Scriptures: I Corinthians 1:1-9; I Peter 2:9-10
Recently I read a book by David Kinnamon and Gabe Lyons called UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity. It was based on a national survey of young adults who don’t go to any church and don’t really want to. They are what the book calls “young outsiders.” In the survey the authors asked these young adults what it was about the church that turned them off. Here is part of their list. Churches, they said, are judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, too involved in politics, out of touch with reality, insensitive to others, and boring (p. 72).
Ouch! In her book Take this Bread Sara Miles describes her journey from being an agnostic to becoming a Christian, a move that her atheist friends could not understand. She writes,
"I knew what they thought: Christians were corny, sentimental, vulgar, embarrassing, intolerant, superstitious, dogmatic, self-righteous, do-goody, obtuse, smug, unsophisticated, and dumb. They thought I wasn’t like that, so I couldn’t be a “real” Christian" (p. 262).
Wow! Somewhere along the line we Christians have developed an awful reputation, especially among the young and sophisticated.
So it is striking to me how the apostle Paul addresses the Christians in Corinth. He writes, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”
I need to warn you that Paul wrote this letter to a fairly messed up church. We will see this as we work our way through the book over the summer. Later in chapter 1 Paul describes divisions in the church—factions that are threatening to split it apart. Chapter 5 reports a case of incest in the church. Chapter 8 suggests that some of the members are worshiping idols. Chapter 11 accuses them of gluttony, drunkenness, and total disregard of the poor. This is one dysfunctional church, but Paul calls them saints.
Then in the verses that follow Paul gives thanks for the very qualities of the Corinthians that are causing many of their problems. In verse 5 Paul gives thanks “that in every way you have been enriched by [Jesus], in speech and knowledge of every kind.” Some of the divisions I the church were caused by their speech, specifically those who were speaking in tongues. But Paul gives thanks for their speech. Others in the church considered themselves more knowledgeable, more sophisticated than others. Later in the letter Paul chastises them for this attitude, but here in chapter 1 Paul gives thanks for their knowledge. Then in verse 7 he says, “So that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Later we will discover that spiritual gifts were a problem among the Christians in Corinth, because some thought their spiritual gifts were better than the gifts of others. Yet Paul gives thanks for their spiritual gifts. What is he thinking?
He is thinking that God is at work in this congregation. That is the key. They are sanctified—made holy—in Christ Jesus. They are saints because God is at work among them. So whatever problems they may have—even if they are intolerant, self-righteous, hypocritical, smug, unsophisticated, and dumb—it doesn’t matter. They are saints!
By the way, Paul never uses the word “saint” to refer to an exceptional individual Christian. He never refers to “Saint So and So.” When talking about Christians, he always uses the word for the collective body of the people in the church.
For Paul there are three key factors that make ordinary, imperfect, sometimes judgmental and hypocritical churchgoers into saints, and that will be the outline for the rest of this sermon. The rest of this sermon will be an old-fashioned three point sermon, something that might actually allow you to take notes. So here we go. How can Paul call this divisive, dysfunctional, hypocritical church “the saints of God in Corinth”?
Number 1: [Slide 1, click 1] Because Sainthood is a gift, not a reward. Notice again what Paul says in verse 2, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus.” To be sanctified means to be made holy. They are holy not because they have proven themselves holy but because Jesus has declared them holy. Peter makes the same point in our first scripture lesson. He says, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” You did not earn your status as saints. God chose you for sainthood by calling you into the family of God we call the church.
William Sloane Coffin, the former pastor at the Riverside Church in New York City, once said, “God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value” (Credo, p. 6). God’s love does not look for saints, it manufactures them. Sainthood is a gift, not a reward.
Number 2: Paul calls the Corinthians saints, [click 2] because Sainthood is a mission, not a status. Our English word saint is a translation for a Greek word that means “set apart for a sacred purpose.” This building becomes a sanctuary—a holy place—when it is set apart for a sacred use. The bread and grape juice on the communion table on communion Sundays become Holy Communion when they are set apart for a sacred use. There is nothing sacred about the bread or grape juice on the communion table. I think it’s the cheapest stuff Georgia can find. But it becomes holy when it is set part for a special use.
The same is true for us. There is nothing holy about the people in this church. Sometimes I think we’re the cheapest stuff God could find. But we are saints, we are holy, because God has set us apart for a special purpose: to be witnesses to God’s coming kingdom, to be living testimonies of what God can do with cheap materials to build an everlasting temple for the Holy Spirit. You are holy because God has set you apart for a special purpose.
Peter makes this same point in our first scripture reading: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that [here is the purpose] you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We are saints on a mission to tell the world about God’s transforming love, even if you can’t yet see it in our own lives.
Sainthood is a gift, not a reward. It is a mission, not a status. And Number 3: [Click 3] Sainthood is a hope, not an accomplishment.
Recall what Paul says in I Corinthians 1:8: “He [God] will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Notice, we are not blameless now. Right now we are sinners. Right now we are probably all the things that the young outsiders accuse us of being. Hypocrites—guilty! Insensitive to others—guilty! Smug—probably too often. Unwise in some of our attitudes and decisions—you bet! At best you might call us “saints in training”—interns in sainthood just barely beginning to learn the robes.
But the good news is that God is not finished with us yet. We are a project in holiness that God is one day determined to complete.
C. S. Lewis was once asked, “If Christianity is true, why are not all Christians obviously nicer than non-Christians?” That is the objection of those young outsiders in the survey and the atheist friends of Sara Miles. If Christians are supposed to be saints, why aren’t they better than other people? Here is part of C. S. Lewis’ response, from his book Mere Christianity:
"Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Miss Bates’ tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so" (p. 178).
Sainthood is not an accomplishment, it’s a project, and worship is where we invite God to come and keep chiseling away.