What if Paul had written emails? Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2023

Preacher:  Ursula Schmidt

In the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit. AMEN

This sermon went a different way than originally planned.

When we first got the date for preaching today Phil and I intended that we both would be taking parts in the sermon. But it turned out differently.

When I first started to look at Paul´s Epistle to the Corinthians I had no idea how to interpret it. But the longer I dwelled on it, eventually more and more doors seemed to open so that I was not able to prepare only half a sermon.

Phil half-seriously, half-jokingly decided not to mess with the Holy Spirit, who may have opened doors for me, and decided that I should do the whole sermon.  So, that´s what you get.

About 25 years ago I initiated a training in rhetoric in the college of fashion where I taught German literature.

The students who attended this school had been working mostly as tailors in various branches of the fashion industry. Some of them had responsible jobs, not just in Germany but in other countries as well. They all wanted to get a broader education and a higher degree.

Most of them were pretty talented in their former jobs but had some difficulties speaking in front of an audience.

As a first step of the rhetoric training I asked my students to choose any subject they were interested in and to talk about it in front of the class for about 5 minutes. And 5 minutes can be very long. Afterwards they should allow questions from the audience which they had to answer spontaneously.

I never forgot a very attractive confident young lady who started to talk about a new communication trend I and the majority of the students had never heard of before:

she explained a modern form of communication called email.

Half fascinated, half sceptical we listened to her report.

When she had finished answering a few questions I asked her what she thought about the future status of this new social communication. Would emails be just a modern flash or would emails become more important in our society? What would become of the culture of letters?

At the time I could not imagine how common and wide spread emails would become, and I could certainly not believe that I myself would ever become dependent on emails.

I guess nowadays none of us would consider emails as an unnecessary threat —

but are they able to replace letters?

There are situations when letters express so much more than emails.

— Just think about love letters.

There are moments when emails don´t seem to be appropriate.  

— Just think about condolence letters.

Letters are not per se old-fashioned and out of place.

I recently wrote a thank you note to a two-year-old boy. He was not able to read the letter but he definitely appreciated the first letter he got in his life and rejoiced about it — as I could see on the video the mother took.

Sometimes letters are very hard to throw away or to destroy.

I presume that there is nobody here who has not saved letters which were or are extremely important for her or for him.

Letters which reflect vital stages of one´s life or embody the echo of fond memories.

Maybe I am an incurably sentimental person, but I still treasure letters from loved ones who passed away decades ago.

The older I am the harder it is to get rid of letters I consider irreplaceable.

If it would have been possible to receive emails instead of letters at that time, I wouldn´t even remember them.

And what about the many letters in the New Testament from St. Paul to the various congregations he founded?

Which relevance would they have today if they had been written as emails?

Let´s listen again to the second reading of this Sunday,

the beginning of St. Paul´s 1st letter to the Corinthians.

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

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:

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, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you– so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


If this letter would have been composed as an email, its text sound may have sound as follows:


Hello Corinthians— or just:Corinthians,

Grace and peace from God and Christ.

Thanks for your talents and testimony.

Keep calm and carry on,

Paul, apostle

Yes, the message would be brief and sent out quickly and immediately.

Maybe Paul would have had less trouble on his hands,

he would have had more free time to do other jobs,

to travel more often and to found more congregations.

But there would be 3 major questions if Paul would have written emails instead of letters:

      1. What about the content, the essence of Paul´s message? Would he have been able to really communicate with the early Christians?.
      2. What about Paul´s pastoral care for the early Christians? Would he have been able to actually work as a missionary?.
      3. What about the relevance of Paul´s message for us readers today? Would we be able –to quote Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, “to meet God in Paul”?

Among many other characteristics

First of all, Paul was a passionate apostle, an enthusiastic missionary

spreading the good news

founding many congregations in the Eastern Mediterranean

teaching the message of Jesus Christ.

Secondly Paul was a zealous teacher for the early Christians in person and through letters,

who educating and cultivating, praising and supporting, admonishing and rebuking to initiate a growth in faith. 

If emails had existed years after Christ, they could not have been the proper way of Paul´s communication. Emails could have marked only Paul´s calendar and schedule but they would not have been able to capture Paul´s agenda, objects and goals.

So, let´s go back to Paul´s epistle to the Corinthians.

About the year AD 50, towards the end of his second missionary journey, Paul founded a congregation in Corinth, before moving on to Ephesus, a city on the west coast of today’s Turkey, about 180 miles by sea from Corinth.

Ancient Corinth was one of the largest and most important cities of Greece, with a population of 90,000 in 400 BC. The Romans demolished Corinth in 146 BC, built a new city in its place in 44 BC, and later made it the provincial capital of Greece.

The apostle Paul first visited Corinth in in the year 49 or 50 and resided there for 18 months, longer than in any other city except in Ephesus. He first became acquainted with Priscilla and Aquila, who accompanied him later on his missionary routes. In Corinth they worked together as tentmakers, and regularly attended the synagogue. 2 years later the Jews refused to accept Paul preaching there, they even accused him before the Roman governor that his teaching was against the law.

This incident led Paul to resolve no longer to speak in the synagogues where he travelled, saying: “From now on I will go to the Gentiles”.

Paul wrote at least two epistles to the Christian congregation in Corinth, one from Ephesus  and the second one from Macedonia.

While staying in Ephesus Paul received disconcerting news of the congregation in Corinth regarding jealousies, rivalry, and immoral behavior.  

Paul writes this letter to correct what he saw as wrong views in the Corinthian church: splitting up in fractions with different interests, even sects fighting against each other. In the beginning of his letter the apostle is urging homogeneity of belief.  

As pagan roots still held sway within their community Paul wanted to bring the congregation back to what he sees as correct doctrine, stating that God has given him the opportunity and the authority to be a “skilled master builder” to lay the foundation and let others build upon it.

The structure of Paul´s epistle to the Corinthians is a work of art.

Paul is a well-educated man who is acquainted with the Hellenistic, the Greek, art of letter writing. He is also a good teacher, therefore he doesn´t begin the communication with reproach and scolding but with salutation and thanksgiving:

In the salutation, a welcome greeting, Paul addresses the issue regarding challenges to his apostleship and defends the issue by claiming that it was given to him through a revelation from Christ by God. This reinforces the legitimacy and authority of his apostolic claim with the words:

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”

Paul also mentions Sosthenes as co-author of this letter, a man who was formerly the chief ruler of the synagogue at Corinth before he converted to the Christian faith.

Paul addresses the congregation as “the church of God that is in Corinth…sanctified in Jesus Christ” and its members “called to be saints”.

When Paul calls the Corinthians “sanctified” and “saints” he emphasizes the fact that Christians are different from others, because they belong to God, serve him and are called to a worldwide communion encompassing heaven and earth, “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

That is why we all who believe in Jesus Christ as the messiah are called “saints”. This is both a challenging task and a comforting promise. 

In the thanksgiving Paul writes “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus”.

The apostle´s message as a missionary that Christ is the savior has become a fulfilled promise, for the Corinthians have experienced God´s grace. Paul is immensely grateful (“I give thanks to my God  a l w a y s  for you” that the members of the congregation in Corinth have been “enriched” in Jesus Christ “in every way”.

Paul continues that the Corinthians “are not lacking in any spiritual gift”.

The Greek expression for “spiritual gifts” is charismata which becomes one of Paul´s favorite words which he will discuss in greater length later in the letter.

I hope you all know people who have charisma.

Charismatic people are a rare species whom you don´t meet every day.

Charisma is nothing you can learn as you´d learn another language or a special skill.

If somebody boasts “I´ve got charisma!” we should be very suspicious because self-praise is a clear proof that this person has no charisma at all. Recently we got an application letter for the position as a choir director of the international choir which Phil and I attend. It began pompously “I’ve got a lot of charisma!” – Guess what we decided.

Charisma is a fragment of an almost magnetic personality a human being has got, virtually a radiating light.

The “spiritual gifts”, the charismata Paul talks about are gifts from God. Gifts which we neither deserve nor earn. Gifts which we cannot demand or take for granted. 

The same way that the grace of God in Jesus Christ is undeserved, so also spiritual gifts are undeserved. There is a large range of spiritual gifts which Paul lists later in the 12th chapter of his letter to the Corinthians, f. e. the gift of preaching and teaching, the gift of working of miracles or prophecy etc., but as Paul says” it is the same Lord who empowers them all in everyone.”

Paul calls us to use the spiritual gifts whatever they may be to God´s glory and to the benefit of our neighbors near and far as we “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The apostle ends the introduction of his letter with the message “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Corinthians are not able to create their own relationship to God, neither as individuals nor as a congregation. But they are called into the fellowship of Jesus Christ with all the other Christians.

This promise applies to the Corinthians back then and the same applies to us today also.