A lesson in letter-writing

Epiphany 2 – 2013

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Marian Free

In the name of God who reveals Godself in many and varied ways. Amen.

1:1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 1Cor. 1:2   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: 1Cor. 1:3   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,  5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—  6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—  7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.  8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

John and Joan McFee have great pleasure in inviting Mark and Mary de Angelo to the wedding of their daughter Susan Maria to Joseph Anthony on July 31st at St Margaret’s Church, 4 George St, Marland, at 4:00pm and afterwards at Maryville Reception Centre, 23 Victoria St, Marland. RSVP July 17, 33458687.

Times have changed, but when I was at school children were taught how to write letters – personal letters, business letters, job applications, wedding invitations and replies and so on. Each form of communication had its own style. Even the form of letter closure differed according to how formal the letter was and the relationship between the writer and the recipient. It did (and does not) not make immediate sense that personal letters were signed “yours sincerely” and formal letters with “yours faithfully” but that is how it is done. These days there is a lot more flexibility. Text messages and emails have created entirely new and less formal styles of writing. Some forms such as Job Applications still have very structured formats – possibly even more structured than previously. So rigid are these styles that consultants exist to assist people in writing their CVs and job applications.

Given that in our more informal world we continue to have set formats for at least some style of letters, we should not be surprised that the Greek world also had criteria for writing different forms of communication. It is important to understand these forms when we read the letters in the New Testament. Paul’s letters exhibit a uniformity of style because Paul is using the letter-writing format common to educated people of his time. That said, there are some immediately obvious differences between first century Greek letters and twenty-first Australian letters. Our form of letter-writing might have an address at the beginning but with some exceptions (wedding invitations) the author is generally not identified until the end of the letter – “yours faithfully, Marian Free”. When we write a letter, we usually begin with an address to the recipient – “Dear Sam”. Greek letters reverse this pattern and begin with the name of the author and some means of identifying that person. In the letter to the Corinthians we read – “Paul, called to be an Apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”.

Unless we use a line that indicates what the letter is in regard to, the reader has to wait for the body of the letter to discover why we have written. In Greek letter writing and certainly in the letters of Paul, the greeting prepares us for what is to follow. In his first letter to Corinth, Paul appears to be laying claim to his authority. Not only is he “an apostle of Christ Jesus”, he is an apostle by “the will of God”. This provides much more detail than is provided in the first letter to the Thessalonians which reads very simply: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy”. It is only as the letter progresses that we understand that Paul is drawing on his God-given authority in order to pull the Corinthians into line. No doubt the Corinthians were immediately aware of the tone that Paul was setting. He is making it clear that he is an apostle and that his authority comes directly from God.

Having begun with an introduction to the author, the letter introduces us to the recipients. Again, if we compare 1 Corinthians with 1 Thessalonians, we notice a significant difference. The Thessalonians are addressed quite simply: “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. The letter to Corinth includes much more detail:  “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.” Compared with the Thessalonians where the address is purely descriptive, here there is not only more detail, there is a degree of flattery. Those in Corinth are described as “sanctified, called to be saints” what is more, they are skilfully connected with all the other believing communities,  “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” How do we explain the difference in detail? Is it because the lives of the Corinthians exhibit a deeper spirituality than those in Thessalonica? As we read on, this conclusion seems unlikely. The letter reveals that the Corinthians are a divided congregation who compete with each other and whose members engage in immoral behaviour. A more plausible explanation for the long greeting is that Paul, who will later castigate this community, is using both flattery (saints, sanctified) and coercion (with all who call on the name of our Lord). Paul uses flattery because he wants them on side, open to what he has to say. At the same time, he is drawing on the practices of all the other churches to pull them into line, to make them conform.

As you can see, already, in just three verses, we suspect that Paul has something difficult to tell the Corinthians and that he will use the example of other churches to pressure them to change their behaviour. Paul follows the introduction with a standard greeting: “Grace to you and peace.” Paul adapts the usual greeting (charein – hello) to a term associated with the gospel (charis – grace) and adds the Semitic greeting of peace (shalom).

In most letters, the greeting is followed by a Thanksgiving. This serves to get the reader on side and to ensure that they are receptive to what is to follow. (The absence of a Thanksgiving rings alarm bells. For example, there is no thanksgiving in the letter to the Galatians. As we read that letter we can see that Paul has nothing for which to be thankful – he is very angry.)

Again, the content of the thanksgiving provides an introduction to the content of the letter as a whole. In this instance Paul says: “you have been enriched in him in speech and knowledge of every kind”; “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift”. As we read on, we cannot help but wonder if Paul is being sarcastic here. The Corinthians it seems put a great emphasis on wisdom, knowledge and spiritual gifts. They think that they have already achieved some sort of spiritual perfection (“Already you are rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings!” 4:8). In chapter 12, Paul tries to put their spiritual gifts into perspective – no gift is more significant than any other. Over and over again, Paul confronts the arrogance of the Corinthians, their belief in their own wisdom and knowledge and the fact that they compete with one another in areas of knowledge and spirituality. The refrain: “Do you not know?” is used repeatedly in Chapter 6 in which Paul exposes the fact that they do not know. “Do you not know the saints will judge the world?” Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (6:2,3) and so on.

A good way to begin to understand Paul and his letters is to read the Greetings and Thanksgivings of his letters and to identify the similarities and differences between them. In so doing, it is essential to remember that Paul did not set out to write theology. He wrote letters to communities of faith, communities that – with the exception of Romans – he himself founded. Paul’s intention and deepest desire is that these communities share his faith, his knowledge of God and Christ, his conviction that faith in Jesus leads to freedom and that a life that is Spirit-led is a life that most closely conforms to the will of God. What is amazing is that these letters that were written to encourage, to chide and to correct, express the most profound theology and that over two thousand years later, these letters have become an integral part of our Holy Scriptures. Not before or since has one person’s letter-writing had such a profound effect.


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