Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Throughout the season of Epiphany, we’ve heard and affirmed that the Word-made-flesh is God’s own wisdom and power graciously revealed for us.
Yet often we fail to grasp how profoundly this truth has changed the world, and we still try to make the old, non-Epiphany ways work.
The Corinthians seem to have been stuck in those ways too. In 1:10-17, Paul had begun talking about how the Corinthians were arguing over allegiance to various apostles. Then, before that issue was settled, Paul seemed to forget all about it and to wander off into a discussion about the cross of Christ as the wisdom and power of God.
However, Paul hasn’t lost his rhetorical way. Ever since 1:18, Paul has been criticizing the world “out there” for not recognizing God’s wisdom. Paul probably has the Corinthians nodding in agreement at this point. He has made a sharp distinction between God’s wisdom and the false wisdom of this old, doomed age.
In 2:13 he had mentioned how “we” share spiritual things with spiritual people, and the Corinthians probably thought that they were included in that claim, either on the giving or the receiving end (or both). But Paul begins chapter 3 with an emphatic “I,” contrasted with “you.” Paul makes clear that they aren’t spiritual at all, since their behavior is being determined by competition for status and the expected pursuits of society, rather than by the gospel. “Flesh” in this text should not be understood as something internal, private, or hidden. Rather, in this text “flesh” means the basic, standard, normal, and agreed-upon ways that human society functions, the accepted ways of defining and pursuing the good life.
The Corinthians are still “fleshy” because they’re acting as though Christ has not changed any of that. They have failed to realize how the gospel of the cross has brought a new creation. They are still acting as though the pursuits and the goals that the world promotes are determinative and defining for the church. They are, Paul says, acting like little children.
Of course, we recognize something of ourselves in these Corinthian ways. Congregations can become divided and distracted by old allegiances to former leaders and to former ways of doing things, and by old hurts and old fights. We so easily think that those things need to define us. The church too often adopts the culture’s claims about what ought to be valued and pursued as the center of our identity: nationalism, power over others, prosperity, and some safe distance from those who would make that prosperity uncomfortable. We, like the Corinthians, often resist being shaped by the wisdom of the cross.
Paul’s solution to this is a theocentric view both of the church’s leaders and of the church’s own identity. In verse 6, putting the Corinthians’ bickering over apostles into proper perspective, Paul says that he planted a seed, and Apollos watered it. In both cases, Paul uses an aorist tense verb — a simple statement that these things happened.
But in declaring that God “was giving the growth,” Paul uses an imperfect tense verb, a form that stresses God’s ongoing, continual action. The labor of Paul or of Apollos would have been fruitless if God had not been at work all along. This is the bedrock conviction of any ministry, whether that is ministry carried out by the designated leaders of the church, or by individual members of the church in their own particular vocations, or by the church as a whole: we can engage in ministry only in the trust that God is going to be at work, in and through what we do, to bring the growth that God wants. If the work we are engaged in is built on some other conviction, it isn’t really ministry of the gospel at all, but is focused somewhere else and with other goals in mind.
Our understanding and our practice of mission in all its senses should be shaped not by our culture’s assumptions about consumerism and the associated assumption that “mission” means looking like the best religious deal on the block. Mission must not be shaped by our culture’s lionizing of “entrepreneurship” and its assumption that we are called to “sell” the gospel (or, more likely, to “sell” membership in a church by making sure that we offer it at a lower cost than our competition).
Rather than such culturally bound (“fleshy”) ways of seeing the church’s mission and ministry, this text might lead us to imagine what it means that our calling is to plant the seeds of God’s mercy, which will grow by God’s action and in God’s time. We are called to nurture and water that mercy with compassion and love and justice, and leave whatever growth, in whatever form, to God.
Verse 9 brings this part of Paul’s discussion to its central point. The church and its leaders all belong to God, and the church has its identity from that reality. Paul had addressed the Corinthians right away as “the church of God” (1:2), but they had failed to realize the implications of that claim.
Perhaps we all need a reminder, whether we spend worship time in the pulpit or in the pew, that neither the congregation nor the ministry belongs to us. The church does not belong to culture or the market place. It doesn’t even belong to particular theologians or particular denominational confessions. The church belongs to God. The church is called to see, in and through (and sometimes despite) the workers in the church, that God is the one who is bringing growth, maturity, and the full flowering of the seed that has been planted through the preaching and the living of the gospel.