February 19, 2017 “Fireproof” – I Corinthians 3:10-23
I Corinthians 3:10-23
February 19, 2017 – Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Ancient Corinth is still there, even its toilets. My daughters were delighted when they discovered two-thousand-year-old stone latrine holes still intact in its ruins. The builders of the city to which Paul wrote built well.
In fact, the remains of the temple of Apollo looming over the site have been visible since antiquity. It’s a fascinating place because one can easily visualize a row of busy shops, the public baths in use, and visitors like the apostle Paul coming up the road into the city. A plaque marks the bema, the platform on which the Roman proconsul sat when Paul was brought before him as we’re told in Acts 18.
Paul wrote to Corinth in its heyday. Its buildings, temples, shops and homes were quite impressive. Their stone and marble structures have stood the test of time, so even their toilet seats are still around. One wonders if the best of our buildings and plumbing will manage to last half as long.
Last week Paul finished with an image of the Christian church as God’s planted field by adding one final phrase to verse 9. It switched metaphors. It changed the program. We were watching a gardening show, maybe a farm channel, as Paul talked about how God is growing the Church. “You are God’s field.” Now it’s “That Old House” or maybe “Dream House” on the DIY network. “You are God’s building.”
Verse 10 begins with the same idea expressed agriculturally back in verse 6, “I planted, Apollos watered…” Paul started the church in Corinth, but other people added to it, continuing what he began. In this new metaphor, Paul “laid the foundation.” he says, as a wise architect. That’s the word, literally, arkitekton, architect.
Paul the architect designed and planned the church to be built on one and only one foundation, says verse 11. No matter who else builds on it, “No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid, which is Jesus Christ.” We sang, “Built on the rock, the Church does stand.” That rock is Jesus. The foundation is the one the apostles carefully laid down wherever they went. The Church is founded upon Jesus Christ. There’s no other basis, no other reason for being here. Jesus is where it all begins.
Then in verse 12 Paul reflects on how we build on that foundation. It’s a fantastic image of building with gold, silver and costly stones versus using wood, hay or straw. I went to school at Notre Dame and studied under the shadow of a domed building covered with fine gold leaf, but that’s just a veneer. The building itself is stone. Paul is using imagination to convey that spiritual building should use the best materials.
In verses 13 to 15 Paul talks about the quality of work of those who build in the church being revealed in “the Day,” with a capital “D,” the day when Christ returns and God brings final judgment upon this world and upon our lives. It’s spiritual TTD, as engineers call it, “testing to destruction.” God will put this world and our lives through a trial that will test to destruction. The best materials will be those that are fire proof. Don’t get hung up on the details. Even gold would melt in a fire, but Paul means to say that only the finest building materials will survive.
I first heard these verses preached to me as a caution about what you do with your own individual life once you’ve been saved by faith in Jesus. Once you’ve committed yourself to Christ, trusted in Him as your Savior, how will you live? Will you build up your soul from that point on with the gold and silver of prayer and Bible study and personal holiness, or will you mar that fine foundation with the hay and straw of laziness and sin?
Paul promises a reward in verse 14. If you build your life well, then God will build you an extra-large mansion in heaven. It was appealing, but as a teenage boy with plenty of weaknesses and temptations, I was always glad to move on to verse 15, which assured me that even if my life wasn’t structured very well, even if all I built, “is burned up, the builder will suffer loss,” but then “the builder will be saved.” I was happy to hear that I would be saved, no matter how I messed up my life.
Reading this now in its whole context I realize there was something lacking in that preaching I heard as a youth. It’s especially important to how we read the next two verses. Verse 16 asks the Corinthians “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” Coupled with what he says in chapter 6 about your body being the temple of the Holy Spirit, we regularly get this wrong.
So I hear a guy at Courtsports say something like, “My body is a temple.” Then he starts talking about his latest diet supplement or exercise program. That’s not just wrong because it forgets the Holy Spirit part. It’s wrong because the “you” in “you are God’s temple” is plural. Those preachers from Texas I heard as a boy did teach me the word “Y’all,” and this is that. Paul’s not talking about you or I being a building. He is talking about God making us His building, His temple together. “Y’all are God’s temple.”
The old film, “Lilies of the Field,” casts Sidney Poitier as Homer Smith, a drifter handyman who stumbles across a little group of German nuns in the Arizona desert. He finds himself first fixing their roof, then being conned by the shrewd mother superior into building them a chapel. He tries to get out of it, but when the nuns’ prayers produce the needed materials, he accepts the challenge.
Homer takes the project as his own. He won’t let anyone else help. He wants to build the chapel all by himself, a monument to his own hard work. But a group of Mexicans hangs out watching him labor in the sun. Eventually, his friend Juan carries an adobe brick to where he’s laying them. “Take it, or step over it and get another,” he says. Homer picks up the brick and the next thing he knows he is surrounded by helpers.
There’s still a ways to go for Homer before he learns to work with the help he’s offered. He sits with his arms folded as others take over his chapel building. He sits and lets them go it alone, without his guidance. The results are almost disastrous. The project almost comes to a halt once again.
Paul warns us about those who try to destroy God’s temple among us in verse 17, those who willfully disrupt the unity of the Church. God will deal with such people, because His temple is sacred to Him. Paul repeats it with another plural you “and you are that temple.”
Verse 18 seems to change the subject. Paul goes back to themes from the end of chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, warning those who “think you are wise by the standards of this age.” But He’s still talking about those who damage what God is building. He’s talking about the Homer Smiths who won’t learn that they can’t build the temple of God by themselves, in their own way, trampling over the feelings and gifts of others.
That age in Corinth is like our own age. We get told that we are self-sufficient individuals whose aim in life is to discover meaning and purpose and happiness inside our own solitary hearts and minds and bodies. Take care of yourself before anyone else. Find self-fulfillment before considering the needs of others. Have life your way rather than do what someone else wants. That individualistic wisdom was taught by Stoics and other philosophers of Paul’s time. It’s still the phony “wisdom” being foisted on us from every corner of entertainment and education and politics today.
The only way out of such false wisdom, says Paul, is to “become ‘fools’ so that you may become wise.” Like I said a few weeks ago, he’s not talking about the anti-intellectualism of the church I grew up in. People told me not to ask too many questions, not to think too hard, not to go to college lest I lose my faith. No, Paul’s not talking about being deliberately ignorant or uneducated or unreasonable. He’s talking about ditching the false wisdom that teaches you to rely only on yourself, to take care only of yourself, in the end to love nobody but yourself. That self-focused mentality is “the wisdom of this world” that “is foolishness with God,” as verse 19 says.
Paul quotes Job 5:13 and Psalm 94:11 in verses 19 and 20 to say again that God will deal with the person who persists in such selfish wisdom, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” May God catch you and me before we go too far down that path of individual, lonely wisdom and find all the plans we made for ourselves are futile.
That’s why we come back yet again in verse 21 to the division in Corinth around different leaders. Splitting into factions is the beginning of splitting into solitary individual Christians who try to make it alone. Thinking your group are the only true believers, undermines what God is building in His Church. “So,” says Paul, “let no one boast about human leaders!” It should be obvious to us this year in America that boasting about leaders only leads to division and separation and will bring the whole building down.
The last phrase of verse 21 tells us why not to focus on individuals, whether ourselves or leaders. “All things are yours.” Paul is echoing a thought familiar to the Corinthians. The Roman philosopher Seneca, Paul’s contemporary, said “all things belong to the wise man.” Popular philosophy today might say, “If you trust in yourself, you can do anything. It’s all yours.” The Corinthians, and you and I, thought they had it all in the bag.
Paul conceded the point. “All things are yours.” If you are really wise in God’s wisdom, then it is all yours, whether it’s human leaders like Paul or Apollos or Peter, or whether it’s the cosmic realities of “life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you.” If you are really wise, then yes, everything belongs to you, everything is possible for you. But the catch is finding real wisdom. You don’t find it in yourself or by yourself. That “your” and that “you” in “belongs to you” are still plural.
Homer Smith had to discover that all things became his when he gave up wanting it to be his alone. When he finally let his chapel become a project that others owned along with him, he had all kinds of gifts brought to him. The German nuns stomped adobe mud in their bare feet. Mexican men laid bricks, spread adobe finish, and cut wooden beams. The women made lunch for everyone. People from town brought furniture and a candelabra. And a hard-boiled businessman donated a load of bricks that didn’t fit with the adobe. In a scene that is a cacophony of Spanish, German and English all being spoken at once, Homer discovers how a church is really built, by diverse people putting all their different gifts together so that they belong to everyone. It was all his and it was all theirs.
The point is not what material you’re going to build with in your own life. Sure, that matters. You can make a mess of yourself by constructing your life out of possessions or sex or addictions or entertainment or even hard work to the exclusion of everything else. You don’t want to do that, but the way to avoid it is not to focus on yourself. It’s to get involved in a bigger project. You will only possess all the things that matter when you share all those things together with others in Christ.
So the question is what sort of materials we will use to build up each other in God’s building. Will we offer one another the best of our time and talents and resources? Or will we save the gold and silver for our own homes and lives and give each other the wood, hay and straw that’s left over? That’s what Paul is asking us today. What building materials will you and I work with in this church we are part of here and now?
Each of those folks in Lilies of the Field had something to offer in building that “shapel.” Each of us has a spiritual gift or a skill or a resource or a possession that God means to be part of what He is building here at Valley Covenant. One of our aims is that you will discover what your offerings are and, like those in that happy crowd in the film, find joy in bringing it to the project.
When it is offered together in Jesus, it’s all gold, silver and diamonds. Whether it’s a thoughtful meditation or a beautiful song in worship, a clean toilet in the bathroom, a kind word to someone in the hallway, or a generous gift in the offering bag, what you and I give to build up the temple of the Holy Spirit is precious. And it’s fireproof. It’s going to last in God’s kingdom, in the eternal lives of people who believe in Jesus.
There’s a last word in verse 23 that’s crucial. Yes, all things belong to you, he grants the Corinthians. But here’s the deal: “you belong to Christ.” Our ownership of all those precious, fireproof gifts He’s placed in us is overwhelmed by the fact that you and I are owned by Jesus. He died and rose again so that we could belong to Him. No matter how much we’ve got, it’s really all His.
Last of all, here’s the key. Jesus Christ Himself, says Paul, “belongs to God.” Jesus came to us laying down His life to the will of His Father. The Son of God who owned the universe gave up His own life, gave Himself back to the Father in love. That’s the model for all our building. That’s the foundation upon which our temple is constructed. You may have it all, but only when you give it up does it really belong to you.
Leo Buscaglia the motivational speaker is supposed to have said, “You can only give what you have.” Paul’s Gospel message, the message of Jesus, is that you only have what you give. By taking the precious materials God places in us and giving them away to and for each other and for our Lord, we truly come into possession of all those things. May we give up our own lives to build together a holy temple in which we belong to each other by belonging to Jesus, who belongs to God.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj