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Second Sunday after the Epiphany:
A Gracious Calling
19 January 2020
Sermon text: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9.
No one who has answered the call of Christ has ever regretted the ending.
St. Paul spent years carrying the gospel throughout the eastern half of the Roman Empire. His trips had taken him through the areas of modern Turkey and Greece. He had encountered strange customs, heard new languages, and met new friends along the way.
St. Paul had also experienced numerous trials along the way. You can read his list of dangers and troubles in another letter he wrote to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11). Answering the call of Christ brought great joy to St. Paul, but it also brought its share of pain and anguish as well.
Still, St. Paul could write to the Corinthians about the call of Christ, knowing for certain that the end of his journey in life would bring him to endless joy and glory.
As we go through the Epiphany season, the season in which we emphasize the proclamation of Christ to the world, we should praise God for calling us as well. The sermon text today reminds us that God calls us and empowers us to proclaim Jesus to everyone in our lives.
St. Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus in c. A.D. 55 to address various issues in the church. I know people today think that churches have troubles. I know churches have troubles. I also know I would hate to pastor a church as troubled as the Corinthian church. Anyone who thinks that Christians live perfect lives should read this letter to get some idea of how badly Christians can go wrong.
St. Paul opened the letter by reminding the Corinthians of the source of his calling: “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus,” he said, reminding them that he did not seek his calling, nor did he choose it of his own volition. Instead, God Himself had called St. Paul to the apostleship.
St. Paul also included “our brother Sosthenes” as either a co-author or at least contributor of this letter. We find Sosthenes mentioned in St. Luke’s account of St. Paul’s first visit to Corinth, when the rabble of the city dragged him before the Roman governor and beat him (Acts 18). Sosthenes had succeeded the previous ruler of the synagogue, Crispus, when Crispus had become a Christian. Apparently, Sosthenes had become a Christian after the riot. St. Paul had left Corinth and traveled to Ephesus to start a church there, and Sosthenes had apparently found him.
St. Paul wrote “to the church of God that is in Corinth.” The church included all “those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” The word “sanctified” implies a setting aside for holy purposes. When God saves us by forgiving our sins and sending the Holy Spirit to live within us, He sets us aside for His purposes so that we will walk in His ways.
The call to sanctification also unites us to all all “called to be saints together.” The Holy Spirit will always draw believers together. God will always expect Christians to join together in worship and service. God unites us with believers in our congregation, but He also unites us “with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” In the Church, the Corinthian believers united with believers throughout the Roman Empire. This meant, as St. Paul would remind them in this letter, that their behavior reflected on the identity of the entire Church. Every believer and every congregation must act in ways that reflect the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.
St. Paul wished the Corinthians “grace” and “peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Almost every personal letter in the time of St. Paul wished “grace” to the recipient. St. Paul took this standard opening and modified it to remind his recipients of the grace of God — the undeserved merit He bestows on all believers — and of the peace we receive because we know Jesus. St. Paul would later inform the Romans that “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
St. Paul gave thanks to God for the Corinthians because “ every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge.” As Greeks, the Corinthians boasted of a long heritage of knowledge. The Greeks developed the intellectual life more than any other ancient Western civilization. Through the Scriptures and the teaching of St. Paul, God gave the Corinthians the knowledge to live as believers who would bear witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit within them. This happened “even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among” the church. God confirmed their testimony by blessing this church with “gifts” of the Spirit that empowered them to reach people throughout the Roman world.
The Corinthians bore the responsibility of using their gifts for Christ until His “revealing.” The Church has always taught that we believe Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. We have always taught that we believe in the life everlasting. Christ would “sustain” them “to the end.” Until Jesus returned, the Corinthians bore the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel.
The Corinthian believers could rely on God to keep a promise made to all believers: they would appear before Christ as “guiltless.” This letter clearly reveals that St. Paul didn’t imply the Corinthians remained sinless! Some of the sins listed in this letter will baffle most readers. Instead, the Corinthians could rest assured that with His death on the cross, Christ had paid the penalty for the sins of the world (John 1:29). As I quoted from Romans earlier, all Christians will stand before God “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1). This “justification” means that God will look on us, even as sinners, and see us as worthy to stand before Him because of our faith in Jesus and His payment of our sins.
We know we can trust God to keep these promises because “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” God will faithfully preserve His people, forgiving us of our sins and preserving us into eternal fellowship with Jesus Himself. St. John will later write of a new heaven and new earth in which he will hear, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). In this life, the Corinthians lived in fellowship with Jesus by faith. In the life to come, they would join all believers in living with Jesus face to face.
Do these promises hold true today? Can believers still rely on God to preserve us as we fulfill our calling to proclaim the gospel?
Most people who read St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians would wonder how God could preserve such people. They seemed contentious, prideful, selfish, and vain. Unfortunately, these adjectives still describe many in the Church today. If God didn’t give up on the Corinthians, He won’t give up on us.
God has given us a calling. I know most people today hear “calling” and think “ministry.” Everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, receives the calling to proclaim the gospel (Romans 10:9-10) as part of our salvation. We should want to tell people when good things happen to us! How much better can we receive than fellowship with God, our Creator?
We understand we do not deserve this calling. It puzzles me when people look at Christians and expect perfection. St. Paul would write of a “thorn in the flesh” that hindered him in his ministry. When he prayed for its removal, God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Do you understand the meaning of this, its implications? God doesn’t call only the wealthy, the powerful, the rich, the famous, the attractive, the intelligent. God calls everyone to salvation! Jesus said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). Everyone who hears the gospel — the good news of Jesus crucified, risen, and coming again — receives a call to salvation, to believe in Jesus and confess Him as Lord of his life.
Once we believe in Jesus, we must join with other believers to worship and work to proclaim the gospel. We cannot fulfill our calling by ourselves. God calls us to encourage one another as we fellowship and worship together. We invite others to join us and accept everyone who comes seeking a relationship with God.
Some will say, “What about the sinners?” Yes! The religious leadership of His time accused Jesus of eating with “sinners.” Why can’t we worship with sinners? We all bear the title of “sinner!” Those of us who have confessed Jesus as Lord still sin. We cannot hold the sins of others against them. The Church accepts everyone who genuinely seeks a relationship with Christ, understanding that Jesus loves us enough to accept us but loves us too much to allow us to remain as we find Him. I love the words to the hymn “Christ Receiveth Sinful Men,” written by Erdmann Neumeister in 1718:
Sinners Jesus will receive; Sound this word of grace to all
Who the heavenly pathway leave, All who linger, all who fall.
Come, and He will give you rest; Trust Him, for His word is plain;
He will take the sinfulest; Christ receiveth sinful men.
Now my heart condemns me not, Pure before the law I stand;
He who cleansed me from all spot, Satisfied its last demand.
Christ receiveth sinful men, Even me with all my sin;
Purged from every spot and stain, Heaven with Him I enter in.
Sing it o’er and o’er again; Christ receiveth sinful men;
Make the message clear and plain: Christ receiveth sinful men.
Christians, we have graciously received the most important calling we will ever receive: The calling to tell the world that “Christ receiveth sinful men.” In this season, in this year, give your calling the top priority. Let the world know that the Christ who receives sinners will redeem us all and give us eternal life.