The Corinthian correspondence is between two parties that knew each other rather well. These letters are so to speak heart to heart conversations, greetings between Christians. The relationships between the writer, Paul, and the Corinthian house churches is not altogether dissimilar from the relationships of members in your congregation. You know each other. You are on a first name basis. The correspondence is a remarkable set of letters that deal more with the practice of faith than the theological refinements one finds in a letter like Romans.
First Corinthians is a letter from Paul (and another co-signer Sosthenes) speaking about his missionary and pastoral experiences and advice. We can observe the practical nature of issues. We see Paul reflecting on the meaning and actions that need to occur. The occasion for Paul’s writing to the Corinthians is unmistakable from 1 Corinthians 1:10 following. He writes very explicitly and does not mince words. The traditional greeting and thanksgiving, our focus, already hint at the problems in Corinth that we will hear about throughout the letter.
Let's look at just a couple of background points regarding 1 Corinthians.
The early churches to whom Paul wrote are called, house churches, because in fact they met in houses. The architecture of these houses may have influenced some of the problems given their limited size. You can just imagine that people may have wanted to attend the meals/services in one or another of these house churches but could not get in just because of the small size of the house. So the person may have ended up attending another house church. This would have lead to people talking about what happened at one or another house church. In turn this might have pointed up some of the differences and divisions from one house church to another. We never experience this in our churches today!!!
Paul founded the churches in Corinth so he knew the people in those churches and new something about the culturally diverse nature of Corinth. The city was occupied since around 6000 BCE/BC. There were Jewish synagogues in the city but Paul probably was more in communication with the Gentile house churches. The city was always a strategic location given the geographical location on the isthmus (the Greek word for neck) and very appropriate for being on a small neck connecting the mainland and the Peloponnese to the south. Paul probably was first in Corinth around 50 CE/AD. First Corinthians was possibly written somewhere between 54 and 56. We know that Paul had received a letter from Corinth prior to the letter we are reading (see 1 Corinthians 7:1). We do not have that letter. There could have been several exchanges between Paul and the house churches in this ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse city.
We can hear Paul in the opening greeting and thanksgiving already hinting at ways he will begin to deal with the diversity and confirm his focus on the necessity of unity. He refers to the common vocation he holds with all to whom he writes. He brings in a co-sponsor of the letter. He knows Sosthenes would be well known in Corinth.
Through a small phrase like being "sanctified" in Christ Jesus Paul is highlighting a connection with the "holy" used to speak of the people of Israel (Leviticus 19:2). Furthermore he reminds them in this opening salutation that the Church of God is all inclusive. As Paul turns to the thanksgiving he indicates not only thankfulness for their God but also for the Corinthians themselves. Paul is doing everything he can to encourage the Corinthian unity in Christ and thus the necessity of their becoming agents together of God’s grace and love in the world. This is not a call to being an apostle of anyone except of the God who gave his only Son for us.
Despite all that Paul is aware of regarding the Corinthian failures he begins in thankfulness for all in Corinth. He does not turn to a scathing rebuke of their thoughts and actions. He greets them as though they were all the same in God’s eyes. The unity of the Spirit to which Paul refers to at the beginning and throughout the letter is not about keeping everyone happy, but about tearing down walls that exclude people.
As we look around at ourselves and our churches today we need to carefully reflect on ways we unknowingly are like those in Corinth. The unity in comm-unity can sometimes be very complicated. Are we merely greeting each other in worship with our personal greeting? Are we forgetting the visitor who may be in our midst and are there to be greeted? Are we merely passing some generally conveyed peace? Are we specific enough that the peace we bring is the peace of Christ Jesus? That is far more than our personal greeting.
*The image is from a piece of the P 46 manuscript of 2 Corinthians 11:33-12:9 found in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. While 1 Corinthians is extant it was not available. P 46 probably dates from 175-225 CE/AD.