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“Privilege usually works for those who have it,” writes John Pavlovitz in A Bigger Table, “unless they are so roused that they are able to see with fresh eyes and notice their blind spots and the great advantage in their experience.” Part of Paul’s task in writing to the Corinthian Christians is to rouse the privileged in the community to “see with fresh eyes” the real riches that have been showered upon that little community in the bustling Greek city.
This second lectionary reading fits better with the gospel text than most weeks. In particular I would consider focusing on verse 7: “so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If one of the takeaways from the gospel is to keep awake and keep working while we wait (and I think it is), then this reading allows the preacher to pivot into reassuring the congregation that we have all that we need as a community to continue serving in between the times. Our waiting is always active waiting, and we are fully equipped to use our waiting time for loving and serving our neighbor in need (and receiving that love as well).
This thanksgiving section of the letter is Paul’s version of the infomercial staple: “But wait! There’s more!” Some of the Corinthian Christians are tempted to think that they have arrived, that they have experienced all that God has to offer, that there is no more to come. Paul writes to set them right. Christ has not yet been revealed fully in the world, so there is still work to be done. The resurrection has not yet been fully realized, and the New Creation is among them as a down payment rather than a full deposit. But that down payment is more than enough for all community members to have enough and then to share their abundance with the world around them.
Other Corinthian Christians are tempted to think that there’s not enough of the good stuff for them to get through the waiting time. We will read later in the letter that they have evidence for this concern, since the privileged in the community eat all the good food before the hard-working folks even get off work to attend the community love feast. Of course there’s enough for all — if all simply take enough. It’s not that God is stingy or has reneged on any promises. The problem is one of distribution, not one of supply. This is a useful text for preaching on the Sunday after a national day of thanksgiving in the United States.
L. Ann Jervis writes about the eye-opening capacity of this text on the workingpreacher.org site:
What some of the Corinthian believers either denied or had forgotten was that their lives were to participate in the narrative of Christ. Once they were incorporated into Christ through faith, their lives were to follow the shape of Christ’s life. There are aspects of Christ’s life which of course are not to be imitated. However, Christ’s obedient faith, Christ’s suffering for the sake of others, Christ’s death and resurrection–these narrative episodes of Christ’s life are to be re-enacted by those who by faith live ‘in Christ’.”
She concludes, “Paul is convinced that God in Christ has given those ‘in Christ’ everything they need in order to wait well for ‘the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’.”
Luther roots our good works in this abundance and describes it as an overflowing of love. “Therefore I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor,” he writes in The Freedom of the Christian, “just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor,” Luther concludes, “because through faith I am overflowing with all good things for Christ” (page 524).
What to do with this embarrassment of spiritual riches? Be faithful in the waiting. Christ “will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 8). Dirk Lange helps us to see that Paul describes our waiting as an active waiting. “Paul invites the community,” he writes, “from these very opening lines, into a vision of waiting, into a vision of actively waiting for Christ to shape them into a merciful fellowship.” The waiting is not merely empty time. As is noted, for example, in the Book of Revelation, we get waiting time in order to be more fully formed as witnesses for Christ.
This is how it should be for the Corinthians, Lange continues. “This community continually remembers God in their ways. Or, to draw on Isaiah’s metaphor from the first reading, the community is like clay that the potter takes and molds so that it may be blameless on the day of the Lord. That is God’s doing, God’s calling, not ours.” Of course, we might complain that we could do with just a bit less or at least a bit less aggressive molding in this challenging time. But even our trials can be viewed as gifts from God to shape our faithfulness. As my pastor sometimes says, let’s not waste a good pandemic while we’ve got one.
We have been waiting since early March for things to get better. Instead, they are in many ways worse. We are living with Covid-fatigue, election-fatigue, racism-fatigue (for privileged white folks), and lots of other types of fatigue. So, we need messages to sustain our stamina and prop up our patience. Thus it was for the Corinthians. Paul’s words of encouragement are timely for us.
“Paul also reminds them that, as they wait in this time of trial and uncertainty, God’s gifts will keep them strong. God will be with them every step of the way, for God has been, is, and always will be faithful.” Lucy Lind Hogan writes. They live on this side of the Incarnation. The heavens have been opened, and we are never on our own.
Like the community in Corinth, we too need to be reminded that we continue to live in the time in between. We will soon celebrate the birth of the Word made flesh. We will celebrate God’s gracious gift of Jesus. But we must remember to look not only back, but forward as well. What God is doing is not over and done. There are still more truths to be revealed. And we, too, have been given spiritual gifts that will strengthen us for the journey ahead. This is, indeed, a wonderful “Advent” letter.
This is a strange holiday time. We are deprived of many of the ways we will mark that time of waiting. Normal family gatherings are perhaps suspended. We won’t have holiday parties at work or at school. Christmas programs and choir cantatas and fall festivals and Advent workshops and all the other road markers on the journey will be absent or virtual or truncated. We will not have all the “normal” external props for this time. But the resources of faith, hope and love are not absent or abbreviated. Instead, you and I “are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Hogan, Lucy Lind. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2278
Jervis, L. Ann. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=180
Lange, Dirk. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1131
Luther, Martin. The Freedom of the Christian (Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.
Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community . Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.