The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, Grace Chapel, Rossview

“For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9).

It’s the primary season, so we’re conscious of party politics: that is, the division of the country into groups advocating for one candidate or another. Perfectly natural, in a democratic polity; though many have commented on the passionate advocacy that characterizes this political season in particular. Pundits tell us that the country is divided, and so it is; thoughtful people wonder where the center of things is, and how it’s all going to hold together.

In a different context, Paul the Apostle wrote to the little Christian church in Corinth, beset by divisions within the congregation. St. Paul had founded the church in Corinth, though his ministry was itinerant. As an apostle to the gentiles, he kept moving around, traveling to and fro preaching the Gospel and starting new churches. Part of Paul’s apostolic ministry, however, was keeping in touch with his churches, exercising oversight from a distance. A large part of the New Testament is made up of letters from Paul to the churches, signs that no church was on its own, and that the churches were part of a larger whole, knit together in part through Paul’s ministry.

So, in our reading today, the Apostle contacts them because he’s heard that there are divisions among them. “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters” (1 Cor. 1:9), he writes in the first chapter. Some people in the church identify with different Christian leaders: some with Peter, some with Paul, others with Apollos; others say they are just following Christ! St. Paul is worried because this is not what he taught them. He’s mindful that they are beginners in the Christian faith, “infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1) as he calls them. “As long as there are quarreling and jealousy among you,” he says to them, they are not following Christ, but merely human inclinations (1 Cor. 3:3).

In a church that’s divided into factions, St. Paul tells them, there’s a need to rise above division. The different leaders are not important. What’s important is Christ crucified, as St. Paul tells them (1 Cor. 2:2): the one who is the source of new life. As Paul says in our reading today, the different leaders all have a common purpose. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each” (1 Cor. 3:5). Belief in Christ is the thing.

God’s also the prime mover. We may think we’re so great, but we’re not. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6). St. Paul encourages the Christians in Corinth to see the leaders of the church as co-laborers, not individual practitioners. As he says, “For we are God’s servants, working together…” (1 Cor. 3:9). It’s a salutary reminder that in church work, we have to be working together. Gospel work involves all of us. Again, we may think it’s about us, but it’s not. It’s about the community working together.

St. Paul goes on in the next few verses to talk about himself as the architect of the Corinthian church. “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it” (1 Cor. 3:10). “Architect” (that’s the Greek word) sounds pretty important, but St. Paul is clear about the foundation. “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). Many builders have contributed, and each builder should build with solid materials. “You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9), he writes.

St. Paul’s questions for the Corinthian church are questions for us. Are we laboring together as leaders in the church? Are we engaged in a common ministry? Are we building up the one foundation, which is Jesus Christ? Are we using the best materials so that the work will last: gold, silver, and precious stones, or wood, hay, and straw? Quarreling and jealousy do not build us up, no matter what the context. It seems to me that in the midst of political division we ought to be sure that we are firmly rooted on the one foundation: Jesus Christ, and him crucified, as St. Paul says. It’s time for the church to be clear where its center is, and that in him we can hold together.

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