The Common Purpose

I Corinthians 3:5-9
David A. Davis
August 29, 2021
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Common purpose. “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose.” Common purpose. A closer translation of the Greek would be a bit simpler. The one who plants and the one who waters are one. One plants. One waters. But only God gives the growth, the Apostle writes. So the common purpose isn’t from the planter or the waterer. The common purpose is God’s purpose. You will remember that Paul addresses the strife in the Corinthian church right up front in chapter 1 of First Corinthians. After the greeting, the salutation and the thanksgiving, Paul begins the body of the letter with this appeal:” I appeal to you by the name of Jesus Christ, that all of you, be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”  The same mind in the language of Paul, is the “mind of Christ”. The same purpose in the language of Paul, is the very purpose, the common purpose of God. Furthering God’s field. Expanding God’s building. Or to use another of the Apostle’s terms, showing, living, witnessing, proclaiming, “a more excellent way.”

In just these early chapters of Paul’s letter, one to three, the references to the jealousy, the quarreling, the division, basically the bad behavior of the Corinthian Christians, Paul’s references come right before and right after him writing about the cross of Christ. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it the power of God…Christ crucified.” To stop and think about it, to even mention the crucified Christ and the people’s jealousy and quarreling in the same paragraphs, the same argument, the same letter, it ought to be a jarring juxtaposition. Paul refers to those in the Corinthian church as “infants in Christ”. A less biblical way to say it, perhaps, is that Paul is telling them their acting like children. It is as if he is pointing to the cross of Jesus, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” and pondering their childish behavior and saying, “really?” And from that exasperating juxtaposition of the self-emptying of the Son of God, the Savior of the world on the cross and humanity’s ever-present penchant for jealousy, quarreling, and selfishness, the arc of the Apostle Paul’s argument in the First Letter to the Corinthians…you know where that arc is heading. “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”  It is the very arc of the common purpose of God. “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose.”

I want to let you in on a little secret, share some inside information. Do you want to know what pastors are talking about these days amongst themselves? What my colleagues are all asking one another when you are not around to listen? “Will they come back?” Not “if we build it, they will come” but “if the way be clear, will they come back?”  Whenever that is, when it is safe and healthy to gather again, will the sanctuaries fill. It may sound like an overly dramatic question. But the lack of physically being together to tend to the community of faith, weeks, months, years…..it can make all of Paul’s teaching on life in the community of faith, on the practicalities of life together, on caring for one another and loving one, it can make it sound not aspirational but nostalgic.

On the other hand, our experience of scripture as the Living Word by the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of God, is the Word God speaks when we read in context, when we read in real time, when we read here and now. And to read Paul this week, Paul on the crucified Christ in the face of division, quarreling, and selfishness that is screaming pretty much everywhere, it’s clear that the common purpose, the common purpose of God, is so much bigger than we imagine. So much bigger than this community of faith or that community of faith, this church or that church, the Body of Christ here or the Body of Christ there.

In his book, The Continuing Conversion of the Church, Darrell Guder concludes with a compelling insight. Jesus called twelve disciples to be with him and to learn from him what it meant to be his witnesses, his messengers. “But” Dr Guder writes, “they were not to stay with him, not to reduce their vocation as his ‘called out people’ to their internal life and all that that they would do as a gathered community.” In other words, Christ’s call was about more than what disciples do when they are together, when they can be physically present together. When Professor Guder was working with us in adult education to understand and claim our identity and celebrate Nassau Church as a “missional congregation”, I asked him for a different word. It just seemed the term he and others spent much of their careers studying and writing about had become a bit overused and maybe had begun to lack some clarity. He thought about it and said, “how about a sending congregation”.  A sending congregation. A congregation sending disciples of Jesus Christ out into the world to further the common purpose of God. Sending the followers of Jesus into the world to further God’s field. Sending them to expand God’s building. Instead of wringing hands about whether you will come back, pastors like me ought to be sending you as followers of Jesus and children of God, sending you to show, to live, to witness, to proclaim “a more excellent way” in God’s world. To show, to live for, to witness to Jesus Christ and him crucified in a world so defined by division, quarrelling, and selfishness.

Our family lost a dear friend two weeks ago. Charlie was the clerk of Session in the congregation I served for 14 years. He was still the clerk of Session when he died 21 years later. He was Pop Pop Charlie to our children. One of our kids said they never heard him say a bad word about anybody. The phone call at the end of April to tell Charlie and his wife Isabel about the birth of our granddaughter was absolutely the best.

The first time I met Charlie he asked me what on earth does a guy from Harvard and Princeton want to us in Blackwood, NJ. When I was leaving 14 years later, he said to me with a smile, “See, I told you wouldn’t stay”.  Charlie took his Session minutes very seriously. He was not happy when the presbytery reviewer of his minutes gave him a demerit because it was recorded in the minutes that the Session voted to give me a Christmas bonus. It was a change in terms of call and should be voted on by the congregation, the reviewer noted. The next Christmas Eve, after the late candlelight service, now after midnight, Charlie came up to me, said “Merry Christmas” and handed me a brown paper bag of money he had collected from the congregation.

In my profession it won’t surprise you that I have read a lot of obituaries. For all kinds of reasons, I had trouble getting through Charlie’s obituary. It took me a few tries. There was a paragraph that listed everything he did in that congregation: clerk of Session, choir, teaching church school, leading youth group and more. There was also a paragraph about his life in the community. Some of it I knew about. Some I didn’t. What struck me was that the paragraph on what he did in the community was twice as long as the one about his life in the church.

And I knew Charlie well enough to know that the shorter paragraph was what influenced and inspired the longer paragraph. He wasn’t perfect and he rarely had a thought that he would keep to himself, but with his life, in his slice of the world, he served God’s common purpose. That obituary won’t ever make it to the New York Times, but in the 80 or so years of Charlie’s life, he did his part when it came to planting and water, in tilling God’s field, shaping God’s building, not just in his community of faith but in the world God created.

These days when the world’s heaviness is unrelenting, when fires rage and storms come one after another, when yet another school year and another church year starts amid the ongoing pandemic, when so much behavior on display in the public square is so appalling that division, quarreling, and jealousy don’t really describe it, it’s hard not to feel weary or helpless. But here’s what I am going to do. I am going to think about Charlie and all the Charlies I have been blessed to know and love and be inspired in my life, in my ministry. Because, you know, it is “a great cloud of witnesses.” A great cloud of witnesses, you and me. And God is calling us, just like God always has and God always will, God is calling us to serve God’s common purpose, to do just a bit of planting, to just lay a brick or two in the slice of the world God entrusts to you.

Because in every generation, in every season, in every storm, in every moment of strife, in every congregation, in every neighborhood, the one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose. It’s God’s common purpose. If, like me, there are moments of weariness or helplessness these days, try this prayer. It’s a prayer by St. Francis of Assisi. A prayer for you and me and God’s common purpose in our lives

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.