Sunday January 19th 2020
Pastor Galen Zook
Isaiah 49:5-7; 1 Cor. 1:1-9
Imagine with me that you are about to receive a performance evaluation at work.
Or for those of you in school, that you have been called to the principal’s office, or told to stay after class to meet with your professor. How would you feel?
Many of us probably dread such occasions. It’s scary to get feedback on how we’re doing, especially when we have no idea what our employer or instructor is going to say.
Now, there are good ways and there are bad ways to do performance evaluations. The ideal scenario is that negative feedback does not come as a surprise, and that a performance evaluation is a summation of things that have already been communicated by the employer or instructor on some prior occasion.
The worst performance review that I’ve ever heard of happened to a friend of mine who was the principal of a school. The chairperson of the school board did not notify my friend that she was going to be getting a performance review, and simply sent the review to her in the mail — completely out of the blue. When my friend opened the letter containing her performance review, she discovered that the evaluation consisted of a collection of feedback — positive and negative, but mostly negative — from various members of the school board, teachers, and parents of the school. The feedback was given in no particular order with no context as to why it was being given. It contained no personalized note from the sender. It was sort of like getting Yelp reviews, or comments on a YouTube video, sent to you in the mail from your boss! Not a very fun experience, and probably not the most helpful way to give feedback.
Good supervisors or teachers, on the other hand, generally begin by stating the positives, building trust with the employee or pupil by stating some of the wonderful things that they have done, before moving on to present opportunities for growth in ways that are affirming, but also clear, so that the person being given the feedback can improve their performance. Good bosses and teachers want those in their charge to improve, and so giving critical feedback is important and significant. But it matters how that feedback is given.
Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians
The book of 1st Corinthians is essentially a performance review sent from the Apostle Paul and someone by the name of Sosthenes to the church in Corinth. Paul had planted the church in Corinth some years prior, and Sosthenes was most likely the former chief ruler of the synagogue in Corinth that we read about in Acts 18:12-17 who had been seized and beaten by the mob in the presence of the Roman governor, when he refused to proceed against Paul. Apparently Sosthenes is now a follower of Christ, since Paul refers to him as “our brother” (1 Cor. 1:1), and perhaps Sosthenes came to visit Paul and give him some news from the church in Corinth.
As we will see later on in our study of 1st Corinthians, the Corinthian church has some critical areas where they are in much need of improvement — which is why Paul is writing. The congregation seems to be divided, and some people seem to be placing pride in their own particular spiritual gifts, holding themselves up above others in the congregation, among other things, and Paul wants to give them guidance and correction.
Paul, as a good supervisor or instructor, begins by stating the positive qualities of the Corinthian church, extolling their virtues and acknowledging the good things that they are doing, before moving on to the areas where they are in need of improvement.
In the first few verses, Paul refers to them as “sanctified” and as “saints” — rather high praise! Of course, the word “saints” is not quite what we imagine it to mean today. The words “sanctified” and “saints” here refer to people who have been set apart, chosen for a particular purpose — not necessarily people who are perfect or completely righteous, as we might think. Paul reminds that they are set apart, chosen, for a particular purpose.
Paul also gently reminds them that they are part of the global body of Christ. They are “called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2).
This is Paul’s way of saying, “you are special and unique, just like everyone else!” They are indeed chosen, set apart, unique, and special, but they are not better than everyone else, and in deed they are part of God’s church throughout the world, made up of people who are special and unique just like them.
Paul goes on to say, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:4). Paul is really good at encouraging people without flattering them. He isn’t puffing them up, so much as reminding them that the source of their goodness is Christ. Their good qualities have been given to them by Jesus.
Speech and Knowledge
Paul then goes on to acknowledge their gifts of “speech and knowledge of every kind” (1 Cor. 1:5). Apparently the Corinthian church was full of expert speakers, and they found a lot of pride in their great speaking abilities. This was especially significant in their culture because the famous Isthmian Games were held only about 10 miles away from Corinth. These games had been held every two years starting back in the 6th century B.C. In addition to foot races, wrestling, boxing, and chariot racing, there were also contests for music, poetry, and rhetoric (public speaking). The Corinthians were knowledgeable on a variety of topics, a trait that was highly valued in their society. “Knowledge was associated with philosophical wisdom or the ability to speak extemporaneously [impromptu] on any topic.”
Of course later on in this letter to the Corinthian church, Paul will remind them that wonderful speaking abilities and vast amounts of knowledge are worthless without love. He will tell them, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1,2).
And so in these first few verses, Paul is laying out the positive traits of the Corinthian church. He is extolling their virtues, and building them up, but reminding them that their good gifts come from Christ, so that they will be more open to his gentle rebuke and correction later on. They are indeed wonderful speakers, and they do indeed have a lot of wonderful knowledge, and those gifts have been enriched in them through Christ. But their wonderful gifts and traits must be exercised in love for one another.
Not Lacking In Any Spiritual Gift
And then Paul goes on to speak words over the Corinthian church that are so beautiful and profound. Paul tells them “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7).
“You are not lacking.” Imagine if you heard those words during your next performance review or meeting with your teacher! “You’re not lacking. You’re good to go!” “You have what it takes — you don’t need anything else!” That would be pretty amazing, wouldn’t it?
But of course the “you” here is plural. Paul is not saying that any individual person in the Corinthian church has all of the spiritual gifts, but rather that collectively, together as a community, they have been given everything that they need in order to function. Together as a community, they are not lacking anything.
We Are Not Lacking
Now, although these words were written about 2,000 years ago to a church community on the other side of the world, if Paul were writing a letter to us today here at Hampden United Methodist Church, I believe he would tell us the same thing. God has given us all of the spiritual gifts that we need right here in this room. None of us individually has all of the spiritual gifts — and that’s OK! We don’t need to all be great at everything. But we have everything we need right here, as long as we work together as a community.
The truth is that it’s easy for us to focus on what we don’t have, or perhaps to pine for what we used to have. Perhaps you remember the days when our church was bursting at the seams, when it was difficult to find a place to sit in this sanctuary. Perhaps you remember the days when we were overflowing with volunteers, or when our church coffers were full.
It’s easy for us to look around, and to focus on what we don’t have, on where we feel that we as a community are lacking. But I believe that God has called and equipped us to minister in this time and in this place. God has called us and given us what we need in order to minister, not in the world and neighborhood as it once was, but in the world as it is now.
Our neighborhood and our city are changing. Hampden is not the same as it was 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago. And although a lot of people may have come and gone since then, I believe that God has given us exactly what we need to minister in this time and in this place, to the people who are out and about in our community right now. There are people right outside our doors who are in need of love. Encouragement. Hope. People who are longing to be set free, people who are longing to connect with God.
We may not be able to solve every problem in our community, but we can point them to the One who can! God has given us exactly what we need in order to accomplish the mission that God has for us right now.
And so I’d like to read these verses to us again — this time from The Message paraphrase, since I think this is how Paul’s words would sound if they were written today. And I’d like us to hear these words spoken, not as words spoken to some distant community in ancient times, but as fresh words spoken over us today here at Hampden United Methodist Church:
Every time I think of you—and I think of you often!—I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus. There’s no end to what has happened in you—it’s beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives. Just think—you don’t need a thing, you’ve got it all! All God’s gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that.
— I Cor. 1:4-9 MSG