Sunday, August 07, 2011

Farewell Sermon 1: 1 Corinthians 3: 5-17 God Gives The Growth

Have you noticed that we’re more and more living in a celebrity culture? People become famous, sometimes just being famous because they’re famous; and everyone is talking about them, following them on Twitter, supporting them - until someone new comes along. Every detail of their lives is celebrated and analysed. It really came home to me recently when at the wedding reception last week, news of Amy Winehouse’s death came through. Everyone knew about her; everyone talked about her.

What might be more surprising, though, is that we can have a similar celebrity culture in the church. Whether it’s Rob Bell, or John Piper, or Don Carson, or Tom Wright, people will buy only their books and celebrate them, and follow everything they say. Sometimes it can even happen within a congregation - I follow the Rector; or I would only listen to the Curate; or the youth worker is my hero.

Such a situation was happening within Corinth. If you look back to 1:12, you’ll see what it looked like there. I follow Paul; I follow Apollos; I follow Cephas (Peter); I follow Christ. A church divided, each celebrating their chosen celebrity. Paul is horrified, as we should be too - and in our reading this morning he reminds them of what gospel work is all about; and who should be the focus of our praise and appreciation. To that end, I’ve chosen this as one of my farewell texts because, while thankful for the fuss you’re making of us today, I, and indeed all of us, need to be reminded of the One who is to be praised.

Paul’s point is clear, as he gives us two pictures to show what the church is like, and how gospel ministry should be regarded. In the first picture, Paul takes us onto the farm, perhaps even a farm in rural County Fermanagh.

He begins by asking that question in verse 5. ‘What then is Apollos? What is Paul?’ On hearing the question, the Corinthians would have been quick to jump in and praise their favourite pastor. Paul is so great, because he was the very first to come and tell us about Jesus and planted this church. Meanwhile the Apollos cheerleaders are getting excited about him - Paul might have come at the start, but where is he now? Apollos is here, he’s been teaching us so much more and look how we’ve grown ever since. What Paul says next might be shocking for the Corinthians, and also for us, if we try to idolise our pastors:

‘What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.’ You might rate Apollos as a superstar celebrity speaker; he’s just a servant, someone under command, like a waiter. you might praise Paul as a perfect pastor; he’s just a servant, doing the task God assigned to him. It wasn’t even ‘who’ is Apollos or Paul; just what.

In the farming picture, Paul might have planted the seed (as he shared the gospel); Apollos might have watered the seeds; but neither can take any credit for how things have developed. ‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.’

You see, Paul and Apollos aren’t on different sides; they’re on the same team. God’s team, working with God, but it’s down to God to give the growth. To him, we must give thanks.

As I’ve been thinking about it this week, I’ve been encouraged to see the point Paul is making. You don’t have to know much about the church at Corinth to know that it was mixed up and messed up. Even scanning the letter shows that. There was immorality, worldly thinking, factions, doctrinal issues, superiority and a lack of love.

Yet even in Corinth, Paul can see growth; can see people who have been saved, who are growing in their faith. But it’s not due to Paul’s brilliance or Apollos’ special knack. It’s God who is in control, allocating his workers for their particular tasks; it’s God who gives the growth.

As we look back over these three years (and wonder where the time has gone!), there is much to be thankful for; much to rejoice in; many of us who are coming to faith and growing in faith - that’s not because of me, or Tim, or anyone - it’s God who is giving the growth, and to him be the praise.

From the farm, Paul takes us to the building site. In the first picture, we saw the principle that God gives the growth. But in case you’re tempted to lie back and think, God has it covered, we don’t have to do anything; we find that there is still much to do, as we work along with God and work for God.

On the building site, we see the foundation laid, ready for the building to rise up. Paul is like the master builder, laying the foundation - Jesus Christ. The question is, how will we build on that foundation. Look at the end of verse 10: ‘Let each one take care how he builds upon it.’

You see, as each of us build on the foundation of Jesus; as we trust in him and throw all our weight on him; as we build our lives on him, there are a variety of building materials at hand.

Perhaps you’ll go for a house of thatch - not just a thatched roof, but a whole house of straw. It might look pretty, but it might not last. Or a nice home of wood? (Do I sound like an estate agent to the three little pigs?) Or perhaps you’ll invest more in the building project and use gold, or silver, or precious stones.

We’re told to take care how we build because one day, (a bit like the three little pigs) our building will be tested. It won’t be a big bad wolf, though, but the Lord himself, testing our work for him; seeing how we have built up the church, the people of God.

As Paul continues, he speaks of testing with fire, of rewards for those whose work survives, and others being saved as if through fire, but let’s be clear. He isn’t speaking about some great test to get into heaven, as if we can earn our way by our own merits and just sneak in by the skin of our teeth. He’s speaking here about people who have built on the foundation; who have been trusting in Jesus and building their lives on him.

The challenge for all of us is this - how are you building on the foundation of Jesus? What are you building with? Are you giving God the best, or what’s left? In the last verses from our reading we’re given a glimpse at the plans; we’re reminded of what it is we’re building on the foundation of Jesus. And this glimpse will spur us on to give our very best to the work, because we find that we’re not just building a shack or a hut, or even a regular house. No, we’re building the very temple of God, the house of God, the place where God dwells.

It’s the same building project Peter writes about when he says ‘As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ (1 Pet 2:4-5)

It’s not a physical church building; rather, we are building the church, the people of God, where in God’s Spirit dwells. That building project has been going on since the foundation was laid and the apostles built upon Christ, so that we too are part of this great temple which will shortly be revealed on that day. As Paul will say near the end of this letter, your labour for the Lord is not in vain - remember what our business is: we are building the temple of the Lord; building his church.

My time here is nearly done, and the Lord has assigned me another place in the work, but the work goes on, because thankfully, it isn’t all resting on me. Despite being at the other end of the country, we will continue to be praying for the work here; earnestly asking God to continue to work to build his church and bring much fruit.

So keep going, keep serving, and see what God will do in the place.

God gives the growth, and God builds his church; but we are called to faithful service in whatever way he calls, wherever he calls, and all for his praise and glory.

This first farewell sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 7th August 2011.

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