Unity and its source - 1 Corinthians 3:1-23
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Given the events of the last 12 days it's hard to deny we live in a mixed up world.
We live in a world where 1000s can be killed in seconds by suicide attackers in aeroplanes.
We live in a world where in a disaster scene whilst some lovingly search for survivors with their bare hands, others in elaborate hoaxes deceive them pretending they have relatives to be rescued.
We live in a world where certain individuals hold great sway. Terrorist leaders like the now universally infamous Osama bin Laden has sufficient influence that many are prepared to kill & be killed at his instruction.
At root we live in a world where such things are true because the inclination of men & women is to centre our thoughts & activities on ourselves or some human leader rather than the true God & the leader he has appointed Jesus Christ.
This tendency to be human-centred rather than God-centred skews so much contemporary experience. Yet it's very close to home, for this problem spills over from the world into the Church. We should know better, but still we easily take our cue form the world around us, as Churches we become 'worldly'. We imbibe the Spirit of the age, rather than living the way of Jesus through God's Spirit.
We've been learning over the past 3 weeks from the Apostle Paul's 1st letter to the Church in Corinth & tonight reached Ch 3. (Please turn to p1145).
These Christians, it seems, had become man centred in 2 main ways. We've already seen how they had misunderstood the essential message of Christianity Instead of trusting in God's way of doing things they wanted to ape the world wanted an impressive message; an impressive Church made up of impressive members lead by impressive ministers.
They thought they were very 'spiritual' & 'wise', but actually they were preferring human ways to God's. Like some in today's church they preferred a gospel that impresses, to what is actually God's powerful gospel God's unimpressive way of sending his Son to be executed but a way that turns out to be God's powerful way of humbling proud humans & bringing rebels back to himself.
This eve we're going to focus on the 2nd problem where we can become man centred rather than God centred. This 1st C Church's spotlight was on individual leaders; playing one off against the other, comparing this person with that. What Paul needed to give them was some clear teaching on the nature & function of Christian service.
Paul uses 3 illustrations from everyday life to get his message over.
1)V1-5 Human Development: adults & Youngsters; Don't be immature about your leaders they're servants.
31 'Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly--mere infants in Christ.'
As a father of young children I have had the privilege of seeing 2 new lives born in the world. I've also had the privilege of seeing babies grow & develop Sometimes, I may add, it feels more like a privilege than others!!
But all of us, whether through work or meeting family & friends, have expectations of children that are different from adults.
Babies can't digest solids in their 1st weeks, they can't sleep when you want them to, they can't control their bowels & bladders, then they grow a bit but can't walk for far, then when they become teenagers the parents' problems are all over (right isn't it?!)
Seriously, we know children can't be expected to be adults but when a child is several years old & still can't eat solid food, or know when it needs the toilet, something is not right.
Something was not right here in the Corinthian Church. Their behaviour suggested that when it came to maturity, these Christians were still in their nappies!
Paul has to tell them off. Of course you expect new believers to be the spiritual equivalents of babies only able to receive basic, easily digestible milk, these Corinthians were v2 'Still not ready.' They weren't able, or prepared, to accept more solid instruction form God's word. They might have thought themselves to be 'spiritual' & wise' & full of knowledge but Paul has to say v1 'You are worldly'-
Ironically they thought they were so impressive, so 'spiritual' cf 4:8 but Paul tells them 'when you behave in this immature worldly way v3 'are you not mere men?' In other words, thought you are Christians with the HS in your lives, are you not behaving just like those who don't have Christ's Spirit like your non-Christian neighbours?
The particular behaviour in view is their childish view of each other & their leaders. V3 For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 4For when one says, 'I follow Paul,' and another, 'I follow Apollos,' are you not mere men? 5What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul?'
These Christians were getting into cliques based on personality cults it was the person & their style, how they said things, who they were, not what they did or what they stood for which was important to them.
This is so typical of our world today.
The media bombards us with so called personalities. We love chat shows & Hello magazine articles it doesn't really matter what the people stand for or what they believe, but their image, how they come across is everything.
Christians too can become worldly by creating personality cults or factions. We have favourite leaders, authors & speakers which is fair enough but we quickly attribute to them far more than is right, we give them celebrity status or accord them something not far short of infallibility. We think of each other as being affiliated to one leader or conference or another.
Even within a local Church, people can try & gather round one leader & do down another. We can quickly develop a Christian form of man centredness!
Paul is at pains to play down this human oriented personality cult & he does it strikingly by asking 2 questions; v5 'What, after all is Apollos. What is Paul?'
You 'd expect him to say 'Who'? It's almost rude but speaking of himself & his close associate he makes the point clearly.
Think of a surgical operation we don't give praise to the scalpel when an operation is successful; it's only an instrument, rather we recognise the surgeon. When we're tempted to over emphasise the human church leader we need to acknowledge that the effective work is done by God.
'What is Paul, What is Apollos? 'Only servantsSome were looking to one, as their guru, others to the other, but Paul is clear 'servants ' that what we are. It's not so much who we are, but that we're here to serve.
Christian leadership like the gospel itself turns worldly expectations on its head. Secular leadership is all about qualifications, influence, capability & status, Christian leadership is about serving others. This type of leadership is of course patterned on Jesus' example himself; the one who Mt20:28 'did not come to be served to serve & to give his life as a ransom for many'.
Of course we expect to be helped by our leaders & we should respect them but the real help comes as God helps them to help us - he should be our focus.
Paul's' reaching the real nitty gritty of the passage leaders are servants. Paul & Apollos are no more than instruments God did the real work. And this brings us to the 2nd illustration.
2)[V6-9 Horticulture; Planting & feeding; In the spiritual realm as in nature it's God, not the human agents who makes things grow.]
When I 1st came to this area of Yorkshire I didn't know it was a centre of horticulture. If you go up the road towards Beverley you see many greenhouses used for growing; historical links with Dutch growers, but also good light levels worth remembering this dreary Autumn!
One of the Church members in our daughter ch in Dunswell has an horticultural business. I've been amazed what goes into the cultivating of tomatoes for the nation's supermarkets. Preparation, feeding, computer controlled heating, watering & lighting. But ultimately for all this work, if God didn't give the natural ability to germinate, grow & develop there would be no fruit.
What is true in nature is true spiritually in God's church; It is God who does the vital part.
V6'I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.'
In Church growth & development God is what really matters. The attention of the Corinthians should have been fastened on him, who alone brings about spiritual growth, not on the relatively unimportant instruments.
In this analogy God is the farmer, & the Church members v9 are 'God's field'. Paul sowed the original seed of the gospel in the soil of the Corinthians' hearts as an evangelist & Apollos watered the seedlings with the ministry of the word & care. But neither had the vital life giving power that could make the seed germinate in the 1st place or increase in height or bulk afterwards. V7 'So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.'
Can I ask; If this is true what does it say about how we pray for God's work - Personally & as a church? How do we express our dependence on him for what only he can do?
And to come back to the central point, how does it affect the way we see our leaders?
In comparison to what God must do v7 'neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow'
Once more it's so easy to become man centred - it's what we do that makes the difference, with our great communication, our programmes, our staff, our buildings even our Project Newland, people cannot help but be converted & our members grow. But no, our focus & our trust must be in God, for only he 'makes things grow'.
But having got over his main thrust Paul doesn't dismiss the way God uses means to bring about his purposes. The parts played by Paul & Apollos were very important. They & their 21st C equivalents are, v5, 'only servants' but they are (v5 again) 'servants, though whom you came to believe'.
Compared to God himself who makes things grow they are insignificant, but in God's wisdom they have a key place in the divine scheme of things.
Notice what this human part in God's purposes involves;
i) Each has a role V6. 'I planted the seed, Apollos watered it'. They knew what their task was & they got on with it. Paul & Apollos had, v5 been 'assigned' their task from the Lord - in their cases they were 'up front' roles otherwise the Corinthians wouldn't have had the tendency to exalt them & compare them. But what Paul goes onto say in ch 12 of this letter shows that each member of Christ's body the Church, has a function & each member is needed for the body to work properly
So in God's economy a preacher is not greater than someone who makes drinks after the service, nor is a pioneer missionary (several of whom we are having our Gift day to support) greater than a Christian housewife or someone using a time of unemployment or retirement constructively. All are important, though clearly some are more obviously significant. (Each has a role)
(ii) Each depends on the other v6. Churches develop as each works not independently, but interdependently. v6'I planted the seed, Apollos watered it' To return to the picture It's no good one planting seed where the other can't water & the one who waters doesn't achieve much if he waters everywhere else except where seeds have been sown. Each needs the other to play their part because v8 'The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose
The world famous 3 Tenors. Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti were performing together back in the early 90s. A reporter tried to press the issue of competitiveness between the three men. 'You have to put all of your concentration into opening your heart to the music,' Domingo said. 'You can't be rivals when you're together making music.' That's also true in God's church. (p)
Paul has to tell these believers 'You are divided by your fascination with the particular spiritual hero that impresses you, but look, Apollos & myself are v9 'God's fellow workers' we are working hard together & we belong to God who alone makes things grow.'
Brings us to our 3rd & final illustration;
3) V9- 15 Architecture: Foundations & Buildings; Jesus is the only foundation & leaders are accountable for how they build on him.
Having lived for 5 years in a house that had serious structural problems & which I now understand may soon be demolished, I can tell you that a good foundation & quality building materials are vital for a sturdy building.
This is the image Paul sets before us in v9-15. The Corinthian church is v9 'God's building'. Paul as an Apostle & founder of the church was the master builder but others, different Church leaders, are now involved in building - V10 'By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it.' These builders in God's church now as then, must ' be careful how (they) build. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.'
A foundation is the crucial dimension of any building. However good the superstructure, without a good base to start with, the building will not last long.
Churches can try to carve out a market niche with a reputation for great music, Impressive oratory, beautiful buildings, charming staff, welcoming social gatherings, or whatever (& some of these things are good things & things a church should do) But a church, a real church can only be based on one thing.
Of course that foundation is, v11 'Jesus Christ'. Jesus is the reason for Church, we are his Church & we're here to please him.
In Corinth people were dividing the church, forming their fan clubs around certain leaders but it is not Paul's church! It's not Apollos' church.
For us who belong to this church family it's not MT the Vicar's church, or the Church council's church or C of E's church, it is Jesus Christ's Church.
Only he is an adequate foundation. Pastors & teachers move on. Only ministry based on Jesus Christ bears fruit, only a church built on Jesus Christ survives.
What has already been said in this letter shows that there is something about Jesus that is the particular foundation. Back in 2:2 we read 'For I resolved to know nothing whilst I was among you except Jesus Christ & him crucified' Paul has said he always tried to explain about Jesus & him crucified. A church can only truly be based on Jesus & his gospel that unimpressive message of a suffering messiah dying to save his people from their sins.
At this time of year I expect there are visitors with us, perhaps new students, trying to find a church family to be part of can I say it's easy to fall for the kind of divisive human centred mistakes that were rife in Corinth. 'We all go to such & such a church because they sing so & so's praise songs, people don't go to such & such because it's not connected to this leader or that conference, or the other network.'
Your priority is to find a church which is based on Christ & him crucified, a church which seeks to learn from Christ by his appointed means, through his word the Bible, & a Church seeks to live out the implications with the strength of God's Spirit.
When the foundation is laid the superstructure must go up. Paul says those with a church building ministry ministers, preachers, children's & group leaders & so on can build on the foundation of Christ crucified with 2 sorts of materials good ones that last symbolised v12 as 'gold, silver & costly stones' or bluntly, rubbish ('wood, hay or straw') materials that won't last.
Paul says, (v12-15) that one day, when Jesus comes back all that church leaders have done will be tested. It will be like a fire sweeping through a building what is good will survive, what is rubbish will be burnt up.
Rubbish represents shoddy work; what has been done for our own benefit, for our increased reputation. What a Christian leader has built without honouring Jesus.
On the other hand there are the good materials; Gold, Silver & Precious stones. These good materials represent good work that is based on Jesus & his death on the cross, work that is shaped by explaining about Jesus with the strength of God's spirit & in a way that gives God credit.
This trial by fire on 'the Day', v13, Jesus' return, will 'test the quality of each mans work.' All the rubbish will be lost though the leader will still be in heaven because he trusted in Jesus, but the good quality work will be seen as good, & the leader will be rewarded for faithfulness.
These are sober words particularly for those of us who have teaching & leadership responsibilities in the church. (Indeed Paul adds V16Don't you know (local church) that you yourselves are God's temple (his dwelling place) and that God's Spirit lives in you? 17If anyone destroys God's temple (his Church), God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple.' Anyone who damages the family of God's church will be punished, so precious & sacred is that family.)
Leaders are accountable to God why then be man centred in our church life & attitude to them rather focus on God. Reminder too to pray for our leaders.
We live in a mixed up world. As Christians we are continually tempted like the world around us to become human centred in our attitudes & actions. We can behave like babies focusing on our human heroes, thinking they are the reason for our church's development & growth, they are the foundation of our fellowship.
But no we must be God centred knowing He alone makes things grow & his Son crucified & risen alone is the foundation on which we build.
Let me end with the closing words of our passage, v21 'So then, no more boasting about men' for v23 'you are of Christ, & Christ is of God!'
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