Tuesday, February 14, 2017

God's Servants, Working Together

I Corinthians 3:1-9
February 12, 2017

            Haven’t we heard these words from Paul before? Didn’t he make this same point about getting caught up in human leadership back in Chapter 1? He did! In chapter 1, verse 12, Paul wrote, “What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’”
            One of the factors contributing to the division in the church in Corinth was that the people argued over which human leader was superior, which leader was the right one to follow. If Paul is superior and the best of God’s leaders, then I’m with Paul. I’m on Paul’s team. If you are on Team Apollos, then you have chosen poorly. Because not only is Paul the superior leader, choosing to be on his team makes me superior to everyone who chooses to be on Team Apollos!
            But Paul emphatically told the Corinthians that this was wrong. They were confused and misunderstood what he and the other leaders had come there to do. They were creating division and rivalries amongst themselves that were based on false understandings. They had come together as a church, not to follow a human being, but to follow Christ. It was not about Paul. It was not about Apollos. It was about Jesus the Christ, God’s son, Christ crucified. It was about what God and the Holy Spirit were doing in their midst.
            Paul made this point about their confused loyalties at the beginning of the letter, but in these verses from chapter 3, he reiterated his earlier words. Why? Because it was obvious to Paul – and to those of us reading his epistle – that the Corinthians did not get it. Paul realized that when he was with them he had been speaking to them in language and in abstract theological concepts for which they were not yet ready. He assumed they were mature enough to understand, but Paul stated without hesitation that he was mistaken.  
            “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 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.”
            Perhaps Paul once tried to feed the Corinthians with solid food, but they were not ready for it. They were infants who still required milk rather than meat. Perhaps the Corinthians seemed mature at first glance, but their jealousies and quarrels revealed otherwise.
            It is as if Paul were the parent of, I don’t know, teenagers.
            I seem to recall that when I was a teenager, my parents told me more than once that I wanted to be treated like an adult but I did not want the responsibilities of an adult. I would chafe against any rules that seemed not to match my age and wisdom.
            “Stop treating me like a baby,” I would cry.
            “Then stop acting like one,” was the response I would receive.
            Along with many other issues, the Corinthians were bickering over the teams they had created. They were not spiritually mature. They were spiritual infants, so Paul would have to treat and teach them accordingly.
            I would not be surprised if Paul’s words did not spark some outrage among those reading or hearing this letter. Infants?! We are not babies! But while Paul’s words may have been harsh, they were not unkind. As I have said in past sermons, Paul was a master of rhetoric. He knew how to grab people’s attention. This statement about their spiritual immaturity would have done just that.
            Paul referred to them as being “of the flesh.” This was not necessarily a reference to what we might call, “fleshly delights;” although Paul will take those on in later chapters. When Paul told them they were of the flesh, he was trying to make them understand that they were still living as if Christ had never lived, died or was resurrected. Paul understood the crucifixion as transformation. It was death to the old creation. It gave birth to the new creation, the new life. Jesus’ death and resurrection brought about new life. It was that new thing God was doing. However, while the Corinthians may have proclaimed this transformation with their lips, they still lived as though it were not true, it had never happened. Their “fleshiness” caused them to continue in their old ways of being and doing – competition, rivalries, quarreling and jealousies; Team Paul or Team Apollos. They were still spiritual infants. They needed to grow up, but that kind of wisdom would take time. It was the solid food they were not quite ready to eat.
            Spiritual milk was needed. Paul fed it to them by reminding them that they had their priorities wrong. They had attached themselves to a human leader, and had forgotten that the One they were called to attach themselves to was the ONE. It was not about being on Team Paul or Team Apollos. It was about living for God. After all, God was the reason they were a church to begin with. Paul and Apollos were instruments for God. Paul planted the seeds, and Apollos watered, but it was God who made them grow. They were the field God was tilling and cultivating. They were the building God was constructing. They were believers – they were a church – because of God. The Corinthians either never understood that, or they had forgotten, but the spiritual milk Paul gave them was the knowledge that they were God’s. Maturity and wisdom in Christ would come, but for the moment they had to understand one thing and one thing only; they were God’s.
            When they understood that, then their actions would tell that truth. When they realized that it was about God, then the church would be the light on the hill it was called to be. When the church in Corinth comprehended that they were all God’s servants, then they would come to full maturity in Christ.
            They were all God’s servants. That is what Paul told them, “We are God’s servants, working together.” Perhaps that is what really distinguishes a spiritually mature person, from one who is struggling to eat solid food. It is the recognition that we are called to be servants. We are called to be servants to God and servants to one another. When you recognize that God has called you to be a servant, to live in service, to do acts of service for others – whoever those others may be – then it becomes harder and harder to stay on a team. It becomes more difficult to choose sides. I’m not implying that we must agree with one another on everything, whether we are in the church walls or outside of them. I am not saying that we are not to live in any other way than with the courage of our convictions. But it seems to me that first and foremost, we are called to serve.
            If Jesus gives us the fullest knowledge of God, then we know that God values all life and all people. We know that God is about service. How did Jesus serve? He showed compassion to the lowliest of the lowly. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He ate dinner with outcasts. He told the truth to those who did not want to hear it. He held those with power and position accountable. He was willing to give of himself to save others.
            We come together as a congregation not because we are on Team Amy or Team Alice. We come together as a congregation because we believe. We come together because we have heard God’s call to be here. We gather in this place and in this time because we want to be disciples. We want to follow the path Jesus walked. We want to be God’s field and God’s building. It is not about us or about anyone in a position of leadership. It is about God. We are about God. We are God’s servants, working together. Thanks be to God.

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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