I Corinthians 3:1-9
The Christian Church has probably been trying to put much more effort into achieving uniformity over the past two thousand years than just about anything else that I can think of. What has been clearly evident though, is that we haven’t put much effort at all into achieving unity. The Christian Church is just as divided today as it ever has been, and maybe even more so. And it is our struggle to achieve uniformity that ultimately leads to division and disunity. For example, our sign out front says, “Thomaston Baptist Church”. That distinguishes and separates us from all other denominations here in the area. It says that we are not Methodist, nor Congregational, nor Episcopal. Furthermore, our sign has the cross and orb on it. That identifies us as American Baptists, and it further distinguishes us from all of the other varieties of Baptists out there, and believe me, their are many.
And to push the issue of separation and disunity even further, when someone steps inside, they will notice pews, stained glass windows and a split chancel. Eventually they will discover that we have an organ, not a praise band, and they will hear that we have a choir, not a worship team. They may even come to the conclusion that this is very likely their grandmother’s church. Now, is that a good thing, or a bad thing? I’m not sure. All of these things that I’ve just mentioned are ways that we use to separate ourselves from the other congregations that are scattered around us. And we must admit that they are also ways that ultimately contribute to disunity within the Christian church as it is expressed around the world. But these things are also ways in which we define our core beliefs, as we understand them, in the context of our faith in Jesus Christ, and in the relationship that we have with him. And so these things that so nicely distinguish us from everyone else could very well be a good thing.
Besides, as I’ve mentioned before, it is very likely that Jesus will have to wait quite some time before he sees any appreciable results from his prayer in John chapter 17.
And so it may be that we should be focusing more of our energy on achieving unity within the local church, rather than trying to accomplish it on a global scale. Sort of like getting our own room in God’s house in order rather than tackling a remodel of the whole thing. And curiously, that may be just exactly what the Apostle Paul is pursuing as he writes to the followers of Jesus in Corinth.
He reminds them in chapter 1, verse two, that they are part of something that is very large, but he focuses almost exclusively on the issues that they are struggling with, within their own local congregation. It may be for now at least, that we do have unity with every other congregation on the planet. We all share the same Savior. If we are a follower of Jesus, we are a saint. It would probably do well for us to focus on that bit of unity for now as the Apostle does, even though there is much that still divides us.
We can, however, achieve unity within our own local congregation, right here in Thomaston. And so, as part of that process, we dive right in, at the beginning of chapter 3, but with a bit of a warning: what Paul has to say to his readers is not pretty. And it’s all got to do with this business of the followers of Jesus trying to discover some uniformity by dividing up into those insidious personality cults. Paul accuses the folks in the church at Corinth of being babies. That’s terrible, but it’s true.
No one wants to be called a baby, or much worse, a spiritual baby. I’m guessing that most of us consider ourselves to be fairly spiritually mature. I am sure that when Paul delivered up this little nugget of an accusation that the good folks in Corinth were miffed beyond description. They would not have been pleased with Paul. But those four personality cults that Paul has been focusing on so far in this letter, are all of the evidence that he needs to deliver this scathing charge of spiritual immaturity. Those personality cults in Corinth worked two ways, both of which were very detrimental to the spiritual life of the congregation. First of all, those cults were vain attempts at uniformity. They brought like minded people together around a common cause. And that sounds so holy, doesn’t it? But they were very divisive as a result. And because they were divisive, this led to the second problem that those personality cults caused. The personality cults gave the church members the opportunity to boast against one another, and boasting about one’s spiritual prowess is a sure and certain sign of spiritual immaturity. People who boast, usually don’t have much to boast about at all.
As wonderfully cute as they are, and even though we all start out that way, sometimes, babies can also be a source of real frustration. They are self centered and self focused. They howl a lot. They get angry. They can’t do a thing for themselves. They demand constant attention. They are a hazard to sleep and to rest. Generally, though, babies have a tendency to grow up. There comes a time when they can get dressed all by themselves, and there comes that blessed time, when they demand to be fed, that you can look them right in the eye, straight on, and say, “Get it yourself. Did you forget where the refrigerator was?”
That time sadly had not yet arrived in Corinth. Paul says, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready…for as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh…?” Are you not still spiritually immature? That is a stunning accusation. And our temptation this morning to to react to it by boasting; to separate ourselves from the spiritual babies foundering around in Corinth. Surely, we are not them, and we can prove it. But before we do that, let us quietly consider our own lives. Rigorous self examination, the kind that we usually reject, might reveal that we sometimes demand our own way, or that there may be some childish behaviors that we still exhibit. Who is it that comes first in our lives? How faithful have we become at opening the refrigerator door of God’s Word, and pulling out something that is nourishing and life changing at the same time? What is it that challenges us to increase our ministry and mission as an individual, and as a member of this congregation? Can we respond to those individual and corporate challenges in a way that glorifies God and unites us with our brothers and sisters in a common mission?
In spite of Paul’s scathing accusations in this passage, he never once indicates or even hints that the folks in Corinth aren’t followers of Jesus, or that they don’t have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. Verse two of chapter one makes it abundantly clear that Paul is writing to saints. He does not question their faith. He does, however question how their faith works itself out in real life. He’s concerned that the folks in Corinth are behaving as if they were not followers of Jesus, as if they did not have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. He poses the possiblity with them that it may be possible, in fact, for a follower of Jesus to not be following Jesus. And that’s where all of that language about being in the flesh, and behaving like babies comes from.
And so Paul closes out this passage by bringing up those awful personality cults again. He can’t seem to leave them alone. Paul makes it clear that he and Apollos are nothing; that they are nothing more than servants of God, through whom the Corinthians have come to believe. Neither of them, Paul says, is worthy of a personality cult. Paul and Apollos are nothing! It is God who matters. Listen to Paul: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants, nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”
I suppose that if there is going to be a personality cult, it ought to be gathered around God. Paul is quick to point out that both he and Apollos are merely servants, working together. And therein lies the model for all Christian ministry and mission. At every level, all of us ought to be God’s servants, working together; nothing more, nothing less.
But there’s some glorious irony in verse 9, also. And that is, the very thing that has divided the Corinthians, should actually have been the very thing that united them in a common mission. If Paul and Apollos are God’s servants, working together with a common purpose, then personality cults become completely irrelevant. After all, we don’t belong to Paul, we don’t belong to Apollos, we belong to God. We are God’s field, God’s building. It turns out, that in God’s world, the things that have the potential to divide us, also have the power to unite us. That is worthy of some serious pondering.