Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on November 8, 2009.
1 Corinthians 3: 1-9
Many people see church as a vendor of religious services. It is the Home Depot
for the spiritual do-it-yourselfer who wants to build a Christian home. But that is
not the church of the first century. The church of the first century is “a people.”
And the transformed and transforming quality of “the people” serving as the flesh-
and-blood witness to a life transforming God is the point of the church.
–Tod Bolsinger in It Takes A Church to Raise A Christian
A lot of times when you hear of churches trying to make decisions perhaps you hear discussions between churches about what is the right thing to do and what ministry path it should take. You will often hear churches appeal to the early church. Often the question is, “What did the early church do?” Typically, when we think about the stories that we read in Acts or when we read in the Letters of Paul and decipher the things that Paul is talking about, that is what we call the early church. When there are discussions and debates among people saying you should do this and you shouldn’t do that, Christians will often appeal to the early church. If we can determine what they were doing in that time in the church closest to the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, then we have an idea as to what we should do today.
At times, I find this an interesting appeal. Clearly, we want everything we do to be based on the scripture, but there is occasionally a naÃ¯ve assumption that if you can go back to the early church, back to the time before Christians started getting it wrong, before bishops and councils started messing with the church, when it was in its purest and idealistic form, we would get an idea of what we are supposed to do.
You may not pay attention to things like this, but I have actually seen stories of churches that were debating whether or not to have a gym in their new construction based on whether or not they had gyms in the early church. You know the answer to that.
This was on the front page of the newspaper in a town I lived in before I came to Rome. There was a church debating as to whether or not to have a kitchen in their new facility and the argument was being based on whether or not you could go back to the Book of Acts and find whether or not a church had a kitchen.
You occasionally hear a jest about use of the King James Version. I love the King James Version. It is a valuable part of our Christian heritage. There is an old mistaken statement that says, “If it was good enough for Paul and Silas, it is good enough for me.” Of course, Paul and Silas lived about 1600 years before the King James Version.
If you think none of this really matters, what about the role of women in leadership in the church? Today, if you go to 100 churches within 25 miles of us, you will probably get a fairly even division among people who would appeal to the early church and say, “Keep those women quiet,” or here’s a better understanding, “Let’s use women.” We still do it. Some of them seem like a farce but there are some that are still very emotional to people in the debate. They say, “Appeal to the early church. Appeal to the period when everything seemed to be right and it was untouched by the blemishes of the world. Everything was clearer and we would know best what to do.”
If you have ever made that appeal or ever attempted to make that appeal, let me just say to you that people who make that appeal have certainly not read the New Testament. When you read in the New Testament, they are constantly encountering places where people in the early church are debating what is right and what is wrong, what is permissible and what is not. There are times where Paul is criticizing Peter and there are times where Paul and Silas are having a debate over whether or not they can go on a mission together because one of them wants to take Mark and the other one doesn’t.
If you look, there are just as many debates, just as many people not sure about the right thing to do as there would be today. If you go on to read much of the rest of the Book of First Corinthians and read Second Corinthians, it seems like every page you turn to the issue is the fact that the people in Corinth are not all on the same page. They don’t agree about the same things and they are trying to figure out what to do.
One of the things I like to say about scripture is the Bible is always more realistic about faith than most Christians are. We would like to make it seem that everybody was always agreeing and in peace and harmony, but if that were the case, you would have to think that somebody made up some of that. We need to understand that real, human beings,who were all genuinely human and professing faith in Christ, were part of a church where they were trying to figure out how to be different and be church at the same time. That makes sense to me. Instead of trying to think there was a perfect period that we could all go back to, we should try to realize that it has always been God’s plan to take a wide variety of people and to use them even though they are different and have different opinions and see things in a different way. If we can pull them together, the lordship of Christ is enough to hold them together and push them on a mission. If it was true back then, then it was true today. I don’t think that is a weakness. I think that is a strength. The message is that God uses the tremendous diversity and difference within and between churches to accomplish the mission of God in the world. The early church, with all of its mistakes, was still the instrument that God used within a century to take the message about a crucified carpenter in Galilee all across the known world.
In the passage from 1 Corinthians 3, Paul evidently came to the Church at Corinth and was the first one there. Later, someone named Apollos came in, and as was typical, some said, “I kind of like listening to Paul better.” Some said, “I really like listening to Apollos.” If you read beyond verse 9, you find out that they have divided up into groups.
Just to show you how realistic this is, have you ever been in a discussion where someone says, “I’m Baptist.” Someone else will say, “I’m Presbyterian.” And then someone will say, “I’m just Christian.” They do that in Corinthians. It is nothing new. It is all part of the human tendency to say, “I’ve got the right way.” All of this is going on and the spirit leads Paul to say, “Let me tell you how this works. It is like I planted and Apollos watered.” He uses the image of a field of crops. “The church is the crop. I planted; he watered; God gives the increase and it is all working together under God.”
He goes on to talk about a building. He said, “I laid a foundation. Others have built on a foundation but it is all under God.”
Later in the same book, he uses the image of a body. He said, “It is like we are all one body but we are all different parts. Everybody is not an eye and everybody is not an ear. If everybody in the church was an eye, how could the church have a sense of smell? If everybody in the church was a nose, how could you see anything? He just repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly talks about how one of the good gifts of God is variety. God uses it and draws it all together to accomplish the work that God wants done in the world.
I think this is true between churches. I am not the least bit bothered that some people would not prefer to come to this church because I know there are people who come to this church who would not be happy anywhere else. Just as I know that there are people who go to other churches that if we were the only church, they might not go to church. All the churches together are all part of God’s instrument to reach different people, different gifted people so that we all can work together as part of the kingdom.
Have you ever heard me break into song in the pulpit? I have heard Hugh Peacock do it and I have heard Charlie Whitworth do it. You will never hear me do that. Isn’t it great that there is a diversity of gifts? If the choir were made up of people only like me, the Minister of Music would either have to work all the time or he would have no job.
We have so many people who are tremendously gifted in working with children and we have other people who would have to take medication if they thought they were going to work with children. Everybody is different.
We have people who go on mission assignments who build and make things that are for the benefit of folks in those communities. There are others who see people and treat them medically that would not feel comfortable getting up and preaching a message or giving a testimony. But other people are very comfortable getting up and giving the testimony. Where would we be if everybody were exactly alike? What a weak and anemic church this would be! How weak and anemic the church in the world would be if everybody were exactly alike!
The information for the Fabric of Faith that we have been talking about will be mailed tomorrow. The idea is to take different pieces of fabric that represent something meaningful in your life, just like the cloth that was mentioned from the Liberia mission trip. I have heard people talk about the corner of a baby blanket and so many other different things. I decided I was going to bring a piece of one of my favorite ties because one of the things that I enjoy about Sunday morning is the jokes and comments and different things that people say sometimes about ties.
I grew up in an era in which I always worn a tie to church. As a rite of passage, when I was a little boy, I knew I was old enough when I went from a clip- on tie to my father teaching me how to tie a tie. Wearing a tie and choosing a tie for different occasions has always been something of a fun piece of communicating who I am as a pastor. So I am going to give a part of one of my ties. Some women in the church are going to take the pieces of cloth and make a quilt in a pattern that will look like these grids back here. It is actually called a Greek Meander Pattern. In it will be pieces of cloth from all of our lives representing who we are, woven together as a snapshot of the moment saying, This is a church that meets, worships, and serves from this place in God’s name.
We are also asking that this stand as a visible symbol of the fact that it takes all of our contributions together. It takes all of our lives, our gifts, and our contributions together. In the same envelope that you are going to get this week about the Fabric of Faith, you are also going to get information about how you can join your commitment for next year with the commitments of others. Bring them next Sunday. If you cannot come next Sunday, you can mail it. If you want to contribute a piece of fabric, you will need to get the fabric to us by December 15 if you want it to be included in the quilt.
Think about who you are and what has been meaningful in your life. What would you like to share? There will be a card to write three or four sentences about what that fabric means. We are going to take a scan of the fabric and card and make a scrapbook so everyone can see what different people have put in the big quilt. We will find a great place to display the quilt as a part of the 175th anniversary.
I am amazed and humbled to look out on Sunday mornings and see the wealth of talent, the wealth of people who invest, who do, who serve. Some are very visible. Some you would never know what they do. It takes all of us to be the church that God has called us to be in this place. I hope that you will find a way to symbolize your life in this Fabric of Faith. We are going to dedicate the Peru team in a few minutes, and I hope you will continue in your faithful giving that allows us to support people who go and do the kind of work that they are going to be doing in Peru.
What a great church! How great each and every person is! We are woven together and used together by the spirit of Christ that makes us one. Together, we are the church. Together, what in God’s name can we not do?
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.