The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Fayetteville, February 12, 2023

“You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9).

The Church of St. Mary Magdalene is a little gem: blown down by a tornado some years ago, it was rebuilt with loving care by devoted parishioners determined to continue the work. I say it is a “little gem” because its structure is beautiful and also built to modest proportions. But I think that the vision of the founders of this Church was not modest, nor the faith involved small. But as Jesus says in the parable, we only need faith the size of a mustard seed (Matt. 17:20). From such small beginnings, great things grow: great things like this Church.

St. Paul in our reading from his First Letter to the Corinthians has his own take on church development. When he talks about “the church” in Corinth, he’s talking about the congregation, not the building. As he outlines it in our reading today, many labored to establish the church in Corinth: in particular, he mentions himself and Apollos. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor, 3:6). Those who founded the church are “God’s servants, working together” (1 Cor. 3:9), as he says. A little later in the chapter he writes, “I laid a foundation, but someone else is building on it” (1 Cor. 3:10). Congregational development is not a one-man job.

Did you notice that Paul is using two different metaphors here? On the one hand, planting; on the other, building. The planting image has Gospel antecedents. “Listen! A sower went out to sow” (Matt. 13:3), Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel. Some of the seed that is scattered by the sower falls on the path, or on rocky ground, or among thorns, and nothing comes of it. But some of the seed in the story falls on good ground, and brings forth a plentiful harvest. Remember the parable of the mustard seed?

As the Church, we’re in the seed-planting business. We ourselves have been planted by others, and now we are following in the steps of the Master as he goes forth to sow. We are laboring with many others because it is not a one-man job. We’re also laboring together, in community. Christianity is not a spectator sport: unlike the sporting event many will be watching this evening, it requires all of us to get out on the field.

In terms of planting, some of the seeds we scatter in this community may go astray, fail to land in the right place, but let God worry about that. Most of the time we hardly know what the end result of our work may be. I’ll bet the founders of this church could not foresee the extent of the harvest. Still, here we are. We need to be planting our own seeds.

St. Paul also tells the Corinthian Christians that they are God’s building, and this brings us to our second metaphor. A little later in the chapter, he even calls himself an architect, “a skilled master builder” (1 Cor. 3:10). As we look around this beautiful church building, we can see that Paul’s image is an apt one. In terms of congregational life, Paul tells them that whoever the builder is, the foundation must be solid, and “that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).

God tests whatever we build on this foundation: sometimes it’s worth something, other times not. In any case, Paul goes on to say, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). “God’s temple is holy,” he says, “and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:17).

In terms of architecture, God’s greatest work of construction is the heavenly city that we see in the Book of Revelation, coming down out of heaven from God. “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23). Jesus is not only the foundation of the church, but also the Lamb of God, the One who is sacrificed for the sins of the world. The church here on earth lives on the outskirts of the heavenly city, as its embattled outwork: not identical with it, as if it were the city, but a fellow traveler with the saints along the path that leads to the heavenly Jerusalem.

“You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). Our baptismal candidates and confirmands now know what a high calling is prepared for them as members of the church! God is at work here at the church of St Mary Magdalene, and you too are called to this work. Many saints have labored, and we have harvested the fruits (Jo. 4:38). But God gave the growth, as it says in our reading. May God continue his work here, in this church, and may we be a fruitful field, bringing forth much fruit; at the same time, a graceful temple in which the Spirit may dwell.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee