1 Corinthians 1.1-9
If we look at the lives of those who make it into the news today, we may be disappointed by the way they live. Members of parliament stir up racial divisions with unfounded claims about African crime; male celebrities abuse the women around them; and professional athletes take performance-enhancing drugs. They are all reflect ordinary human life and relationships, even though we might wish they were better role models. But just as with our families, we always hope for something better, and we are seriously disappointed when they are not.
This is especially true of the church, which we expect to offer a model of goodness to the world. Yet just about anyone can tell you the terrible things Christians have done down through history. Child abuse is just the most recent and most notorious.
Surprisingly, the bible is quite open about the lack of godliness among some of the first Christians, particularly in the church in a town called Corinth in Greece. St Paul took the good news of Jesus to Corinth and established the first church there.
The Christian church in Corinth had many problems. It had people jockeying for position, people concerned about power and influence and who was most important; it had people who competed with one another for spiritual knowledge; it had people who did not know how to give generously of their money. Much like the world today, it suffered from celebrity fever; they had factions, they had envy and hatred at times for each other; and they had those who thought they were so spiritually superior that they could live as they liked. The church in Corinth was a lively place.
And yet, St Paul could write to them and say how much he thanked God for the fantastic way they had become open to God and God’s gifts. The reason he could say that is because when God looks at those who have come into his family, he doesn’t see us the way the world sees us, even though we are sinful like everyone else. When we have become members of God’s family in baptism, God sees the sacrifice Jesus made of himself on the cross, not the things we have done wrong. When Jesus died on the cross, he took with him our sin, and gave to us his goodness, setting us free. In his risen life he gave us his Holy Spirit, and the grace for our lives to be transformed according to the ways of God.
St Paul in his letter says that he writes to those who are called to be saints – by this he meant everyone in the church in Corinth, because he says that he writes to ‘the church of God in Corinth.’
Right away he tackles one of their greatest weaknesses, which was to think too highly of themselves. He writes to the ‘church of God in Corinth’: it is first of all the ‘church of God,’ it belongs to God, not to them, not to Paul, not to any other sensational, amazing Christian. It is God’s church.
St Paul writes to all of them in Corinth, to the whole church – he does not mention parties or factions, or even any leaders – he makes his appeal to all of them, the church of God in Corinth. Paul could just as well have written, ‘We are sending this letter to you, the members of God’s church in Dallas.’ We have been called to be saints.
Now the Corinthians were not a particularly holy people by human standards, but Paul can still say that they are ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’ – sanctified means holy. The people in the church in Corinth were becoming God’s holy people as they set their hearts and minds on God’s love in and through Jesus. What God has done in Jesus, giving him to die for them, was making them his new people, his holy people.
St Paul chooses an unusual word to describe what is happening to the Corinthians: they are sanctified. To be holy or sanctified means to be set aside purposefully for God.
I expect everyone here has some sanctified things around the house: maybe you have an old pair of garden pruners, used lovingly in your family for a generation, to do the winter cutting back – or whenever it is you do pruning, I’m not much of a gardener. Or what about a favourite old woolly jumper, with all its holes and tears – you put in on to relax in, because it automatically speaks to you of some DIY project or Sunday afternoon and putting your feet up. It is a sanctified jumper. Or that special pair of trainers that smells and looks awful, but speaks to you of the day off and doing nothing much. Things like these we have set apart in our lives, because they are special, and well-loved, and have a special purpose. They are sanctified.
Every Christian has been set aside for God’s use, and so is sanctified. We are well-loved by God, with all our faults and weaknesses; we were made for God’s purposes, and he wants to use us fully for those purposes. This is the way one modern bible translation describes the word sanctified: we are Christians who are cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.
St Paul’s concept of holiness is usually described in things we can see about behaviour. We often start there, in looking at ourselves and in the way we look at others: how does someone behave? Are they kind, are they helpful, are they loving; do they stand up for what is right and true? But in bible terms, before we do any self-examination, the first thing to be said about any Christian is that we are cleaned up by Jesus – because the clean-up has been done by Jesus, and his clean-up is complete, not partial. His death on the cross was perfectly effective for this clean-up.
God doesn’t stand over us wagging a finger. He sends his Son into the world to defeat evil with forgiveness and love. And we all have been cleaned up by Jesus. There is no room for anyone to rely on our own goodness. No one meets the standard God has set. But we have been cleaned up by Jesus. No one in the kingdom of God has not been cleaned up by Jesus. Pride in ourselves is out; thanks for God’s work in Jesus is in.
And now we are set apart, sanctified, for a God-filled life. We have become for the world that wonderful holey jumper or smelly pair of trainers; we might think we are useless in ourselves, but we are becoming something special for others because of what God has done in our lives. We have been set apart to make a difference here in this community of Dallas.
As our new facilities begin to be used, as we invite people to share in the community garden, or do interesting things in the hall, as the op shop and men’s shed become ready, we have a very high purpose, so high that it reaches to heaven. That purpose is to reveal the love of God in this place. Because we have been set apart, to be God’s saints, to be the church of God in Dallas.