“A Common Purpose”
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (NRSV)
So, for some reason!*, I’ve had babies on my mind. Because of that, I feel some cognitive dissonance when Paul uses “infants” as an image of derision. Still, I have to understand his deep frustration with the Corinthians who are caught up in a cycle of petty “jealousy and quarreling.”
After planting a church, you see, Paul turns much of a new congregation’s nurture over to someone else while he moves on. During a visit to Ephesus, Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew whom Luke describes as a teacher of great eloquence, keen understanding of scripture, and “burning enthusiasm” had learned about Jesus through Priscilla and Aquilla. (Acts 18:24-28) Paul entrusts this gifted new disciple with leadership of the Corinthian church. And now, divided loyalties are causing a rift in the congregation. Some have so closely identified with Paul and others with Apollos that they no longer identify with God who had created all of them, and whom Jesus had revealed in a unique wholeness.
Calling the Corinthians to the carpet for their childishness, Paul says, You all still need to be nursed and bottle fed. You’re not ready for real food. You’re not ready for a meal you have to chew on carefully, savor gratefully, and share intentionally. You just want your bellies tighter than a tick on a bloodhound!
The Corinthian Christians’ hunger is a desire for power. One side thinks Paul offers the best chance to gain and hold authority, while the other side puts all its eggs in Apollos’ basket. Maybe one reason Paul is so frustrated is that he knows how that will play out. He knows that when the winds of change blow, human loyalties tend to shift, because people motivated by greed and fear will go wherever they think the milk will flow the easiest, and where they will get the most for themselves.
Playing authority figures against each other is a ploy as old as humankind itself. So, when Dad says No, the child pouts and walks away. Then he puts on a smile and says, Mom? Dad said I should ask you if we could get a puppy.
While that’s nothing more than childish manipulation, it’s also calculated espionage! Ben and Mercedes have done a good bit of rafting through the technical waters of the Nolichucky Gorge. Maybe some of the lessons they learned there will equip them for navigating the even trickier waters of Porter’s wily charms as he grows and encounters personal desires that pit his will against that of his parents. And there’s the rub: Their will. A shared will. Paul calls it the “common purpose.”
As Porter’s parents plant the field and water the crops of their offspring, they, like all parents, will need to find ways to commit themselves—lovingly, firmly, and, when necessary, sacrificially—to the “common purpose” of their son’s well-being. In parenting that may be a set of things more than any single thing. For Paul, however, when he writes to the Corinthians, he refers to a very specific common purpose: Faithfulness to “God who gives the growth.” Faithfulness is the purpose of the new faith community.
Matthew’s gospel is known for drawing parallels between Jesus and Moses. It seems to me, though, that Paul has more in common with Moses than Jesus does. Paul is trying to help establish the new community, and he doesn’t have four gospels to study and to teach. He doesn’t have a narrative record of all that the first apostles said, did, and experienced. He doesn’t have an anthology of pastoral letters that have been accepted as inspired and authoritative, letters reflecting theologically on the life and ministry of Jesus, letters written to guide intentional communities based on faithfulness to God by following Jesus.
What Paul does have is an oral tradition. He has random and subjectively-remembered stories recalling Jesus’ remarkable presence. Paul also has his own transformative experience, including a kind of burning-bush encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He has the memory of receiving care he didn’t deserve from a stranger named Ananias. Paul’s whole journey from sight-to-blindness-to-new vision has filled him with the conviction that Jesus is alive and present through the power of the Holy Spirit. Those experiences have kindled in Paul a new passion; he wants to live in faithfulness to God by helping to create a new, Christ-centered community, and to help lead that community into its own identity and place in the world. And it’s just inevitable that such a job will often feel like raising fussy, greedy children.
I think Moses could easily relate to Paul’s frustrations of trying to lead people in faithfulness to God while the people’s appetite for comfort and control sends them chasing after whatever seems to offer the best deal and the easiest meal. When a “common purpose” is reduced to everyone seeking their own best interests, “jealousy and quarreling” are only the beginning. Bitterness and chaos will soon follow because the people will be driven by an economics of scarcity rather than faith in God’s abundance. There will also be entire groups who will not simply be left behind in the pursuit of self-interest; they will be forbidden to seek their own well-being. Think of serfs in medieval Europe, African slaves in America’s antebellum south, and women around the world and throughout history.
Faithful commitment to a “common purpose” is always complicated. A common purpose requires the whole community to focus itself on a particular goal, both in the moment and for the future. That purpose also requires that each individual in the community claim and develop his or her or their own particular gifts. It requires that they be given room to process their own journeys of discovery, joy, and pain, and then to offer their unique perspectives to help broaden the community’s identity and deepen its mission. That’s why Paul will, more than once, compare the church to a body with many parts, all of which are integral to the common purpose of faithfulness to God through love of neighbor and earth.
The common purpose to which Paul refers challenges us to celebrate both individuality and community. And there will always be tension between those two. The trick is to avoid entering that tension as competitors looking to defeat opponents, or selfish children looking to play a zero-sum game. One sign of authentic maturity is the ability, indeed the commitment, to understand tension as integral to any creative process. Tension is a central element of the Christian life, says Richard Rohr who defines “hope…[as] an ability to hold creative tensions.”1
So, to live the Christian hope means learning to trust that all our human efforts, as vitally important as they are, are simply acts of planting, watering, and nurturing. “God [gives] the growth,” says Paul. Growth, life, existence itself, these are mysteries God does. And as people of faith, we celebrate them, call attention to them, wonder at them, give thanks for them, and steward them. In things like music, poetry, medicine, engineering, and parenting, we even participate in them as co-creators through Christ; but we are not God. We witness to God and serve God when we speak and act gratefully, lovingly, humbly, and with a commitment toward justice and wholeness for all people and for this one and only one planet on which we all depend.
Indeed, we are merely the field. God is the infinite array of purposeful relationships and mysteries within the earth that make the field fertile.
May your life be as rich as a God-cultivated field. And may your most precious gift to the Creation be your love for the Creator.
*Very early on the morning of this sermon, October 11, 2020, my wife and I became grandparents for the first time.
1Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York. 2011. P. 158. The complete paragraph is worth quoting: “In short, good leaders must have a certain capacity for non-polarity thinking and full-access knowing (prayer), a tolerance for ambiguity (faith), an ability to hold creative tensions (hope), and an ability to care (love) beyond their own personal advantage.”