I once heard a story about a man who went fishing with his friend and after a while caught a really big fish. He was so excited, he leaned too far over the boat and fell into the water — the problem was, he could not swim at all.
“Help! Help!”, he cried in desperation as he tried to stay afloat. His friend reached out and was going to grab him by the hair and get him into the boat, but the man’s toupee came off and he slipped back into the water.
He came up again and yelled, “Help me!” This time his friend grabbed him by the arm, but as he pulled on his arm, it came off because it was an artificial limb.
The man continued to kick and trash around – “Help me! The friend reached out and managed to grab a leg and as he pulled on it, the leg came off – it was a wooden leg. As the man continued to splash, calling out for help, now sinking for good, his friend said, disgusted, “How can I help you if you won’t stick together?”
That seems to have been the main problem with the emerging Christian church in the Greek city of Corinth some twenty centuries ago. Those men and women were very enthusiast and had the best intentions, yet they were having a hard time “sticking together” as a church – no wonder they got themselves in deep waters!
The moment Paul heard the news, he wrote them a letter, a brief letter that over time became known as his “first” letter – or epistle — to the Corinthians, or “First Corinthians,” for short. That letter had become a monumental appeal to unity in Christ.
Here in this passage, Paul repeats something critical he had discussed sometime earlier in that letter – that if they wanted to be and to remain a healthy, viable congregation, they ought to focus on Christ’s own expectations and needs rather than on their own.
A few weeks ago, we discussed some of that congregation’s troubles.
How, despite their cultural and social sophistication, or perhaps because of it, they had split in four factions depending on who was their favorite preacher or leader – Apollos, Peter, Paul, and someone else never mentioned by name. Paul diagnoses the problem right away – You can’t stick together around the Lord, and if you can’t do that that, well, my friends, you’ll never be able to grow in the Lord.
Very sad, my friends, for if this is what happens, you’ll remain a bunch of “babies” — yes, this is what the apostle tells them not without certain irony — always sucking on milk rather than chewing on juice steaks!
Paul then resorts to a very simple illustration taken from agriculture to help them understand that they need to work as a team, together! Some should plant; others, should water — it’s that simple, the apostle tells them. You need to be willing to be a part of a team, Paul tells them. Yet Paul knows that being a team, behaving as a team, is not always easy, for some folks are soooooo full of themselves, they don’t want competition even within their own team.
Which reminds me of Philips, an excellent running back with his college football team. On that final season game, the quarterback was not giving Philips the ball.
As the game wore on and Philips’ team was getting behind, the fans began to chant, “Give the ball to Philips. Give the ball to Philips.” The quarterback ignored them.
Towards the end of the game Philips’s team was closing on the goal line.
It was quite a dramatic ending to a long, exhausting season. As they got the third down, the fans began to get louder and louder, “Give the ball to Philips.” A that precise point, the frustrated quarterback walked out of the huddle and motioned for silence from the crow. He then shouted out loud, “Philips don’t want the ball!”
Some folks in the Corinthian congregation didn’t want to trust the ball to some of their own brothers and sisters in Christ. They placed themselves so far above the others, they would rather try to make all the plays by themselves even if they never reached the goal line!
“I laid the foundation,” writes Paul, “but somebody else is building on it!” – somebody plants the seed, then somebody else will come right behind to water the seed. “You have to learn to set aside your natural inclination and desires to receive glory and praise for what you do for Christ,” we can hear Paul reminding them.
And just in case any of you may feel that your contribution to the body goes on unnoticed, listen well –God always notices. Always!
Whether you are setting up the coffee pot for our fellowship time, or counting the offering, or beautifying the altar, or playing with the band, or working with our children, or greeting our visitors, or moving tables, or doing numbers, or painting walls – God always notices! And God celebrates, and God gathers all that collective energy and makes things grow, for we are his church, together!
Back to Corinth — there in that big, cosmopolitan city the Lord wanted Paul to plant a church, yet the eloquent preacher Apollos was so good at watering and nurturing folks, God called him into the picture as well. Chances are, Apollos was around all the time, and he was quite pastoral and sweet, unlike Paul, who was always fighting the big theological fights.
Here in this letter, there is no mention of Peter’s own contribution, but who could deny that Peter’s own genius was as critical to the growth of that congregation as Paul’s and Apollos’?
But in chapter 3 there is more to this ABC for spiritual body builders, for “he who plants, and he who waters, are equal,” Paul says. And both are equally rewarded by their own labor. And their individual efforts amount to nothing unless they work together and stick together and with the same “mind”.
As I was organizing my thoughts for this meditation, I came across the following question, “Is there any time when God may hold back on his own blessings?” In other words – “Anything God will not so inclined to bless?” I then thought of so much trouble and arrogance and division in Corinth. I thought of so many churches literally dried out like the bones in Ezekiel’s graveyard because they lost their sense of unity and common purpose in Christ.
Like dysfunctional families. Like dysfunctional governments. Like dysfunctional sister nations – look at the horrors of terrorism and war and more terrorism and more war just this week as Palestinians and Israelis – two sister nations, no less — resume a bloody conflict more than two thousand years old.
“Sure,” I told myself — there should be times when God is so upset, so unhappy that he might hold back on his blessings, times when God may simply say, “No way I can bless your inability to stick together as members of the same body — whether a family or a church or a denomination, or a nation, or sister nations.”
Thanks be giving to God that here in Buckeystown we are always doing our very best to stick together — our congregational joy and enthusiasm, and our shared passion for mission and ministry despite our diversity witness to that.
You probably know the story about the little boy who went to church with his grandparents. His grandmother sat in the choir, and she often got irritated when grandfather nodded off to sleep in the middle of the sermon.
Finally, she decided on a plan -she gave her little grandson one dollar each Sunday morning to poke grandpa in the ribs whenever he fell asleep. This plan worked until Easter morning. The church was packed, ready for a long service.
Grandma was sitting in the choir, and she noticed grandpa nodding off; however, Tommy just sat there and let grandpa snore away. After the service grandma was very disappointed in Tommy. “Tommy,” she said, “What happened? You knew I would pay you a dollar after the service if you kept grandpa awake.”
Tommy replied, “Yes Grandma, but grandpa offered me two dollars if I would let him sleep”.
During the last few weeks I went through a period of discernment as I prepared to answer our Bishop’s “annual” question – “Pastor, are you willing to serve for yet another year where you are serving now? I didn’t hesitate – of course I am! And I gave our Bishop three reasons.
A silly one, first – they are so much fun to be with! Then, my second reason – in all things, they love to stick together, and they know how to do it! Finally, my third reason — you don’t have to bribe them to stay awake or to keep you awake.
Thanks be given to God for our togetherness in Jesus Christ our Lord and Redeemer.