I want to focus today on Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth. And just a reminder that when we hear Paul speaking to this particular congregation, we should also hear Paul speaking to us here at St. Matthias. That’s how God works. He definitely gave words to Paul to speak to a particular time and place and context, but God’s word extends well beyond that particular place and time and so even to us today. How so, because we have been made members of this same body, the Church, through Jesus Christ. So what Paul says to the Corinthians, he says to us too.
So what does God have to say to us through his servant Paul? Well, here we go:
3:1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.” Ouch. What does Paul mean here that this Christian body is still ‘of the flesh?’
This is what Paul says: “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” So quite literally, Paul is looking at the behavior of these Corinthian followers of Jesus – these folks like you and I who have been baptized into Christ and brought into his body which we call the Church – and he says look you’re behaving in ways that suggest you are setting your goals in accordance with the ways of this corrupt world rather than with the ways Jesus lived and showed to you. So what exactly does Paul mean.
He’s called out jealousy and quarrelling as particularly problematic in the Corinthian community and I’ll bet that all of us have had this same sort of experience. Jealousy gets acted out in a whole variety of ways from gossip to intentionally tearing another person down so you can appear to be better than them or at least better than you really are.
Because of course underneath jealousy is our feeling of insecurity and lack of value and worth. We are jealous of another because we feel they make us less valuable, or less worthy to other people. But when we act out of jealousy in a community of people, we end up not just hurting others by tearing them down, but we create an environment where those hearing our acting out either come not to trust us – so we hurt ourselves – or come not to trust the whole environment of the Church, and so they withdraw or leave altogether.
This jealousy Jesus calls out as problematic in the Gospels when he says, my friends, the least of you will be first. That is, those who refrain from acting out of jealousy – which often manifests as the need to appear first, better than, more than, whatever the cost to others – will be most open to grace and so receive it and so receive the kingdom of God. You who do this will be most capable and so also my best witnesses for you will show me instead of your own jealousy and insecurity to the world.
And of course usually where we see jealousy – insecurity about who we are and what value we have in God’s kingdom – we also see quarrelling. And where quarrelling exists, it is hard for anyone to see Jesus Christ as the one whom quarrelers worship. Think for a moment about the story of the brothers Cain and Abel. Both Cain and Abel are going about their business of being the people of God, worshipping and offering to God through their labor. God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s. Cain is angry, he is deeply jealous of Abel. So he says to Abel, ‘let’s go to work for God, let’s go out to the field,’ let’s get together and do work in the church … and when they’re doing their work for God, Cain rises up and kills Abel. But of course God sees this and says, “Cain, your jealousy will be your curse; your quarrel with your brother has destroyed your own capacity to work for me, the Lord.”
God will end up providing for Cain nonetheless, but the consequence of Cain’s jealousy and quarrelling remain to us this day a sign of tainted fruit; an unproductive fruit tree; to have one’s work burned up and to thereby suffer loss and so saved, as Paul says in the verses just beyond those we read today, “only as through fire.” In other words, it is not that your works will necessarily lead to your damnation – for God has mercy on his people through the glut of their deepest sins – yet one must know that that mercy comes with the consequence of experiencing Cain’s own consequence: a life saved but only through the refining fire, that, because of his own actions, will bring much personal struggle and suffering.
Jealousy and quarreling then are symptomatic of one’s failure to recognize something essential to faith: we don’t belong to a particular congregation, to a particular Church, to a particular job, to a particular human being. These things DO NOT define who we are. No, my friends: we belong to God through Jesus Christ who draws us ever closer to him in his Holy Spirit. Listen to what Paul says here:
3:4 For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human? 3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 3:7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
You see the Corinthians here were doing something the disciples had done with Jesus: they were attempting to secure themselves, to get rid of their fear and anxiety and insecurity by asserting that they belonged to Paul or to Apollos, and so because of this, they possessed the truth and everyone else was wrong. This assertion to have the truth and to be right because they belonged to a particular leader or congregation – Paul or Apollos – led to jealousy and quarrelling with one another, to the point that it blinded them to the actual truth: they belonged first and foremost to Jesus Christ. That all their self-assessment, all their work, all their lives, belonged to God in and through Jesus. To grow as a Christian, and particular as a witness or disciple, one must learn, as Cain had to, to accept this reality. You belong to Jesus Christ. This is who saves you, IN ORDER THAT, you might show his light to the world. And if you’re going to show his light to the world, then you have to choose to live not for your own needs and comforts, not out of fear, not out of insecurity, but out of the confidence that God has accomplished all things for you in Jesus Christ. This goes to your life right here and now: how do each of you, who in just a few minutes will hear the results of our survey, decide to witness to Jesus Christ? Is it out of fear or faith? Is it out of a sense that you ought to be served, or that you are a servant of God? Are you willing to set aside your fears, anxieties, jealousies, and quarrelling for the sake of showing this community to whom you belong? This is the decision before us, just as it has been before every Christian community through time right back to the Corinthians. We belong to God in Jesus Christ through his Holy Spirit. We are held, secured, moved, loved, shaped and formed by this reality … are we willing to acknowledge that and step into what might seem scary, worrisome, frustrating, with a sense of faith and hope? Or will we demand that we belong in to a modern day Paul or Apollos?