This lectionary reading follows on Paul’s teaching that the Church’s unity is found in our union with Christ. It is a message that the Church today needs to hear more than ever, not just because there are literally thousands of Christian denominations around the world, but also because even those denominations do not satisfy some, as we Presbyterians learned ourselves just a few years ago upon the birth of the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, colloquially called “ECO.” Paul, for a few chapters now, has been ramping up a distinctively Christocentric ecclesiology — that is to say, having excoriated the church in Corinth for allowing personal allegiances to various schools of thought to divide them (1 Cor. 1:10-13), he points out that their unity in Christ supplants all possible division, and that their quarrelling is immature and sub-Christian (1 Cor. 3:1-9).
Paul goes on building his Christological conception of the Church by stating in no uncertain terms that “the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord” (to quote a classic hymn, not Paul directly). He then describes the Church as God’s holy Temple built upon that foundation. And it is important to point out that the Greek word for “you” is a second-person plural. Too often, I’m sure you have heard this passage used to teach us that each of our bodies is a temple unto itself for the Holy Spirit (this idea also commonly comes from Paul’s sixth chapter of this same letter, at verse 19). We shouldn’t abuse our bodies, we’re told; we shouldn’t participate in sexual misconduct because, it’s explained, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. I acknowledge that, as American hyper-individualists, we’d like to think our bodies are temples. But if that’s the case, then I’m afraid that mine is in rather a state of disrepair. And although I might be willing to take responsibility for the fact that the Holy Spirit deserves something a little more grandiose than my pasty white dad-bod for Her home, I’m afraid my premature balding and declining eyesight lies squarely at God’s own feet!
But all of that guilt I might feel over — well, let’s just call it “the bulges in my temple’s retaining walls” — is misplaced when we pay attention to what Paul is teaching in chapter three. Here he says that “all y’all” are the Temple of God, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Our bodies, individually, are at best building blocks of God’s Temple, not temples unto themselves.
Jesus himself said to his disciples in the Gospel According to Luke, “The Kingdom of God is within [or among] you” (Luke 17:21). It’s not something to look for or to wait for — we’ve got it in us already to be the Kingdom God established in Jesus Christ. Paul’s Christocentric take on the Church is that the community of faith — the people that comprise the Church — are, collectively, the dwelling place of God. The suggestion that people are God’s dwelling place, and not a building in the center of Jerusalem, is actually an important theological claim for a Pharisaic Jew such as Paul to make since at the time that he wrote First Corinthians, the Temple of Jerusalem still stood. Perhaps Paul recalled the words of Ezekiel who prophesied, “I will make a covenant of peace for them. It will be their covenant forever. I will grant it to them and allow them to increase. I will set my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling will be with them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Ezekiel 37:26-27). Surely we will recall Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well, when he said, “But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way” (John 4:23).
Although the Jerusalem Temple itself had not yet been destroyed by Roman forces, Paul writes about “destroying” the temple that he’s talking about — that is, destroying the community of faith whose foundation is Christ. What could destroy this temple? The kinds of division and self-aggrandizement of which the Corinthians themselves were guilty, and which has caused schism in the Body of Christ through history and to our denomination’s present circumstance. What could destroy the community of faith whose foundation is Christ? Not loving our neighbors as ourselves. Destroying the temple is, in fact, distressingly easy. To be sure, this cannot mean that Christ is destroyed — that is, indeed, impossible. But communities of faith? They’re damaged and destroyed all the time by the petty arguments about peripheral issues that turn brother against brother, sister against sister, and spoil the Church’s witness to the world.
The alternative is to be ever mindful of the sure foundation that Paul first provided for the Corinthians: the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. As the Lord says in the book of Leviticus, “You will be holy, for I the Lord am holy” (19:2b). I am struck by the fact that in this part of Leviticus, we are not given the impression that these prescriptions are intended to be individual, but collective. This is made most apparent by the fact that there are not penalties outlined for those who disobey them. Laws are usually written in such a way that we know what to do with people who violate them. Here, though, God says things like, “Leave something in your fields and your vineyards for the poor to collect,” but doesn’t follow that up with a penalty for disobedience. This is because these instructions are not legal statutes, but ethical demands. They provide a vivid description of the ideal community devoted to loving God and loving neighbor.
Previous to our current reading, Paul used the metaphor of agriculture to describe his work: “I planted, Appollos watered, but God gave the growth,” he said (1 Cor. 3:6). Today, he uses a new metaphor: that of the community of faith being like a temple built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, which Paul laid. In both instances, Paul is a worker who contributes to the up-building of the community by doing the initial work. He is then more than willing to allow others to contribute their gifts and skills to further progress. He planted; others watered. He laid the foundation; others built up from there. He couldn’t do it all, because what was being grown, what was being built, was the community itself. What we have — what we have received as an inheritance from those faithful saints who went before us — is a community of faith known as the Church. What we know about how to be the Church is also largely “received” from our forebears. We call it “tradition.”
But Paul closes this reading with an exhortation to remember our place. “Let us not boast about human leaders,” he says, returning to the original problem of people dividing themselves according to which pastor they preferred. “All things are yours,” he continues, “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you” (1 Cor. 3:21-22). Everything that the community of faith has going for it is yours. The Church’s success in faithfully fulfilling its God-given mission is not dependent on the Pastor; the Elders, Deacons, and Trustees; or the professional staff. The Church’s success is derived from everyone doing their part. No one person can claim credit for the community’s success; and by the same token, the community cannot be successful if all the work is left to a few individuals. “Everything is yours!” Paul declares. But this also means that everything is your responsibility. But then, thanks be to God, he follows this up with, “Oh and, by the way, you belong to Christ, don’t forget. And Christ belongs to God.”
To me, this is similar to what I have always thought of as one of Jesus’ best jokes: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” (If all things belong to God, then what’s left to give to Caesar?) But it is also a word of hope when you recall that if we belong to Christ — if the Church is really Christ’s Church — then any redemptive or reconciling ministry that might happen through us is really Christ’s ministry, not ours. Honestly, if the success of the Church participation in God’s mission to the world is left up to people like me, we’re in a heap of trouble! But it’s not up to us; it’s up to Jesus Christ, who has already achieved his redemptive, reconciling victory. Ours is now the privilege of participating in its being brought to fruition.
The congregation and its mission are our responsibility — ours collectively, not anyone’s individually. God has provided us with all that is necessary to undertake the ministry for which we have been called together: our gifts and skills and talents; as well as financial resources that enable us to participate in God’s ministry of generosity to the world. But our ministries are not ours — they, like the gifts we use to build them, belong to God, because we belong to Christ. In the end, that’s what it means that our community is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ in the first place. It is our union with Christ that gives us unity with one another; and it is our union with Christ, made possible by the work of the Holy Spirit, that makes us fit participants in his redemptive, reconciling ministry in the world.
The sooner we learn our place in the scheme of things — that we’re not the foundation, He is; that we’re not each of us temples, all of us are the dwelling place of God collectively; that we are, in the grand scheme of things, building blocks made for the purpose of glorifying God by being built together into something beautiful and useful to God’s Kingdom — the sooner we will see how communal is our calling, and how vital it is that our fellowship as a community of faith lead us to care deeply for one another and for the world around us.
Everything is ours, and nothing is. This church wouldn’t exist without us, but it doesn’t only exist for us. It exists to seek discipleship, reconciliation, divine encounter, and generosity, with Christ as the sure foundation upon which all our work must be built.