Our Way or God’s Way

1 Corinthians 3:1-9; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23

 

The passage we read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is the second part of Paul admonishing the congregation of the Church of Corinth. In that passage he tells them they are still just children in the spirit. They still have not reached spiritual maturity. He has spoon-fed them with the hope that they would grow up in the spirit. They hadn’t. They were still using secular (which Paul refers to as the “flesh”) values to organize their church. They are not lifting up God as their church leader. They are quarrelling among themselves as to who is the true leader, Paul or Apollos. They are still looking for a human authority, instead of having faith in the one true authority which is God.

Paul tells them neither he nor Apollos are authorities. They are merely servants doing what God wants done. It is God that makes everything work … they are just helping out. And as servants of God, Apollos and Paul are not at odds, but each having their specific role in teaching and living the faith. And the work they do for God is growing the faith of this congregation.

In the passage that we read today, Paul continues to explain how by the grace of God he laid the foundation for the Corinthian church, and others, also by the grace of God, built upon that foundation. He admonishes that each builder must build with care, for the foundation is Jesus Christ.

And later he admonishes the congregation not to be proud of their leaders, for the leaders have no higher access to God than they do. Everything that God offers is theirs … the leaders do not have more than they. Whether it is the teachings of Paul or Apollos or Cephas (St. Peter) or the world or life or death or the present or the future… all of these belong to the congregation who belong to Jesus Christ.

 

So how is this relevant to us? For one thing this is a framework for democracy where there is no hierarchy among believers. All are equally cherished. Only God through Jesus is “above” the people. And even then God incarnated in Jesus walks among us as one of us … even then God is not a tyrant, but a teacher and a shepherd.

 

I suggest to you the model of organization of our congregational churches is a good illustration of what Paul is driving at. We essentially have no hierarchy. The head of each congregation is not the pastor, but Jesus Christ. The pastor is basically an employee of the congregation. He or she comes with skills of biblical interpretation, preaching, spiritual counseling and so forth. But she or he is one among many.

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:14ff, the body does not consist of a single member, but consists of hands and feet, ears and eyes. No one member makes up the entire human. A human thrives with all members. So it is with a congregation. Each member is as important as another member. No one is more important or more cherished or less important and less cherished. The ministers do not rate higher than anyone else in the congregation.

Further ultimately it is for the congregation made up of individual believers to enrich their faith and to guide the church towards the Kingdom of God. A pastor facilitates that movement but should not be the sole arbiter of the faith. So it is with us … we vote as a congregation of the whole, elect boards, and decide on finances and missions.  Everything belongs to the congregation, the minister being only one member.

Even in our growing in faith we all share in each others enrichment.

I’ve been teaching a adult education class on the spirituality of death and dying. When I planned this class I knew I would be giving it in a congregational setting. So I wanted it to fit nicely with the expectations of the group. I’m structuring the classes to be in two parts: a short spiritual overview of the topic and then a set of discussion questions. These are designed to motivate folks to talk about their own experiences and concerns.

It is the discussion, not my didactic overview that is the rich and compelling section. It is the interchange of ideas and experiences in the discussion that helps the participants to understand the didactic and more importantly to find meaning for them in the topic.

I believe there is more value in the discussion because it is spiritual enriching and challenging. The role of the facilitator is not to judge but to engage folks in the discussion and possibly interpret the spiritual significance of what has been said.

For example, if I posed a discussion question that asked what happens to a person’s consciousness, soul, or personality when they die? I may receive a wide range of speculations. It is common to believe that one rejoins one’s deceased loved ones. But folks will also suggest that the soul is like energy and it is released into the cosmos. I can add the beliefs of other groups such as the Jehovah Witnesses who believe they fall asleep until the promised Resurrection of the body occurs.

But in all of this discussion, no one dictates faith. Together we seek out the Holy Spirit moving in our discussion. No one has any more privilege to know the Spirit than another. Each person has something to contribute. It is the role of the facilitator to encourage folks to seek and to learn from each other.

And I have found that in these discussions we often have someone who knows what other faiths belief and we share that too. All of this gives us the opportunity to explore God’s will and love for us.

And we Congregationalists are good at this.

 

I believe that this is one model that builds on what Paul built at Corinth. Clearly it is not the only possible model. I cannot or should not judge what other congregations’ and denominations’ models may be. Indeed, Paul would condemn any such judgment. All belongs to the congregation, including deciding how they are going to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ.

Part of what we have built is the axiom to agree to disagree. The axiom requires us to be good listeners and to respect each other’s beliefs and ideas. We may not agree but we do not walk away when we disagree. Rather we seek common ground. And indeed we stand on common ground:

We stand on the principle Jesus taught that we care for each other.

We stand on the principle that all human beings are children of God.

We stand on the principle that we have a God-required duty to be compassionate and responsible citizens.

We stand on the principle that we are diverse in our beliefs and custom, just as Jesus invited Jew and Gentile, men and women to his table.

And so on …

But within this common ground is much to disagree on. But disagreement can be good. We can easily get set in our ways. Someone with a different opinion challenges us to think and maybe rethink what we believe. Maybe they’re right and we’re wrong … or maybe we’re both wrong or both right… or maybe we are discovering a new understanding. But we learn and our faith deepens.

This is one of the steps we have built on the foundation of Jesus. It is a step that cherishes the democratic (to use a modern term) organization that Paul advocated for the Church of Corinth.

 

But we must never think that our way is identical to God’s way. We have done a good job. But it is inevitably incomplete. We must never presume that we have the one and only congregational order. Each congregation and each denomination must apply Paul’s requirements as they see best.

And times change and people change and needs change. So one of the very necessary “principles” we need to follow is to always be vigilant as to how we order our church life to see when it needs updating or even reform.

Faith requires us to always ask how would Jesus do this. We must never reach the point where we sit back and say it’s perfect, that we are done. We need to cherish our traditions but also call them to account when Jesus would.

But we should rejoice that we have indeed made a faithful effort that has done us well over the years.

 

Think about it …

God’s grace and love be with you …

Amen.