1 Corinthians 3:10-23: Brought into the Church

Stone Church (610x351)An early-Church document, similar to the book of Revelation, is the Shepherd of Hermas.  The title comes from a Christ figure who appears as a shepherd to the author, whose name is Hermas.  And in that document, Hermas has several different visions. 

I mention this because one vision in the Shepherd of Hermas uses the same metaphor that Paul used in today’s Epistle reading: That we are God’s building.  However, the description in the Shepherd of Hermas is much fuller and more descriptive.  It allows us to have a peek into how the early Church understood the metaphor that the Church is a building.

In that document, Hermas sees a tower that workmen are building.  Yet, Hermas never learns the identity of those men.  I suppose their identity is not important.  What Hermas does see is that the Church rises out of the water.  He is told that “because your life was saved and will be saved through water” (Hermas 11:5).  That’s the Word working through the water of holy baptism that brings someone into the Church.

Each stone in the tower fits flawlessly.  The side of the tower is seamlessly smooth, so much so that an onlooker sees a tower made of one stone, not the many that comprise it.  Surrounding the tower are piles of building material, organized by content.  Perfectly-formed stones make up one pile, those who have faith and live out the faith given them.  They are but awaiting their placement in the proper slot.  There’s another pile where the stones are misshapen, but with some shaping and reworking, those stones will easily fit in the tower.  But the last pile is unusable material.

The Shepherd of Hermas tells us that the tower is the Church.  It also tells us that each flawlessly shaped stone within the tower is a member of the Church.  Each pile of material represents a different grouping of people.  One pile is those who have Christ as the center of their lives; they are the stones that fit flawlessly in the tower.  Another pile is those who are close to the Kingdom but need to turn from their sins and reorient their lives toward Christ.  And the third pile is those who have rejected Christ and His Church, even “those who have believed but because of their double-mindedness” abandoned the narrow way of Christ (Hermas 15:1).

Now the Church never recognized the Shepherd of Hermas as part of the Bible.  That was not because it was full of fabrication but because it was not from the hand of an Apostle.  Yet, even from such a book as that, we learn that the building in which we are sitting, the bricks, mortar, wood, and paint that surround us, are not the Church.  Oh, it’s a holy space, made holy by the presence of the body and blood of Christ, but it is not the Church.

You and I are the Church, in the sense that, like stones that make up part of a tower, we make up part of the Church.  We are not the Church because our being or essence makes the Church into a reality.  Instead, we are the Church because God the Holy Spirit has brought us into the Church through the Word and water of holy baptism.

Yet, Paul does not call us a tower.  He calls us a Temple.  To understand that, we need to know about the Temple in the Old Covenant.  In the Temple, God the Holy Spirit was present above the Ark of the Covenant, in what the Hebrew language of the Old Testament called the Shekinah, the cloud of God’s presence.

And building on that knowledge, the Apostle Paul wrote: “Don’t you know that you [that’s a plural “you,” “y’all,” don’t y’all know that y’all] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)  Earlier, in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul said: “Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God?  You are not your own because you were bought with a price.  So bring glory to God in the way you use your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  So, individually, as a person, your body is a Temple of the Holy Spirit.  But it’s more than that.

In today’s epistle, Paul is talking about “y’all,” about the entire Church, not her individual members, as the Temple of God’s Holy Spirit.  Collectively, you, all together, are God’s Temple and God’s Spirit lives here in you and among you.

And so we learn that materials like stone, wood, or metal do not make up the Holy Christian Church.  She is made up, instead, of people built on a Person.  But it’s not just any person, but THE Person, Jesus Christ.  It’s as the Apostle Paul says: “No one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down.  That foundation is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).  The Person on which we, the Church, are built is Jesus Christ.

But what does it mean that the Church is built on Jesus Christ?  What does it mean that He is our foundation?  It means this: If Jesus is our foundation, then all we do grows out of, and is rooted in, Him.  Again, if Jesus is our foundation, then all we do grows out of, and is rooted in, Him.  Because the Church has Jesus Christ as her foundation, she acts differently than any other organization.  For in the entire world, she is the only entity built on Jesus!

Because the foundation of the Church is Jesus, the Church exists to give that from which she is built: The Church exists to give you Jesus.  Because Jesus is the Church’s foundation, the Church unites you to Him in the waters of baptism.  It means that when you come to a worship service, you should receive Jesus in your ears when the pastor preaches.  It means that you receive Jesus’ own forgiveness in the words of Holy Absolution.  It means that you receive Jesus in His body and blood in His Supper.

The Church delivers Jesus because Jesus is the Church’s foundation.  The Church can only deliver what she has.  So, if you go to a worship service and you don’t get Jesus, then that entity, no matter what it may call itself, is built on something other than Jesus Christ!

But then Paul’s train of thought changes.  He says: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.  For God’s temple is holy, and that is what you are” (1 Corinthians 3:17).  Paul fires a warning shot across our bow.  He warns us to live our lives, aware of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  He warns us to watch our conduct carefully, so we don’t, by our words or deeds, destroy some part of God’s Temple, that is, the Church.

How does that happen?  That happens when someone from within the Church uses the freedom that he has in Christ to harm or hurt another who is in the body of Christ, the Church.  Use your Gospel freedom to help, not hurt.  That’s Paul’s message.

Now it’s true that Christ has set us free from the Law.  Because of that, the Law can no longer condemn us.  God no longer holds you accountable for the commandments that you cannot, and do not, keep.  After all, that’s why God held Jesus accountable.

Yet, just because God doesn’t hold you accountable doesn’t mean that He gives you a free pass to live as if the commandments no longer matter.  Your actions may not change your standing before God, for Jesus settled that for you in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  But your actions do govern your life with others, and it is with them that you must concern yourself.

The Apostle Peter taught that same truth using different words.  He put it this way: “Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Peter 2:16).

For Paul, God’s grace was full and free.  And so it is for you, someone whom the Holy Spirit has brought together into one Body and Temple.  In Christ’s Church, the Holy Spirit has united you with others in the Church, even those great saints, Peter and Paul.  The Holy Spirit has joined us, one to another, in the rich forgiveness that comes to us by the blood of Jesus.

Just as Jesus died for Paul, so also did He die for you.  In so doing, Jesus not only individually washed all your sins away, but He also brought you into a greater body–His own body, the Church.  He has made you into one Temple, one Priesthood, and one Royal Family.

That’s why Paul says that we, collectively, in Jesus Christ, have everything.  For St. Paul goes on to declare: “Everything belongs to you [to y’all], and you [y’all] belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Corinthians 3:22-23).

Just think of the great riches that our God has given to us, through His Spirit’s life and His presence here among us!  As someone whom the Holy Spirit has brought into the Church, you have the salvation that Jesus won for you.  As someone whom the Holy Spirit has brought into the Church, you have the hope of the resurrection.  As someone whom the Holy Spirit has brought into the Church, the Church is not just you, but also the prophets and apostles of God, all the saints, both in heaven and on earth.

Everything belongs to Jesus, and we belong to Jesus.  We may toil, and we may struggle, but when our toil is ended, and we have finished our struggles, our inheritance will be God’s kingdom.  Knowing this, we press on in the faith, looking forward to what awaits all who are in Christ Jesus.

It’s true that we do not now have what awaits us in eternity.  But for now, it is enough to know that everything is ours and that we belong to Christ and that we, together, are God’s Temple and that His Spirit is present among us.

So, never forget who you are.  As someone brought into the Church of Christ, all that Christ has will be yours, if not now, then on the Last Day, when Jesus will return in all His glory.  Dear saints of God, it doesn’t get any better than that!  Amen.