‘Big Bang Theory’ is a favourite sitcom in our household. It well written, the dialogue is great, the characters are good and the science is real good as well... so I'm told. One of the characters in the sitcom reminds me of the church at Corinth: Sheldon Cooper. Sheldon is a brilliant theoretical physicist, he’s smart, real smart and he knows it, there is a real sense of arrogance, and he thinks he’s got his world all sorted out. But when it comes to relationships and human interaction he hasn’t got a clue. That’s of course is where a lot of the action and humour of the show comes from.
People at the church at Corinth thought they were wise and spiritual, that they had it made , but Paul says when it comes to the core of the gospel and how that works itself out in being the new people of God they didn’t have a clue. He could prove it by the way they treated each other.
They thought they were spiritual but Paul says with all the division over human wisdom and status that they were just like the non-believers; totally worldly. They all thought of themselves as PHD’s in theology but Paul says I can tell that with all the squabbling that is going on about identifying with this leader and that leaser that in reality you are just like a bunch of toddlers squabbling over who gets to play with the new toy.
We are looking at the book of 1 Corinthians to help us as God’s new people to wrestle with what it means to be one in Christ, when we come together from different cultures and socioeconomic groupings, with different ethical standards and expectations and even theologies. The chapter we are looking at today has been used in debates over whether or not you can be worldly Christians, primarily about whether you can lose your salvation once you’ve come to Christ. But for Paul that is neither his focus nor ours, he wants the believers at Corinth to grow and mature in Christ. He wants them to be one in Christ, not tobe wrestling with such things as status and human wisdom. He had told them in the passage we read last week that in the end it was all about God and allabout grace. Now in that context he is going to go on to give teaching on a Christian understanding of leadership, which is diametrically opposed to that of the culture of Corinth and our own.
One of the ways to get ahead in Corinth and in Roman society was to have a Patron, some one of status and wealth and power that would be able to advance your cause. It was like their prestige and position could rub off on you. It was Sort of like getting a celebrity to endorse your product or a royal warrant. They treated the sophists who came with different kinds of philosophies in the same way, by identifying with this well-known and respected person you could be considered to be wise. Maybe in our society we might call it ‘fame by association’ maybe even the cult of personality. But Paul says that the Christian understanding about leaders is totally different, that leaders are first and foremost servants. That would be hard for a city made up of many freed slaves and a community where there were many people who were servants who wanted to get ahead to comprehend and in Roman society as in our own, servants were looked down on. But as Paul reminds them all the way through this opening portion of his letter, at the center of the gospel is Christ crucified, is a leader who came not to be served but to serve, who because of love gave up his life, for the sake of you and me, was willing to suffer the pain and indignity of death on the cross.
Paul uses the metaphor of agricultural work to illustrate this. He focuses on Apollos and himself, because they had been to Corinth and worked there. He says that just like servants on a farm, they each have their tasks to perform. They are not the owner of the farm or vineyard, rather they are given a task to do by the master. Paul’s was to plant seeds, he was an apostle, one sent to start and establish churches, an evangelist who proclaimed the gospel, Apollos was like the one who came along and watered the plants. Both are important tasks. Neither are more important than the other. And says Paul, they both complement each other and focus on seeing the harvest ripen mature and be bought in. I’ve done my share of horticultural work and I’ve done various tasks. I worked at one of the biggest plant nurseries in New Zealand and I was part of the weeding team, I spent a whole summer holiday weeding between the various rows of seedlings. I fact my role in the weeding team was to drag the weeds back down the rows and get rid of them. I worked in a hot house complex in Te Puke one summer, so for a couple of weeks my job was doing deep knee bends and stretches, tying 32 thousand tomato plants to the top wire, it seems I was the only one tall enough to reach the top wire. In these places we all did our part so that the crop would grow. No one was more important that the others. Paul's favourite title in his letters is that of a slave of Christ, Christian leaders should be respected because they are called by God to serve his people, but its not about status and importance, it’s about role.
Paul goes on to tell them again and in the end it’s all God and it’s all grace, as it is with crops it’s like with the church, God makes it grow. The people of Corinth would have been familiar with all the vagaries of weather and conditions and the impact that could have on their crops, the majority of them were ex pagans there religious background would have been about appeasing the Gods to get good weather and crops. So now Paul is able to use this metaphor to focus them back on the one true God, not on human leaders. In the end says Paul why focus on the servant who work in the fields, as the fields and the workers and the crop belongs to God. In the end it’s all God…it’s all grace.
Then Paul changes metaphor, he changes from agriculture to architecture and construction. He turns from looking at the leaders in the past to how the current leaders of the church in Corinth should act. He says that he had laid a foundation for the church in Corinth, that that foundation was the gospel, Christ crucified and now the challenge for the present leadership was what were they going to build with on that foundation. Was it going to be material that was congruent with the gospel or was it going to be inferior material that wouldn’t stand the test of time. The materials that Paul lists are split into two categories, the first gold, silver and precious stones, come from the Old Testament and are the materials listed as those Solomon built the temple with, the other three are material that yes you can build with, but are they material that will stand the day of the Lord, are they gospel?
My sister Christine is an artist, and the last exhibition she had was based on the floor plans of medieval cathedrals: Buildings that were built to worship God in. The classic building shape for these structures was the cross. You can even go to some of older churches in Auckland today and see they are built in the same way. The architecture sold the story of the theology of what the church as an organism was to be built on and to be built of. Paul warns the present leaders and people of the church to make sure they build on the foundation of Christ crucified and that that is reflected in how and what they build. Not a human structure, not a pail refection of the society round them, with its focus on human wisdom and status, but on Christ and his love, on service and worship of God.
Paul shows how serious this is by pointing to a future judgement. The church in Corinth had what scholars call a highly realised understanding of eschatology, they thought they were basically living in heaven on earth, they had made it, they had arrived, but Paul reminds them that was not the case. It’s interesting at the moment as a result of the Christchurch earthquake, churches are being asked to review how they have been built, and many churches are finding that they are not up to scratch. They are earthquake prone, they won’t stand up in the face of an earthquake. I wonder if it isn’t a challenge to us all to once again look at where we are and what we are doing and see if we need to re-evaluate what we have built, not just our buildings, on the foundation of the gospel.
Paul moves on to tell the church at Corinth what type of building they are building. That they are the temple of God in Corinth, Now Corinth was a city that was dominated by a temple built to Aphrodite, not just architecturally but as we will see when we come to look at food offered to idols culturally as well. But Paul says well actually you are where the one true God dwells now. This passage and the one later in the book have often been used about the way people treat their human body, but again the focus is not on us as individuals but as a people. The new people of God. He does this as a challenge for us to think about how we built this dwelling place of God. The temple in Corinth had been destroyed and was part of the city rebuild so for many in Corinth the destruction of the temple was very relevant and in recent memory.
I am often worried by churches advertising themselves by putting pictures of their pastors in ads and on church buildings. It is I’m told good advertising practise people relate to a person and radially identify with that person and brand. But it worries me because I often hear such Christian leaders talk about it being ‘there church’, there to serve my ministry. It worries me because I fear we an easily fall in to the same trap that the Corinthians were falling into…we can become a ‘cult of personality’. I’ve even heard the words servant of God used like it as an honorific title, this guy, and its usually a guy is worth listening to because he is such a great servant of God. It’s easy for us to get deceived by our celebrity media socked society into placing the same human standards on these people and the church: To see Christian leaders in light of how successful they are… often in terms of ABC attendance, building and Cash flow… not in terms of faithfulness to the gospel. It is a challenge to all in ministry and all who work in the church. One commentator says “that he fears we have a lot of so called Christian leaders who are good at calling crowd not building a church’.
Paul then finishes up this section of his book by tying everything together. He says that they and we should not be deceived and become content with the standards and wisdom of this world. It’s not about status or wisdom or position and power. Rather we should focus again on the foolishness of God, Christ crucified. In the end it’s ridiculous squabbling over human leaders, when they are a gift of God to us. It’s all God it’s all grace. Paul uses the Corinthians own understanding of the gospel to bring this home, why squabble over belonging to these guys when, they belong to you, they are a gift from God and you have been given every good gift in Christ, we are all in Christ and Christ is in God. One commentator puts it like this he says Paul is saying why we are splashing about in this shallow pool like kids, focusing on human standards and human values, when you have the whole vast glittering ocean of God’s love and grace beside you. Once again it is this focus on Christ that enables us to be built together as one.