I Corinthians 3:1-9
David A. Davis
February 12, 2017
The summer before I came to seminary in 1983, I lived in a large house in Jackson, Mississippi, with a handful of Christian college kids from around the country who were interning with Voice of Calvary Ministries. Voice of Calvary was founded by a preacher name John Perkins. It was a ministry committed to racial reconciliation, education for young kids, and an intentionally diverse worshiping community. I had applied through the national organization of my college Christian fellowship to go to Zimbabwe. They sent me to Jackson, Mississippi, instead. As it turns out, in terms of cross-cultural immersion, for a young college graduate from the South Hills of Pittsburgh, there wasn’t all that much difference between Zimbabwe and Jackson, Mississippi. One might think that the most difficult part of that summer was my experience of being in the ethnic minority of the community for the first time in my life. Or one might assume the most challenging part of the summer was tutoring Billy Ray Stokes and Perry Davis in their attempt to earn a GED. Or perhaps the hardest part, one might guess, was the theological, spiritual awakening to issues of race and racism and an appropriate response in Christian discipleship. But without a doubt, without question, the most difficult, challenging, and painful part of the summer was living in a large house with a handful of Christian college kids from around the country.
Christian community, intentional Christian community, was the almost impossible part. The lowest point came on a sweltering Mississippi summer night when all of us housemates went to the grocery store together in the church van. We each shopped for ourselves. We each brought our food home for ourselves. We each labeled our food for our ourselves. For the rest of the summer we each had our own cupboard and our section of the refrigerator, labeled for ourselves. Somewhere in the kingdom of heaven, the Apostle Paul must have been shaking his head and saying to no one in particular in that great cloud of witnesses, “they are acting like such children!”
That’s pretty much what Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth. Oh, in the letter it all sounds sort of biblical: “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” But he is calling them out for acting like children, for their jealousy, their quarreling. “Behaving according to human inclinations” is how Paul puts it. Readers of First Corinthians will recall that Paul addresses the strife in the Christian community right up front in chapter one. After the greeting, the salutation, the thanksgiving, Paul begins the body of the letter with his appeal for unity. “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 riffs have to do with some saying they belong to Paul and others saying they belong to Apollos or to Cephas. Throughout the letter Paul addresses other issues that threaten the cohesiveness of their community. Apparently it all starts with jealousy and quarreling. Here in chapter three, he comes right back to their pettiness, their fleshiness. He tells them they are just like “infants in Christ.”
In the flow of Paul’s letter, these early references to the jealousy and quarreling among Corinthian Christians come right before, and right after Paul writes about the cross. What comes in between Paul’s mention of how their humanity is threatening their community, what falls in the middle here, is what we pondered together last week, “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” First Corinthians, the second half of chapter 1 and all of chapter 2. Paul writing about the very heart of the matter. Paul on the cross of Christ. First Corinthians, the beginning of chapter one and here in chapter three. Paul on the almost impossible challenge of Christian community. Christ and him crucified, surrounded by the Corinthian Christians’ penchant for acting like children.
“But we have the mind of Christ,” Paul writes as he turns from the cross and again brings up their behavior. We have the mind of Christ. It’s like a plea from Paul. “Come on, people, we have the mind of Christ. Apollos this, Paul that. Yes, they are “the servants through whom you came to believe,” but the mind of Christ is first. Paul teaches. Apollos preaches. But the mind of Christ comes first. One might water. Another might plant. But only God gives the growth. Only God gifts the church with the mind of Christ. “Put on Christ,” Paul writes to the Romans (Romans 13:14). “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Clothe yourselves with Christ, Paul tells the Galatians. When it comes to the Corinthians, he writes, “We have the mind of Christ.” All the wisdom to share. All the theology to sop up. All the learning about what it means to be a disciple. It all starts for Paul with a yearning to have the mind of Christ, the longing to be more Christ-like, for Christ and him crucified to be smack in the middle of our human inclinations.
Biblical scholar Mark Achetmeier provocatively points out that Paul’s argument here in chapter three suggests that all the technical knowledge required for becoming a better or more mature Christian is secondary. All the biblical knowledge and theological vocabulary and spiritual disciplines, all of it, is secondary to the primary qualification for living the gospel. What comes first is the call to be a “spirit-formed person” seeking to live a life that looks like Jesus; or to have the mind of Christ. To quote Achetmeier, “Instead of reading the Bible in order to learn to be disciples, we must first become Christ-like persons in order to be able to read and understand the Bible rightly.” For Paul, having the mind of Christ was inconsistent with the human inclination to jealousy and quarreling. Thus, healing division and loving one another was more important than which teacher was better, which preacher drew more of a crowd, which servant met their expectations.
David Buttrick, a professor of preaching, once wrote that the best measure of a local preacher’s sermons was the redemptive life of the community of faith that was being shaped by that weekly preaching. The best sermons bear fruit in the lives of the listener and the community gathered around the Word. The language is simpler for Paul. Paul on Christian community. Paul on the measure of servants’ preaching and teaching. Paul on the quality of life in a church that thirsts after the mind of Christ? “Love is patient; love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” I Corinthians 13 — #itsnotaboutmarriage. It’s about… the almost impossible part of Christian community.
For we are God’s servants, Paul writes, referring to him and Apollos, we are God’s servants working together. You, referring to the Corinthian Christians. You, referring to the followers of Christ. You, referring to the church of Jesus Christ in every time and place. You are God’s field, God’s building, God’s field. God’s building. A field, a building. And a temple. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you… For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. You. God’s field. God’s building. God’s temple.
I can’t be the only one that remembers a Sunday School class, a youth group discussion, a college Bible study on God’s temple, you being God’s temple. How the body (God forbid, this body) is a temple of God’s Spirit. Sure, you take care of your body like it’s God’s temple. You stay healthy, don’t do drugs and alcohol, have a sexual ethic that reflects the holiness of your body. It is God’s temple. I Corinthians 3:16. I bet we even studied that text the summer of 1983 in the large house in Jackson, Mississippi, with a handful of Christian college kids from around the country! Now maybe it is because I just turned 55 and my body isn’t what it once was, or maybe it is because the almost part of Christian community never seems to get easier, or maybe it is with a closer reading of the Apostle Paul this week, but it’s pretty clear the temple Paul references here isn’t your body (#itsnotabouttheabs). It is about you, or maybe better said, “you and you and you and you and you.”
God’s field. God’s building. God’s temple. Perhaps it need not be said. Perhaps it is all that obvious to the readers of Paul, to the Corinthian Christians. God’s field. God’s building. God’s temple. Yeah, you can’t do that by yourself. You have to do it together. And darn it if that isn’t maybe the hardest part? The hardest part, it’s not about wrestling with the historicity of the Virgin Birth, or what on earth the resurrection of the body might mean, or trying to wrap your head around all the war and violence in the scripture, or being confronted with what Jesus teaches about God and mammon, or trying to process John Calvin on predestination or double predestination or how to preach Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life while engaging in authentic interfaith dialogue, or just wanting to figure out how to be a faithful Christian in 2017. All of that and more can be difficult. But the hardest part is doing all of that together. Field. Building. Temple… Body of Christ.
There is a heartbreaking truth behind the narrative and the numbers that tell of the decline of the Presbyterian Church pretty much since the fifties and sixties. The truth shatters the myth some tell that mainline congregations have lost membership and those folks by and large have gone to more conservative evangelical churches. Well, the truth is, most just don’t go anywhere if they stop, if they leave, if they’re gone. According to Paul in Corinthians, to have the mind of Christ means you can’t do it alone.
The growth God gives. Before it is about growing in number as a church, it has to be about loving more deeply. Before it is about the one person growing in faith or becoming more spiritually mature, it has to be about all loving more profoundly. The growth God gives, it must be about learning to love despite the human inclinations, finding a way to love in spite of the jealousy and quarreling of the flesh, choosing to love though the world proclaims the message that it is all about, only about you. The growth God gives, it’s about what Paul calls the more excellent way.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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