The Baptism of Christ, Guido Reni, 1622-1623,
Kunsthistorisches Museum (Vienna)
John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said,
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Corinthians 1:1–3
January 15, 2023
What a difference a half century makes. I was first taught the conventions of letter writing in the time of St. Paul about 1973. I admired that the structure was clear but allowed for considerable creativity. We will see this week and next how Paul accepts the techniques for a formal opening but adapts them for his needs. The importance of letters, however, eluded me. They held that a well-written letter made the person present. They would even use the word “/Parousia/” which we use for the return of Jesus for the presence of the author. This seemed extreme.
At the time of my formal introduction to the Bible in the seminary, letters were the most popular means of communication. There were only two public phones for over 100 people and a phone call was expensive. So, we wrote letters usually by hand. Except for thank you and condolence letters I stopped writing them with the introduction of email, texting, and WhatsApp. An incident during the COVID lockdown, however, taught me the power of a well-constructed letter. I didn’t have the digital contact information for one of our young professionals, so I sent her a letter asking how she was. She called me and told me it was the first personal letter she had ever received and how much it meant to her. Something is conveyed in a letter that cannot be emailed, texted, or certainly tweeted.
Paul wrote letters not Gospels or apocalypses for a reason. He understood their ability to connect with people. This is especially apparent with letters like 1 Thessalonians and Galatians where he founded the churches and knew the people well. It is in many ways clearest with his letters to the Corinthians. He founded this church and although they were a difficult group loved them dearly and worried about them. We begin 1 Corinthians this week and will read it until the beginning of Lent. We read the last chapters of this letter last year and will read from the beginning this year. Further information about this letter may be found here.
Paul follows contemporary practice and provides the identification of the sender, the identification of the receiver, and a greeting at the very beginning. He will also include a thanksgiving for the virtutes of the recipients that will follow the greeting.
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus
by the will of God, and
/Sosthenes our brother/
(1 Co 1:1)
He begins immediately with who is sending it. If this was sent on scroll this would be the first word that would be read. As we said above, a letter reflected the presence of a person. But what presence? We are more than one dimensional.
Paul today is sending it as an apostle. An apostle is a messenger and Paul is the first person to use it in a Christian context. It is, however, a special messenger, one who represents a group and can bind that group to a decision. This was a necessity in the ancient world that did not have instant communications. The Jews called such representatives šālîaḥ. Paul’s presence in this letter is not as a friend or even fellow Christian but as an apostle, a person with a message from God but never in isolation from the wider Christian community.
He is careful to remind the Corinthians that an apostle is not self-proclaimed and although he speaks for the Church, it is not the church that appoints him. He was called by God to be the apostle of Christ Jesus.
He also includes Sosthenes. He may have been the same Sosthenes who was a synagogue leader in Corinth beaten by angry Jews when Paul was on trial in Corinth (Ac 18:12–17). That is not important. It is important that Paul includes him as a co-sender and addresses him as brother. Paul does not wish to be seen as acting alone. He is not a religious lone ranger but always a person of the community.
He next states to whom he is writing the letter:
To the church of God that is in Corinth,
To you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus,
called to be holy,
with all those everywhere/
who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
their Lord and ours.
(1 Co 1:2)
Although he clearly knows individuals in Corinth, he wrote for the instruction for an individual or the elite but for everyone. By this time, the church met in several locations. The church began in houses and when Paul wrote Christians might have numbered several hundred people and needed more than one meeting place. The “worldwide” church had an undeveloped structure, but it had one nonetheless and Paul was seeking to acknowledge it and work within it.
He also now subtly previews the concerns that caused him to write the letter. He tells his hearers that they have been “sanctified” and thus “made holy.” Holiness assumed separation from the world, but Paul recognizes that they are in the world. This will be a key theme of the letter. They are made holy however in the same way that Paul became an apostle, by the authority and power of Christ Jesus. Note both words: Christ means anointed one. The Messiah, Jesus is the person who was anointed. Christ Jesus could be understood only as the Jewish messiah, not a vaguely divine power.
Again, he emphasizes that the connections with other Christians who he defines as those who call upon the Lord. This was expression used more than 1,000 times in the Hebrew Scriptures for recognizing the power of God and asking for his mercy. A clear example can be found in the book of Joel.
Then everyone shall be rescued
who calls on the name of the LORD
Christians are bound to each other and cannot go off on their own. This will connect with the other main themes he will introduce in the 1st chapter: unity and the charisms (special gifts).
But before that he gives a blessing.
Grace to you
and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Co 1:3)
As we saw when we examined first Corinthians previously the community was divided in many ways. One was between those born Jews and those born Gentile. He recognizes this in his blessing.
For grace he uses Charis, which sounds like chairein (rejoice), the usual greeting for Greeks. He then uses Eirene, the Greek equivalent for the Jewish greeting shalom, peace. But it is peace in the fully Jewish sense, harmony between God and humans, humanity itself and humanity and nature. He is also clear that rejoicing and harmony can come only from the God revealed as Father by Jesus.
Paul next includes a thanksgiving. This is a not uncommon feature of ancient letter writing and one Paul uses frequently to tell people why he is writing.
So that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
(1 Co 1:7)
Paul acknowledges that the Corinthians have spiritual gifts, but he will show them how to use them more maturely.
He will also tell them about the main reason for the letter internal divisions:
Urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that all of you agree in what you say,
and that there be no divisions among you,
but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.
(1 Co 1:10)
We will see next week how he will elegantly begin the body of the letter after this to address the importance of unity.
The Gospel for this season, although not today, will be from Matthew. He also ministered to a divided community and will come to the same conclusions as Paul. Matthew wrote after Paul and as a resident pastor and will be much more practical, but Paul is a great coach. As we seek to prepare our parish and the wider Catholic community of downtown Brooklyn together, we can expect to learn from them both.