Ordinary Names, Doing Extraordinary Work, and Persisting in Faith: Thoughts for a prayer conference

ImageJune 6, 2014
Listen to the start of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth:
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and Sosthenes, our brother, 2 to the church of God in Corinth, to those who have been consecrated in Christ Jesus and called to be God’s holy people, with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord as well as ours. 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I am continually thanking God about you, for the grace of God which you have been given in Christ Jesus; 5 in him you have been richly endowed in every kind of utterance and knowledge; 6 so firmly has witness to Christ taken root in you. 7 And so you are not lacking in any gift as you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed; 8 he will continue to give you strength till the very end, so that you will be irreproachable on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 You can rely on God, who has called you to be partners with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Notice three things about this passage. 1) Ordinary names, 2) doing extraordinary work, and 3) persisting in faith.
1) The mere names are written more or less in the standard form used to start letters in the Roman empire period. We would say, Dear Friends.
Such an apparently mundane communication make this kind of writing seem hardly scripture-like. It is in koine common Greek. It has no high literary style. The words are not like a Plato or a Greek poet. Even Augustine had trouble reading this comparatively unburnished writing as scripture. Crude, not worthy, he thought before conversion. The words hardly seem like once and for all chosen words. Yet they are.
God used the language of the people to communicate. Koine Greek was the language of business and politics all around the Mediterranean basin, all over the Roman empire. How convenient.
God has become incarnated in human history. He condescended to meet us where we are. He is on our level. It looks ordinary. The supernatural is dressed  in jeans, as it were.
On top of that ordinariness, God has Paul include the name of his colleague, Sosthenes.
When I go to a meeting, one of my strategies for making sure the next meeting crew know I was there is to second a motion. Sometimes I even move one. Then no one can say I wasn t there or did nt do anything. My name is in the minutes.
I m not entirely sure why Sosthenes gets a mention. Other than to be like, another second witness to the truth. “In the mouths of two witnesses let everything be established.” That was the Jewish law. Or to underline that Paul is not an authority like the Lord Jesus; he is one of the apostles who were commissioned together and whose collective authority really comes from the one who called them. Sosthenes anyway is in the minutes. And I m glad he is. It is very humdrum. Very ordinary.
But Sosthenes is doing the business of God. Everyone for all time can see God used old Sosthenes to do work that would be looked back on as long as the present age goes on. He is just Sosthenes, but under the triune God he was given work to do that will last for ever. God works through the ordinary. He is not a high style God. He uses all kinds of people in all kinds of places. In fact high and low and middle you name it.
Your name as a praying person at this prayer conference is in the minutes. If not some official minutes or record of attendance, then the record of God. All agents of grace in their place. All pray-ers are Sosthenes-es. Recorded by God special to him.
2. Notice that a kind of blessing starts the letter, a kind of prayer. “Charis kai eirene.” This initial passage prefigures all the concerns of the letter. All the introductions to Paul’s letters, except maybe Ephesians, a circular letter, have this character. After you read the letter to the Corinth Christians you see why Paul started out the way he did. He is very curt with the Galatians, and you see why after you read the letter. Here in the first Corinthian letter you have a church which is way off base in its actual life. A man is living with his stepmother. There are issues with food from pagan temples. There is abuse of the Lord’s supper. They are tolerating people who downplay the resurrection. But: Paul commences by giving thanks to God for them.
If it were me, I m sure I would be less enthused. I would be thinking about all the hard work to get this outfit straight and it might not even take, my efforts might fail.
Paul knows this: the faith of these folks is the work of God, not any human effort. That believers exist in the middle of an idol-worshipping, sexually impure, port city in the Greek part of the Roman empire is a miracle. Each and every believer is a miracle. Remember  to buck him up evangelizing, Jesus appears to Paul and told him: I have many people in this city. These folks are Jesus’ people — even thought their life is not all it needs to be. Their lives need to match their confession of Christ. But they are on the way — in Paul’s optimistic take. The glass is half full. Paul keeps the big picture firmly in view. “I am delighted you belong to Jesus. I have not forgotten the occasion of your coming to faith in the first place and what a miracle it was. I have not forgotten the day you were baptised. I delight in you with the delight of the Lord himself.” We could all learn something for our church relationships from these few verses. So easily overlooked. So expressive of the gospel of Jesus Messiah the Lord of heaven and earth.
3. But notice thirdly, Paul does not neglect to urge them. Humanly he uses words to do God’s work. The Corinth Christians need to persist in doing good. If they hear his words and act, they will be displaying faith. Notice that “call on the name” in verse 2 is almost the same thing as their identity in the same sentence. “To the church of God in Corinth, to those who have been consecrated in Christ Jesus and called to be God’s holy people, with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” – relying on the supreme authority — which is Jesus — is a sign of worship and submission. To pray is part of very identity of God’s people. Conversely, those who do not call on Jesus are not showing reliance on him. They are relying on themselves or on gods who really do not have the authority to make that difference.
In verse 8 Paul writes, “He will give you strength.”
This is a prayer conference. It takes an effort to go out of town, one more year to this prayer conference. Perhaps there was some competing allegiance, some family event, sports event, golf event, dancing for the stars event,  that you made a lower priority. I thank God for you doing the work of God in praying for God’s work in Asia. God is at work in you both to will and to do his good work. You still hear his voice. Let us, as long as it is still day, encourage one another. The work will last forever. Not many causes can say that.
Ordinary names, doing extraordinary work, and persisting in faith!


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