Good morning everyone. It's a privilege to be here this week to continue our series in 1 Corinthians, looking at how we make sure that in all we do we are a 'cross-centred church'. And to begin I want to ask you to dig around in your memory for a time when you were part of a group or a team and everything started to go wrong. Not in the catastrophic, wheels falling off, can't be ignored sense, but in the slowly but surely deviating from the plan until it seems like it's all too late way. Do you have an example in mind?
It makes me think of a family walk we once embarked on near Simonside crags. We set off, picnic in the rucksack and walk book in hand and all was going swimmingly. As the afternoon wore on, and we continued to trudge down another forestry commission track, it became increasingly apparent that something wasn't as it should be. Then the weather closed in. Then we met a few people who raised their eyebrows when we asked for directions. We were miles off track and, in what rapidly became pouring rain, had to retrace our steps, correct our directions and make for a soggy car ride home. What had gone wrong? Despite all of us being experienced walkers and knowing the dos and don'ts we failed to prepare properly; no real map, no proper waterproofs. And, despite our age and experience, we were shown to be immature and complacent. We thought were going to be fine and so we didn't think through the consequences of not preparing properly. And here Paul is writing to a group of Christians who are just the same; they haven't considered consequences. They've not thought through the cost of championing one leader or another, they've just done it. Just like a child who reaches and grabs what they want without a thought to consequence. So Paul starts off our chapter this week with a carefully crafted sentence (1 Corinthians 3.1):
"But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ."
He first addresses the Corinthian Christians as brothers – reminding them of their shared identity in Christ – but then he hits them with a hammer blow. He cannot write to them as spiritual people, but as people of flesh and as infants. He goes on to explain how, when they were first brought to Christ he treated them as a parent nurturing a child. But now they should be weaned. They should be ready for solids! And they're not. They are trapped in the world, thinking as the people of the world do. How does Paul know this? Verses 3-4:
"for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, "I follow Paul", and another, "I follow Apollos", are you not being merely human?"
He knows this because he has heard of their divisions. This divided church had a completely wrong idea about what really mattered. They were trapped thinking as the world does and they had become worldly. Instead of wanting to grow in their faith and love of Christ they wanted to tie themselves to the teacher who would make them seem to be the most up to date or in vogue.
Having challenged the Corinthians' immaturity Paul gives two analogies to emphasise his, and all other Christian teachers', role in the growth of the church. Firstly, he gives an agricultural picture – concluding that the many hands involved in getting a seed to grow fade into insignificance compared to the God who gives the growth. And then he turns his attention to an architectural analogy. And it is on this – verses 9-17 - that I would like to focus for the rest of our time together.
1. "God's fellow workers…" (v. 9-11)
"For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ."
To move from one image to the next Paul gives a succinct summary of all that he has said about himself and Apollos. He says, "we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building." And in this simple statement Paul is saying something profound to the divided congregation at Corinth. Having 'de-personalised' the debate about who was on who's side in verse 5 – saying what then is Apollos, rather than who – he re-emphasises the role of leaders under God's authority. And God is at the forefront of everything in the verse – Paul and Apollos are God's fellow workers; the Corinthian church are God's field and God's building. Paul is challenging them – and us – to see that all that we work for together is God's, and we are privileged to be used by him to do it.
He goes on to explore his own role in the Corinthian church. Again God is at the forefront – he is only able to complete the work in light of God's enabling grace – and Paul plays the role of 'skilled master builder'. The phrase he uses describes the wise superintendent, supervising the development of the project. And there are two subtle details here that are easy to miss.
Firstly, Paul is personally invested in the project. The Corinthian church was not a quick job to be knocked off and then left behind. He is intimately involved in the building project. What do you think it looks like to be personally invested at St Joseph's? This is something that's challenged me over the last couple of weeks as I've been pulling this together. When we first moved over from Jesmond as part of the launch team it was impossible not to be personally invested. Without the total commitment that so many showed we wouldn't be here this morning, surrounded by our brothers and sisters in Christ. But it's so easy to get complacent. It's so easy just to sit back and let others step up to serve, or to serve half-heartedly in the places we're involved. So can I challenge you the same way I've been challenging myself; recommit your heart to God's project of building his kingdom. Pray for our church leaders, your friends and family, your small groups and the local area. Prepare properly for small group studies and Sundays. Pray for the speaker! Do all you can to lay the firmest foundation for your life in Christ and for our community in him.
Secondly, significant building projects in the first century would have been the shared work of many people, over many years. Men in the role that Paul uses as his example may not even have seen the project to completion. But in their role they co-ordinated and supported all of the different tradesmen to achieve one over-arching goal. Paul is working to re-orient the minds of the Corinthian church, to bring them to a more mature view of their Christian community. In effect he is saying to the leaders of the Corinthian church, 'Listen here – stop thinking like the world does and trying to attach yourself to the latest fad! Look, you are like a great building and I'm the one who was given the job of laying the foundation. Now each of you has a job to do – you're all like the different tradesmen who make a great building a reality. Stop looking at how to get one over each other and see the project. We're all building together, we're all building so let's take care to get this right!'
Having pitched the project Paul then reminds them exactly what the foundation is that was laid. If someone were to ask you what the foundations of our church are what would you say? Not the foundations of the building itself, fascinating as the revamp was, but what would leave the church in pieces if it wasn't there? Hard as it might be to imagine, it's not Ken, Ben or the staff. It's not our wider partnership with our brothers and sisters at Jesmond who we owe so much to for getting us up and running. It's not even our giving, important as that is. Paul is telling us that the only foundation worth considering is Jesus Christ. Without him, the church collapses.
In fact, there can only be one foundation for a cross-centred church – the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The only thing that was going to deal once and for all with the divisions in the church then, and the divisions in the church today, is Jesus. In him, revealed to us by his word, we find stability, security and unity.
2. "The building tested…" (v. 12-15)
"Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 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 will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire."
The architectural analogy continues, but with a different emphasis. The foundation has been set, and now attention turns to the quality of the building. Paul gives two lists of materials; one precious and imperishable in fire and another that would be destroyed by flames. The lists seem unusual at first glance – gold, silver and precious stones are not the first thing that springs to mind when setting out in a building project – but these materials were used in the construction and ornamentation of the Jerusalem temple.
What really matters here is on the Day there will be a test, with the image of fire being used here. It's important to note that this test is not about whether the workers will or will not be saved, but a test of the quality of their workmanship. The picture is of a building consumed by flames and the workmen turning back to see how much of their labour would survive. And there is a warning here for all of us who have a responsibility for teaching the Bible, whether with our children, our small groups or here at the front – if we deviate from the foundation of Christ and his saving work then our work is irrelevant. In fact, a failure to build on this sure foundation can be the destruction of our community. Just as fire destroys a building, unfaithfulness to the cross destroys faith. So, at every turn we must be careful to build only on the person and work of Jesus; all of our efforts should be seen through the lens of his work, and if what we are doing does not bring glory to him and grow his church then we should cast it aside; it will be burnt up on the day of testing. We need to guard against distraction in our community and in ourselves; if we do not see the bigger picture, the building project, and only see church as a means of satisfying our needs then our individualism will undermine the quality of the building.
Why does this matter? How do we avoid undermining the work that we're doing here together week by week? What do we do to build with precious materials?
Can I make a few suggestions? I'd suggest that we need to be attentive to one another, praying for each other and being prepared to be honest and vulnerable in our requests for prayer. If we, as the building project, are the place where God's people are built up and the world sees God at work, we've got to be devoted to one another in sincere love, prepared to give time and energy to one another. That might be serving on a Sunday in an area of need that you never thought you'd end up doing. That could be a phone call, or a coffee with a brother or sister you know is struggling. That could be the hard conversation with someone you know is taking a turn away from doing what is right, despite the discomfort and short term cost. It might be the simple step of talking to different people after the service over your brew or child wrangling to avoid the development of cliques in our community.
Verses 14 and 15 are stark. The cross-centred church is founded on Jesus and does everything in light of this. Anything beyond this will be lost, but the work done on the foundation is rewarded. And it's a sad fact that there are churches up and down the country meeting this morning in most denominations who aren't building on the foundation of Christ. Whether it's an overemphasis on good but secondary things or something more serious, like the denying of the authority of God's Word over all areas of our lives, there are many leaders who are unwilling to teach God's word in full. And these verses tell us that there will be day when their 'work' will be proven to be worthless. So, the minute you're in a church community that fails to teach the cross and all the difficult implications that living for the one who died on it brings, get out! It's like a building burning and at the point of collapse. Be praying for Ken, Ben and all of the staff team here too. Be praying for anyone with a responsibility to teach the Bible, that they would be faithful. Get yourself to Equip if you feel you're not quite sure about elements of what the Bible teaches. And if you are sure, get to Equip anyway to encourage others and guard against complacency in your heart.
3. "God's Temple together…" (v. 16-17)
"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."
If the verses that we have looked at so far emphasise the responsibility of those teaching the church to ensure that they build on the only foundation that can be trusted – Jesus – Paul then opens out his instruction to the wider Corinthian community. Verse 16 opens with a mild rebuke – "do you not know"! – and then makes two astonishing statements. So, do you know that…
a) You are God's Temple
The Temple was the place where God was present with his people, where they could meet with Him and restore their relationship with Him by sacrifice. But, with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the age of the Temple was over. Jesus is the centre of God's revelation to man, and in him we are able to come to God. But not only this – we are God's Temple. Paul uses the term used to refer to the very sanctuary in which the presence of God was present and applies it to the Corinthian church and to us. That divided, factional troubled community in Corinth was the temple of God. We are the Temple of God.
What does it mean to be the Temple of God on earth today, the place where God is revealed to the world? I've found grappling with this really challenging this week. We're the primary means by which God's kingdom is seen in the world, so what would we want the world to see, or not see for that matter? Hard as it might be to imagine, God wants the world to see us, our community with all of our flaws and foibles.
But how do we do that? Thankfully we're not building without a set of instructions here. Throughout the story of the Bible we're shown examples of 'master builders', whether David building a nation, Solomon and the Temple, Nehemiah and more. What characterised their building projects? Firstly, they were devoted to prayer. Prayer is one of the most powerful bits of kit we have to build with and yet one that's so easy to neglect, speaking from my own experience. And how did they pray? Well, they were brutally honest with God. They cried out in their need and in repentance, they asked boldly in their requests and they gave great praise and thanks when God acted in their lives.
Secondly they were devoted to God's word. The best place where we can know more of the incredible creator God, who sent his Son to the cross for us, is in his Word. I'm sure that the staff team here, and many other wise folk in the room, will be able to heartily recommend study aids and series that will help you dig deeper into God's word and to know and love him better.
b) God's Spirit Dwells in You
Not only are we the Temple, the place where God is revealing himself to the world, but we have the very Spirit of God dwelling within us. Earlier this morning we thought about great builders through the Old Testament who were devoted to prayer and to listening to God's word. And these amazing men didn't have this gift – they did not have the Holy Spirit, sent by God to help his church to grow more and more to be like his Son.
So we need to make choices, choices about how we relate to one another, how we give of our time and energy, how we speak and how we approach those we welcome each Sunday. And we need to make choices about our own lives. What would it look like if we were building our own life with Christ from the precious materials mentioned in verse 12? Paradoxically, rather than looking spectacular like the materials of verse 12, it would look like the Christian life. Like a Christian striving to live for God in all areas of life, praying and living to defeat sin, consistently absorbing God's word and spending time in prayer. But, as we know, living this life can be tough. If you're hearing lists like this week in week out and thinking it sounds a million miles from your experience, be encouraged! You are God's temple and God's Spirit is at work in you, even if you're struggling to see it right now. But if you're in a purple patch and you feel like everything's going brilliantly – guard your heart! You're not there because of your own gritty determination and will to complete that Bible in a year plan or whatever else it could be; you're where you are because the Spirit of God is at work in your heart.
Verse 17 warns the Corinthian church, and us, of the result of a failure to fully grasp the seriousness with which God loves and guards his Temple and his people. Those who work to destroy the cross-centred church will be destroyed. Why? Because God's temple is set apart, and, as verse 17 states, "you are that Temple".
Paul has reminded us this morning that to be a cross-centred church we must recognise that our only foundation is Jesus. And, we are responsible for building ourselves on him and nothing else. There is a firm foundation in Jesus and a blueprint for how the church can and should grow, guided by God's Spirit. But deviating from this plan is all too easy. As a community of believers we must see ourselves not as passive participants but as co-builders, jealously guarding our unity of purpose in serving Jesus. We can't afford to allow division or apathy to set in and undermine the integrity of our work. Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 3 are a challenge to anyone who teaches the Bible, and to all of us, to guard against this. That's why Equip is such a great opportunity to strengthen ourselves as individuals and as a church. That's why it matters that we open our Bibles every week together and listen to God's word.
Without the sure foundation of Jesus Christ, revealed by his word our work will be lost, burnt up in the fire. So, as we go out into the weeks and months ahead, let's make sure we remain cross-centred, focussed on our sure foundation.