When the Apostle Paul writes his first letter to the Christian community in Corinth that he founded, he’s not just writing to catch up after a little time away. In fact, Paul is writing to let these people know all the ways in which they need to shape up. The community has become a mess, full of conflict and competition. But Paul begins his letter with kindness:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul doesn’t start his letter with complaint. He doesn’t launch right into the big lecture. Instead, he begins his letter praising this community as rich in speech and knowledge of God, not lacking in any spiritual gift, called to be saints and destined for heaven. And while he’s praising them, he pulls a little sleight of hand: in four sentences that are ostensibly about them, he mentions God or Jesus a total of 16 times.
Some commentators argue that Paul’s sweet words at the opening of this letter were simply buttering everyone up, disposing them to be open to his difficult message. I can see their point. But to me, Paul was also doing something else: he was reminding this group of what was good about them. And he was helping them to see the big picture, to remember why they were trying to be a community at all: it was all about God, and God’s call on their lives.
As I studied the text this week, I tried to imagine what Paul might have said to us this week. Seeing the division in the country right before election day, Paul might have told Americans: I give thanks for you, for you continue to pursue this difficult work of democracy, spending money and time arguing about important issues, respecting the results of the ballot box, and allowing transfers of power to occur without violence.
Or what would Paul have to say to us, at West Concord Union Church? It is a good time here, a sweet time, but we’ve had a little taste of division this fall, as individuals and groups have disagreed on what is best for our worship services. Paul might have told us: I give thanks for you, for you continue to pursue this difficult work of Christian community, willing to take risks and make mistakes. God has enriched you with growing numbers, with a sense of vitality and possibility, and with a special call to welcome people of all ages and abilities.
Paul draws the community at Corinth, and us here today, away from our individual differences, reminding us of why we come together, and who empowers and commissions us.
This Sunday we celebrate All Saints Day. Many people think of Saints as special people: those who have lived exemplary and faithful lives, those who have become famous for their good works, those who are formally recognized by certain branches of the church. That is one meaning of the word. But in Paul’s letter, the definition is broader; God calls many people, perhaps all believers, to be saints. Other people would define saints even more broadly than this; a denominational leader in the UCC wrote this week: the communion of saints is nothing more than love and hope and faith being passed down from one generation to the next (J. Bennet Guess).
Often, we can be full of complaint about the people around us. We complain about the generations that came before us, and what they failed to accomplish, what they left us to deal with. We complain about our own contemporaries and their limitations. We complain about the generations that come after us, and their unwillingness to contribute in quite the way we would want them to. But when we consider those who have come before us, and those who surround us, and those who will come after us, our tradition teaches us first to express gratitude. None of these people are perfect, and yet we have much to give thanks for. No matter what criticisms we have, we should start first with praise: for their gifts, and for the aspirations we share, and for the God who called us all into being.
Take a moment and consider the good gifts of the community of saints that surrounds us. Give thanks for those who have come before you: family members, mentors, famous figures. Give thanks for those who will come after you: those whom you can care for, support, or teach, or simply, generations to come. Consider the holy chain of love, hope, and faith, that you are a part of.
Holy One, God of our ancestors and our God, we praise you for the great cloud of imperfect witnesses who gather around us today. We thank you for all who have built foundations, cleared paths, and given so generously of love, faith, and hope. May we sense the strength of this ancient community supporting us as we face the challenges of today. May we honor them, not only in what we do and say, but in how we nurture and listen to the young ones among us and how we prepare the way for those yet to come. Amen.