Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“For we are laborers together with God; ye are God’s husbandry; ye are God’s building.”
The Apostle uses mixed metaphors here to convey to us the multifaceted truth of the Church. The truth of God is so vast that no one single image or metaphor or simile can or will adequately capture the essence of that truth. No sooner do we lock-in on a single aspect than another pops up some place else reminding us that we cannot restrict or limit the heights, the depth, nor the breadth “of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rm. 11:33-36)!
Like our Lord Who found it useful to use a multiplicity of images in His holy teachings, so does the Apostle here. He calls upon two: one drawn from the realm of agriculture and one from the world of construction. He says to the Corinthians that they – that is, we – are God’s husbandry, we are God’s building. If you recall last Sunday, St. Paul used the image of his colleague Apollos planting the seed while Paul watered it. It is God, however, Who gives the increase to the apostolic labors of planting the Church, of building the Body of Christ into God’s Temple (1 Cr. 3:1-8). Indeed, Paul is even so bold as to say – not even to imply! – but to say that he and Apollos and all others ordained to plant and to weed and to feed the reason-endowed flock of God’s Word are co-laborers, co-workers with God Himself! This is not to mean that we are co-equals with God, but rather that we labor together with Him to plant and construct and to cultivate and maintain God’s holy work which is His Church. This co-working together with God is what we Orthodox have come to call and understand as synergy. This synergy is made possible only by God. This synergy, that is, this working together with God’s grace already poured out and given, is equally applicable to our spiritual lives. It is God Who, having begun His good work in us, Paul tells us, will bring it to completion as we work out together with Him our salvation already in Jesus Christ (Pp. 1:6; 2:12-13).
Let us be clear here, beloved, as we tease out some of these images used by St. Paul and what he says here, that it is God Who is all things to us (1 Cr. 3:21-23). He calls us from non-existence into being (Anaphora). He makes us His own possession. He draws us to faith in His Son (Jn. 6:44). The Church is His Church and not our own, despite our speaking at times of “our church.” We exist for the sake of God’s love. We no longer belong to ourselves but to God Who has purchased us with the priceless blood of His Son (1 Cr. 6:19-20). We serve God because we are no longer slaves to sin but rather slaves to God Whose righteousness we now serve instead (Rm. 6:15-23). Once we had no hope in this world because we were strangers to the Covenant of God and without God, but now we have been brought near by the blood of the Lamb of God (Ep. 2:11-13). Once we had no mercy, now we have obtained it; once we were not a people, now we are the people of God (1 Pe. 2:9-10). Nothing happens without God. It is His prevenient grace that always goes before us and His love that is ever intervening on our behalf. The good things that are ours come down from the Father of lights, says St. James (Jm. 1:17-18), and we are blessed when we cooperate with Him in our lives.
Hence, we are God’s: we are His field implanted with the good seed of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, and His words, and when we hear His Word and obey His teachings the good wheat of God’s grace sprouts in our hearts and minds bearing divine fruit (Ga. 5:21-22; Jm. 1:21). We are God’s: we are His building, His Temple, founded squarely and solely upon Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of the Father. Jesus Christ is the sure foundation and His teachings are the seed that grow up in us unto Everlasting Life. All the questions in our lives now find their answer and resolution in the relationship God has formed with us. We find our identity in Him because we are graced bearers of the divine image. We are to seek the Kingdom of God, which is to say, we are to seek God first above all others because He is preeminent over all things (Mt. 6:33; Co. 1:18). Unless we get this relationship with our God and Saviour right, all else begins to fray and to fall apart at the seams, leaving little more than a pile and a heap of mess. There is no other foundation except Jesus Christ that is able to save us and sustain us in the rising flood waters. We can either be like the foolish soul who built his house on sand and when the winds blew and the waters rose, great was its fall! Or, we can be wise and build on solid rock – and that Rock is Jesus Christ and His words are Spirit and Life to all who hear them and do what He commands (Mt. 7:24-27; Lk. 6:46-49; Jn. 6:63; 1 Cr. 10:4).
There can be no other foundation for life for the Christian than the one already laid and that is Jesus Christ. This much is certain, according to the Word of God. As one catechumen once put it after spending time with us, “It’s all about Jesus!” You bet! If it’s not, we’re wasting valuable time here. And yet, do we not try to build our lives on others or other things? We live amidst a culture addicted to pop-this and pop-that, enamored with celebrities whose status is used for propaganda purposes precisely because of their fame and name recognition, as though that seals the deal. We are a culture addicted to spiritual do-it-yourselfers, who can show us the “secret” to whatever it is that ails us. And because, as Christians, we dwell in such a culture, we are not immune from its influences. If we are not wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Mt. 10:16), we, too, can become worshippers of personalities rather than of the Person, Jesus Christ. It is a sad commentary when we can quote our favorite self-help guru or life-coach but struggle to remember the words of our Lord – let alone live by His words! – Who alone is “’the Way, the Truth, and the Life’” (Jn. 14:6).
The Corinthians are a prime example of falling into camps and becoming followers of a particular personality, to the point of causing rifts and divisions in the Church, threatening the divinely-prized unity of the Church. “I’m of Apollo!” “I’m of Paul!” “I’m of Peter!” “I’m of Luther!” “I’m of Calvin!” “I’m of Wesley!” “I’m of Menno!” It is quite easy for congregations to focus on the personality of the priest or other clergyman, especially if that person is winsome and charismatic. We can feel special allegiances to them, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless it is at the expense of the Church and, especially, of her Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Beware any clergy who attract persons to themselves rather than to Jesus Christ. It is both sad and tragic when congregations fall apart when a “beloved” priest leaves. It makes me wonder what the glue was holding that parish together: was it the priest or was it Jesus Christ? Priests and deacons come and go, but only Jesus Christ remains forever! Priests and deacons are not called by God to promote themselves, but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and to attach the souls under their care to Jesus Christ alone (1 Cr. 2:1-2). Thus, Paul is quick to remind the Corinthians that he wasn’t crucified for them and that none of them were baptized in his name (1 Cr. 1:12-17). Priests and deacons are but vessels of grace ordained to lead souls to Jesus Christ and to firmly attach those souls to Him.
To say this another way, while at the same time using the Apostle’s thoughts, if we are not building the Church, if we are not building our souls on Jesus Christ and His teachings – the apostolic faith – we’re building with wood, hay, and straw. And you all know what happens when heat is applied to these combustible materials: sooner or later they burn and are consumed, leaving nothing behind, save a blackened mess. Or, in the words of our Second Antiphon (Ps. 145 ):
Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs, he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish. The Lord [however] will reign forever, thy God, O Sion, to all generations.
We must build on the foundation of Jesus Christ using precious and persevering building materials capable of sustaining us unto salvation. We must make His words, ours. His Way must become our way; His Truth, our truth; His Life, our life. All of this is gold and silver and precious stones fit to adorn the Temple of God which we are, according to St. Paul. So, Jesus Christ is not merely the foundation, as though that’s not much, but He is the precious building materials, to boot. The wisdom of the saints of every time and every place, likewise, are precious building materials because they have been tried and tested and not found wanting. Thereby the have been shown to be full of Jesus Christ. If anything, Peter, Paul, Andrew, John, James, bishops, priests, deacons, and all others, emulate Christ and point us to Christ and Him crucified. They transfix us to Christ as to the Cross! For there is coming a day – the Day – says the Apostle, that will test our work and the stuff we’re made of. And, then, it will be made clear to us – and to others, if not unto God – just what we used to build and whether the foundation was, in truth, Jesus Christ.
Finally, Paul draws of our attention to the reality that we, together, are the Church, the Body of Christ, “the Temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you.” He, then, says pointedly, “If any man defiles [destroys] the Temple of God, him shall God destroy. For the Temple of God is holy, . . . .” Let us not neglect this truth: God holds near and dear to His heart His Church, the precious and holy Bride of His Son, His own treasured possession (Ex. 19:5-6; Dt. 7:6-8; 14:2; 1 Pe. 2:9). And, anyone who would defile, that is to say in context of this Scripture, if anyone would dare sow seeds of division or otherwise threaten the precious unity of God’s field, God’s building, which is His Church through negligent and careless building faces destruction by God. God opposes anyone or anything that threatens His Bride with division due to false doctrine or the cult of personality or for any other reason. Why? Because this is at the expense of souls for whom Christ was crucified. No husband worth his weight would not defend his wife against such vicious attack. The divine Bridegroom protects His holy Bride (Ep. 5:22-33).
This reinforces the Apostle’s point: it matters how we build and with what building materials we use because we are impacting the Church. The foundation of Jesus Christ has already been laid. Now, we are called to build on that foundation and to adorn the Church of God – His Temple – with the beauty and durability of the gold and silver and precious stones of faith and doctrine, of “true righteousness and holiness” (Ep. 4:24; Co. 3:10). In a way, St. Peter reminds us of this using the image of the “priesthood of all believers.” Jesus Christ is the Living Stone,” he says, “rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious.” He goes on to say, “[Y]ou also, as living stones,” that is, as stones of the Living Stone, Jesus Christ, “are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pe. 2:4-10).
In Sacred Scripture, God is very particular about the sacrifices offered to Him. We don’t take the broken and crippled runt of the flock to offer up to God as a sacrifice. We take the spotless and blameless perfect lamb. We use the finest materials to build the tabernacle which is the dwelling place of God. The building materials we offer up to Him for the building up of His spiritual house, the Church, then, are to be likewise of the finest quality: gold and silver and precious stones; lives of “true righteousness and holiness,” the “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” These things contribute to the divinely-prized and God-protected unity of His Church.
And, when we fail to do so, we are to return to God by means of repentance and confession before that great Day of the fire of revelation! This is why the Mystery of Confession, which is the Mystery of Repentance and Reconciliation, is so very important. It recognizes that our sins affect the Church and one another and that they separate us from the Church and from one another. Confession and absolution, then, restores us to the unity we have broken. This further drives home the point we’ve heard before on many other occasions, that in Orthodoxy there is no such thing as Lone Ranger Christianity. Rather, we are “living stones” only because we have been baptized into the Living Stone Himself, and so we are “being built up a spiritual house,” each of us together, stone upon stone, for the express purpose of glorifying God through Jesus Christ our Lord in the Church. For we are the Temple of God, built squarely on the foundation of His Son and His Apostles (Ep. 2:19-22; Rv. 21:9-27). And we have been ordained in the waters of Holy Baptism to build on this foundation worthily, offering up acceptable sacrifices to God, precisely because we are God’s holy people and His Church is holy.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
1 Cr. 3:9-17