St Michael’s, 23rd February 2014
Reading – 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
How many people here have ever been to our Tuesday morning toddler group? On the rare occasions I’ve been able to visit, I’ve always been impressed by how well it is run – although I would add, we are very much looking and praying for more leaders. Of course not all the little ones are that sure of this strange bearded man coming into their midst. Some of them simply ignore me, because they are content with their bottle and aren’t really thinking about anything else. Some of them are too distracted because they are busy fighting over this or that toy. But of those who do notice me, not a few run off to their parents or carers and cling tightly until they know everything’s OK. And that’s fine – after all, we are dealing here with very young children and that’s how you’d expect them to act.
But imagine for a moment that I stood here this morning and compared you all to the children in the toddler group? You’d feel pretty offended, wouldn’t you? After all, most of us are grown up and we know how to behave properly, don’t we? (Well, most of the time we do!) But the shocking thing about our reading this morning is that Paul’s describing the church in Corinth precisely as if it were a toddler group. You can imagine that shock and outrage when this letter was first read out – particularly as the Corinthians thought of themselves as wise and sophisticated and spiritual.
Brothers, writes Paul I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. That’s a pretty damning indictment, isn’t it? No wonder relations between Paul and the church in Corinth became so strained, and indeed by the time you come to 2 Corinthians you see how difficult the situation had become. So this morning I want to spend some time looking at why Paul called the Corinthians “infants in Christ” and what lessons we can learn for ourselves.
First of all, according to Paul, the church in Corinth was in spiritual terms not ready for solid food. Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.
You don’t really have to go too far in this letter to understand why Paul made this assessment. Yes, the church was on the surface a lively, buzzing place where God was working in great power by His Holy Spirit. But when you probed a little deeper, you found that in reality it was moving away from the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. The church no longer upheld marriage as the faithful union of one man and one woman. The fellowship meals were not so much Holy Communion but a free for all where some ate and drank too much and others went hungry. There was little recognition that the church was the body of Christ. And indeed some were even going so far as to deny the resurrection altogether.
Now I wish with my all heart that all these issues were simply problems in the church in Corinth that Paul was able to fix. But actually the more I think about the teaching in this letter, the more I cannot but reflect on the current state of the Church of England. Because it seems to me that at the moment we are faced with a battle for the very heart and soul of the church precisely on those issues Paul highlights here.
After all, there are those who would actively deny that marriage is designed to be only the faithful union of one man and one woman. While we often pretend that we are one big, happy church, the reality is that there are deep, deep divisions that threaten the unity of the body of Christ. And according to the findings of a poll reported in the Daily Telegraph on 31 July 2012 one third of clergy have their doubts about the physical resurrection. I am of course aware that people living in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and I probably have a large plank in my own eye, but I for one find such developments deeply, deeply troubling.
It seems that the problem, then and now, arises from a false understanding of Christian maturity. For the Corinthians, they placed more store on spiritual experience than on obeying basic Christian teaching. For them, the fact men were playing away from home and women were no longer fulfilling their marriage vows was a sign of their spiritual freedom. They had completely misunderstood what grace was all about and thought that because Christ had set them free, they were free to do whatever they liked. All that stuff Paul taught when he first set up the church – that was for beginners, for people who hadn’t yet realised what freedom in Christ was all about.
In perhaps a slightly different way, I find there are plenty of people today who talk quite openly about moving on in their faith. Yes, there may have been a time when they held quite firmly to the basic of the Christian faith but they will talk in terms of broadening their experience, becoming open to new ideas, gaining fresh insight. Please can I urge to be very, very wary of anyone who uses this kind of language. That sort of person in my experience tends to see evangelicals as narrow-minded, as simplistic, as unsophisticated, just as the Corinthians viewed Paul. His response? Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly.
Yes, we need to have more than milk in our diet. But milk still needs to remain part of our diet, if we are to get all the nutrients we need. Just as in the same way we need to keep coming back to the cross again and again and the simple gospel of Jesus Christ if we are to be properly nourished in our faith. And let no-one convince you otherwise.
The Corinthians were still not ready in spiritual terms for solid food. And if you wanted any proof of that you only had to listen to all the squabbling that was going on. Rather like our toddlers fighting over the one toy, so there were various church members going hammer and tongs over this or that particular issue.
Again, I wish this level of disagreement was a problem only confined to the church in Corinth, but sadly you know as well as me this isn’t always the case. Indeed, until the Lord Jesus returns there will always be to a lesser or greater extent arguments within the church. We remain in this life as sinners who, one way or another, get things wrong or fall out with the next person – sometimes over small issues, like which vase goes where at the next flower festival, sometimes over rather larger and more important issues, such as a point of doctrine.
But what’s important to understand is that disagreements are not necessarily wrong. Paul had to write to the church in Corinth because he profoundly disagreed with the direction they were heading in. His purpose was to draw them back to the gospel they were in danger of leaving behind. And so he told them plainly as he saw it.
Of course if Paul had been an Englishman, let alone an Anglican, this letter would have been very different. We tend to have this idea that if we are Christians we should all live in unity and brush any differences we may have under the carpet. Tolerance and diversity are seen as the great ideals we should uphold at all costs, even sometimes at the expense of the truth. So long as we are all getting along fine, that’s all that really matters.
But Paul came from the Mediterranean and he wasn’t afraid of speaking his mind. You are still worldly he says in verse 3. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? But please note this. Paul’s concern was not to show the Corinthians he was right and they were wrong. Paul’s concern was for the name of Jesus to be honoured and upheld. We can see this clearly in chapter 4 where he defends himself against those who were seeking to undermine his ministry.
However the jealousy and quarrelling going on in the church in Corinth was quite a different matter. That stemmed from a pride in their own wisdom and intellectual cleverness. They wanted to put Paul down and indeed anyone else who disagreed with them. That’s why Paul described them as worldly. They were playing the same sort of power games you might find in any other organisation and there was certainly no note of grace or humility or love. And when that happens, that’s when disagreements become destructive and dishonour the gospel.
Again, if you want any proof of what I’m saying, you only have to see what the media makes of the Church of England. Is it any wonder we are held in such low self-esteem when we seem determined to fall out among ourselves and different parties seem to be constantly vying for power? By all means, brothers and sisters, let us contend for the gospel. But may the way we contend reflect the very grace and love that lies at the heart of the gospel message. Otherwise we are not drawing attention to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ but to ourselves, and we undermine the very good news we are seeking to bring.
So the Corinthians were still only good for spiritual milk. They were full of quarrelling and jealousy. And thirdly, as we can see in verse 4, they were clinging on to their human leaders. One group in the church were proudly declaring I follow Paul; another was declaring I follow Apollos and if you go back to chapter 1 you will see still others were claiming to follow Cephas (otherwise known as Peter) or indeed Christ Himself.
So what had caused such deep divisions? Simply, that for many people their faith was based on an attachment to a particular person than to Jesus Christ Himself. Of course Paul and Apollos and Peter themselves saw themselves as only servants of Jesus Christ and saw their task as to point others to Him. But because the Corinthian church was so immature, they found their security in identifying with this or that leader more than in the good news of their salvation.
It’s rather like people today who hang on every word of a particular Christian preacher and treat everything he says as inspired. Now if he is a faithful servant of the Lord some of what he says will be inspired – but not everything. He too is a weak, fallible human being and sometimes what he says will be downright wrong. So by all means, listen to his talks, watch his podcasts, read his books. But learn to weigh his words rightly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and by listening to what others are saying, for that is the path of Christian maturity.
Sadly the Corinthians could not see this. They lived in a culture where schools of learning formed around various different philosophers and eager disciples hung on their every word. And one of the greatest pastimes back then was for the different schools to argue with each other. A Stoic would argue with an Epicurean. An Epicurean would argue with a Spartan. A Spartan would debate with a Stoic. You kind of get the picture.
But despite what people sometimes think even today the church is not a debating school for long and learned, abstract, theoretical arguments. The church is the body of Christ. As such, as we saw at the start of this sermon series, it is a holy people called to be different and distinctive from the world around. So when it comes to thinking about ministry within the body of Christ, Paul teaches us there are three things we need to remember.
First of all, it is God who gives the task of ministry. Verse 5: What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task. Or to put it another way, the reason why Paul went round preaching and teaching was not because he decided one day to set up the Ministries of Paul Inc. to earn a quick buck and a load of faithful followers. Paul preached and pastored because God had taken hold of his life and told him this was what he should do. And so Paul arrived in Corinth out of obedience to His Lord and Saviour. No doubt when he had good days he was probably tempted to think about how well he had done and how much he achieved. But he resisted that temptation because he never lost sight of the fact he was always and only a servant of the Lord. And he wanted always to be considered as such – not out of any sense of false humility, but because as we’ve seen throughout this passage he always wanted to point to Jesus and His grace.
Secondly, it is God who gives the growth. Talking about the seed of the gospel, Paul writes in verse 6: I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. You see, real growth in the church never depends on the gifts or talents of a human being. Now I understand what the Archbishop of Canterbury was saying on New Year’s Eve when he said “Where you have a good vicar, you will find growing churches.” Churches don’t generally tend to grow when there is no real care for the flock, or little leadership, or poor preaching. But they might. Because actually growth comes from God and He works in His purposes according to His timing. Sometimes He uses good, dynamic leaders to achieve His aim. Sometimes He does not. We need to move right away from the idea that successful churches are ones with successful leaders. Because when we put growth down to this or that person we are taking the glory away from God and giving it to someone who as we have seen is only a mere servant of the Lord.
Thirdly, it is God who gives the reward. Verse 8: The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labour. But we need to understand that Paul here isn’t talking about reward as we would understand it. That was the mistake the Corinthians made. They were focusing on the reward in the here and now in terms of a preacher’s popularity, perhaps, or the numbers who followed him, or the reach of his ministry. So if you were talked about in the town square, for example, or had to move to a bigger building, in their eyes, you had it made. Just as in many churches today people measure the success of the church by the number of people through the doors or the reputation of the minister or the size of the worship area.
The reward that Paul is talking about here, however, is the reward on the Day of Judgement. Because as we shall see next week, that is when ministry is properly weighed according to God’s values and God’s priorities. And it is a ministry that is focused on that day which is the one that pleases God most. If like the Corinthian church you judge a ministry in earthly terms, then you are actually losing sight of what ministry is all about, which is to fit all of us to stand before the throne of God and give an account of our lives.
Now as you can imagine the church in Corinth didn’t take kindly to being called a toddler group. You only have to read on to see how they reacted to Paul’s assessment. But Paul’s assessment was necessary for them and it contains important lessons for us. Because the overall question this passage asks of us is this: how mature are we in our faith? Think about whether we are still drinking spiritual milk and if so, why. Ask yourself what is your passion and the concern for your church. And consider how deeply your faith is rooted in Jesus Christ Himself.