Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 16, 2020
1 Corinthians 3:1-9 Commentary
Our text marks what may feel like a rather abrupt change in tone. After all, in the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this week, Paul portrays the Corinthian Christians quite differently than he did at the beginning of his first letter to them.
In chapter 1:4-9 the apostle refers to them as graced by God in Jesus Christ, enriched in Christ in their speaking and knowledge, and having every necessary spiritual gift. In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, by contrast, he speaks of Corinth’s Christians as (not once but twice) “worldly” as well as “mere infants.” Paul goes on to add that the Corinthians are obsessed with drinking spiritual “milk” rather than proceeding, as they should, to eating spiritual “solid food.” What’s more, he refers to his readers as “mere men.”
Yet that switch doesn’t surprise those who have been paying careful attention to Paul’s first letter to Corinth’s Christians. Already in chapter 1, after all, he speaks of things like their jealousy, quarrels and divisions over the preferences in preachers and leaders.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might benefit from exploring how those apparently contradictory characteristics can “live together.” Its preachers and teachers might begin by exploring those contradictory impulses within our own hearts and lives. 1 Corinthians 3’s proclaimers might then explore with those who hear us how, for example, grace and worldliness, spiritual wealth and infantile behavior, can live in the same temples of the Holy Spirit that are God’s adopted sons and daughters.
In this Lesson’s first four verses, Paul explores the Corinthian church’s divisions. Its members apparently thought of themselves as wise, mature and strong. Yet the apostle thinks of them as “worldly” (1). While Paul thinks of things from the perspective of the cross of Christ, Corinth’s Christians think about things from a worldly point of view. That worldliness affects the way those Christians think of preachers like Paul and Apollos.
So as a colleague notes, Paul must “excise” that way of thinking. The “scalpel” he uses to do so is the cross of Jesus Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit, after all, it removes the kind of thinking that gathers people around preachers like groupies cluster around star athletes. The cross of Jesus removes the kind of thinking that makes people who are loyal to particular preachers “followers” (4).
Paul insists, after all, that neither he nor Apollos deserve to be followed. They are, in fact, not celebrities but “servants” (5). So the apostle can ask the Corinthians rhetorically and critically, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul?” They aren’t, he implies in his answer, celebrities or superstars. They’re nothing more (or perhaps less) than God’s servants.
It’s a lesson those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson may profit from re-learning (or even learning). North American Christians, after all, sometimes seem enamored with spiritual and ecclesiastical superstars. We easily assume that the bigger the church or class, the better their leaders must be.
It is, says Andre Resner Jr., a terrible idolatry. After all, preacher/teacher worship easily draws attention away from the God who alone deserves our worship and whom we at least claim to serve. In fact, anything (or one) that competes with the living God for our loyalty or affection is a counterfeit god. So while God may use those who proclaim texts like 1 Corinthians 3 to point people toward the Lord, we’re no more than walking advertisements who point people to the God whom we serve in Jesus Christ.
We’re little more than people whom God has assigned our “tasks” (6). So, for example, God’s Spirit may use those who proclaim the gospel to plant seeds that are invitations to faith or even “water” those seeds of faith. But God alone can turn those seeds into faith that receives God’s amazing grace. Even the most popular preachers and teachers are little more than humble farmers who plant and tend to seeds. Any faith that grows out of those plantings is from God alone.
While Paul seems to at least initially address this to “lay members” of Corinth’s church, his contemporary relevance is perhaps most for 21st century church leaders. Modern preachers and teachers may be tempted to use this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson as a platform for bashing those who flock to preacher “superstars” like Todd Bentley or Beth Moore. Yet how many preachers and teachers are equally willing to ask our hearers if they attend the churches we lead because they so deeply admire us?
If I Corinthians 3 shines a light on Christians’ misplaced loyalties to religious stars, it turns a perhaps even harsher light on Christian leaders, including those who write as well as read the Center for Excellence in Preaching’s Sermon Commentaries. The Holy Spirit uses it to challenge things like church’s leaders’ motives for ministry.
Those who read this may find yourselves in place not so far from mine. I personally appreciate accolades far more than criticism. I like to see a church full of people who find my messages and pastoral work appealing. I’m susceptible to discouragement when people leave the church I pastor because they’re somehow unhappy or dissatisfied with me.
Perhaps you, like me, need to hear Paul’s reminder that while God gives church leaders a variety of tasks, God only gives “one purpose” (8). There’s no distinction. There’s no need for competition. People don’t receive God’s grace with their faith because of preachers and teachers’ eloquence or some other charisma. We’re just God’s “farmers” who do nothing more than the holy, honorable and important work of planting and watering seeds. It’s not saving work. “Jesus saves” may be to us an unappealing bumper sticker. But it’s true.
So both those who proclaim I Corinthians 3 and those who hear us let it remind us of some non-negotiable facts. We are God’s adopted sons and daughters. God calls us to serve the Lord. However, both our service and we belong only and always to the Lord.
In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul reminds those who proclaim the gospel that we’re not religious “rock stars,” but servants whom God uses to plant and nourish the seeds of faith that God alone can graciously transform into saving faith. In this Sermon Commentary I’ve noted that that makes us a bit like billboards that draw attention not to ourselves, but to the God whom we serve in Jesus Christ.
That got me to thinking about advertising that, at its best, points to a certain product or service rather than the advertisement or advertisers themselves. Last Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs played the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl – an event that’s famous for its sometimes funny but always outrageously costly advertisements. As is often the case, there was great debate following the game about which advertisement was most memorable.
One of my personal favorites riffed on the movie “Groundhog Day” in which Bill Murray starred. The ad memorably portrays Murray traveling around with a groundhog from location to location over and over again. It got very good reviews.
But does anyone remember what Murray and the groundhog were advertising? Some of us remember the actors and ad. But fewer of us may remember just what they were advertising (I looked it up – Murray and his groundhog were advertising the Jeep Gladiator).
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