Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jesus-Shaped Foundation

1 Corinthians 3: 10-23

This morning’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth is an extension of the more familiar “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth” passage that comes immediate before this one. He’s continuing on in that vein of thought, but changing his metaphor from agricultural to architectural.

He says “No one can lay another foundation other than the one that has already been laid, which is Jesus Christ.” To Paul, his teachings to the Corinthian church (and every where else he went) are Christ centered, and anyone who seeks to follow Christ, and listens to teachers, can measure the quality of the teaching by that one yardstick—how is it about Jesus?

When Paul says “so, whether someone builds with precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, each one’s work will be clearly shown”, he’s not referring to the quality o the building materials. He’s referring to whether the walls that are built are load bearing. When he says “they will be revealed with fire,” I don’t think he literally means that they will be tested with a torch. You’d think that precious stones would be pretty fire resistant, and wood and hay would be terrible, but what do we mostly use for building houses? Wood. I’ve seen plans for houses, made of hay bales that are highly insulated and warm in the winter, and I am sure there are allowances made for their flammability, or e3l;se they wouldn’t meet code, you know?

No he doesn’t mean the quality of the materials, he means how they are used. If precious stones are what you have, then use them well. If hay is what you have, then use it well. The foundation, Jesus Christ, is sufficient to support and hold any sort of material, as long as you stay on the foundation.

The old Scottish Bible scholar William Barclay takes the metaphor of building materials to mean that everyone has a different level of ability with regard to intellectual worldly wisdom. Some people love the world ideas, and have the ability to entertain ideas different from their own with no danger of disturbing their faith. Others prefer to stay to what is proven, sure, and simple, and do not care to entertain ideas at all.

I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself which are the precious stones and which is the hay!

People approach their faith in different ways, and Paul seems to say here that they are none better than the other. Precious stones are just as good s hay. What matters is how they test out under duress, how they do when the engineers get hold of them.

Barclay develops his thought further in this passage by saying that yes, each of these ways of thinking, these building materials, found in every congregation on earth, can be useful, but what happens so often is that one way of thinking or another often becomes full of itself, and begins to believe itself better than others. To extend the metaphor, precious stones may indeed be fireproof, but bricks of such small size take a lot of mortar, and the whole enterprise is very expensive. Building with Gold or silver would e less expensive, but are very soft metals, not load bearing, and melt in heat. Building with wood, or straw would be much cheaper, and are much more stable, but are the most flammable materials Paul lists.

Barclay makes the connection in his own mind that the metaphor Paul is using refers to the problem of intellectual wisdom, the Greek worship of the power of the mind, and that somehow, competing wisdoms, brought from different schools of thought, are infecting the congregation and causing dissention. We see it in Paul’s previous passage, when he talks about people claiming their faith derived from him, or Apollos, or other preachers who have come through. The sin of pride has arrived in Corinth, and everyone believes their own ideas are superior.

What matters, according to Paul, is how the building conforms to the original foundation—however it looks, in whatever way it fills space, as the architects say, does it stay true to the foundation? Is it Jesus shaped?

We have the same struggles here, today. Some of us here want to express our faith the way we hear it in Christian radio, from Focus on the Family, and from TV preachers. Others of us reach backwards historically, to John Wesley and Francis Asbury, who was the first great preacher of the Methodist way of salvation in America. Or they reach back to read the teachings of Martin Luther or John Calvin, or forward to Billy Graham or Martin Marty, or John Dominic Crossan. Others of us want to just rely on our own understandings of the Bibles we read, and consider the thoughts of others to be suspect. And others just don’t know what to think, and feel pushed and pulled in many directions.

Paul does not say that Apollos’ preachings are best. He does not claim his own are. He’s saying that however you came to the faith, from Apollos, from Cephas, from him, or some other route, fine. What matters is whether your style of faith is Jesus-shaped. Does it conform to the foundation that Jesus laid? Do your actions show the love of Christ for the world and all its peoples? If it doesn’t, then that part will be burned away, no matter what you built it with.

For me, there’s a implicit understanding here. The best buildings, the most beautiful ones, are the ones that are mixtures of all of the building materials available. Wood, hay, precious stones, gold silver—can you imagine a building made with all of them? How solid that will be? And if it is on a stone foundation, how long it would last?

Folks, the best churches are ones in which the congregations are kaleidoscopes, are mixtures of many materials, none of whom believe that theirs is the sole best way. As long as its Jesus shaped, as long as it’s solid, it’s beautiful.

Claim your tradition. We are a United Methodist church, founded in the doctrine of salvation not as a one time event, but as an ongoing journey, from birth to death, never out of the grip of God’s grace. This is who we are, no matter what precious metal the walls shine with. If your faith is deepened and informed by Third Day or Skillet, good. If it is built up by U2, good. If it is strengthened by Bill Gaither, good. If it is fortified by Bach and Mozart, good. They were and are still held in the hands of God’s grace, too.

Let us all live in houses with foundations built on Jesus Christ.

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