Epiphany 6A. 16 February 2014.
1 Corinthians 3.1-9
Last week, we spoke about Paul’s discussion of wisdom and foolishness in the second chapter of his letter to the Corinthians. Central to his teaching is that God reveals wisdom in ways that seem, often to many, as foolishness. He writes that his own teaching was not in lofty words or great rhetorical power, which is somewhat ironic given that Paul was obviously a master of rhetorical power. In fact, rhetorical power was considered necessary for anyone to gain credibility in Greco-Roman world. But Paul’s point is that none of that power is as important as the wisdom God unfolds by the power of his Spirit.
And whenever I say such things, I always hasten to add that neither he, nor I, are being anti-intellectual by saying that. Christianity has never been well served by an uncritical spirituality. The point Paul is making is that we are always bumping up against the limits of our knowledge. Even if all the mysteries of medicine, physics, and mathematics were unraveled, there are limits to our ability to make use of that information.
Also, there are the variables of human behavior. A person may have a third cup of coffee and do something they wouldn’t have done had they been less caffeinated. (I speak from experience.)
In our lesson today, Paul is attempting to address the Corinthians’ divisions in a way that seems to me to be very potentially hurtful, even damaging to people in that community. And since we read these letters now as Holy Scripture, I worry that we will feel punctured by this text.
He writes that he could not speak to them as spiritual people, but to people of the flesh--that is, people who are not yet fully enlightened by the Holy Spirit. He writes:
“I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?”
Paul is pointing to their quarreling as evidence of their lack of spirituality, which I can understand, but if we apply this rule too casually, it seems coercive. If someone in the church wants to do something, and someone else disagrees, is it right to consider the person disagreeing as unspiritual, or not yet fully belonging to Christ?
I don’t think so. And further, I don’t think that’s what Paul means, either. I think Paul was intentional in writing “jealousy and quarreling,” because the issue at hand, which he further develops, is that the divisions are not about ideas, but about personal loyalties. There are factions in the Corinthian Church who feel that their spiritual father is Paul, and others who feel that their spiritual father is Apollos. And between them, there is jealousy and quarrelling.
Paul has to walk a fine line here. He has the upper hand as the true founder of the Church in Corinth, and his letter is an expression of his authority. He is trying to lower the temperature of their arguments while still maintaining his place, and still remaining above the fray. It’s very hard to do.
So he shift the language back to the central theme that brought them together, and keeps them together. He writes,
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
Paul challenges their disagreement, which is about loyalty--but ultimately about power. It’s a very important point, and he makes it well: that what they’re really upset about is who has more power--more spiritual power. Apollos or Paul? Paul says, No, we are not power players. We are servants. Someone plants, and someone waters, but neither of us have caused your growth. That is God’s doing. So he brings the discussion back to God, and what God does, which they can all get behind.
I remember when I was newly ordained serving in my first church out of seminary, and there was violent disagreement in the vestry about almost everything. It was very dispiriting, quite honestly.
The Rev. Churchill Gibson, one of the great fathers of the Diocese of Virginia, was fond of saying to clergy, “You are validly ordained, and your parishioners are validly baptized. It should be a match made in heaven.”
But in the situation in that church I served really wasn’t about the rector or myself, though we seemed to be lightning rods and we absorbed a lot of the anger. The disagreements had to do with two different visions about where the church could be headed. One side wanted the church to remain small and insular. We found out that there was a man in that group who used to go up to people who were new and say, “Thank you for visiting today. I’m sure you will find some other church to belong to. We don’t want you here.”
And then there were people who wanted the church to grow and expand. They volunteered for everything. They came to special services; and went out of their way to greet newcomers and invite them back. And you’d probably want to think that the difference was old guard versus new guard, but that wasn’t it. Both sides were old guard. The people in both sides were longstanding members.
It was hard to be a part of that church at that time. It was sometimes hard to offer the Sacraments, because Holy Communion is a sacred meal that is intended to be shared in tenderness of Christian love. And love was missing. Authentic spirituality was missing. There was quarrelling and jealousy, and people squaring off about who they belong to.
I remember one day the Rector turned to me at the end of something and said, “I can’t pray with these people right now. Can you offer the closing prayer?”
At one point, we were standing together at the Altar, and he was celebrating the Holy Eucharist, and after he broke the bread, he offered it to me, and I received, but he didn’t receive either the bread or the wine. Instead of excommunicating them, he excommunicated himself from them.
At one point, we had a vestry meeting and things got heated again. The senior warden at the time was and is a prince among men. He could talk to both sides, and he was a steady, even-handed sort of fellow. And when things got to a certain point in the meeting, he said, “We need to remember who we are.” “We need to remember who we are.”
I want to say that that marked a dramatic change in the vestry and in the church. I want to say that it was a turning point. Maybe it was, but on a very small scale, and for a very limited amount of time. Things got quiet. The torches and pitchforks were put away for a little while. And when I think of Paul trying to pull the Corinthians together, I think of Phil, the senior warden. “We need to remember who we are.”
Some plant, and some water, but God gives the growth. This is not my church; or your church. Don’t tell him I said this, but it’s not even really the bishop’s church. (Actually, we have a very deeply spiritual bishop, and I would imagine he would agree.) In The Book of Common Prayer we refer to it as God’s Church with Christ as the head.
It is God who gives the growth. Spiritual growth, numerical growth, personal growth. We can do our best to foster it. Pray, invite people, welcome them, love them, care about them. And let them know who we are.
We are the people whose lives have been changed by Jesus Christ. We are the people who fall and rise again. As Paul writes, “We are God’s servants, working together...God’s field, God’s building.”
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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel