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Sunday, February 12, 2017 | 8:00 a.m.

Rocky Supinger
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 119:1–8
1 Corinthians 3:1–9

The word spirit has come to mean something pale and shapeless, like an unmade bed. The adjective spiritual has become downright offensive. If somebody recommends a person as spiritual you tend to avoid that person, and usually with good reason.

Frederick Buechner


Corinth was an important crossroads in the first-century Roman Empire. Lots of the day’s traffic and commerce, philosophies and ideas made their way through Corinth. It was a wealthy pluralistic city, a melting pot of cultures and religions. From temples to exotic food, if you couldn’t find it in Corinth, it couldn’t be found. Corinthians are some cultured, cosmopolitan, worldly-wise people.
Sound familiar?

Chicago could be Corinth. But you don’t have to be in Chicago or any other major metropolitan hub these days to experience this kind of culture and diversity and spirituality. Ours is the era of the Spiritual-But-Not-Religous. We have yoga and meditation and interfaith dialogue.

Reading the letter to the Corinthians, we try to place ourselves in this Corinth. But in many ways, Corinth has come to us.

Biblical scholars believe that one of the prompts for this letter from Paul to the church in Corinth is a certain irritation the congregation is experiencing at the lack of spiritual “meat” in Paul’s teaching. They fashion themselves, as Corinthians, to be among the most spiritually sophisticated people in the known world. They do yoga. They practice meditation. They are surrounded by every expression of spirituality you can imagine, a fact they feel is being lost on their founder.

So Paul writes a letter (and we’re quite sure it was Paul who wrote this one). He mentions very early on that Chloe’s people have reported to him some of what’s going on in Corinth. He starts out with some spiritual flattery: in the letter’s salutation he says that the believers in Corinth are “not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Well alright then. Now we’re getting somewhere.

A little later, in the section right before our reading, he will unpack this “spiritual” lingo a little bit. He says, “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”

You can see the Corinthian heads nodding up and down in approval. “Those who are spiritual,” they repeat. “That’s us. He’s talking about us. He gets it.”

So then where does this come from, the first phrase from our reading: “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh”? That “flesh” stuff isn’t as seedy as it sounds: Paul uses that term simply to refer to human conventions and restraints. Still, it’s pretty harsh, isn’t it? “I can’t talk to you like spiritual people”?

Maybe we’re not as spiritual as we think we are. Maybe our rubric for spirituality needs recalibrating. Maybe yoga and meditation and interfaith dialogue are not what spirituality is all about.

This gets worse before it gets better, because not only can Paul not speak to the Corinthians as “spiritual” people, he said he had to speak to them as infants, babies he has had to feed with milk because they were not ready for solid food.

On one level, this isn’t bad at all. The church in Corinth is young. All the churches addressed in these New Testament letters are young; it’s the first generation of the church. The book of Acts, chapter 18, has the history of this church’s founding. Paul got run out of Athens, so he went to Corinth, where he preached about Jesus in the synagogues as was his habit. As was their habit, the synagogues told him to take a hike, so Paul took his message about the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles of the city and founded this church. It took him about a year and a half, at which point he left. By Acts’ nineteenth chapter, a different leader, Apollos, is in Corinth.

So they’re young. They’re two pastors in. The church you are a part of was organized 146 year ago, in 1871, on—are you ready for this?—February 12!

Also, the Corinthian believers are mostly Gentiles, which means that they come to Jesus from the Greek and Roman temple religions, not from the Judaism of Paul’s upbringing, the Judaism of the apostles, the Judaism of Jesus. Paul addresses this later in the letter. He reminds the Corinthians, “You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.”

So they’re young. Babies yet. There’s no shame in that. There are some things about faith they’re not ready for yet.

I’ve thought a lot about this idea of readiness and the image of solid food this week. The image I keep seeing in my mind is of these grey-haired church ladies in the international arrivals terminal of O’Hare on Tuesday night. I was there with my wife, Meredith, and our daughter, Laura, because Meredith is part of the Lincoln Square Moms, a Facebook group that is sponsoring a Syrian refugee family. It’s a young couple and their sixteen-month-old daughter, who, after being caught up in the refugee ban two weeks ago, finally arrived Tuesday night. It was a beautiful scene, and I’m unspeakably proud of my wife for being part of it.

But there was another family of refugees arriving at O’Hare on Tuesday night.

There was another group there to welcome a different refugee family, one whose picture you didn’t see and whose quotes you didn’t read in the paper, because they declined the media attention. This welcoming group was a church, and the volunteers at the airport were mostly bespectacled church ladies whose calm and focus was a marked contrast to the nervousness and exhilaration of everybody else in the terminal, including me.

They just seemed ready for what they were doing. I suspect this wasn’t the first family of refugees they’d sponsored. I wonder if years of the solid food of discipleship—welcoming strangers, working for a common purpose, worship—hadn’t prepared them in some really tangible way for Tuesday night.

But how? How do you get ready? Scripture doesn’t provide a prescription here, I’m afraid. But there is a pretty straightforward diagnosis of the lack of readiness of the Corinthian church: conflict. Conflict in the church bespeaks a lack of spiritual depth and a lack of readiness.

And a conflict is never just a conflict, right? It’s always about something. It’s about the color of the carpet or the politics of the preacher or any number of things on a scale of matters that includes the quite serious as well as the ludicrous.

In Corinth, the conflict is about the leaders, Paul and Apollos. You see, Paul started this church. But then he left to start other churches, and Apollos came to Corinth after him. Since then some of the Corinthian Christians have remained loyal to Paul, while still others—who maybe never really cared for Paul all that much—have embraced Apollos. Now you have factions. There’s your conflict.

The thing is that the partisans in this conflict think they are doing something good. They think they are honoring their leaders by claiming loyalty to them over against the other faction’s leader, you understand? So the church is divided in a Paul faction that probably wants things to go back to the way they were before and an Apollos faction that wants to get some new blood in here to shake things up.

You ever seen anything like that?

During my last year of seminary I interned in a church that had been served by the same pastor for forty years, and it was the only church he ever served. The year I spent there was his last year before retirement, so don’t you know I had a front-row seat to the quarrel that played out between the faction that would never feel the same way about the church after he left and the faction that wished he would have left years ago.

It happens, right?

But let us not be content when it happens—when zealous factions pull at the fabric of the church—to simply point to the flawed, human nature of the church as we shrug our shoulders helplessly. That kind of behavior is human, alright. According to Paul it is “merely” human. The church is called to be so much more than “merely” human.

After all, it’s a silly conflict if we rightly understand the nature of leadership in the church, isn’t it? The church, as a spiritual community, practices leadership as servanthood, from its pastors to its elders and deacons and all the way through.

This goes back to Jesus, right? He said he “came not to be served but to serve” and told his disciples, “The greatest among you must be the servant of all.” From the church’s beginning it has called Jesus the “servant of God.” For the church, leadership has always been service.

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.” What is this pastor or that pastor? This theologian or that theologian? This committee chair or that committee chair? This youth leader or that youth leader? Just servants, doing what the Lord assigned to each.

Illinois-born hymn writer Rusty Edwards put it this way in a hymn we’ll sing later this morning:

We all are called in service
to witness in God’s name.
Our ministries are different,
our purpose is the same.

When I lived in California, my neighbor Barbara and I planted a garden. There was this tiny strip of dirt in the courtyard of our townhouse building, and we put in two terraces and planted tomatoes, tomatillos, green beans, and some peppers.

My neighbor planted; I watered. And boy did it grow. I will never forget the experience of eating sun-warmed cherry tomatoes right off the vine that first year. It was a juicy miracle.

We planted a few things the second year but not nearly as much. But stuff still grew, stuff we didn’t even plant. The tomatoes, for example, came back, seemingly on their own. In the third year some flowers that looked like squash blossoms mysteriously appeared, and it took us several days to figure out that they were pumpkins. We were startled. My six-year-old daughter and her pumpkin-carving playmate, however, were not.

I share this because it is the best way I have to understand the truth that God gives the growth not only in a garden but, more miraculously, in the church. We want to attribute effects to causes, good or bad, and we prefer the causes with names and faces. Did the church grow? Credit the former pastor. Did it decline? Blame her.

Paul tells this struggling church in Corinth, though, that it’s not which leader presided over which period of growth or decline. He says, “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

When we are part of the church, whether that church has thousands or dozens of worshipers, we are farmhands to soil in which growth is driven by things outside our control. We may determine that the world needs nothing more than tomatoes. We may form a task force and write a strategic plan for growing the very best tomatoes. We may hire top-notch staff to plant and water those tomatoes. And then one day, when we’re not looking, God and her little friend will toss in a bunch of pumpkin seeds.

We plant. We water. God gives the growth.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.