A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, February 23, 2014
Text: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23
In case there was any lingering doubt in your minds, I am not a master builder. Paul may have had the audacity to make that claim about himself, but I am wise enough to know better. In fact, if you’ve ever worked with me on a Habitat build, you know that I can’t really claim any construction competence at all. I can change a light bulb and clean up a mess, and occasionally I figure out how to accomplish a minor repair around the house or the church, but that’s the extent of it.
Now to be clear, I like working on a Habitat project, If someone will tell me what to do, how to do it and then leave me alone to work on that piece of the project. The repetitive monotony gives me time to reflect and creates a pleasant illusion that I know what I’m doing. When I first participated in a post-Katrina project in Gautier, Mississippi, I worked with the crew removing and replacing the roof of a home damaged by the hurricane. As a result, I am sort of a roofing “specialist.” I don’t mind heights and, with a little reminder, I can tear off old shingles and tar paper and help lay down new.
My only experience with foundations came after the Loma Prieta earthquake. The duplex in which we lived was perched on a hillside. In the front, it was a two story building, but our bedroom in the rear was actually four stories above the deck. It was a well-constructed building and there was no obvious damage. The power was out in our neighborhood so I gathered with my downstairs neighbors to drink some wine and listen to the reports on a portable radio. I went to bed that night and slept well. However, by morning the television was operative and I was flooded with images of collapsing and burning structures. I looked out my bedroom window and it struck me how far I was above the bottom of the hill. It was not a pleasant sensation in relation to what I had now seen on TV.
So, we called the city and went with them to inspect the foundation of our building. There seemed to be some crumbling concrete and they “yellow-tagged” the building. We moved out for six months and spent more than $100,000 of FEMA money shoring up the foundation, sending new concrete supports down to bedrock and adding sheer wall. It was a profound lesson in the importance of foundations.
Now Paul was a tent maker, so I don’t know how much he knew about literal foundations. He must have known something about the poles and stakes that hold a tent in place. There is no doubt, though, that he understood the significance of sure foundations for the emerging church. We don’t have to unpack all the drama of the Corinthian situation to see the importance of Paul’s word for us. We know there was stress in First Church, Corinth. Our congregation knows its on stress, yet we are 120 years old, with more than 2000 years of history and tradition on which to build. First Church, Corinth wasn’t even a teenager and the tradition was less than 100 years old. Perhaps Paul was right to be concerned about how much of what he had taught this fledgling congregation had taken root and was reflected in their life as a faith community.
Mark Tranvik says of First Church, Corinth, “This community [wa]s being torn apart by arguments about authority (Paul? Cephas? Apollos?…see 1: 12-13) and wrestling with questions about sexual morality and marriage (chapters 5 and 7), lawsuits (chapter 6), and riotous behavior at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11), among other things.” As a result he sees that “Paul is seeking to call this distracted church back to the essentials by reminding them that ‘no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ’” (Mark Tranvik, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23,” 2-20-2011, workingpreacher.org).
Initially, Paul makes the argument that he has laid the foundation, that is, he has borne witness to the people of Corinth, he has shared the gospel, he has brought them to Christ and showed them the way. Is there some arrogance and self-promotion in this? I don’t see how it can be denied. Paul was not bereft of ego and in that sense he was as human as any of us. Still, he was the one who traveled around the known world, risking life and limb to proclaim the good news and build up the community of Christ. Perhaps he had a right to boast, to call the Corinthians back to his way of following Christ and serving God.
Regardless of his role in the Corinthian controversy, he does offer to us an ageless way to see and understand what it means to be church, the body of Christ, the people of God. He may have laid the foundation for First Church, Corinth, but “…no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” He is very clear that “Christ is made the sure foundation; Christ the head and cornerstone.” Even a big ego can give itself over to the foundational significance of Jesus Christ. Paul clearly sees that he serves a God who is infinitely more than he himself can ever claim to be.
So now that we’re clear about the foundation, the question is: what is to be built on such a foundation? Again, Paul is clear. There is one structure to be built on such a foundation; it is a temple, God’s temple, the one in which God’s Spirit dwells. What is this temple like, though? Brian Peterson writes of this text that “…God’s wisdom is the cross of Christ, and Paul’s work was aligned with that foundational reality. True wisdom does not lie in the power, eloquence, social standing, or cultural competition that seemed to enthrall the Corinthian church (or any similar things that enthrall us). A building must fit its foundation, be supported by it and shaped to match it, and Paul wisely built the Corinthian church on Christ crucified as the church’s one foundation (Brian C. Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23,” 2-23-2014, workingpreacher.org).
That’s the thing about foundations. They really determine the structure to be built on them. If you build something sloppy, ill-conceived, with inadequate materials, it’s not going to last. You build something solid, following the plans of the one who designed it, with the best materials available, you’ll have a structure that will last a long time, maybe even a life-time – and beyond.
So much for First Church, Corinth, but what about First Baptist Church, Palo Alto? Old Paul didn’t exactly lay our foundation. Still, we may have a link to that ancient, ego-driven master builder. You see in the end he’s preaching Christ – Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ in glory. And there is that small matter that we claim to be Christians, followers of Christ, body of Christ, right? Isn’t that what we say in our mission statement – we are “a church whose mission is to explore together faith and commitment to Christ”?
What then does this mean for us, for you and me? What does it mean to affirm the symbolic truth that we are building a church on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ, a church that is to serve as a temple for the very Spirit of God? In addition to exploring together faith and commitment to Christ, we have said that the church we are building will “worship God,” “serve those in need” and “provide a home for heart, mind and soul.” I don’t know about you but I think that’s a pretty noble structure, one that’s worthy of the best we have to offer.
More than anything, I want to say today that we are not done building. We have long legacy and limited resources. We face an uncertain future with heavy demands. We have big questions. But I believe that God is not done with us. There is always work to be done. There is much to experience. There is always more to this great project of being church, the body of Christ – more light, more love, more life. There is the reign of God that is not yet realized on earth as it is in heaven. We are still called to care for our own back yard along with the creation with which God has entrusted us.
Yes, we have this beautiful plant that is the legacy of all those who worked on it before us, but, quite literally, we’re still tinkering with it – repairing light fixtures, painting, improving the sound system, adding a patio and labyrinth. I think of the great cathedrals of medieval Europe and how many of them were built over hundreds of years. There was always something more to add. Even today there is the work of sustaining their beauty and their praise of the divine, along with their functionality as local congregations.
However, our ultimate focus is not on the actual building. We have said more than once that if anything sacralizes this space it is what goes on here. It is how we live as the body of Christ, how we bear witness to the good news, how we build on the sure foundations with which we have been blessed and on which we are called to construct.
In fact, Paul asks a question of First Church, Corinth, that we might well ask ourselves, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Do you know? Can you see it? Can you feel it? Can you live into that truth? For Paul this is a collective “you.” He means all the Corinthian congregation and he means all of us. Collectively we are God’s temple in which God’s Spirit lives. Paradoxically, that is both a heavy and a liberating truth. It bears all the responsibility of witnessing to heart-felt, soul-deep faith that we are building, here and now, a body to reflect the reign of God on earth. It may look like foolishness to the rest of the world, but we know that that foolishness of Christ crucified and resurrected is ultimately redemptive of us and the whole creation. This is cause for both labor and rejoicing.
“Christ is made the sure foundation; Christ the head and cornerstone.” During Advent we sang these wonderful words from Dan Schutte that affirm our lives as builders of the temple of God. May we embrace them as we build a church on sure foundations.
We are sons of the morning; we are daughters of day.
The One who has loved us has brightened our way.
The Lord of all kindness has called us to be
a light for his people to set their hearts free.
Let us build the city of God.
May our tears be turned into dancing!
For the Lord, our light and our Love,
has turned the night into day!