Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 2/19/2017
7th Sunday After the Epiphany
I laid a foundation like a wise master builder according to God’s grace that was given to me, but someone else is building on top of it. Each person needs to pay attention to the way they build on it. No one can lay any other foundation besides the one that is already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Don’t you know that you are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you? If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person, because God’s temple is holy, which is what you are.
Don’t fool yourself. If some of you think they are worldly-wise, then they should become foolish so that they can become wise. This world’s wisdom is foolishness to God. As it’s written, He catches the wise in their cleverness. And also, The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are silly. So then, no one should brag about human beings. Everything belongs to you— Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the world, life, death, things in the present, things in the future—everything belongs to you, but you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23)
Paul tells us that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you. And whoever destroys God’s temple will be destroyed themselves.
This is a popular verse for many people. I’ve heard it quoted as the reason someone shouldn’t get a tattoo, or the reason someone shouldn’t wear certain kinds of clothing. You all have probably heard in those ways, and probably interpret it that way yourself. Many of us read this passage as though Paul were talking to us each individually. “You are, as in your body is, God’s temple, and if you do anything wrong to it, God will destroy you.” That’s a pretty frightening way to interpret it.
But I think there’s one mistake we make when we understand this verse like that. When Paul says “you,” we think Paul is talking to each of us individually, like I just said. But if we look to the original Greek in which Paul originally wrote this, the word that’s translated as “you” isn’t singular, it’s not referring to an individual person.
It’s actually a plural word, pretty similar to how we use “y’all.” So a better translation of this might be “Y’all are God’s temple, the Holy Spirit resides in y’all.”
So by doing that, Paul is really talking to the community of Christian believers as a whole. And he’s saying that the church is God’s temple; the church is where the Holy Spirit resides. God the Spirit resides within the body of believers known as the church.
So here’s what I’m saying so far. This passage and a lot of others throughout Paul’s letters in the New Testament have often been read in very negative and condemning ways. But that might not be the only way to interpret those passages.
In that specific verse, we just re-translated one word and it totally changed how I personally understood the passage. “Y’all are God’s temple, the Holy Spirit is in y’all.” Listen to how affirming Paul’s message is there. He’s saying “y’all are right now God’s temple. God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, lives in y’all right now.
I said that Paul is talking to the church as a whole, not individuals. But this has nothing to do with church buildings. This letter was written to a community of Jesus-followers in the ancient city of Corinth, and they probably met in someone’s home – they didn’t have any fancy church building. So Paul is talking to the gathered people. He’s saying “you as a gathered congregation, wherever you are and whoever you are, you are God’s temple. The Holy Spirit lives in you as a gathered congregation. The Holy Spirit can be experienced in your life together as a gathered body of believers.”
Now Paul was saying this to a specific Christian community in Corinth, but he’s also saying it to every body of believers who has ever read this passage throughout Christian history.
So we can hear it like this. “Alger First, you are God’s temple. The Holy Spirit is among this congregation gathered here in Alger at this very moment. Alger First, the Holy Spirit is with us whenever and wherever we gather.”
Now the question I have is this: How in the world can Paul say that? So often, the church is a broken body, torn apart by infighting and squabbling and disagreements over leadership and theology and Biblical interpretation. We’ve all experienced this in some way, shape, or form, maybe with me or with a former pastor. So how can the church be God’s temple, how can the Holy Spirit be among us when we argue so often, when we’re broken by our own fighting, when we’re a divided congregation? How can this be true?
Like I said, Paul originally wrote this letter to a community of Christians he’d started in the ancient city of Corinth, and if you read on in this letter you can tell that they were very divided among themselves. We talked last week about how they’d separated into camps around which leader they followed – Paul or Apollos or Peter. The community was also separated by social class with the rich and upper class being treated with favor even within the community of believers, and the lower class were treated with disdain.
Paul wrote this letter to a very broken church. But Paul tells them that they are the temple of God and that the Holy Spirit lives within them, despite their brokenness and division and squabbling. So if Paul says that about the Corinthian community, than it’s true about any Christian community at any time in any place. But we’re still left with the question of how – How can it be true?
In that passage, Paul calls himself the builder of the community. Specifically, Paul says that he laid the foundation at the very beginning of the community. Specifically, he laid the foundation of Jesus Christ when this community was birthed. That foundation’s already been laid.
But then Paul says that someone else built on top of that foundation, and we all need to pay attention to the way we build on that foundation.
Now we can understand this metaphor Paul’s using pretty easily if we’ve ever watched home improvement-type TV shows, right? When a house is being built, there are specific people who pour the foundation of the house. But other people put up the frame. The electrician puts in the wires and switches. The plumber puts in the pipes. The interior designers set up the inside of the house. Get the picture?
A house is the product of a lot of people’s work. And all of them need to pay close attention to what they’re doing if they want to build a good, strong house that’s worth anything together. For example, if the plumber wasn’t paying attention and he installed the plumbing wrong, the toilets wouldn’t work. No one wants that, right? So the house wouldn’t be very good.
So Paul’s saying here that he already laid the foundation when this community was birthed – the community is already built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Someone else came after Paul and put up the proverbial frame, and someone else put in the proverbial plumbing.
But the important piece is that the foundation for this Christian community in Corinth has already been laid, and Jesus Christ is that foundation and that can’t be taken away.
And that means something important for us. The church has already been built as a Spirit-filled community. That foundation upon which Paul built the Corinthian community – the foundation of Jesus Christ – is still under us today.
The worldwide community of believers is still the temple of God and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. And we here at Alger First are a part of that worldwide community, which means that we as a church are already a part of God’s temple, and that same Holy Spirit lives within us as a congregation – within our life together as a Christian community in Alger.
So Paul named the Corinthian community and continues to name us today as a Spirit-filled community. And Paul directs us to live into that reality.
I want to direct your attention to verses 18 and 19. Now, remember what I said earlier about how every time Paul uses the word “you,” it’s really plural, more like “y’all?” With that in mind, here’s what Paul says in those verses: “If some of y’all think they’re worldly-wise, then y’all should become foolish so that y’all can become wise. This world’s wisdom is foolishness to God.”
Now, those verses aren’t saying anything about how much standard education you have or don’t have. Paul’s not talking about how many college or graduate degrees you have or don’t have. And he’s saying nothing about whether or not you can talk smart.
I think Paul’s referring more to the general way the world thinks. This Corinthian church that he wrote to had started thinking in the way the world thinks, and that caused division within the congregation. This Corinthian church had started to worry about how they looked to outside world; they started worrying about how respectable they were to everyone outside the community. And that’s what caused all the dysfunction and division that Paul takes them to task for later in the letter.
But here, Paul’s really saying “Your way of life doesn’t make sense to the world? Good! Your friends who aren’t a part of this community don’t understand you or this community and maybe make fun of you? Good! In fact, there’d be more of a problem if your way of life as a community did make sense to the world. So embrace that awkwardness. Live into it!
Your foundation is Jesus Christ and him crucified. You look at the world through a completely different lens than everyone else. Y’all, as a part of the worldwide community of believers have a different foundation than the rest of the world around you. So your way of life shouldn’t make sense to the rest of the world. Live into that!
The church has already been built as a Spirit-filled community. We are now called to live into that reality. We never have to wonder whether or not the Holy Spirit is among us – according to Paul, the Holy Spirit is always already among us and living with us. That is the reality for those of us who are a part of the Christian community. The question now is whether or not we are living into that reality.
But how do we live into that reality? Actually, the Gospel passage assigned today by the lectionary offers a perfect response for that. It comes from Matthew 5:38-48, and it’s part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. So hear these words of Jesus:
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”
Did you get that? Turn the other cheek. If someone takes your shirt, give them your coat too. If you’re forced to go one mile, go two miles. And the big one – love your enemies. And Jesus ends it all with this beautiful sentence – “Just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”
If we lived by worldly wisdom – if we worried about how respectable our church looked to the world, if we worried about whether or not the world likes us, then we wouldn’t follow any of Jesus’ instruction here.
But remember our present reality as a church. Our foundation is Jesus Christ, and no one can take it away. We as a church are already filled with the Holy Spirit. That is our present reality, and if we live into that reality, then those instructions we heard from Jesus will start to be reflected in the life of the church.
So think about these questions – to whom do we need to turn the other cheek? Who is trying to take our shirt, meaning that we would give them our coat too? As a church, who are our enemies, and how can we love them?
Now, I’ll say this as a quick aside here. So often, these words of Jesus have been used to justify abusive marriages or abusive relationships. But that’s not what these verses are talking about. If a spouse or a parent literally slaps you in the face or does the physical or mental or emotional equivalent of that, then you probably shouldn’t turn the other cheek, you probably need to remove yourself from that situation in some way, at least for a period of time
Remember, Paul is addressing the body of believers, not individuals. So as a church, who is our enemy, and how can we love them?
So often, when we talk about loving someone, we really mean “I’ll be nice to them and hope that they change so I can like them.” But I’m not talking about that here, because that’s not really love. How can we truly love our enemies?
I know that Alger First, as a whole congregation, is pretty conservative. So society tells you that liberals and progressives are your enemies. So if we take Jesus’ words seriously – and I think that’s always a good idea – then the question is really “How can we love liberals and progressives?” I’m not talking about “loving” them by trying to make them be conservative. How can we love liberals and progressive just as they are?
Now that’s just one example of this. I could go on. But church, there is no better way to change the world. We as a church are already a Spirit-filled community, united with the rest of the church around the world in one Spirit-filled community. That is our present reality.
We are called to live into that reality. Often that will involve doing things that don’t make sense to us or to the world. But remember that we are not alone. We have each other here in this room, and we are connected to all the United Methodist Churches in our district, in our annual conference, and around the world. And by the Holy Spirit we are united to the worldwide body of believers everywhere in our world – Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, Catholic – all of us are built upon the same foundation, we are all a part of one body, and we are already filled with the Holy Spirit. So how can we live into our reality as a Spirit-filled community?
To help us in this, you should have an insert in your bulletins titled “Prayer to the Holy Spirit.” Could you get that out? I’d like us to pray it together.
O Holy Spirit,
Who lives among us in this church
And binds us together as one family:
Open our eyes to see the work you’ve already done
To build us into a Spirit-filled community,
So that our ears may be opened
To hear your call to live more deeply
Into that reality;
In your Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining name,
If you were here for the last two weeks, this’ll be nothing new. But I invite you to take this prayer home. Follow the Daily Scripture Readings and pray this prayer each day throughout this week. If we all unite in doing that, maybe our eyes will open to the ways we can live into our reality as a Spirit-filled community.