A Simple "Thank You" Will Do
I Corinthians 1:1-9
The ancient city of Corinth had quite a reputation. “From the time of Aristophanes on,” writes Frederick Buechner, “the city could even claim the distinction of having its name made into a verb. To ‘corinthianize’ meant to go to the dogs.
“Situated on the narrow isthmus that connects Greece proper with the Peloponnesus, Corinth was a major center for trade and shipping. Its population was largely immigrant, and sailors from everywhere under the sun prowled its streets bringing their gods with them.
“The most striking geographical feature of the place was a steeply rising peak known as Acrocorinth, and on its summit . . . stood a temple to the goddess Aphrodite which according the Greek historian Strabo employed the services of one thousand sacred prostitutes. ‘Not every man should go to Corinth’ was an ancient byword whose reasonableness seems beyond challenge.”
In the book of Acts, Luke tells us the story of Paul’s journey to Corinth. Paul lived there with a Jewish couple, Priscilla and Aquila, did his leather work, and preached in the local synagogue until being kicked out because of his preaching about Jesus. Paul then set up a house church in the home of Titus Justus. For a year and a half, he preached there before leaving to begin a new church in Ephesus.
A few years later, Paul received a problem-filled letter from Corinth. First Corinthians is the beginning of Paul’s lengthy response to the problems that were occurring in the Corinthian church. It bears the signature of a worried parent whose children are not coping well when left home alone.
A favorite painting of mine hangs in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. It is a painting by Rembrant and is called “The Apostle Paul.” This painting shows an aging Paul sitting at a desk preparing to write a letter. In the painting, you can see the burden of this task as his eyes reveal the frustration and puzzlement of how best to respond to all the problems arising in churches he had started.
Whenever I see this painting, I am convinced that the church in Corinth is the cause of Paul’s forlorn look. For if ancient Corinth was one of the wildest cities of its day, the church in Corinth was definitely one of the wildest churches.
There is an old proverb that warns, “a little bit of knowledge is dangerous.” The church in Corinth was living proof of that proverb. Fred Craddock offers us some of the half-baked ideas in the Corinthian church that Paul needs to address:
Well, I say no one is a true Christian until that are filled with the Holy Spirit and can speak in tongues!
As for me, I know that my soul belongs to God, so I can do whatever I want with this earthly body. Christ has set me free not to worry about earthly matters. I can sleep with my wife or my neighbor’s wife; it hardly matters for Christ has set me free to live as I choose!
I think people are more comfortable sitting at the Lord’s Table with those of their own kind. Paul must be a fool to want us to sit together with people who are not at all like us.
I surely hope the three who went to see Paul know that they are just wasting their time. Chloe sends someone running to Paul every time one of us sneezes. Personally, I think when ministers leave a church they should stay gone and not keep writing back, much less always promising (or threatening) to return. And sending one of his helpers is useless; everyone knows associate ministers have no authority. (Fred Craddock, Interpretation, pp. 16-161).
Maybe a wild city is destined to produce a wild church. Maybe, though, the problems in Corinth resulted from people listening to the Gospel. Fred Craddock writes, “The gospel generates . . . a new set of problems. One has only to speak the truth and falsehood takes the stand with pleasing lies.
“Announce freedom in Christ Jesus and some turn a deaf ear to the call for restraint for the sake of the weaker brother or sister. Plant the cross in a room and the upwardly mobile convert it into a ladder.”
Given all of these problems in the Corinthian church, the first sentences of this letter are somewhat surprising. We expect Paul to begin his letter with some strong words and warnings. Instead, he writes, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to God always for you” (1:3-4). Come on, Paul, get serious. You “give thanks” for a congregation that misunderstands the more of the gospel than it understands and gives you a bad case of heartburn?!
Tough words from Paul will follow in this long letter. He does not pretend that there are not serious problems to address. But, Paul’s first words to a congregation that is a constant source of irritation are “I give thanks to God always for you.”
What is Paul thinking? Can he possibly be telling the truth? Is he just softening them up for the kill? In the childhood tale, Beauty and the Beast, Fred Buchner writes, “Beauty does not love the Beast because he is beautiful, but makes him beautiful by loving him.”
Paul had seen something beautiful in this sometimes, beastly group of Corinthians. He refuses to lose sight of that amid all their problems. So, he gives thanks for them and to them before he says another word. Hymnwriter and poet, Tom Troeger, writes, “Because Paul begins with the grace and peace and faithfulness of God, he is able to see the church for what it is, not just the perfectly obvious mess, but the sublime and mysterious reality that is already fully present in the congregation.”
Paul begins this letter with thanks. If I could rewind my life as a husband, a father, a friend, a pastor, a colleague, I would pay more attention to how Paul starts this letter. I would learn that even when I have a hard conversation ahead, I will begin that conversation with thanks, genuine thanks.
Never too old to learn, let me give it a try and start with Josh. Josh, I give thanks to God for you, for how you welcomed me to Cove even before I moved here from Atlanta, for how you have supported me and my ministry here even while living in the distant land of Richmond. I applaud the wisdom of First Presbyterian Church in Richmond that has called you to be one of its pastors and I will pray for you as you assume that new call. I give thanks for you, for Jillian, and for Norah.
Now, let me expand my audience. I hope each one of you knows how grateful to God I am for you. But how can you know of my gratitude unless I tell you and tell you often? How can anyone know how grateful we are for them unless we tell them? And, how can people hear our genuine concerns if they only hear our irregular gratitude?
When we only say what bothers us, we begin to think of ourselves as superior to others. Even worse, we begin to believe that we do not need each other. We create a problem that is as old as the church in Corinth and one to which Paul responds, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’ . . . on the contrary you are the body of Christ and members of it.” We are simply not the church of Jesus Christ without each other. We are not Cove Church without each other. Simple as that.
Okay, then, I have learned from Paul. I have expressed my gratitude to Josh, to Cove and to each of you, now, get comfortable because here comes my list of complaints! Well, actually, I lost that list, or more honestly, that list is so short and of so little consequence that it bears no mention.
So, come to the table of our Lord today knowing that you are eating and drinking with people that God loves and people that you and I need. Leave the table today to go into a world that needs to hear more than our critiques and complaints, a world that needs to hear our words of appreciation, our expressions of thanks, our heartfelt gratitude.
Leave today knowing that I give thanks to God always for you. Leave today thinking about who is just waiting to hear words of appreciation, thanks, and gratitude from you. Say those words to them and watch Christmas joy arrive even the heat of August.
I give thanks to God always for you.