wishing for change but by actively working for change. I want to suggest that–before most of you ever meet your next pastor–you recognize you can choose a hopeful future, not by passively waiting for that new pastor to meet your expectations but by actively participating in bringing about your hopes for Open Table and our larger community. No wonder the Advent season begins with the gift of HOPE.
But hope can’t be handed to us. Wishing the next chapter in Open Table’s life will be vital and meaningful to you and our community is not “active hope.” To quote from the book: “Active hope is a practice. . . a process . . . It doesn’t require our optimism” (3). It’s an action, not a feeling.
Open Table, we are at a turning point. The next chapter for Open Table has less to do with what you will feel about your next pastor and more how you will act to bring about your hopes. Hope requires courage, and hope is necessary for change to be embraced.
One of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard, wrote: “I wake expectant, hoping to see a new thing” (2). May this be our disposition, Open Table. May we accept the advent gift of hope in order to embrace the new and the next.
My prayer and my hope, dear friends, is that you will have the courage to hope, to welcome what is coming, to be open to fresh perspective, to greet a new friend, to grow in new ways, to embrace your next pastor who is surely eager to embrace you.
(1) Macy, Joanna and Chris Johnstone, 2012. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. New World Library: Novato, CA.
(2) Dillard, Annie, 1974. Pilgrim and Tinker Creek.Harper and Row: New York.