Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 12, 2017

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 Commentary

“We have the mind of Christ.”  That was Paul’s amazing, lyric, profound final word in what we now call 1 Corinthians 2.  It is this mindset alone, Paul claims, that allows us to see in the cross of Christ something other than a complete and senseless dead end.  The cross is wisdom, not folly, but you will ever and only recognize that if you are filled with Christ himself.  And the Corinthian Christians were so filled, Paul says.

And then . . . we get to what Paul has to say next and it seems to contradict it all.   Because as chapter 3 opens, Paul loops back to something mentioned earlier in the opening of this letter. The Christians in Corinth had allowed themselves to become rather balkanized as various groups latched onto not Christ first and foremost but leaders like Apollos, Peter, Paul.   Earlier Paul had already chided them for taking their eyes off Jesus first and foremost.  Human leaders are unimportant and are here only to serve Christ.

But here as chapter 3 opens, his criticism of this has a sharper bite.  Paul says he has to talk to them as though they were children, not mature adults.  Indeed, he has to coddle them as though they were INFANTS yet and not even quite children.   Their maturity is so lacking that they will choke on anything other than teachings that are the equivalent of milk and not solid food.  They are not even up to Cheerios yet!   Their factions and their quarreling over such silly things—and their inability to recognize that only God and his work matters—indicate how very much growing up they still have to do.

We cannot know, of course, how this rhetoric went over when this letter was read by the Corinthians (perhaps in the context of a worship gathering).   You’d have to guess, though, that the people felt a combination of a bit of pique and a bit of shame.   “How dare Paul label us as little babies?!” on the one hand and “Alas, he’s got a point!!” on the other hand.   In any event, Paul could not have been much clearer or more direct.  One of these days these people were flat out going to have to grow up.  The sooner the better, but maybe God will be patient too.

One thing that may leap out at us as we look at this text, however.  If you did preach on this particular issue from 1 Corinthians 1 from earlier in this Lectionary cycle, you may wonder what is left to say in a new sermon on these verses as Paul re-treads the same wheel.  So perhaps one thing that could be highlighted here is the fact that Paul does not merely lambast the Corinthians as “infants.”   That would be arresting and perhaps hurtful enough.   But in continuity with the end of the previous chapter Paul does take care to say that although they may be infants, they are “infants in Christ.”   Ahhh, now that little prepositional phrase makes all the difference!

Because as most of us know, “in Christ” is Paul’s favorite shorthand way of referring to all the blessings we have as a result of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection.  As the theologian Lewis Smedes once wrote, “in Christ” represents a kind of situational Christology.   To dwell “in Christ” is to be located inside the new cosmic situation that Christ ushered in.    Through Christ’s sacrifice the whole universe turned the corner from darkness back into light.   The powers and principalities were put to flight and God’s ultimate victory was cinched and assured.    Believers enter this new realm via the gift of faith and through union with Christ achieved by grace in our baptisms.  When elsewhere in the Corinthian correspondence Paul says “Behold: new creation!” what he means is that all things are already in the process of ultimate renewal and we believers bear that newness in our hearts already now.  We participate in the future glory of the New Heaven and the New Earth and we do it right here, right now even while we still live in this broken world.

All in all, it is a breathtaking concept, and Paul signals all that joy and glory and wonder every time he uses his favorite two-word expression “in Christ.”

But here in 1 Corinthians 3 it is spiritual infants who are said to be “in Christ” and if it sounded harsh for Paul to call the Corinthians infants, I’d wager that his throwing in the line “in Christ” properly modifies this.   Yes, yes, the Corinthians were being ridiculous, not just here on the whole Paul vs. Apollos thing but in the passel of other A-Z issues Paul has to address all through 1 Corinthians.  Arguments about spiritual gifts, doubts about the resurrection, lawsuits in the Body of Christ, a man shacked up with his mother-in-law, poor people being left out of the Lord’s Supper . . . the list goes on and on.  They had a lot of growing up to do.

But then . . . who doesn’t?    Honesty should compel most any modern-day congregation to admit that on any number of points, Paul might call them spiritual infants, too.  And not a few of us pastors now and then could behave a bit more like grown-ups, too, in how we handle certain issues that crop up in the church.   I know I could have for sure now and then.

The good news?   Even spiritual infants, toddlers, children, adolescents, and the occasional true spiritual adult are all nevertheless and by grace alone “in Christ.”   It seems like a small thing Paul slipped into these otherwise chiding words at the head of chapter 3.

But it is by no means a small thing.   Thanks be to God!  Thanks be to God that the largeness of his grace means more than the smallness of our attitudes at times.  And who knows, maybe one fine day we will—as Paul predicts in another place—actually grow up into full maturity after the manner of our elder brother, even Jesus Christ himself.

Infants, after all, have nowhere to grow but up!

Illustration Idea

Those of us who are parents can be a sly lot at times.  What I am about to relay is something I’d wager most every mom and dad reading this has done (and something most anyone who has ever been a child may recall happening to them whether they have yet become a parent or not!).  Because when we chide our children for this or that, we calibrate how we assess their age, maturity, and abilities according to whatever it is we are trying to accomplish.  So when a child tries to—or asks to do—something we deem well beyond their reach just yet, we may say “Absolutely not!  You are just 9 years old and you cannot possibly attempt that so forget it and don’t ask me about it again!”    But then a day or two later when that same child—still 9 years of age mind you—refuses to do something we ask them to do, the same parent will say “Oh good grief!  You are almost 10 years old now and it’s high time you started to help clean your own room!”

You are only 9.  You are almost 10.   How we tilt our language depends on what we are addressing.   In 1 Corinthians 2 Paul says the Corinthians have the mind of Christ, which sounds a bit like “You are almost 10.”   But then in chapter 3 he calls them mere infants in Christ, which sounds a bit like “You are only 9 but you SHOULD be 10!”

We all make our various points in various ways.  Paul too!


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