Fruitfulness: 1 Corinthians 3
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The reading and talk are long.
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This is 1 Corinthians 3.
“Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual, but as worldly, mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly for since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like a mere man? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men? What after all is Apollos and what is Paul? Only servants through whom you came to believe as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow, so neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything but only God who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose and each will be rewarded according to his own labour, for we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder and someone else is building on it, but each one should be careful how he builds for no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, his work will be shown for what it is because the day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you. If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him, for God’s temple is sacred and you are that temple.
Do not deceive yourselves, if anyone of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a fool so that he may become wise, for the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written, He catches the wise in their craftiness. Again, the Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile, so then no more boasting about men. All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future all are yours and you are of Christ and Christ is of God.”
Thank you so much for that reading. We’re coming towards the end of our series on fruitfulness, and so this morning, we’re looking at probably just a few verses in that chapter from 1 Corinthians 3. This is Paul speaking to the rather interesting church in Corinth. Now, before I arrived in Fortune nearly five years ago, my uncle, who’s a lead reader in the Church of England, asked me how I felt about being in charge of people’s spiritual lives. I think I paused, and then said something along the lines of, well, I don’t think I’m in charge; they are.
My job is to care and encourage and help and build the Kingdom of God where I’m going. I don’t think it’s ever anybody’s job except my own to be in charge of my own spiritual life. I think if I had been told that I had, or I was going to be in, charge of everyone’s spiritual lives, I might have had second thoughts about coming. Maybe I’m wrong, but the point stands here in the church in Corinth, to whom important is writing. He’s writing to a group of people who have accepted Jesus, but who aren’t growing in spiritual ways. They’re not being fruitful because they’re in-fighting.
Last week, we talked about the fruitfulness in the context of the fruit of the Spirit and those who are filled with the Spirit of God. Also, walking in step with the Spirit in Galatians 5. To a different church now, Paul writes to explain some easy steps to grow in faith, rather than squabble over unimportant things. As we approach the end of our series on fruitfulness, last one next week, today, we’re going to look at who it is that makes us grow.
In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them, as well as us today, that we are the body of Christ, each one gifted and rightly gifted for a particular function and service in the body, analogous to how our human bodies are put together and are designed by God to function. Another bit of 1 Corinthians says, well, the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you,” but rather God has so designed the organs and parts of our bodies and the church so that we need each other, if the body and the church are to be healthy.
In Chapter 3 here of 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing the issue of sectarianism. That’s the word that used to be around in the ‘80s and ‘90s in Northern Ireland particularly, and partisanship. That was creating divisions within the life of the Corinthian Church over its leadership. He raises the question to them in verse 5, what is Apollo? Who is Paul? Were just merely servants through whom you came to believe as the Lord assigned each task. In Paul’s view, he and Apollos and perhaps other leaders were merely farmworkers who got used to cultivating a crop. He uses an analogy from agriculture to suggest that the church is like a watered garden.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow, so neither he who plants or he who waters is anything, but only God who makes the thing grow. Valma gave me some plants this year and Andy Brookes has given me plants in the past as well. It may be that they do the digging and the sticking the seeds in the soil, but if they’d given it to me and I just left it in the gardens and do nothing, they wouldn’t grow. I have to water them. I have some lovely tomatoes this year, I’ve got cucumbers as well. In Paul’s mind, the one who plants and the one who waters are one, meaning that their efforts were complementary parts of the same agricultural activity.
Therefore, for the Corinthians to play one off against the other was actually ridiculous. Both were necessary. Without a planter, there would be no crop to water. Without the waterer, the crop would die. Each one of us does that little bit that God calls us to do, but God gives the increase, if you like. Maybe many of us don’t feel that God calls us to do stuff. It seems to me that, if we have the Spirit of God living in us, we want to walk by the spirit, and so we listened carefully to what God wants to say to us, that small still voice that we obey, we listen, and we act.
That’s a small prompting from God. God is the one who makes the stuff grow. God gives the increase. The one who plants, the one who waters, they don’t really matter in comparison to God. It’s only really God who matters that we have to play our part to. In so many words, the church is the watered garden and we’ll return to that image next week when we look at a bit of Revelation 22. The church is like the soil out of which God brings in to harvest the fruits of ministry. Some preach and some teach, some administrate, some play musical instruments, some sing, some pray, some like to visit, some like to send cards or gifts.
Some are good with children, some give financially, some do maintenance to help the church keep clean, some cook, some are involved in community work, some are involved in the work of doing justice and love and mercy, but God alone is the one who brings the blessing. We’ve been thinking this week about how we are and who we are at Main Street, and although our numbers perhaps in terms of activity may be a little bit depleted than they were a couple of years ago, we’re still here.
We still have what we need for our community to make that community livable again. Yes, we might have to cut our cloth a little bit in terms of activity or in terms of who does what because of where we’re at right now, but God still makes the stuff grow.
Speaking of activities, I thank everybody, for those who’ve said that they would serve coffee after the service, I didn’t write the list down, so if you can let me know again. If you said that you would serve coffee or welcome on the door, that will be great, and then I can make into a real rota because it wouldn’t be a church without rotas, would it? Thank you.
In Corinth, there’s a lot of bickering. Paul is really saying to the people there, “Look, stop comparing yourselves. Give God the praise. Give God the glory because God alone is the one who makes this garden grow.” What we learn from our own bodies is that we can’t make ourselves grow. There are certain responsibilities. Well, we can if we eat too much, and that’s the wrong kind of thing. What we learn from our own bodies is that we can’t make ourselves grow upwards, at least. There are certain responsibilities we have as stewards of our bodies to ensure that they remain healthy.
Growth is something beyond the mind and power of humanity to accomplish. Growth always comes from God. Growth, fruitfulness almost is interchangeable. Even whilst they lived hundreds of years apart, Paul and Isaiah, Isaiah himself described God’s people like the water garden. You’ll know that I’ve got a penchant for Isaiah 58. In Verse of 11 of Chapter 58 of Isaiah, it says this, “The Lord shall guide you continually, satisfy your soul in droughts, make fat your bones and you shall be like a well-watered garden, like a spring of waters whose waters fail not.”
Isaiah uses the analogy of that watered garden to help us understand what it is to be in the family of God. You know by now how much I love that, that bit of Isaiah. What it means for us as a church, and certainly for me as a follower of Jesus. Now church is a garden seeking to nurture the lives of anyone and everyone who is part of us, both within the congregation gathered and scattered, those at home, those who’re in touch with in the community around us through the coffee mornings and the other things that Andrew mentioned in his prayers in order that we might blossom in fruitfulness before God, the real gardener.
All these links back to what Martin was saying a few weeks ago about the importance of how the vineyard owner in the Old Testament was a picture of Gods tending the vineyards to grow big and fat grape crops. His people, those who are coming into his kingdom. If we don’t mature and bear fruit, then we remain like the Corinthians, infants in Christ, babies. Those words are important because they tell us what Paul thinks about the Corinthians. They are actually in Christ. They’ve actually come to some saving experience of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
It was true, It’s true belief that they believe through what Paul’s taught them about Christ crucified. That was Paul’s main message throughout his writings, throughout his letters, Christ crucified and being in Christ. Paul’s not saying that the Corinthians aren’t Christians, but he’s saying that he couldn’t address them as spiritual people. The Holy Spirit probably is active there to some extent, but they’re largely ignoring the Holy Spirit’s influence. Instead, they’re being fleshy kind of people. Last, we were talking about being people of the flesh or people of the spirit. People of the flesh as infants in Christ.
Flesh is the opposite of spirit in Paul’s writings. Paul says, rather than listening to the spirit and following Christ, the Corinthians are being fleshy like infants in Christ. Maybe you’ve been or have been or our parents or grandparents. When babies are born, they’re pretty helpless. They need feeding all the time and you rejoice when the newborn gains weight. I wonder how many of us can say the same about us now. But we do that. We feed them because that’s what they need to become fleshy. Infants are meant to be fleshy. They’re meant to be squidgy, aren’t they? Because there’s nothing really other than for them to do apart from sleep and eat and eat and sleep and grow.
As it happens in human development, eventually, children grow up. That’s what’s normal, that’s what happen, people grow up. I always find it interesting when perhaps you haven’t seen a small grandchild for a long time and you say, “Oh, haven’t you grown?” Did you expect them to shrink? No, you wouldn’t. We grow. Eventually, babies crawl, they walk, then they run, and suddenly, they’ve got this unlimited well of energy that’s opened up and they run around constantly all day tiring us out until they crash at the end. This is the way that normal, early childhood develops.
What Paul is saying to the Corinthians is that when they were infants in Christ, they needed that milk, and so he says, “I fed you with that milk.” He says, “I knew what you needed and that I had to deal gently and ease you along into knowing Jesus Christ. I couldn’t give you solid food,” he says, “Just as you couldn’t give that to an infant.” Earlier, it was fleshy. You were like a fat chubby baby. There’s this baby fat that eventually will be worked out of you just through normal faith development, but here Paul is saying it’s not cutesy anymore. Right now, they are characterised by deeds of flesh and not of the spirit.
They are rallying behind a leader or leaders: Paul, Apollos, whoever else it was. Holding up the leader as the main thing rather than Jesus. Jesus has all the gifts and he appoints different gifts and different responsibilities to different servants, to each one of us. We’ve got specific people to reach that God has put us in proximity to: our loved ones, the people from the market, the market traders, the meat perhaps. People that God wants to reach through us and our relationships. We’ve got to be faithful to the convictions that God has given us in order to bear healthy fruit, in order for us to grow and for others to grow.
It means respecting and loving and recognizing that diversity is a gift. Be united on core stuff such as Jesus, the Messiah, His death, His resurrection so that we can have a repaired relationship, I guess, with our farmer, Father God. We may be more diverse on other ways and perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps, rather than being identical believers, believing every single thing together, when it comes to particular issues of life or doctrine or personal issues, maybe there are different ways that we interpret. This might be due to upbringing or life experience, our own interpretation of Scripture, a whole manner of things.
It’s why I love our Tuesday afternoon and evening Bible studies. We can talk about what the Bible means to us, rather than what the Bible says, because we interpret Scripture with our own lens and sometimes we need to get other people to understand what it says to us as well to perhaps get the best out of it. I hope because of our times together we all mature and understand better and deeper when we talk and listen about God and Scripture, and so it’s Paul that plants, it’s Apollos that waters. Different people with different skills, abilities, that make us who we are.
I’m sure I’m not the same person as I was when I walked into this building for the first time in my interview almost five years ago. A bit of nature, maybe a bit of nurture, who knows. It’s God that does the growing. He’s the one in charge of spiritual growth, but we do have to put ourselves in a way of being able to grow. Being together, praying together, understanding, reading scripture. That stuff that maybe Paul might categorize as baby food, I don’t know. God’s fellow workers. Workers belonging to God. We are the church and we belong to God. We are God’s field and his building.
It’s God that helps us mature. As I said to my uncle, “I’m not sure that I’m in charge of your spiritual growth. I’m not sure that I’m in charge of anybody’s spiritual growth apart from my own.” As a community, we are responsible for one another. It’s like health and safety. I did a health and safety course about 12 years ago and the first question they asked was, well, whose responsibility is health and safety? Must be the health and safety officer. No. If you saw something on the floor that was in the way, you’d move it out of the way. You might tell the health and safety officer, but health and safety is all of our responsibility.
In a similar way, so is our spiritual growth. Let’s continue to encourage one another in all sorts of ways and ministries as our gifts allow us. May we thank God for all that he offers us, and may we receive all that he has in store for us so that we may bear much.
References and sources
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.