Sermon for June 9, 2013
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For the past couple of weeks, we’ve explored the theme of wisdom, found in the opening chapters First Corinthians. We know that Paul was writing to the church at Corinth to set them straight on a few matters of theology, but he also was writing to guide them, as they figured out what it meant to be the church in first century Corinth. We know that the Corinthians were proud of their knowledge, or their “wisdom,” and Paul opens his letter to them with strong words of warning against seeking earthly wisdom over God’s wisdom.
We also know that, like any group of humans living together in community, the church at Corinth suffered its share of discord. Arguments over leadership had divided the church into factions, and these factions were threatening to destroy the church. Paul’s concern for this congregation is not limited to Corinth alone. He sees how squabbling in Corinth holds implications for the other churches under his care, and he is eager to resolve issues before they develop into full-blown schism.
In the passage we heard a moment ago, Paul admonishes the believers for acting childishly and foolishly. He uses two images to describe the church. One is a field that Paul has planted and Apollos has watered, but a field that depends on God alone for its growth into fruitfulness. The other image is one we often mistakenly associate with the word “church.” Paul tells the Corinthians that they are like a building.
Remember the story of the Three Little Pigs? When it was time for the pigs to head out into the world and build houses of their own, each had a perfect plan for building. They chose their materials to suit their personalities. One chose straw, another chose sticks, and the third pig decided to build a house out of bricks. When the Big Bad Wolf came around, it took no time at all for that wolf to huff and puff and blow down the house of straw. The pig that had built the straw house went running to the next pig’s house. Together they huddled in the house of sticks, but the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew in that house, too.
When two very frightened pigs showed up at the third pig’s door, it would have been easy to say, “Sorry, you got what you deserved!” But that didn’t happen.
The third pig let the other two in, and bolted the sturdy door and shutters against the Big Bad Wolf. Safe at last! But when the Big Bad Wolf couldn’t blow down the brick house, no matter how hard he tried, he climbed onto the roof, and found the one opening that the pigs had left open: the chimney!
As the wolf came down the chimney, however, he discovered – now here you can insert your favorite ending to the story. Some folks end it with the wolf falling into a boiling kettle that was hanging over the fire (but in that version, the first two pigs get eaten by the wolf!), while others have the wolf falling into the fire itself.
I learned that second one, thanks to Walt Disney. – So the wolf fell right into the flames, where his tail caught fire. He went running out of the house as fast as he could, straight to the pond, and jumped in the water to cool off his burning tail. The Big Bad Wolf never bothered those three pigs again, and they lived happily ever after in their strong, brick house.
Great story, right?
But it is a fairy tale. Literary historians cannot identify the origins of the story, though it first appeared in print in the mid 1800s. It’s been classified, analyzed, adapted, parodied, and even turned into a children’s opera, using music by Mozart. Though I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul never heard the story of the Three Little Pigs, I’m also pretty sure he would have liked the moral of the story: When you build a house, the materials and method you chose matter. Straw and twigs won’t work, when put to the test. A building that will last, must not only be made of sterner stuff, it must be built on a solid foundation. As Paul writes to his friends in Corinth, he has some important construction advice for them.
Let’s turn now to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 3:10-11, and 16-23.
1 Cor. 3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
1Cor. 3:16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. 18 Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written,
“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
20 and again,
“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”
21 So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
At first glance, we might think this passage is really just a summary of Paul’s teaching from chapters one and two. Back in chapter one, Paul wrote, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” And now, we hear the corollary of that statement: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” Instead of showing off how smart and wise they were, the Christians at Corinth had been demonstrating their spiritual foolishness. They had done this by identifying themselves with particular leaders, saying “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Peter.” Paul denounced this rivalry back in chapter one. The rivalry is apparently not between leaders in the church, so much as it is between groups of followers who claim to belong to particular leaders. He reminds the Corinthians that he and Apollos are both servants of Christ, working together. He urges the church to be unified in Christ alone.
But this passage has more to offer than a simple summary of Paul’s argument up to now. Paul uses this opportunity to explain to the Corinthians – and to us – why it is so important that they seek unity. Paul is not only telling the early church to “Grow up!”, he is giving it good reason to do so.
First, Paul uses the image of a building to help his readers understand his point. Like any good builder, Paul starts by laying a firm foundation, and that foundation is Jesus Christ. Nothing more, nothing less will do. The only viable foundation for the church is the Lord Jesus Christ. In the verses we skipped, Paul goes on to explain that whatever material the church uses to build on that strong foundation must be able to withstand the test of fire. Like the first two pigs in the fairy tale, the Corinthian Christians have settled for flimsy stuff to build their faith. Paul is urging them to build with materials that will last.
Then, Paul goes on to explain why the materials they choose to build are so important. “Do you not know,” he asks, “that you are God’s temple?” The building under construction here is more than a simple hut. It is the place where God’s spirit resides. In fact, it isn’t a building at all – that’s just the metaphor Paul has been using. This temple is the people of God, Christ’s church.
There is an important point of grammar here in verse 16 that may not be clear in standard English: the “you” is plural, not singular. It does not refer to an individual, but to the whole community of believers. If we lived in the South, there would be a distinction between “y’all” and “all y’all.” So Paul is saying: “Do all y’all not know that all y’all are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in all y’all?”
This is a radical notion in its original context, where God was believed to reside in the temple at Jerusalem. Even in the pagan culture of Corinth, a temple was expected to be a building. Yes, Paul says, God dwells in the temple but it is not a building. It is a community of faith. And it is up to you – all y’all – to build that community.
This idea is radical today for a different reason: our society focuses on individual experience, on self-fulfillment that centers attention on personal satisfaction rather than personal piety. Contemporary culture values individualized spirituality, but our God is not a private God. “Come, let us worship and bow down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker,” the Psalmist writes. While personal piety is important to our spiritual growth, worshipping as part of the Body of Christ, in community, is essential to the development of our faith, and to the building up of the Body to which we belong. It may be possible to be a believer in isolation, but it is impossible to be a true disciple alone. We need other disciples around us, living out our faith together in unity as the Body of Christ. The Greek word Ekklesia, which is translated throughout the New Testament as “Church,” refers to a gathering of people, not a building – or even a location. The church is a group of people, gathered together in Jesus’ Name.
But Paul isn’t finished. Since you are God’s Temple, he continues, the holy place where God’s spirit lives, does it make any sense to destroy yourselves with petty feuding? If you try to destroy God’s temple – which is all y’all – you will be destroyed in the process. Don’t kid yourselves. Not only is God’s foolishness wiser than your wisdom, your wisdom is foolishness to God. So stop arguing about which leader you should follow. You don’t belong to any of us; we belong to you. And you belong to Christ. And Christ belongs to God.
This is a new way of thinking for the people of Corinth. The hierarchy has been turned upside down. Or, more accurately, right side up. Isn’t it true for us, too? How often do we “try to fit God” into our overly busy lives, instead of ordering our lives around God? How many of us are more likely to follow a celebrity on Twitter than to follow the one who saves us from our sins? Isn’t it easy to buy into the “me first” culture that surrounds us? I know my blood pressure rises every time someone cuts in front of me on the highway. But if we get our priorities straight, God is at the center of everything we think and do. Christ is not only our faith’s foundation, he also becomes Lord and King over all aspects of our lives.
Paul reminds us to keep God at the center of everything we do together as a church, too. With Christ as the foundation of the church, “each one should be careful how he builds.” Paul writes. In other words, we need to be intentional with the process of being church. How we build is important, if we are to live out faithfully our calling as God’s people.
When you paint a house, proper preparation is everything. You have to replace the rotten wood, scrape, prime, and do the trim work before you can ever begin to lay on that first coat of paint. Most of the work that goes into painting a house is the prep work.
When you plant a garden, I was reminded yesterday, you have to prepare the dirt if you want the plants to thrive. The ground must be broken up, the sticks and weeds removed, and the soil enriched with compost or fertilizer before you put the seeds in the ground.
Right now, our little suburb is rebuilding its streets. We are not talking about re-surfacing, like the work that is happening around the church’s neighborhood right now. These are new streets, with curbs and concrete driveway aprons, and run-off “rain gardens” and the whole works. It has been a five-year project, and our street is part of the final phase of street rebuilding. Before they start tearing up the asphalt and digging the new roadbed, however, the prep crews are putting in new sewer connections and new natural gas lines. I don’t know about you, but I never really thought about sewers and utilities as part of a road-building project. But the people who have planned it know what they are doing. How you build matters.
Paul has given us a good “How To” guide for building the church in this passage. Here are the ways Paul says we should build:
First, Paul writes “According to the grace God has given me, like a master builder.” We need to depend completely on God’s grace, recognizing that it is God who does a mighty work in us.
Second, We make Christ our foundation. With the focus of our attention on Jesus, we no longer worry about getting our own way. When being like Christ becomes the foundation of everything we do and think and say, “our way” simply doesn’t matter any more.
Third, We work together, in unity.  There are so many ways we can allow ourselves to be irritated by one another, aren’t there? But none of these differences of opinion should matter to us as much as being one in Christ Jesus. We are the church together, the song goes.
Fourth, We remain Spirit-filled  – If we are God’s temple, then God’s spirit lives within us. The Holy Spirit is “at home” among us.
And fifth, we must be Wise by God, but fools by human standards – When we turn our attention toward the values of the world around us, we get distracted by things that don’t matter to God, and we ignore what burdens God’s heart. We look to the rich and successful for affirmation, instead of looking to the poor and powerless Christ calls us to serve.
The mission of Bethlehem Covenant Church is to be a welcoming neighborhood church with a heartfelt devotion to God. Through our strategic planning process, our church has named four areas where we want to see God moving in and among us to carry out that mission. Reading the Bible; Recognizing the Holy Spirit at work; Small Group ministry; and Demonstrating our Faith through Risk-Taking are those four areas.
These are the materials we use to build the church – our church. These are our building blocks. But we could have easily chosen other materials. We could have decided on a different mission statement that would have been just as valid, and done just as much to further the Kingdom of God. It is important to choose good materials. Brick and stone is more durable than straw and sticks, when put to the test.
But how we build is just as important as the materials we use. When we do all these things together, according to the grace given us, filled with the Holy Spirit, fools to the world’s values, but wise by God’s standard, with Jesus Christ as our only foundation, then God’s Kingdom grows. Then all things become ours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to us, and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. Amen.