Built to Last
(1 Corinthians 3: 1-17)
My son Neil loves baseball and, at age 38, he still plays. He’s a player-coach on a men’s hardball league in Arizona. I coached him from the time he was five years old. He played at Northwest 45 in Houston, Texas, which went to the Little League World Series one year. It was a top-notch program. When he was around ten or eleven, we moved to Coldspring which was Teresa’s hometown. I drove out to take a look at their baseball field. When I saw it I thought, “My God, what have I done!” To call it a cow pasture would have been an insult to any farmer. There was no grass, the playing field was filled with fire ant mounds, the backstop was chicken wire and the outfield fence was four by eight-foot sections of plywood, each one painted a different color bearing the name of a one-time sponsor. Me and another father wrestled control of the league from its founder who left with all the decent equipment. We had to rebuild from the grass up. Raking, watering and mowing until grass started to sprout. The local feed store sold me ant killer at their cost and I can’t tell you how many pounds I went through. We painted the fence and patched the backstop. Over the years we made improvements eventually replacing the chicken wire and plywood with chain link fencing and proper dugouts. I’m long-gone but the fields are still there and others have come behind me and the others who helped resurrect the program and have built upon it so kids who weren’t even born back in 1989 can play baseball to their hearts content. We built a proper foundation and others built upon that foundation by doing quality work that would hold up to the use and abuse from those who would come out for years to come.
A proper foundation and good building materials is what the Apostle Paul is talking about in our scripture reading for today. The fledgling church of Jesus Christ was in its infancy and was experiencing growing pains. Paul had heard about some problems that were developing in the Corinthian church that was threatening its very existence. He told them that he couldn’t talk to them like spiritual people because they had not yet matured in Christ. They were like babies in Christ. He said he had to give them milk to drink instead of solid food because they weren’t up to it yet. He says they are still not up to it because they are still unspiritual. Immature Christians are “worldly” controlled by their own desires, whereas mature believers are in tune with God’s desires. He points out that when they become jealous and fight amongst one another they are unspiritual and are living by human standards. Paul asks, When someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and someone else says, “I belong to Apollos,” aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit? After all, what is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants who helped you believe.
A rivalry had developed between at least two groups of believers who aligned behind the teachings of their favorite preacher, one being Paul and the other being Apollos. Paul explained that each one of them, Paul and Apollos, had a role given them by the Lord. Paul said he planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow. Because of this, he says, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but the only one who is anything is God who makes it grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together, but each one will receive their own reward for their own labor. Paul tells them, We are God’s coworkers, and you are God’s field, God’s building. Paul explained that he had laid a foundation like a wise master builder according to God’s grace that was given to him, but someone else is now building on top of that foundation. He cautions that each person needs to pay attention to the way they build on it. No one, he says, can lay any other foundation besides the one that is already laid, which is Jesus Christ. He was cautioning against the false teachers who were coming in and trying to set themselves up as the prophet who they should be following, claiming that they were anointed by God to lead them. John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist denomination, said, So then, whosoever believeth on him shall be saved is and must be the foundation of all our preaching. The gospel of Jesus Christ is our foundation, pure and simple.
Paul continues by saying, whether someone builds on top of the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, each one’s work will be clearly shown. The day will make it clear, because it will be revealed with fire—the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work survives, they’ll get a reward. But if anyone’s work goes up in flames, they’ll lose it. However, they themselves will be saved as if they had gone through a fire.
This analogy of a building illustrates the responsibilities of ministers and church leaders for their work. First, they must build upon the only foundation of Christian faith, Jesus Christ. Everything they say or do must point back directly to the gospel. Second, they must not build with inferior and combustible material, but with precious and incombustible materials. Our work must be fireproof. The church we help to build must be built to last. We can’t cut corners or use cheap substitutes. Third, judgment day will reveal the quality of our work. Will what we’ve constructed for the owner, God, pass his inspection when he does his walk-through? Finally, while the less-competent builder will lose their work yet be saved, those who actively seek to destroy the church will themselves be destroyed, because the church is God’s holy temple indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
God’s work involves many different individuals with a variety of gifts and abilities. There are no superstars in this task, only team members performing their own spiritual roles. The foundation of the church—of all believers—is Jesus Christ. Nothing and no one else will do. A building with no foundation, or one poorly constructed, will not last. The finest materials used to construct a home quickly rot and fall apart if they are resting on the ground. And a building is only as solid as its foundation. Two sure ways to destroy a building are to tamper with the foundation and to build with inferior materials. The church must be built on Christ, not on any other person or principle.
Christ will evaluate each person’s contribution to the life of the church, and the day of judgment will reveal the sincerity of each person’s work. God will determine whether or not they have been faithful to Jesus’ instructions. Good work will be rewarded, unfaithful or inferior work will be discounted. The builder will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames means that unfaithful workers will be saved, but like people escaping from a burning building. All their possessions, i.e., their accomplishments, will be lost.
Paul wanted the Corinthian followers to understand that they were a unified assembly, that they were God’s temple and that God’s spirit lived in them. They were not to see themselves as a collection of competing interests or independent individuals. They were to be a unified people in God through Jesus Christ and his teachings.
What actions can you take this week to strengthen your ties to fellow Christians in the church of Jesus Christ? What can we do as a church to build upon the foundation laid by those who have gone before us? What can we do to insure that our church is Built to Last?
Would you pray with me?
God of all creation, we pray for your guidance as humble servants of your Son, Jesus Christ. The church is your creation with a foundation laid by the Followers of the Way two thousand years ago. Guide us, through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, to use our best efforts and materials to build upon the foundation so that we may offer a place of peace, safety, security, comfort and worship to those who come seeking you. Keep us mindful that we, your people, are a unified assembly pledged to work together to bring the message of peace, love, mercy, grace and salvation to the lost and lonely of this world. Enable us in our capacities to do what we can, when we can, wherever we can to be your church where we are needed the most. In the name of your most holy son, the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, we pray, Amen.