Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sermon: 1 Corinthians 14: 1-12

This morning, our theme is building up the church. Maybe when you hear that, you think of the building project, the bricks and mortar, and the church building. But Paul’s not talking about a physical church building - he wouldn’t have known of these things - the church met in people’s homes. Rather, when Paul speaks of building up the church, he is talking about the people - building up the Christians in the church.

So how do we do that? How do we build up the church? We;re continuing our series in 1 Corinthians, and Paul is dealing with the issue of spiritual gifts - special abilities or talents given by the Holy Spirit to believers. As with most things, the church in Corinth was divided because people had different gifts, and some thought that they were more important than others.

Through chapters 12 - 14, Paul seeks to correct their ideas on gifts, first by pointing to the unity of the church, because the same God gives the variety of gifts, then pointing to the unity of the church as seen in the picture of the church as the body of Christ. At the heart of the church, and in each believer, the most important thing is love - as we saw last week - we can have gifts without love, but then we gain nothing. Here, in chapter 14, Paul addresses the specific gift that was causing the trouble in Corinth - speaking in tongues. This can mean either being able to speak in another human language (for example on the day of Pentecost, where everyone could hear the apostles speak in their own language), or in an unknown language.

The Corinthian church was big into tongues - they thought that it was the be-all and end-all of spiritual gifts, and wanted to make everyone have it. But Paul points out that when the church gathers together, it’s more important to build up the church. He does this by comparing tongues with the gift of prophecy.

When he speaks of prophecy, he’s referring to the equivalent of the sermon, declaring God’s word and applying it to the hearer. Prophecy is therefore better, because it helps to build the church, through being understood.

Our guiding principle in all that we do is to build up the believers as a congregation. We aim to strengthen people, to help them become mature as a Christian, not as individuals, but as part of the church. We don’t just do things that I like doing, or that we’ve always done for the sake of it - our guiding principle is the benefit and good of the whole church together as we grow together.

As we look at the passage, we’ll see this principle, in the audience (verses 1 to 5), and the benefit of prophecy (verses 6 to 12).

In some ways, prophecy and tongues might be similar - both involve speech, and both are spiritual gifts, spiritual activities. But it’s here that the similarities end. Look at verse 2. ‘For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understand him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.’ When some of the Corinthians were speaking in tongues, speaking in a language they didn’t know, they were only speaking to God - it was as if no one else was involved.

Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if we came to our prayers later and everyone started speaking, in languages no one else could understand? The individual might feel very spiritual, and may even be encouraged and built up, but the rest of the congregation will be confused and cut off.

But verse 3 goes on to say that prophesying is for the congregation. Look at it - the audience is the congregation - the people gathered together. The declaration of God’s word in a language the people can understand is much better, precisely because they can understand it!

This was a key feature of the Reformation. Up to the 1540’s, services in the Church were performed in Latin - the readings, the sermons, the whole service was in Latin. But the people couldn’t understand what was being said! The minister would go through the service, and the people would gather and not understand any of it. But with the Reformation in England, the services of the Church were translated into English by Archbishop Cranmer, and the Bible was translated into English, so that everyone could hear and understand what was being said.

Why was this? At the start of the Prayer Book, there’s a section titled ‘General Directions for Publick Worship’ which says that the services are ‘set forth to be said and sung in the English tongue, to the end that the Congregation may thereby be edified.’ That being edified is the same idea of being built up (like an edifice, a building). Our services are in English so that everyone can hear and understand, and be built up.

Back to verse 3 - prophecy is better because it is addressed to people ‘for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.’ The gift of prophecy, the ability to teach is vital so that Christians are strengthened, encouraged and comforted. None of this will happen if we’re all out for ourselves.

As we move to the benefit of prophecy, we see that again, Paul’s concern is for the church to be built up. In verse 6, Paul looks forward to the next time that he arrives in Corinth and meets with the church. Imagine, says Paul, what would happen if he only spoke in tongues when he came to meet with the church.

Would they get any benefit from him being there? No! Would you get any benefit if I had stood up this morning and preached in German, or French, or Greek? (I’m not saying I could do that though!)

They will only benefit from Paul’s visit if he speaks so that they understand. For them to benefit, Paul must speak God’s word to them, through a revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching. By speaking to them in the language they understand, they can hear God’s word clearly, and be blessed, encouraged and built up. Otherwise, what’s the point?

To illustrate, Paul gives us two word pictures, both from musical instruments. First of all, if you’re listening music for pleasure, then you need to hear all the notes separately, as they combine together. Imagine you’re listening to the Ulster Orchestra (by the way, I’m not getting paid to advertise them...), and everyone played one note, or it was all jumbled - would you be able to recognise a tune? The notes have to be distinct. It’s the difference between meaningless tinkling and performing a tune.

The second picture comes from the military. If the bugle is mumbled or unclear, then no one will line up for the battle. But if there is a clear sound which is understood, then the soldiers hear and obey the call.

In the same way, if the Corinthians were consumed with the gift of tongues, then no one could understand or be built up. The call to obey the Lord may be there, but no one could hear and obey. A response can only come when God’s word is proclaimed in a way that can be understood. Otherwise, as Paul says, ‘you will be speaking in the air.’

So what do we do with this passage? How do we apply it, both individually, and as a congregation seeking to build each other up? Firstly, we need to recognise the purpose of our meetings and life together - we don’t meet for a good time, and we’re not a social club. When we gather together, our purpose is to encourage each other, and strengthen each other, both in the formal service, and in the coffee time. Why not today, stay on and encourage someone else with something you’ve learnt in your Bible reading this week?

Pray for the congregation, as individuals and together, that we will grow stronger as Christians, and serve each other for the common good.

And pray for those who teach God’s word in the congregation - Explorer leaders, Mark and the SET team, Fellowship Group leaders, those on the preaching rota, Clive, Tim and myself - for clarity, and the wisdom to say the things that will help build the church.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 31st May 2009.

1 comment :

  1. I enjoyed your sermon. Thanks for sharing it with us.