Thursday, October 8, 2009


This is sermon #11 from First Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 3:10-23


Robert Fulghum tells a story set in the Middle Ages during the construction of one of the great cathedrals. A nobleman was walking among the workers asking about their labors. He asked a stone mason what he was doing, and the mason tried to explain the care involved in raising a plumb wall. The man asked the glass worker what he was doing and was shown the detail of a leaded glass picture. Then the carpenter told about the wooden frame which provided the support for the whole building. Finally the nobleman spotted a peasant woman with a broom and a bucket going around cleaning trash. He asked her what she doing and she said, "I'm building a cathedral for the glory of God!"

What makes a church impressive? To look at the cathedral at Notre Dame one might say it is indeed the combination of leaded glass, intricate carving in stone and colossal structure. Does it make any difference whether a church building is a Crystal Cathedral in California or a cinder-block rectangle with a thatched roof in Zambia? Paul tells the Corinthians what a church is made of does make a difference.

This part of the Corinthian letter could have been listed in the Early Church Seminary catalogue as "Church Architecture 101." It gives the basics for the crucial question of how to build a church. There's one detail we need to get straight, though, before we start any construction. When we think of building a church we usually envision something with a spire, maybe even a Crystal Cathedral if we are on the extravagant side, or perhaps the cinder-block rectangle if we are involved in some way with the world missions office. But when Paul talks about building a church, he is referring to people in a local congregation.

The imagery is certainly that of bricks and mortar, and good construction practices apply. In fact, there are four basic principles here which every local congregation needs to keep before them all the time.

The first one is found in vs10,11: the foundation will affect everything else. The foundation of a house is often built on a concrete footer which is over a foot wide and a couple of feet deep. The eight inch foundation blocks are then laid on the concrete footer. One might think that with several extra inches to spare it would not be crucial that the footer be exactly square. Or maybe someone might think that if the ground is especially firm, the footer might get by with less concrete. But if you want a secure house with ninety-degree corners in your rooms, your foundation had better be right.

When it comes to building a church, there is only one foundation. True churches are not established because of issues or doctrinal frivolities. If a "church's" main reason for existence is to promote pre-tribulation dispensationalism or a lifestyle of peace and social justice, or whatever, it is not really a church. The church exists when the foundation is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ and him crucified is the reason for everything else a church believes and does –– if it is indeed a church. If anyone would add or subtract anything from the centrality of Jesus Christ the result is not a modified foundation; the result is an unacceptable, faulty foundation. God's Word is clear: No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.

A second principle is in vs12-15: do not cut corners. Back in the mid-1970s I worked as a carpenter for a small, family-run construction company. John was the controlling owner, along with two of his brothers. These men were then around sixty years old, and they had been carpenters for forty years. I learned the meaning of craftsmanship from them. From the beginning, a house was built right. The foundation was square. The framing was square and the frame walls were plumb. This meant when it was time to do the finish work, forty-five degree cuts fit the corners. If something was not right, it was scrapped and done over. I cannot think of one instance where those master carpenters had to calk a joint. They did not cut corners.

Contrast that with a story I once heard about another contractor who had spent most of his life building for one developer who had not been the most generous with salaries. One day the developer came to the contractor and simply told him to build the nicest house he had ever built. The contractor was to spare no expense. He was to take his time –– build it solidly and even extravagantly. All he needed to do was turn in the bills.

The contractor decided this was his one chance to get ahead. He bought inferior material and billed for the best. He cut corners everywhere he thought it would be hidden. Finally the house was ready, and it was outwardly a masterpiece. The developer went over the finished product with the contractor, and then told him, "I know I have not paid you well over the years. My success is partly due to your work for me. As appreciation for all you have done, this house is yours."

That seems a bit farfetched to really happen, but it certainly illustrates the point: The way we build the church will come back on us. How do we build a church? We have a choice to make. We can do everything with integrity, or we can cut corners. To use Paul's words, we can build with gold, silver or costly stones, or we can use wood, hay or straw. Does that mean a Crystal Cathedral is more pleasing to God than a thatched hut? The answer is YES –– if we remember we are not talking about literal buildings. The Scripture is talking about what God's people do to establish and grow a local church.

The main point with this list of materials is durability. Put gold or silver into a fire and it is not consumed, only purified. Put wood or hay into a fire and it burns up. For each of us in the church, the fire is coming. Just as the church belongs to Jesus, one day those in the church will answer to Jesus. It will be a time of trial by fire. (The image John gives us of Jesus in Revelation is appropriate here –– his eyes were like blazing fire, 1:14.) What will the fiery gaze of our Lord reveal about our work in the church?

In the '80s two books were published that rocked the business world. In Search of Excellence and A Passion For Excellence were reminders that companies which excel have people who set excellence as a standard. Can a church offer Jesus Christ anything less? When we worship it should be our best that we offer our Lord. When I prepare a sermon it should be the best I can do. When we are asked to do a task, we should choose what we can do best.... and then do it. In our interactions in the church, we should be giving each other the best –– the best we can love and the best we can serve –– as unto our Lord.

Anything less is cutting corners. Anything less is to offer Jesus that which will be consumed by the fire of his gaze. The standard of the work of the local church is Jesus himself. We represent Jesus. If he is our foundation, then everything we build on that foundation should be consistent with it. It would be unheard of to put a $25,000 dwelling on a $40,000 lot. It is just as incongruous to try to grow a church claiming Jesus as our foundation while at the same time offering our Lord our pettiness, our leftovers and other vestiges of selfishness.

That brings up the third principle in vs 16,17: remember what you are building. That is what the peasant woman was doing in the opening story. She was not merely cleaning up the trash; she was building a cathedral. We are not merely meeting and singing songs. I am not merely giving a "talk." The groundskeeper does not merely cut the grass. The organist does not merely play the organ. I think you get the point. We are here to build a church in the name of Jesus Christ.

How do we do that? We do that by being here and taking our identity as God's people seriously. We are called to be people of the cross. We are people who have chosen to give Jesus Christ first place in our lives. We are people in whom the very Spirit of God has come to live. At least those things are true for each of us who are reborn by God's Spirit so that we truly are Christians.

Now when that happens, something else becomes true: we become God's temple. But we need to understand what the Bible actually says here. First let me emphatically state what this passage does not say. It does not say that we each, individually, become God's temple. This is not talking about our physical bodies; it is not referring to the Holy Spirit living in each believer (which he does). What this says is that the local church is God's temple. The second person pronoun (you) is a plural. (The old KJV, with its "ye", has an advantage here.)

In the Old Testament God lived in a temple made with human hands. The inner sanctum of the tabernacle, and later the temple, was the place where the glory of God resided. This was the glory that was Israel's; this is what set Israel apart. But, in a final act of judgment, God's glory left Israel's temple.

The next time we read about the glory being on earth was when Jesus came: We have seen his glory (Jn 1:14). Later Jesus said that if the temple would be destroyed, he would raise it in three days. And then the explanation is given: But the temple he had spoken of was his body (Jn 2:21). Of course the cross did destroy that temple, and it was raised up in three days. That is the basis for everything else we are and do.

Then there is a final shift, a new development as the New Testament closes. Jesus ascends; he is no longer here physically. And yet he is. Wherever a local church exists, his Body is there. The temple of God is still housing the glory so the world can see. Where is it? Look around. You and I are the reasons it is so important for the church to be established and grow by God's standard of excellence. As a congregation, we are God's temple. What the world sees in us, it will attribute to God.

It's no wonder then that v17 goes on to say If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple. This is the strongest warning in the New Testament against those who would take the church lightly. It is because the local church is the dwelling of God like nothing else in the world. Yes, the Spirit is in each believer, but when the believers meet as the church gathered, it is then that the Body of Jesus Christ is the temple of God unlike anything else.

Do you think about this church in that way? I cannot think of any higher calling we could have as a congregation than what Paul is teaching us here. When our congregation comes together it is the Body of Christ that is meeting. This local church is the temple of God –– a holy of holies, like the inner room of the Old Testament. If we believe that, it will affect our worship. It will affect our work. It will affect our goals. It will affect our relationships. And if it does not, we become guilty of destroying the temple of God.

How is the temple destroyed? That brings up the fourth and last principle of constructing a good building in vs18-23: don't get sidetracked by frills. A house can have all the extras one might think of –– dishwasher, disposal, central vacuum, central air, electric garage door openers, jacuzzi, etc. –– but what good is the house if the roof sags and leaks, the foundation has a major crack, and the general structure is plain shabby?

In the same way, the church can begin to promote itself on the basis of its programs or its staff or its facility. Churches can try to draw people through entertainment or pop psychology. They may try to be successful through the most current management techniques. Now I am not saying the church can never learn anything worthwhile from these peripheral activities, but I do say that the Scripture warns that our message and our methods must be centered on one thing: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

If we start looking to frills to enhance our message, we end up without the message. If we center on personalities, like Corinth was doing, or if we try to merely “manage” our church into prominence, we will destroy the very thing we say we are. It is the world's wisdom to appeal to flash and show. It is the world's way to rely on human strength and natural ability. It is not the way of the cross to use power plays and deceit. As Paul has already made it clear, any old sinner can be ordinary. It does not take God in us to be divisive. The one thing all of that does, though, if it happens in a church, is to destroy the temple of God.

God's temple is effectively destroyed if our building –– our work and behavior ––provides no viable alternative to pagan society. Being God's temple means that the world looks at us as a church and sees something radically different than what they are accustomed to seeing in the world.

The main thing a community should hear about a local church is the way the people love Jesus Christ. And the way to be known for a love for Jesus is to keep his commandments (Jesus said this himself). It can be in the most ordinary of circumstances. It can be in a simple act of service. It can be through one of the church's ministries. It can be in the way we react to whispers and innuendo. In all of those things, and countless more, we can show that we are building with integrity on the one true foundation.

And when that happens.... if you ever find yourself involved in service, or if you find yourself responding according to the cross in the face of worldly thinking, so that someone asks, "What is it about you?" will be able to say –– at least to yourself: "I am helping build a great cathedral to the glory of God." That is the kind of Crystal Cathedral our Lord would love for us to erect for him –– a local church that can be God's temple with honor and integrity as we build on the one foundation that is already laid, that of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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