1Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
16Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”
21So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours,22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (NRSV)
Years ago, while serving my first call in Mebane, NC, I would occasionally jump in the car and just drive. No passengers. No radio. No stops for junk food. And in those days, no cell phone. In that prayerful solitude, I paid attention to whatever caught my eye – people, homes, farms, trees, clouds.
One day I passed a small, frame house set close to the road. The front porch was just an exposed, concrete stoop. The scalloped, dingy-white siding was probably asbestos. The random clumps of scraggly grass struggling in the neglected yard looked more like litter than lawn.
One detail made this otherwise forgettable scene memorable. To the left of the house, but attached to the rest of the structure, lay a cinder block foundation. Inside the foundation, a mound of lifeless fill dirt smoothed over by years of exposure glared like a desert. Was it an abandoned part of the original floor plan? Was it an unfinished addition? I’ll never know.
“No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid,” says Paul. “That foundation is Jesus Christ. [And] each builder must choose with care how to build on it.”
Like the foundation of that house out in the North Carolina countryside, the Church’s foundation is always more spacious than we structures we build on it.
As an architect, Paul is frustrated with the Corinthian laborers. Having tried to build only on small, separate corners of the foundation, they’ve become fractured and fractious. Some build around Paul, others around Apollos, and still others around Cephas.
“Do you not know,” says the apostle, “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?…God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Our foundation is the eternal Christ, and our human hearts and minds struggle to comprehend his fullness. So, in order to keep things reasonable and manageable, we often find ourselves, like the Christians in Corinth, limiting the holy potential of our lives. Instead of trying to love as broadly and deeply as we are loved, we often tinker around in the comfort and safety of our own tiny corners. Nonetheless, through us, and, when necessary, in spite of us, God is constructing something life-changing, something world-transforming.
And it is about us. The “you” in this passage is plural. A culturally appropriate translation might be: “Do y’all not know that y’all are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in all-a-y’all?” Paul is proclaiming a cooperative project. The foolish, worldly wisdom Paul refers to is the futility of individualistic discipleship. God’s wise foolishness links our hearts, minds, and bodies together as we follow the blueprint of love and build a worldwide community of grace. Sure, it gets cumbersome, but none of us can build the temple by ourselves. That’s why forgiveness and reconciliation are the fundamental tools of temple building.
One thing we’re doing today is dedicating a refurbished steeple. The Session thanks everyone who made that project happen. The end result is everything we hoped for. During the process, we learned that the repair was overdue. Had we waited much longer, the structure of the steeple would have experienced major damage. So again, we thank Gordon Edwards and the property/safety team who worked so faithfully to organize the effort, Pat Wolfe and the finance team who made all the numbers work out, and you who gave so generously to the capital campaign. We’re also grateful to recent generations whose generosity put us in a financial position to cover unpledged costs.
We also turn our attention even further back this morning, back to long-ago generations who stewarded Jonesborough Presbyterian Church through years of brokenness and division and into a new era of unity.
In 1868, three years after the Civil War, Jonesborough Presbyterian, like so many congregations in communities with divided loyalties, split into two factions based on northern and southern sympathies. They formed two congregations: one affiliated with the old southern denomination—the Presbyterian Church in the US, and the other affiliated with the old northern denomination—the United Presbyterian Church. At first, the two groups shared the space we occupy today by holding services on alternating Sundays. Each congregation had its own pastor, session, missions, and budget. They shared the costs of maintaining the building.1 This arrangement lasted through the 1870’s. In 1880, when the two communities could no longer cooperate, the northern group began the process of purchasing land and building their own facility on the corner of Main and Fox Streets.
In the early 1900’s, the two sessions (First Presbyterian—in this building, and Second Presbyterian—in the new building) tried to no avail to restore the fragmented family. Over the next three decades they made numerous failed attempts to reconcile. During the 1930’s, the southern congregation had dwindled so drastically that the building we occupy this morning was essentially closed for over a decade. It had no pastor, and was opened only for the occasional funeral.
In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the PCUS remnant and the UPC congregation began reaching out to each other, again. It took a few years of conversation, but the two communities finally reconciled and reunited. They set to work restoring and expanding this facility which had begun to deteriorate. The work was dedicated during the week of October 15-20, 1944, 75 years ago this week. Second Presbyterian’s building was sold to the Christian Church denomination and is now Central Christian Church.
In reading through the history of this congregation, one can become discouraged by the hurtful and petty arguments between the two factions. One can also find encouragement in how often the two bodies sought reunification. I feel encouraged because my sense is that these two congregations knew in their heart of hearts that they were one body. They were built on the same foundation, the foundation of Jesus Christ, and whatever might have been going on between them, they belonged together. Something deep within the membership knew that what God had brought together could not be torn apart—at least not forever.
I’m reminded of a verse from the hymn by Samuel John Stone: “The Church’s One Foundation.” Though with a scornful wonder, we see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed. Yet saints their watch are keeping; Their cry goes up, “How long?” And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
It’s interesting: Just as we are celebrating 75 years of reunion, it took 75 years of separation to reunite. During those years of exile, church leaders led the communities in loyalties to particular histories and institutions rather than in loyalty to Jesus. Over time, old wounds healed because, it seems to me, those who had wounded each other finally died off in sufficient numbers to clear the way for new beginnings. Through it all, the foundation held. And that foundation called the people back into relationship and shared ministry.
I am truly grateful that our steeple has been refurbished. In final analysis, though, it’s just an object. What lasts, what makes a difference in the community of Jonesborough, TN is not the spire above our heads, but the foundation at the heart of our identity as Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. The men and women of this congregation 75 years ago knew that. And they found the grace to release all the painful memories that had been passed down to them, and to restore a community torn apart by the blind and bitter “craftiness” of loyalties to things of this world.
It occurs to me in all this that it was also roughly 75 years from the founding of this congregation to its division in 1868. Perhaps every 75 years this part of Christ’s body finds itself in a season of discernment and change. Whatever future may unfold beneath the steeple overhead, our calling is to remain grounded on the foundation of Jesus Christ, the foundation of eternal love, the foundation that is always deeper and more expansive than most congregations are willing to build on. As we follow Jesus’ example and his vision of radical grace, we expand the church. That is to say we expand our ministry with and for God’s beloved creation.
May love be our legacy. And in 75 years, may Jonesborough Presbyterian Church still be a place of welcome, worship, and service.
1All historical information about Jonesborough Presbyterian Church comes from Judith Haws Hash in her ETSU Master’s thesis, A History of First Presbyterian Church of Jonesboro, Tennessee, August 1965.
“What will be the work of sixty years among us? How few of the present congregation will be able to come back here at the end of fifty years, and revive the memories of this day? Time will have wrought great changes, and Death will have gathered a nice harvest. Our children and our children’s children will be in our places, and our names will have passed away…these walls will soon cease to echo our voices and our songs of praise, and these places know us no more forever; but there will arise in the Providence of God others, greater numbers, to sing his praise and worship his name, and preach his truth in a better manner than we have done.” (The Rev. Rufus Wells on the occasion of the dedication of the Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, August, 1850. Hash, p. 117.)