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Gifted but.... 1 Cor 1:1-9 and John 1:29-42

Whether it’s “Strictly” or “Dancing on Ice” for some of us these TV competitions which involve the audience voting by phone and last for several weeks, keep us going through the dark winter months. Have you noticed how the studio audience likes to boo whenever criticism is being given by the judges? Sometimes the criticism is fair and the celebrity listens to something constructive. But it seems the crowd doesn’t want to hear even if something might help. If Clive or Jason starts to say something positive, we have come to expect a “but” and then some sharp points about what is lacking.

You are gifted but....
This is the kind of way that St Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians. He builds them up, affirms them and praises them. However, you can imagine them wondering when the “but” is going to come. I give thanks to God for you he writes you’ve been enriched in every way...you are not lacking for spiritual gifts. You have to read on past today’s extract to find the “but”. Paul has to tackle them about their division, on the danger of them breaking into factions and destroying their unity in Christ. But at the start of his letter, he wants them to know what is positive about their life as a Christian community. Then they might be in a position to listen to what he has to say. He cares about them and their future. He wants the best. I often feel that my wife is both my greatest fan and my worst critic! We take criticism better from someone who we trust and we know is friendly towards us. In wanting us to be better, they believe in our better nature.

In the same vein, I wonder what St Paul would write to us if he were alive today? How would he start? Perhaps he’d praise us for our fine building, our care for it and the way we seek to share it with our community by keeping it open on a daily basis. Perhaps he’d remark on our commitment to ecumenism or the good mix of people that we represent. I wonder what he then might go on to say was lacking about us? It’s something for us to ponder!
Called by God
In those days letters didn’t begin “Dear so and so..” and end with “Kind regards from...”. More like the To and From boxes at the top of an email, Paul opens by saying that his letter is from someone called by God to be an apostle. The “to” box says “the Corinthians who are called by God to be saints”. Moreover, he reminds them that they are part of all those who call on the name of Jesus wherever they are. So there is a very strong sense of being in it all together in the Lord. Today I don’t want to go on to the part that follows the greeting because I want to concentrate on the starting point. Once we have the starting point clear, then we are able to move on properly. The starting point is that sense of being called by God.

This is the starting point also of John’s gospel account of Jesus. John draws a universal picture of the origin of all things and the Word holding creation together. Then, perhaps startlingly, he proclaims that the Word became a human being. He tells us of John the Baptist, who heralded the public arrival of this Word in human form. This Word, who is Jesus, takes centre stage and John (the gospel writer) shows us more and more of who Jesus is. He introduces us to some key characters and concepts in his gospel: Jesus, the Lamb of God; Jesus Rabbi and Messiah; Andrew and Simon-Peter, first followers and future apostles. This all leads on to the first sign that Jesus performs – the miracle of water being turned into wine. That’s the passage immediately following today’s extract. The overall thing which both our readings have in common is the call of God. Paul and the Corinthians; Andrew and Simon-Peter are all called by God. They are called in different ways, but they are called to belong to the same people and to join in with the same initiative that sent Jesus into the world. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

Called to what?
These days when you work for an organisation or a good cause, it is normal to have a job description. It is right that both employer and employee know what it is that they have agreed to work on. It is right that volunteer and organiser are clear what the role is to be. St Paul was clear what the Corinthians’ calling was. They were to be saints and worshippers; they had grace given to them and they were to find new strength to fulfil their Christian lives. All of that was, in a sense, the qualities they needed to carry out their main role which was to be in partnership with Christ. They were in fellowship with God’s Son as Paul puts it. Tom Wright, (Bp of Durham; formerly Westminster Abbey), points out that this partnership was not like a dining club where the members enjoy each other’s company and some good food in nice places. It was more like being in a business partnership that has a clear purpose. The Corinthians were in partnership with Christ in order to carry out God’s mission in the world. God’s mission is to respond to the sin and pain of the world with his love as revealed or unveiled in and through the cross. John the Baptist unveiled or revealed Jesus through his words which described Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. He was using the language of Jewish ritual sacrifice, but was aiming at the same idea: that God’s answer to this world’s brokenness is the cross of Christ.

Called to be saints
This week I took an assembly in a primary school where I hadn’t been before. The headteacher introduced me and asked if the children knew what a vicar did. To say the least I was intrigued to hear their answers! I was pleasantly surprised by the responses. One struck me in particular: a vicar is the holy man who says the words at a wedding ceremony. I wasn’t so sure about the “holy man” bit, but on reflection, I guess that’s how a child might see a vicar, regardless of how holy the vicar might feel! We may feel it is a tall order when we learn that God calls us to be saints. We think of those paragons of virtue who get canonised by the Vatican or wrote Bible books. But in reality we are not cardboard cuts or stained glass, we are real human beings. In reality, that label is not about the quality of our lives, but the role we have in belonging to God’s people. God knows we’re not perfect and there is a sense in which he looks for us to realise that. To return to the idea of being employed or taken on as a volunteer, it may not be the usual practice of Human Resource managers to ask job applicants what their weak points are.

Usually the candidate has a chance to describe their good points, what their skills and experiences are, what they can do for the company or organisation. But in joining the organisation called Church, God the Human Resources interviewer asks us if we know our weaknesses. We qualify by being open with God about those weaknesses and allowing him to deal with them. That is the true saint!

Called to work together
I’m sure Andrew and Peter were all too aware of their inadequacies when they beheld the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We know they felt it as they realised more and more who this Jesus was that they had begun to follow. But the important thing was that Jesus began his ministry straight away by building community. Almost the first thing he did before even preaching and doing miracles was to start calling disciples to follow him. It was Andrew and Peter one day, Nathaniel the next.

Paul is doing the same thing as he writes lovingly to his Corinthian friends. God has called me to fulfil a particular role amongst his people, says Paul, conscious of his place in the scheme of things. God has called you Corinthians, too, writes Paul, and not only you and me, but others too. We are all called together into partnership with Christ. There are individuals who have particular skills, experience and calling within this body, for each have different gifts. But we are never to lose sight of being part of a greater whole. At the heart of each member and of the whole church should be that discovery St John described when the disciples met Jesus. “We’ve found the Messiah!” exclaims Andrew to his brother. “Simon, you will be Peter!” says Jesus to his brother. We only see Jesus more clearly when we see our reflection in him as one through whom God seeks to work.

Copyright © Rev Paul Smith




Eternal Lord,
our beginning and our end:
bring us with the whole creation
to your glory, hidden through past ages
and made known
in Jesus Christ our Lord.