Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The second reading at Mass is taken from the beginning of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It consists of two sentences, one of which is a classic Pauline run-on semi-sentence. In these few lines, Paul manages to express two things: that he is writing a letter to the Corinthians, and that he wishes them peace in Jesus Christ. To be perfectly honest, it’s a bit of an odd choice for readings. Why doesn’t the Church give us a few more verses to fill out the greeting? I have no idea. The Second Vatican Council called for an expanded use of Sacred Scripture in the Church’s liturgy, particularly in the constitution Dei Verbum. Once the Council ended, the present-day lectionary was assembled and certainly included far more passages of Scripture than had been used previously. Occasionally the inclusion of a passage is immediately clear, while other times it seems like they just wanted to throw in some books we might not turn to ordinarily. So why this two-sentence greeting without any follow-up (next week, we’ll continue in 1 Cor. 1, but skipping the verses that immediately follow this greeting)?
I do not have an answer to that question, which means that the remainder of this column will be filled with wild speculation. St. Paul identifies himself as the author of the letter, including in the greeting Sosthenes, who shares in this apostolic mission and who is assisting him in composing the letter. Little more is known about Sosthenes. So we’ll turn back to St. Paul, who uses an interesting turn of phrase in describing himself: “…called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” At first it might seem a bit unnecessary. He’s writing to the Church in Corinth, a Greek city on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, once allied with Sparta, and by the time of St. Paul’s writing, an important city in the Roman Empire. St. Paul is the founder of the church in Corinth, having proclaimed the Gospel to them during his second missionary journey around the year 51. He writes this letter to address a number of questions that have been posed to him, and to correct certain practices that were not in keeping with the Gospel he had proclaimed to them, especially in their liturgy. So reminding them that he writes to them as an apostle – in fact, because he is an apostle – reminds those who read (or hear) his letter that he writes with authority. And not only that he writes with authority, but with love. Indeed, an apostle is both one sent to proclaim the Good News and one sent to form and tend a community with the love of God the Father.
Lest we fall into the trap of believing that Paul is lording his apostolic authority over this new Christian community, he reminds his readers of their identity in Christ. Just as he is an apostle by the will of God, so the Corinthians have been sanctified by Jesus Christ and called to be holy. To be a Christian is to possess the sanctifying grace poured out by Jesus, and by sharing in that grace, to have received a divine vocation. Paul was called to be an apostle. Each of us is called in a unique way, especially to holiness of life. Though Paul will have to offer some corrective words to his family of faith in Corinth, he first wants them to remember their deepest identity. This identity provides the context for everything. One who is sanctified by Christ and called to holiness must necessarily live, think, act, and worship differently. In this letter, Paul will point out ways in which the Corinthians are acting wrongly, and it will resound in their hearts because their true identity in Christ is the context for this correction.
Finally, Paul wishes them grace and peace. This greeting is similar to the liturgical greeting “The Lord be with you,” or, in the greeting reserved to bishops, “Peace be with you.” How beautiful! Nothing of what follows in the letter ought to disturb their peace. Though he will challenge and correct, he desires everything he writes to them to be accompanied by the Lord’s peace. And he means that also for we moderns who read his words. To have grace and peace is to allow God to work in our hearts that we might turn more toward him and thus live more profoundly in our true identity. We have been sanctified by Christ and called to be holy – to receive grace and peace from God through the words we read in St. Paul’s letter is a vehicle for growth in our own life of faith.
Though it seems strange that the Church gives us such a brief part of a Pauline letter, and unusual that it is only the greeting with no context behind it, we can see that this particular greeting, so typical of Paul’s writings, in fact contains profound truths that ought to resonate in our hearts. In these brief words, we are reminded of our true calling and of the grace of God that has been and continues to work in our hearts. Will we be among those Corinthians who respond to Paul’s words? Or will we be among those whose behavior required Paul to write a second letter? Do we recognize the great call to holiness present in our hearts? What are we doing today to respond concretely to that call to holiness of life?