A couple of weeks ago, the son of friends of ours turned one, and instead of gifts, we were all asked to write him a letter that he would open when he turns seventeen. Because my handwriting is horrendous, I sat down at my computer and typed out this letter, and I opened it the way I open all my letters: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
That might not be the typical way of beginning a letter to a seventeen year old, but it’s fairly typical for a priest to open that way, at least I hope it is. We get that line from St. Paul, who used the line fairly consistently in his letters. Paul wrote his letters like they might someday end up in Holy Scripture, or maybe it just feels like that since what we have of Paul did end up in Holy Scripture.
Two things stand out in the first little paragraph that we get today from Paul, and they’re worth talking about. The first thing for me is the inclusion of a second sender, Sosthenes, about whom we know very little. There are few clues in the Bible, and although a person named Sosthenes is mentioned twice, we’re not even sure if they’re the same Sosthenes. One Sosthenes “was the chief ruler of the synagogue at Corinth, who, according to the New Testament, was seized and beaten by the mob in the presence of Gallio, the Roman governor, when he refused to proceed against Paul at the instigation of the Jews.”1 The other Sosthenes, if it is another one, is the aforementioned co-author of First Corinthians, and it would make sense that they are one in the same. If Sosthenes not only defended Paul but also converted to Christianity, we see some good evidence that even some of the big-time players in Jewish circles were converting early on.
“The most striking feature in this heading, however, is Paul’s emphasis on the universality of the Church. He reminds the Corinthians that they are the Church of God “which is at Corinth.” They are not the Corinthian Church, but rather THE CHURCH which happens to be at Corinth.
“They are the local embodiment of the universal Ecclesia (the Catholic Church). There can be only one people of God, and each congregation is nothing by itself but is only a manifestation of that one people.” That makes sense from a theological standpoint, but why is that important to Paul and Sosthenes as they write the letter?
“Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are not alone—they are called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that that Lord is the Lord of those other churches as well as their own. The Corinthians were engrossed in their own spiritual progress and their own problems. They were acting like a Congregational Church, a separate body, dependent only on itself. “They were congregational in a bad sense, in that they thought they were the whole people of God, living on their own.”2
Doan and I traveled to Phoenix this past week – we attended the wedding of Mother Holly Davis, our friend from seminary, and Darren Herring, a bass in Holly’s choir. We flew to Phoenix and eventually made our way to All Saint’s Church for the service, and as these clergy weddings go, it was filthy with churchy people from all over: Phoenix, Gloucester, Erie, Franklin, Georgetown KY, Seattle, San Diego, Bethlehem, Bordentown (yay!). It was immediately evident that THE CHURCH had gathered at A CHURCH; we were all in this together.
St. Paul wrote this letter to the Church at Corinth for several reasons. For discipline, yes, to set them straight on any number of issues, and to remind them that they were not somehow special because they were in that great city. But along with the reprimands came this great comfort: you are not alone, nor are you defenseless or without counsel.
Nor are we alone, tossed to and fro by winds of doctrine or waves of politics. Not only do we have each other just here in this parish, but we have our ancestors in the Faith leaving us letters; we have the support and prayers of our brothers and sisters in Phoenix, Gloucester, Erie, Franklin, Georgetown, Seattle, San Diego, Bethlehem, and indeed, around the world, and they have ours. May our greeting to them always be “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
2Reginald H. Fuller: http://liturgy.slu.edu/2OrdA011517/theword_indepth.html