Thursday of Week 21 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Today we begin reading from the First Letter of Paul to the Christians in the southern Greek city of Corinth. Paul had gone there after his dismal failure with the sophisticated citizens of Athens. Here, in a city of very mixed population and with not a terribly good reputation for its morals, he did very much better. This letter is one of the most important documents of the New Testament and contains some of Paul’s most central teaching. So we will be staying with this letter up to the end of Week 24 – three and a half weeks altogether.

As is usual in letters of the period, Paul begins by identifying himself and numbers himself among the apostles called by God. In its original meaning ‘apostle’ means ‘someone who is sent on a mission or with a message to communicate’. In the New Testament the word can be use in a general sense about someone who is sent on a mission (Greek verb, apostello). More particularly it is used of the Twelve we meet in the gospels but was also applied later to Paul (who calls himself “the least of the Apostles”). The title is also sometimes given to a wider group including Barnabas, James “the brother of the Lord” and possibly Andronicus and Junias, whom we meet in the Letter to the Romans.

Paul uses the title of himself in most of his letters to affirm his authority as a messenger of Christ, an authority that was sometimes challenged. He reinforces his claim here by adding “by the will of God”. In other words, he is not self-appointed.

The greeting also contains the name of Sosthenes, who may possibly be the synagogue ruler who was attacked by his fellow-Jews in Corinth when their complaint against Paul was rejected by Gallio, the pro-consul of the local province of Achaia. (The story occurs in Acts 18 and also in the First Reading of Friday in the 6th week of Easter.) If it is the same person, then he must have become a Christian either while Paul was preaching in Corinth or during the ministry of Apollos.

Paul addresses his letter to the “church of God in Corinth”. “Church of God” is one of his favourite expressions and used only by him. It refers to the community of Christians gathered together, often in one of their homes. Its Old Testament counterpart is “assembly (or community) of the Lord”. At this stage there is no formal building or institutional structure.

He also calls them a people “sanctified”, made holy in Christ. This refers not so much to their behaviour – for, as Paul will not hesitate to point out, they had many faults – but because they had been called, with Christians in other churches, to be a people set apart, distinguished by their commitment to the Way of Christ. The Greek word hagios , translated ‘holy’, means ‘set apart’ and the “saints” is a term used of all Christians in Paul’s letters and not just those outstanding in virtue.

The opening greeting ends with a blessing and prayer for the “grace and peace” of God the Father and the Lord Jesus, a greeting we now use in our Eucharistic liturgy.

“Grace” in Greek is charis and implies God’s love given gratuitously and not because it is deserved. No matter how good we are, God is never indebted to us. The first initiative of love always comes from God, never from us nor can we ever do anything to earn it. It is always there first waiting to be accepted by us.

The letter now properly begins with Paul uttering words of thanks for all the testimonies of God’s love, his “grace”, that have been showered on the Corinthians in Christ Jesus. He is especially thankful for the gifts of “speech and knowledge”, exemplified in their preachers and teachers. These are special gifts of the Spirit (mentioned later on among other gifts). ‘Speech’ is the gift of being able to proclaim the Gospel effectively. ‘Knowledge’ implies a deep understanding of the Gospel message and not just facts about the message.

The “witness to Christ”, which Paul gave to them, has not been at all in vain; on the contrary, it has clearly been confirmed by the gifts of the Spirit of Jesus which are evident among them. Those gifts of the Spirit enable them to serve the body of Christ, which is the Church, until the time when the Lord Jesus will be revealed at the end of time – the time of his final coming. Paul will speak at greater length about these gifts in chaps. 12-14.

According to those chapters, a spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit enabling one to minister to the needs of Christ’s body, the church. The gifts are not intended for oneself but to enable one to respond to the community’s needs. There are different gifts for different needs. (Notice that Jesus’ final coming is no longer seen as imminent, as in the Letter we read earlier in the week.)

They will need these gifts as they wait for the full revelation of Jesus Christ, when the hidden plans of God are to be made known. Then Christ will reveal himself at the end of time, the time of his parousia (final coming) and his Appearing. Before this, the “Man of Sin” will have ‘revealed’ himself, only to be destroyed by Christ (2 Thess 2:3-8).

And it is God who will give them the help they need to remain “steady and without blame” until “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” when he will return to take all his own to himself. By God calling them, they are united in a special way with Jesus Christ. (The ‘day of the Lord’ and its various forms was mentioned in our reading on Tuesday.)

And, he says in conclusion, “our God is faithful”. He is a God who always keeps his promises. His love is unchanging no matter what we may do. And he is the One who has called us into fellowship with him through Jesus Christ, his Son and our Lord.

Paul will have many criticisms to make of the Corinthians in the course of his letter but for now he begins with words of thanks for all the genuine good that he sees among them.

We can so easily be aware of the shortcomings of individuals and groups inside and outside the Church and we are not slow to express our views when we get together with others to gossip. But it is important for us to be able to see the good in every person, in groups of people and even in ourselves.

Let us always begin by being thankful for our blessings, for all the good things that we see in ourselves and all those around us. It is sad when we are not able to give genuine words of praise and appreciation.

And let us especially today reflect on the graces that God has poured into our own lives. Let us, on the one hand, thank him sincerely for them and, on the other, ask ourselves how we have used them for his love and service and the love and service of our brothers and sisters. After all, that is why they were given to us in the first place (we will hear more about that later in this letter).

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