Monday, October 13, 2008

1 Corinthians 3: 1-23 Sermon: Infants in Christ

Over the past few months, we’ve had some babies born into the congregation. It’s great to see them, and to watch as they grow and develop. For the first while, they’ll live on milk, but after a while, they’ll become ready to eat solid foods. It’s proper for them now, but if they hadn’t got onto solid foods after a while, it would be very strange. There would be questions asked, about the developing maturity of the child.

This is precisely the diagnosis Paul presents to the Corinthian church – contrary to what they expected. You see, the Corinthians thought that they were spiritual people, and wise, and mature. They thought that they had become really strong Christians who were advancing beyond expectations. Instead, Paul refers to them as ‘infants in Christ.’ (1)

For a while, that was fine – after all, we all are infants in Christ when we first become believers. It’s all very new, and we can only take in the basics, like being fed milk. But when Paul was writing to them here, there had been a time delay. It was fine that they had been infants, babies once, but they should have grow up by now. What sadness in Paul’s words at the end of verse 2. ‘I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.’

In spiritual terms, the Corinthian Christians weren’t out of nappies, but they should have been a long time before. And here we find the challenge to us today. Are you developing according to your age? I don’t mean your physical age, how many birthdays you have had. How mature are you in your Christian walk? Have you become more mature as time has passed, or are you still just an infant in Christ?

As you think about your own stage, we’ll see why the Corinthians were still in spiritual nappies. Look at verse 3 with me. ‘For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?’ The problem lies in the fact that they didn’t appear to be Christians at all. There was no difference to how they were getting on with one another. They were still arguing and fighting, just like everyone else does. It was as if faith in Jesus had made little difference to them.

The situation Paul describes is one we have already encountered in 1 Corinthians. In 1:12, Paul writes of what he had heard of the church – ‘What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Cephas” or “I follow Christ.”’ Jealousy and strife based on having a favourite leader and promoting them. Yet this is the very problem. They have too high a view of their leaders, as if Paul or Apollos was the answer to their problems.

Paul then presents two different images to correct this unhelpful obsession with leaders, and we’ll look at them now in turn. Verse 9 is the dividing between them – ‘For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.’ The first is the farming scene. Some in Corinth claimed to follow Paul, probably because it had been he who had first travelled to Corinth and preached the Gospel. He had planted the church, so perhaps they saw it as Paul’s Church. Others, though, had long since forgotten about Paul. After all, he wasn’t with them now. Apollos was the guy who was on the ground doing the hard work. Surely he’s the important fella.

Verse 5 shatters all this thinking. Look carefully at how Paul writes it: ‘What then is Apollos? What is Paul?’ (Not who, but what). The Corinthians sought to make much of Paul or Apollos, but Paul describes them as ‘servants.’ It’s the same word as waiter.

But more than that, the Corinthians had been dividing as if Paul and Apollos were rivals. Nothing could be further from the truth. They were just ‘Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.’ Paul and Apollos weren’t on rival teams, they were partners in the gospel, each being used as God directed. In making much of the leaders, the Corinthians were missing the God who gives the growth.

Paul then shifts to his second image, from the world of building. The Corinthians are in the task of building God’s church. Not a meeting house like this church building, but rather the church as individuals come together to form the body of Christ. It’s what Peter writes about in 1 Peter 2:5 – ‘you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.’ It’s the same building project that Paul is talking about here.

Paul has already been to lay the foundation. In his preaching of the cross, Jesus Christ, the foundation has been laid. Now it is the task of those in Corinth to build upon it. Oh how we need to heed the words of Paul carefully – ‘Let each one take care how he builds upon it.’

We need to remember what it is that we are doing as we live together in the church. This is not just a social club where we meet together to get to know each other. This is not just a pastime or hobby to put in our time on a Sunday morning. We are here to build the church of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. What we do now has implications for eternity.

And yet, there may be many of us who are more interested in our own wee empires than in building the church. We can be lax in our attitude to the things that build up our unity and community.

[The prophet Haggai found this in his day. Haggai was a prophet in Israel during the time when the exiles had returned from Babylon. Israel had lived in the land for a long time, but then the people had been carried off to Babylon, and the temple in Jerusalem had been ruined. When they came back from exile, they had been more concerned with their own houses than in building God’s house. ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts: These people say the time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.”.. Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in our panelled houses, while this house lies in ruins? … You looked for much, and behold, it came to little. And when you bought it home, I blew it away. Why? Declares the LORD of hosts. Because of my house that lies in ruins, while each of you busies himself with his own house.’ (Haggai 1:2, 4, 9).]

Take care how you build. There are a variety of building materials at hand, but not all are equally effective. Look at verse 12 – gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw. While the building goes up, it might look impressive, but it will be tested. ‘Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.’

Notice that this isn’t saying that salvation comes based on what we do. No, all who build their lives in the foundation of Jesus are saved – but some build well, and others don’t take care to build properly.

While I was thinking about this, I was reminded of the three little pigs. Do you remember the story? Each goes off to build a house to hide from the big bad wolf. But two pigs are foolish builders, and their work is destroyed – straw and wood. Only one building survived.

Hear me well, please – what we are doing in church is not like a fairytale. It’s much more serious than that. We’re building the church of God as we come together. Verses 16 and 17 remind us of this. ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.’

How do you hear that? Most of us will immediately think that Paul is saying you singular. So each one of us is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and to destroy our bodies is to destroy God’s temple. That’s what Paul describes later in his letter, in 6:19. But here, when Paul writes ‘you’ it is ‘you’ plural. The local church is the God’s temple. The local church is the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. To destroy the church, is therefore to destroy the temple of God.

Take care how you build. To cause division and inspire jealousy in the church is to destroy God’s temple, and also highlights spiritual immaturity. God delights to see us develop and grow, not in promoting and revelling in church leaders.

As Paul concludes his theme, he makes an appeal to those who think that they are wise. Those who delight in their wisdom show that they are infants in Christ. The answer is to, in the eyes of the world, become a fool, because then, in the mercy of God, they will become truly wise. In submitting to God’s wisdom, they will become mature in faith and in Christ. No longer will they boast in men, in their leaders, or in their own wisdom.

Why? Verse 21. ‘For all things are yours … and you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s.’ In Christ, all things belong to us, so we don’t have to make distinctions and divisions between Paul and Apollos. God has given us all things. But before we become puffed up again in pride at what we possess, we’re reminded that just as all things are ours, so we in turn are owned by Christ, and Christ is God’s.

The cure to spiritual immaturity is to remind ourselves whose we are. In this way, we have our focus restored – away from ourselves, away from our leaders, and back on God – who gives the growth, and who tests our progress, and who dwells within us.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 12th October 2008.

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