Sentence: Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord (Psalm 119:1)
God of Israel old and new,
write in our hearts the lessons of your law;
prepare our minds to receive the gospel
made visible in your Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Do not read this passage if you think life consists of greys instead of black and white, or that God is kinda a real good dude who just wants to bless you whatever you choose to do. No!
'See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.' (15)
If we squirm at the thought of a binary (good/bad, life/death) approach to decision-making and its consequences, it may be worth considering what kind of a God would offer something different to what we read here. Would God be much of a god if the offer was, say, 'It would be neat if you chose to obey me, but it doesn't matter if you disobey me'?
Of course there is no need to be at all uncomfortable in the presence of the God who speaks to us through this passage. Its resounding plea is 'Choose life' (19).
Though today we might hear the voice of God speaking to us as individuals about the course and destination of our lives, this original plea was to Israel. What kind of people would she choose to be? God's people living in God's way and thus blessed by God in the land promised to them by God? Or a dying people (18) enjoying the shortest of stays in the land they entered with hearts turned away from God towards other gods (17)?
As a matter of fact, Israel's history was a mixed bag. There was obedience (and times of blessing, notably in the reigns of David and Solomon) and there was disobedience (and times of cursing, notably exile, from the perspective of which, Deuteronomy was written in the form we read it today). In other words, whatever our feelings in the 21st century about shades of grey versus black and white as we understand the times in which we live, ancient Israel, as its writings were compiled, edited and finalised into what we Christians read as the Old Testament, looked back on its history as a nation once blessed and now cursed. No greys!
Famously nearly* every verse of this longest psalm refers to the Law (e.g. law, statute, precept, commandment, decree, word, ordinance, way). It celebrates the keeping of the 'law of the Lord' (1) and mixes up the promise of blessing for obedience (1-2) with prayer for steadfastness (5), reminder of God's will that his commandments be kept (4), and statement of intention to obey (7-8).
The connection with our gospel reading is clear: Jesus is outlining in Matthew 5:21-37 what he meant when he said that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it (5:17-20). A Christian following Jesus' teaching on the law of God can enter fully into the spirit of Psalm 119, eager to be an obedient citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
*Can you find the exceptions? Reputedly there are two!
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
We continue through 1 Corinthians (with readings which are not intended to 'relate' to the gospel reading of the day).
Having eloquently spoken of the true spiritual wisdom found in (and only in) Christ (chapters 1 and 2), Paul is frank and robustly critical of his Corinthian audience.
He compares a potential 'spiritual' audience with the 'people of the flesh' to whom he writes (1, also 2,3).
On the one hand 'spiritual' is comparable to 'immature' or 'infantile' (so also comparison between feeding with 'with milk, not solid food' (2)).
On the other hand 'still of the flesh' is the state of 'jealousy and quarrelling' (3) specifically linked to a form of party allegiance: 'one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos" (4).
This dissension in the Corinthian ranks has already been introduced as a topic for the letter (chapter 1). Now Paul addresses it further, in an argument which will continue through to the end of chapter 4.
We could puzzle endlessly about the nature of the party allegiances. Was it an allegiance to perceived difference in teaching content between Paul and Apollos (and Cephas, mentioned in 3:22)? Was each teacher being treated as a kind of principal of a particular school of Greek philosophy (or rabbinical leader of a Jewish school of interpretation)? Or was the allegiance more human than that, so that the allegiance was heartfelt affection towards the apostle who brought the party loyalist into faith through baptism?
However the allegiances came about, Paul is clear that a strong sense of 'belonging' is involved (4). So he takes up this sense of belonging in verses 5-9. What are Paul and Apollos? We could perhaps use the word 'just' here: just servants of the Lord; just servants of the Lord who happened to be in Corinth at a certain time so that Corinthians came to belief through one or other as the Lord 'assigned to each' (5). Just so, no more, no less.
Paul then makes a distinction between the work of each. He 'planted', Apollos 'watered' (6). Perhaps Paul preached first and Apollos second. Not for the last time in the history of evangelism, the later preacher (so to speak) reaped the harvest from the seed sown by the first. Here in Aotearoa New Zealand we might look back over two hundred years to Marsden preaching with little fruit re conversions in 1814 (and successive preaching trips) and then forward to the 1830s when many Maori converted to the Christian faith.
Thus, Paul says, neither he nor Apollos (by comparison) amount to 'anything' (7). What matters is 'God who gives the growth' (7). This is where the Corinthians' allegiance should be placed.
With this unifying factor in place in his argument Paul draws out the implications in verses 8 and 9. Paul and Apollos have had a 'common purpose' in their work. They are not their own men but 'God's servants, working together.' The Corinthians are not many parties of Christians but one entity: 'you are God's field, God's building.'
But we do not read this passage for a lesson in Corinthian church history. What is God the Holy Spirit saying to the church today through this passage?
Is the message here about growth into Christian maturity as a congregation? Whether riven with party conflicts or not, congregations can be torn in two or three by other divisions. (Is there a question for the global church about its (im)maturity as a church of many denominations?)
Is the message about how we see ourselves in ministry? It is natural to seek limelight, even in the church. Theoretically we deplore party allegiances, secretly (unconsciously) we might wish we had a following! Do we need to take a sober reckoning of our personal ministry role as simply that of a servant of the Lord: what counts is God's work in the church.
If God's work in the church is what counts, where do we see that work occurring? If the work of the servants of the Lord counts for little by comparison with the work of God, then that frees us from worrying that (say) we do not seem to have giants of the faith around us today as we had in former days. One kind of anxiety in the church concerns where the Pauls and Apolloses of the 21st century are to be found. But does that matter? What is God up to? Surely the power of God at work in the world is no less today than two thousand years ago!
There is a lot of material here! Topically we have murder/hate (21-22); reconciliation (23-24, 25-26); adultery/lust (27-28, with added comment re parts of our bodies which cause us to sin, 29-30); divorce (31-32); oaths (36-37). There is a challenging and meaty sermon series laid out for us to follow. However that is not our task with this passage, which is to preach one sermon on these seventeen verses.
It could be that we take the opportunity to major on just one topic - that would be a reasonable way to respond to the passage. In which case we might want to delve into a commentary for consideration of important subtleties: e.g. what was in the background concerning life in Jesus' day which led to the way he teaches about oaths, reconciliation and divorce? How do we honour Jesus' words about remarriage in verse 32 with due seriousness, words which bluntly state that remarriage of a divorced woman creates a state of adultery?
To an extent (being frank), a sermon which sweeps across the whole passage offers the option of not addressing difficult issues such as those within verse 32. Yet such a sermon cannot avoid the fact that taken together, these verses confront just about every member of the congregation with some challenge or another. Who among us is reconciled to every person we have ever had a quarrel with? What person is free of lust? (Speaking as a man, in a world where many images of sexually exciting women are staples of advertising in print and video media, verse 28 challenges!) We live in an age in which many marriages end in divorce. In the language of yesteryear, a gentleman's word used to be his bond and business deals were struck on the shake of a hand, but now, it seems, nothing can happen without some voluminous contract being vetted by expensive lawyers.
We might also reckon with the fact that many readers/hearers of verses 29-30 are genuinely troubled by what these verses mean. Do they literally apply so the solution to lust is plucking one's eyes out and the end of thievery is bound to follow from losing one's hands? (To respond quickly on this matter: as is the case elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus is exaggerating to make a point. Self-mutilation is not required by Christians taking the Sermon seriously. But radical action may be the only solution to problems such as lust and theft. To cease lusting, I need to stop watching TV and trawling the internet. To cease shoplifting, I need to stop going into shops. Etc.)
So, what then for the preacher? I suggest we have a nice long cup of coffee or tea or smoothie and think through what it would mean to be faithful to Jesus to preach on his Sermon.
Would it be faithful to preach on this passage as though we were the kind of rabbi Jesus seemed to despise, the kind who found ways around the laws of God rather than insisted on obedience to them?
(Conversely) would it be faithful to Jesus to preach on this passage in such a way that we were like another kind of despised rabbi, the kind who makes their hearers feel more weighed down and oppressed by the end of the sermon than they were at the beginning, suffocating under the weight of obligation to be perfect now in both outward action and inward attitude?
If the Sermon is a charter or manifesto for the kingdom of God, then it sets out a vision for how we will live in a renewed society of God's people. A restored humanity within this society lives in harmony with one another: neither murder nor hatred nor unreconciled relationships are compatible with this vision. Betrayal in marriage through adultery, imbalanced relationships between the sexes because lust fuels domination of one sex over the other is not compatible either. Drastic action may be required to match the deeds and attitudes of members of the kingdom with the vision of the kingdom. Truth telling is also vital to the kingdom, whether we think of faithfulness to marriage vows in particular, or commitment to any vow made simply. The opposite of thieving in the kingdom is more than the cessation of stealing, it is generosity and sharing of material goods.
Can we, in our sermons this week, capture the seriousness of what is at stake in this teaching of Jesus with the inspiration of what God desires of his kingdom people?