Tag Archives: unity

Grafted In – Sermon on Romans 11

This week, as events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, I was struck by the difference on social media between the responses of my white friends and my black friends to the death of Michael Brown. Here in New Ulm, where pretty much everyone is white, you may not have paid much attention to the news from Ferguson. It may not have seemed relevant to our mostly German community. But as I read today’s scriptures over and over, they kept pointing me back to the news, and particularly to the pain and frustration my black friends were expressing as the week wore on. Not just the tensions in Ferguson, but the tensions in Gaza and other parts of the world all seem to come back to the fact that we, as human beings, don’t do a very good job of living together peacefully.

In our Old Testament reading today, Joseph’s revelation to his brothers might seem like a happy ending, but we know the rest of the story. Joseph brings his whole family to Egypt, and 400 years later, their descendants will struggle under Egyptian oppression. The Gospel Lesson tells us of a Canaanite woman who convinces Jesus to help her daughter, but she has to overcome Jewish prejudice against Israel’s earliest enemies in order to do it. And in our reading from Romans today, we will hear the Apostle Paul wrap up his own argument in the Gentile/Jew debate. No matter where we turn, it seems, the Bible keeps playing the race card.

When scripture collides with current events like this, we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t see it. Maybe you think the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has little or nothing to do with you, and the aftermath of his death may seem like a mess you’re glad is happening there, instead of here. Maybe you think we’re a long way away from that St. Louis suburb. On the other hand, our readings today might just be telling us, to paraphrase one of my Facebook friends, that Ferguson is nearer to New Ulm than we think.
Here’s the word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.


If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”  That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. … 

…  for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (Romans 11:1-2, 16-21, 29-32)

“Has God rejected his people?” Paul has to ask this question because, apparently, some of the Gentile Christians in Rome thought God had disowned Israel, and Gentile Christians had become God’s chosen people in Israel’s place. But this isn’t true, Paul tells us. Salvation is for all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.

Paul defends his point by reminding his readers that he, himself, is a Jew. If God had completely rejected his people, Paul wouldn’t have had a chance. Yet, here he is, a Jew and a follower of Jesus. Just because the nation of Israel had rejected God, it didn’t mean that God would break his promise. Jesus had told the woman at the well “salvation is from the Jews,” after all (John 4:22). If not for the Jews, Paul tells us, there would be no gospel story. There would be no good news. God has not rejected his people.

Paul goes on to describe salvation history using an olive tree as an example. It was common practice to prune out branches of an old tree that had borne well for many years, then graft in younger branches from an uncultivated tree to get the old tree to bear again. The strong root of the old tree would support the new branches as they fused with the established tree. “You Gentiles are like those new branches,” Paul says, “but don’t get cocky. You depend on the strong root of Jewish history, not the other way around.”

And this is where scripture collides with the events of this past week, as hateful words flew, and violence escalated in Ferguson, MO. You see, Emperor Claudius had kicked the Jews out of Rome, but Nero had repealed that edict when he came into power a few years later. While the Jews were absent, Gentile Christians in Rome had continued to grow in numbers and influence. To some extent, when the Jewish Christians were allowed to return to Rome, they came back to a church in which Gentile Christians had taken over, and had begun to see themselves as more privileged than the Jews. There may have even been evidence of a particularly troubling heresy that rejected the Old Testament and Judaism completely. It’s no wonder that Paul’s words are strong here, as he warns against arrogance. When addressing people of privilege, it sometimes takes strong language to expose that assumption of privilege for what it is: oppression.

The thing is, people who live privileged lives don’t usually see that we have freedoms others can only dream about. We take for granted that others will assume we are clean, honest, and dependable. We might even look down our noses a bit at people who don’t appear to be any of these things. When I stroll down the aisles at Walmart, I don’t have to worry about keeping my hands out of my pockets. I don’t have to” watch my step or practice what to say when – not if – the police pull me over.” But I know people who do. And I can tell you that my life of privilege makes their lives harder. Not because they have to work harder or be smarter or do more to get the same recognition I get, but because when I blithely go about my business without a care in the world, I’m creating a world that doesn’t care. And that is not what Jesus calls me to do.

“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” Paul writes. God has called all his people to himself, no matter what ethnic tribe they claim, no matter what social standing they have, no matter how rich or poor they are. And since we are all called as disciples of Jesus Christ, it follows that I may be rubbing elbows with another disciple who doesn’t look like me or smell like me or think like me or act like me, but we are in this thing called faith together, as brothers and sisters, united in our love for God and for one another.

None of us is any better or worse than any of us. We each have our part in the story. Paul writes, “Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (vv30-32)

If the Jews had not rejected Jesus, there would have been no reason for Paul to reach out to the Gentiles with the good news of God’s saving love. If the Gentiles had not responded to that good news, there would have been no way for the Jews to see that God’s love and mercy is available to everyone. In Greek, “mercy” is the last word in verse 32. What would it look like for mercy to be the last word, the ultimate gift we might offer to one another, regardless of our differences?

As the governor sent in the State Highway Patrol to take charge of security in Ferguson, tensions relaxed a bit, but were raised again when the governor announced a curfew “until further notice.” Video footage released by the police identifies Michael Brown as a suspect in a robbery that took place earlier on the day he was killed. But the police officer who shot Michael Brown was not aware of the robbery. The details are muddy, and a grand jury will start sorting them out in the next few days. No matter who did what, or where the blame lies for protests that turned into riots, complete with military-style response from police, the last word needs to be mercy. Mercy is all we can ask, and all we can offer.

It’s unfortunate that the final verses of chapter 11 are not included in today’s lectionary reading, because Paul offers us a song of praise to conclude this section of his letter. He’s said everything that needs to be said about Jews and Gentiles having the same access to God’s grace and forgiveness. The only thing left to do is give God thanks for his goodness, to praise him for being God. Next week, we will move on to Paul’s instructions for recognizing and using our spiritual gifts. If you’ve ever wondered what spiritual gifts you possess, you’ll want to be here! But in the meantime, let us join with the Apostle Paul in giving glory to God. Hear the last four verses of chapter 11:


Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.


How’s the Weather? – Sermon on Luke 12:49-56

“It’s been a busy week in Lake Wobegon,” Garrison Keillor likes to say.  There have been meetings and e-mails, phone calls and road trips, people to meet, places to go, and things to do.  We’ve cooked meals, done laundry, had maintenance done, and fixed things that were broken.  On top of all that, some of us have prepared and taught lessons, or served in a multitude of other ways for Vacation Bible School.  We’ve attended funerals and weddings, bought groceries, fed the dog, and picked flowers.  Business as usual, right?  The constant hum of busy-ness fools us into thinking we have everything under control, as long as we can keep checking things off our “To Do” lists.

And in the middle of our long list of tasks to complete, Jesus shows up and calls us nasty names.  Just when we think we know what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to do it, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace lashes out at us in shrill frustration at our blindness, our foolishness.  You think I’m making this up?  If a preacher were looking for trouble in a preaching text, this one has plenty.  Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Luke, twelfth chapter, beginning at verse 49.

Jesus said to his disciples:

49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!  52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.  55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.  56 You hypocrites!  You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? – Luke 12:49-56

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Not a very cheerful passage, is it?  Remember that Jesus and his disciples were on their final journey to Jerusalem.  As Jesus moved closer and closer to his destination – his death – a sense of urgency must have been rising in him.  There was so much his disciples still did not understand about the Kingdom he had been born to rule.  They were still looking for a Messiah who would be a military champion, someone to bring down Rome in a great show of armed strength.  They were looking for a king who would restore the throne of David.  They were not looking for a King reigning on the throne of heaven, or a king who would be a servant, or one who would be tortured and executed.  Not that kind of king.

It must have been very frustrating for Jesus.  Here he had been teaching with stories and parables about the way the Kingdom of God works, and they still didn’t get it.  Once in a while, there would be a glimmer of understanding, but it would quickly fade, as the disciples who knew Jesus best kept trying to put him into the box of their own expectations.  Can you hear the exasperation in his voice, as Jesus breaks out of his mild-mannered Clark Kent persona, and starts yelling – first at the twelve, and then at the crowds that were always gathering wherever he went?

Jesus, who only recently was rebuking James and John for wanting to bring down fire on some Samaritans who had not welcomed them[1], suddenly declares that he cannot wait to bring down fire himself.  (Can’t you just hear James and John complaining, “How come you get to when we don’t?)”

There is a difference between cleansing fire and fire that consumes.  James and John were eager to destroy, but Jesus is talking about cleansing, purifying fire.  He knows what lies ahead for him, and for his disciples, and he wants to be sure they have been refined and tested, so that they can remain strong when the time comes.

And that time is very near.  Very soon, Jesus will ride a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds shout “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  A few days later, these same crowds will cry out “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” and he will be led to the place of the skull, hung on a cross, and crucified.  There isn’t much time left before the prophets’ words will be fulfilled.  The baptism Jesus is about to undergo is a flood of anguish, as he takes on the sins of the entire world.

The Jesus we see in this passage seems out of character with the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor.  This is not the sweet baby Jesus for whom the angels sang, “Peace on earth, good will to all” back in Luke 2.  No, this Jesus announces division instead of peace.  His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes.  On the other hand, Jesus has not come to validate human institutions and the values those institutions promote.  Jesus has come to set into motion God’s radical will for the world.  The stress Jesus is under is not anxiety, but a total absorption in his mission.  That mission is to redeem a broken world.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus pits “peace” against “division,” treating them as opposites?  We often think of the opposite of peace as war, and the opposite of division as unity.  But here Jesus turns the dial a notch.  It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without complete unity.  He is not satisfied with half measures.

But maybe the confusion and tension of Jesus’ teachings here cannot, and should not, be resolved.  If we look at this passage in light of the whole gospel story, perhaps we find it may describe rather than prescribe division among us.  That is, it is not Jesus’ purpose to set children against their parent or parents against their children, but this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes brought about by Christ’s work.

Did you notice that all the divisions Jesus lists are between generations?  Jesus is not saying that it is his intent to separate family members from one another, but that family ties no longer determine a person’s identity, vocation, allegiance, and status.  Instead, they will be determined by whether or not that person accepts or denies Jesus as Lord.  What ties believers together is not the covenant of ancestry, but the covenant of blood, poured out for those who find fellowship in the family of God.

The harsh sayings and indictments resounding in this text remind us that Jesus has not come to validate the social realities and values we have constructed.  Such social realities and values often end up favoring those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who are powerless. The radical purposes of God have completely demolished the status quo.  Jesus shatters it with his mission of compassion, mercy, and justice.  Staking our claim with Jesus will inevitably separate us from those who deny his Lordship.  Coming alongside Jesus in his mission will most certainly divide us from those who fear giving up their positions of power in order to bring peace and justice to others.  God’s divine plan for peace is not always welcome.

A watershed determines which direction water will flow.  The hills and ridges between two rivers set the boundaries between the two watershed areas.  The weather on one side of the ridge can be quite different from the weather in the neighboring watershed.  Some of you may have experienced this, since New Ulm has one of those ridges running through it, between the Cottonwood and the Minnesota Rivers.  I can remember driving from southeast Kansas to Kansas City when I was younger, and about the time we hit Fort Scott, Kansas, the weather would always change.  It would suddenly be colder, or hotter, or it would start raining, or the sun would come out.  We had climbed to the top of a ridge between two watersheds, and that dividing line made all the difference in what the weather would be.

We are quite interested in predicting the weather, aren’t we?  Even those of us who aren’t farmers will check the weather report before we go to bed, and again first thing in the morning, so we can order our lives accordingly.  The people crowding around Jesus were no different.  They could tell if it was going to rain by noticing the smallest cloud in the west.  And if the wind was out of the south, coming off the desert, it was going to be a scorcher.

Jesus is saying that it is nothing less than hypocrisy when the same skills are not brought to bear on recognizing that the day of the Lord is near.  In Luke 11, Jesus chastises the crowds because they keep asking for a sign that he is the Messiah.  Now, he chastises them for their complete inability to interpret the signs they are given.  We are faced with the ridge, the dividing line, between two watersheds.  On one side of the hill, the water runs toward destruction and ruin.  On the other side of the hill, the water runs toward the new age of Christ’s reign on earth.  If we can read the weather cues on either side of the dividing line, why can’t we tell what time it is?

The problem is not so much that we are unable to interpret the signs of the times, but more that we are unwilling to do so.  It’s interesting that Jesus uses this word “interpret,” because the root words of hypocrite – that nasty name Jesus aims in our direction – also refer to an actor, or interpreter.  Just as an actor puts on a character different from his own and interprets a role, so a hypocrite interprets the weather but not the more obvious current state of affairs.  This kind of interpretation is superficial, not authentic, just like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup.  It is hypocrisy.

So what does the weather look like today, here in New Ulm?  What time is it getting to be?  What are the current concerns of the Kingdom, which Jesus is so eager to bring to completion?  How are we being hypocrites, acting out our own short-sighted interpretation of “the way things are,” and missing the point of the way things ought to be?  As I get to know you and the city of New Ulm a little better each week, I am discovering some of the things that we tend to ignore.  Maybe we think the problem is too big, like making sure there is enough affordable housing available.  Maybe we think the problem has been around so long, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  Division among institutions such as churches and their associated education systems is just easier to work around than it is to try to change.  Within our own congregation, there has been, at one time or another, division about worship styles, how to do children’s ministry, youth programming, discipleship.   While these issues may seem to have been resolved, there may still be scars and even unhealed hurts that remain.  On the surface, like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup, we look fine.  But are we really paying attention to what time it is?

Sometimes, the presenting issue that divides us is not the real issue.

I suggested once that it might work better for the organist at a former church if the piano were on the same side of the sanctuary as the organ console, much as we have here at First UMC.  A flurry of opposition arose, and the senior pastor heard many complaints about the possibility of ruining the beauty and symmetry of the sanctuary.  But it wasn’t the piano that was the real issue.  When we said, “fine, leave the piano where it is.  Let’s talk about what’s really bothering you,” we learned that the real issue was confusion about a new contemporary service, being introduced at about that same time.  There was division, but it wasn’t about the piano.

Jesus holds division and peace in tension, and asks us to interpret the times through God’s clock.  What time is it?  The same time it was 2000 years ago.  Time to wake up.  Time to take off the blinders and see what God sees.  Time to repent of our complacency, our hypocrisy, our willingness to act one way in public and be something else in private, our willingness to maintain the status quo instead of moving radically into the demands of Kingdom living.  It’s time to take a good hard look at who we are, and what we do, and see how far it is from what Jesus asks of us.  It’s time to realize that the weather is shifting.  In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation![2]”  It’s time to become true followers of Jesus Christ.  The time is now.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.

[1] Luke 9:51-56

[2] 2 Corinthians 6:2

How Will You Build? Sermon on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23

Sermon for June 9, 2013
Click here to listen to this sermon.

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.”[1]  And now, we hear the corollary of that statement: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”[2]  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.[3]  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.”[4] 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.”[5]  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.[6]  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. [7] 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 [8] – 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[9]  – 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.

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:25

[2] 1 Cor 3:19

[3] Ps  95:6

[4] 1 Cor 3:10

[5] 1 Cor 3:10

[6] 1 Cor 3:11

[7] 1 Cor 3:16

[8] 1 Cor 3:16

[9] 1 Cor 3:18