1 Corinthians 3:5-9 (NRSV)
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Somedays, I wonder why the church fathers decided to put the various letters in the cannon of the Bible. There are some of those minor Prophets and a few of the ones in the New Testament that you may just wonder about. However, I have no doubt in my mind why Paul’s letters to the Corinthians made the cut. Every time I read from them, I always have to ask myself, is he talking to the early church or to churches today? The letters to the Corinthians affirm my theory that people are people, for better or for worse, people are people, and they are going to act the way they always do. Paul is writing to the people in Corinth, after spending 18 months living with them, peaching and modeling how to live a life of salvation and holiness, how to be a community of believers. But of course, because people are people, things didn’t go so well after Paul left. Problems developed, factions developed, arguments and dissentions developed…yes, surprise surprise, in the church. So Paul writes them a letter to try to mediate and clarify some of the problems they tell him about. In chapter 3, Paul calls them out. He begins with a set of rhetorical questions, “When someone says, “I belong to Paul, and another says, I belong to Apollos,” aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit? Basically he tells the church, “I’m completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with one another and with God. Y’all are acting like a bunch of children! When you start taking sides—you show your selfishness/self-centeredness.” Where our scripture today begins, Paul is saying to them, why are you trying to rally around one leader? Get over yourselves—Paul, Apollos, Cephas, no one person is better than another—we are all servants of Christ. We are carrying out our assignments given to us. And surprise, surprise, Paul uses an agricultural metaphor to explain-amazing how that fits just exactly into our sermon series! Nevertheless, Paul explains, I planted the seeds, Apollos watered, But---it is God who makes it grow! Us field hands can only do what we are told, we are powerless to make the seed come up and sprout. So really, is one job more important than the other, no, but the point of the matter is that it’s we all have to work together, because we are all serving God! That is what we are called to do.
This is part of Paul’s overall argument—throughout the whole letter to the Corinthians. He goes back to the concern he stated initially in the letter—“I have a serious concern…you must get along with one another—you must build a life in common—mutual respect, care, nurture.” Do that by each using their particular gifts for the common good. An argument that Paul more fully develops later on in the letter, but even in our Scripture today, what Paul is trying to explain is that all body parts are useful and have a specific purpose. The problem Paul is addressing: the church body—the congregation—are still acting and judging things according to world standards. They are placing different values on different gifts, styles of leadership, and issues of conduct. They believe that only one way, only one person could possibly be right, and so jealous quarrels start occurring, people begin taking sides…Nope that’s no apart of our cultural rhetoric recently.
And Paul firmly corrects the people of Corinth—you are acting like children. Clearly as human beings, and especially as human beings in the church, we just haven’t quite figured out how to get along.
The concept Paul is trying to once again convey to them is that being the body of Christ/life in common is one in which there is cooperation, one with a common purpose. Why?—because we all should have one mutual goal—building the kingdom of God. The work of God is just too big for any one person to do alone. Does that mean that there will always be agreement on how that is to be done? How we go about building the kingdom? Of course not. We all have strategies of how we would like to build God’s garden. Some have methods that have been used before and worked, so let’s do those again, some will see new techniques developed and want to experiment with those. Others would like to plant thinks that are hardy and can withstand the elements, other will want to grow delicate but beautiful things. And so instead of working cooperatively, to cultivate God’s garden, we become embroiled in battles, “This is my church and I don’t want my church to be destroyed.” We all want to be sure that no one else interferes with our little patch of the garden and that things are done just precisely our way. And you know what, there are going to be disagreements along the way. Church broke into various paths traditions: Catholicism, Anglican, Orthodox, Protestant. And even within each individual churches. I suspect there were disagreements at times at Cann. But the reality is, that we can disagree but still cooperate (get along)—even collaborate and when we do so we can begin to see new growth and new life in the church.
While I was in Jerusalem, we visited the church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is where Christians claim Jesus was crucified and buried. Now since this would be a holy site for all branches of Christianity, but instead of cooperatively working to care for this holy site, they have literally subdivided the church into their own areas: the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Ethiopian Orthodox and so forth. Each church has their own chapel space and as visitors you walk through each space, with their own very distinct looks, and priests guarding it. Although it is a beautiful and holy space, it is sad place as well, a representation of how sometimes we fail at collaborating and being the church together.
What Paul is telling his readers, both then and now, is that the whole field belongs to God, we are merely field hands, called to work together to bring in the eschatological harvest: that is the hope of what is to come. So in our garden some will need to plant, others will need to water, some will need to till the ground, others will weed, and eventually there will be those who will reap the bounty, but all of this work needs to be done, and it will be oh so much better if we do it together!
Theologian, Shirley Guthrie says, “Christian hope for the world is hope that God will overcome inhuman and unjust social, political, and economic structures.”[i] This is a hope for the future, for “the justice, freedom, and peace of the kingdom of God will not [fully] come within history as the result of human efforts; it will come at the end of history as the result of what only God can and will do.”[ii] Yet as Christians living in that liminal time, “we know that we move…towards [this] fulfillment - toward the genuinely full human life that God willed for all human beings from the beginning, which God is at work here and now to restore and renew, and which God will finally give to everyone.”[iii]
God will not leave this world the way it is, rather, God will come and restore creation. God did so in Christ and God will do so again. So we wait, but in that waiting, we don’t let the garden get over grown, we don’t let plants die, but we care called to be faithful to God in the world. We are called to continue building and planting God’s kingdom in our midst together.
The Belhar confession, recently adopted in our confessions of faith, says, “that unity is…both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God's Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain… that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways:
in that we love one another;
that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another;
that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another;
that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind;
have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope;
and together [we] come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ;
together [we] are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity;
together [we] know and bear one another's burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity.
Leaving these church doors today, we step back into a nation and world that’s divided. We can choose to perpetuate the division, divisiveness, and fears through cruelty and willful ignorance...Or, we can choose to perpetuate the work and ministry of Christ through spreading love, truth, and peace. The choice is yours, friends. But, I believe you know what to do. Because, I believe that the Creator created you with unique gifts and talents that you’ll live fully into as we collectively work toward completing God’s re-creation each day.
Like the prophet Isaiah says, as Christians we are called to do this: Build. Plant. Labor. For it is in this rhythm of doing, we will start to embody the hope we yearn for: pursuing justice, showing mercy, loving kindly, and do what it right to be unified. Whenever the world starts to feel unstable, we should fall back into this rhythm of work. Build. Plant. Labor. Day by day, week by week, and before long we become hope we’ve been practicing. As Christians we are not called to “practice what we preach” rather it’s that we become what we practice. We are called to bring pieces of God’s kingdom to our midst, by being a unified and collaborative body. So if we Build. Plant. Labor, we do it not individually, but collectively. And when we do, we do so knowing who is our Great Gardner: the One who gives us growth, who nourishes us and sustains us. Then we will become known as people who trust radically in a good and gracious God. And may it be so. Amen.
[i] Shirely Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 375.
[ii] Ibid, 375.
[iii] Ibid, 378.