The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 119:1-8, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 12 2017
I'm sure as you were growing up your parents said it to you when you were in the midst of a squabble, and I'm sure if you are a parent you have at some point had to say it to your children. The phrase “Why don't you just grow up!”
Such is the tone of our reading today in which Paul tells the church in Corinth to stop their quarreling and grow up. As the first verse reads in the Message Bible: “Right now, friends, I'm completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with each other and with God. You're acting like infants...” He says of the teaching that he has given them; “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”
He chastises them for the infantile way they have lined themselves up to support a particular preacher. 'One says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos,” (1Co 3:4) Didn't they realize that Paul and Apollos were on the same team, about the same task and served the same Lord Jesus Christ? “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1Co 3:6 )
His concern is that of a father in the faith to them. He calls them friends and sisters and brothers. He's not bullying them or disparaging them. Rather his love for them compels him to speak out.
Most concerning of all is that he discerns that they are not acting in a way consistent with spiritual growth. They are behaving according to the spirit of the world rather than the Holy Spirit of God. By their jealousy, by their partisanship, by their quarreling, they were betraying the trust placed in them as recipients of the great and good news of the gospel.
This gospel was a message that had been sown in their hearts through his work, and through the work of Apollos. Both had been reliant on God's grace. They needed to move forward, not be stuck in the midst of senseless quarrels and disputes that prevented them from receiving sound teaching. They needed solid food.
Reading between the lines in this passage we can see how Paul, whilst chastising them for being milk drinkers, is also offering them solid food, by teaching them what spiritual ministry looked like, using himself as an example. As we move forward as a faith community, we do well to take note of Paul's teaching about the nature of Holy Spirit motivated ministry.
1. Spiritual Ministry is Servant Shaped.
Verse 5a “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe-- “ Paul uses the Greek term 'diakonos' to describe both his own ministry and the ministry of Apollos. It is from 'diakonos' that we derive our term 'Deacon'. The traditional role of the deacon is one of service and the offering of care and support. From Paul’s perspective we are called to be 'deacons' ...'servants'... to one another.
If you have ever watched Downton Abbey then you will have observed what it was like to be part of the staff of a large country estate. When the Earl of Grantham or any of his family tells them to 'Do something', they do it. They don't argue. They don't complain that it's not their task or that it's not convenient right now. They don't say, “Sorry I have other plans this weekend.”
If Mr. Carson, the chief butler, suspects any quarreling or dissension in the ranks downstairs, then he nips it in the bud. They either shape up and get on with doing what they are meant to be doing or they are out of a job.
Being a Christian is not a job, it is an assignment. It is a spiritual task. Essential to the nature of the task is the attitude that we are not part of a church community to simply get out of it what we can, but that we are called to give what we can, sometimes sacrificially. Our pattern is that of Jesus Himself, who gave His life for us on the Cross, in order that we may be freed to serve others. We serve because that is the right response to make to Jesus who died for us. We love because He first loved us. Continuing with verse 5...
2. Spiritual Ministry is Task Orientated
“… the Lord has assigned to each his task.” (1Co 3:5b). Or as the Message Bible has it, Paul describes the servant ministry of himself and Apollos by saying “We each carried out our servant assignment.”
Congregations are made up of people with different gifts and talents and abilities. Stewardship is determining how we are going to use our particular gifts and influence to enhance the spiritual community God has invited us to be a part of. We sometimes speak of stewardship as being about money. But what's the point of having a bank balance that balances if nobodies actually moving from being babies in the faith to mature believers?
Staying with the Downton Abbey imagery, everybody has an assignment. Be they in the kitchen or a personal maid or a butler or a gardener... everybody has a job to do. If any one of them fails to function effectively then the whole thing becomes out of balance and you find jealousy and quarrels erupting, precisely the ailments that were so troubling Paul about the church in Corinth.
It can be hard to find exactly where you fit in. Sometimes we can feel like a square pin in a round hole. Sometimes we become frustrated because we can see what needs to be done but we are not asked our opinion. Sometimes we observe that people occupy positions that are beyond their capabilities, but there's no way they are letting go of those positions because they have too much of themselves invested in that task or that position.
Do you know why that is? It's because God doesn't call us to be a business or an enterprise or a corporation or a company. God doesn't call us to be the staff of a country house. God calls us to be a family. “And there ain't no dynamics quite as curious as family dynamics.” There's our working relationships, there's the relationships we have with our friends and then there's the relationships we have with our families. There are times when it seems that we can get along with everybody, except those we were actually born to get along with.
Family relationships take all the grace, patience, understanding and tolerance that we are given... and then some. Loving people we don't know is a piece of a cake. Loving those God calls to be our spiritual family and with whom we share a space we describe as our spiritual home, that's another story.
Such is the reality we deal with and can only travel through with prayer, with lots of deep breathing and by focusing on each others needs more than our own. Yet, please be assured, there is room for us all at the table. There will come those moments when it makes sense and falls into place. It takes time. Things that matter always do. Solid food has to be chewed. You can chug a bottle of milk, but if you eat a steak dinner to rapidly is that you risk the chance of choking and get indigestion.
We are invited to center on the things that need doing and bring to them what we can. Spiritual ministry is always task orientated.
3. Spiritual Ministry is God Focused
I Corinthians 3: 7 in the Message Bible reads; “It's not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow.”
Growth requires the planting and the nurturing. There have to be people in place to faithfully accomplish the assignments God has given them. But at the end of the day, we cannot predict the outcome. It is 'God, who makes things grow'.
Spiritual ministry is servant-shaped, task orientated and focused on what God can do. We build upon the heritage that those who have gone before us and we recognize that we are not alone in the task. We have each other and we have God to lead us and guide us. If it were entirely up to us, I don't think we'd have a hope.
Thankfully God promises to be with us and encourages us to go beyond spiritual infancy, to go beyond being in a place where we are nourished on milk alone and move to a place of being fed with solid food, the meat of God's Word, the knowledge of God's ways that allows us to take risks and make mature judgments.
At the commencement of our reading Paul appears frustrated by the Corinthian Church. “For goodness sake, grow up!” As we dig deeper into the passage we realize he is expressing parental concern and offering solid guidance as to what it takes to be a Holy Spirit centered congregation.
That it takes the willingness to be servants of each other, in genuine and realistic ways. He uses the term 'deacon' to describe that servant relationship he had with them and prayed they would have the desire to be 'deacons' for each other.
He reminds them that being a family could be hard. People had to find their place and do what needed to be done Spiritual maturity required time and effort and focus upon the tasks at hand.
He also, in his own unique way, reminds them at the end of all things, it wasn't about what they could do or be, but rather about allowing God's love to grow within them and minister to others through them.
Though this passage in Corinthians Paul invites us to grow in faith, in love and in hope; to grow up into Christ, into being people shaped less by the attitudes and shallow perceptions of our every day world and be transformed by the values of His Kingdom, where everybody matters and the little things we do count for a lot... and where the bottom line is always love.
Keeping in mind the Downton Abbey imagery I shared earlier, I leave you with Paul's words, as transliterated in the Message Bible, 1 Corinthians 3:7-9;
“It's not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow. Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages. What makes it all worth doing is the God we are serving.”
And to God's name be the glory. Amen.