One Temple

Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

The video of this service can be watched here. The sermon begins at the 40' mark. 

I think, of all the imagery that’s found in Paul’s First Letter to the Church at Corinth, the image that most of us remember is the church as the body of Christ. It’s here in this letter that Paul seems to develop that image most fully. And it really is just about the most effective way of describing what the church is and how the church functions.

But, for six weeks now, we’ve been looking at the earliest part of this letter—the first three chapters. And in these chapters, we don’t yet read anything about the body of Christ. But there are a couple of other images that stand out. The first one was the cross. Paul talked quite a bit about how the cross didn’t make any sense to the world. To them, it seemed foolish to use it as a symbol of salvation. But to those who were in Christ, it was everything.

And then, there’s the image of the church, not as the body of Christ, but as a building. I’m not talking about a church building like ours. The Corinthians didn’t have those. Separate church buildings didn’t come about till later. At this point, Christian meetings were much more low-key—sometimes even secret—and they were usually held in somebody’s house. So when Paul writes about the church as a building, he’s using a metaphor. And his point so far has been to remind the Corinthians of their foundation. Last week, Paul’s closing point was that no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

Today’s passage continued on by talking about what we build on that foundation. I think what I might’ve expected of Paul (and what I probably would’ve done) would be separate lists of building materials. On the one hand would’ve been materials which would last—ones that could’ve withstood the refining fire: gold and silver and precious stones and the like. And on the other hand, wood and hay and straw and other stuff that is easily burned away. But Paul doesn’t do that. He doesn’t talk about which material is more valuable or better able to withstand the heat. He just names them all together in one big lump and lets his readers decide which will last and which will burn away.

But what’s most interesting of all is how, in the end, he seems to imply that all builders will be saved—the ones who used solid, lasting materials, as well as those who used cheap materials that won’t last. Then Paul says something that, if words have any value in and of themselves, is a real jewel. It’s because this sentence is probably the most often-quoted of all the verses in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians. He asks,

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
—1 Cor. 3:16

From the time I was in youth group on, I’ve heard this verse quoted a million times—usually in reference to something that shouldn’t be done. This included smoking and drinking and doing drugs (especially when I was in Sunday School or youth group). I don’t reckon kids get this verse quoted to them all that much anymore. But 1 Corinthians 3:16 is probably still quoted more often than most Bible verses.

And, of course, the point is a good one: If God’s Spirit dwells in you, then your body is God’s temple; so don’t do anything with or to your body that dishonors God. When I think of it in this way as an older adult, I usually think more in terms of diet and exercise than I do of drugs. But either way, there’s a lesson to be learned.

But it’s not really Paul’s lesson. In other places this might be the kind of point he tries to make. But not here. And maybe we could see this if we were still reading the old Authorized (King James) Version: Know ye not that ye are the temple of God…? Paul’s not talking to individual Corinthians. He’s not talking to me or to you as individuals. He’s talking to an entire church. So he’s not saying, “You, an individual, are a temple of God.” And he’s not saying, “You all are a collection of God’s temples.” He’s saying, “You all, as a church, are the temple of God.”

Think about the difference in those two messages: You are each a temple of God, vs. Together, you are God’s temple. I’m not saying the first one isn’t a good message. I grew up with it, after all. Maybe you did, too. Perhaps it’s what kept us on the path—on the straight and narrow… or at least the narrow. But that’s not the message Paul intended. Paul was talking to a church, and to the church, said, “You all are God’s temple.”

The first message—the one that’s not the message here—can be heard in two ways, black and white. We can hear the negative: Don’t do anything wrong, because you’re a temple of God, and you’ll shame the Holy Spirit. Or much more positive: This is how much God loves you—you’re so filled with the Spirit that you’re a veritable temple of God.

The second message—the one that is Paul’s message here—is a lot more subtle, a lot more nuanced. Christ is the foundation of the church, and all the different members of the church together are built into God’s temple, the place in which God’s Spirit dwells. The first thing I think of when I hear this—my first impression—is that God loves us enough to let us build God’s temple out of whatever materials we’ve got on hand. Some precious, some common; some that will last forever, and some that will burn away at the first sign of heat. Gold, straw, silver, straw, precious stones, wood, these are the things the members of the church contribute. Not every bit we add will survive, but all the builders will be saved in the end.

We all know the expression, “We’re all in this together.” But here, in this case, let’s leave out a word. It’s not that we’re all in this together, it’s that we are all this together: Together, we are the place where God dwells; together, we are the presence of God’s Spirit in the world.

Here’s where I see a connection between today’s passage and the Transfiguration story. In the story, when the disciples had an inkling of God’s presence on the mountaintop, their first reaction was to try to contain Jesus and Moses and Elijah in their own separate dwelling-places. “Let’s build a booth for each of you,” Peter said, “that way we can preserve what we’ve got.” Three separate dwelling places: One for Messiah, one for the Law, one for the prophets.

But this was not to be. Christ was all-in-all. He was, in fact, the place where all three came together, and he was the home of God’s Spirit. And so it would be rather arrogant for me to imagine that I am, all by myself, God’s temple. The same would be true for any other member of the church. If neither Moses nor Elijah were worthy of their own dwelling, then neither are we. We are the church together, and together we build upon the foundation of Christ.

Remember, Paul doesn’t divide the church up among those worthy members who build using precious materials and those less worthy members who use cheaper materials. If we are in Christ, we’re in this house together—not this church building (though that may be part of it), but this spiritual house, consisting not of bricks and mortar, but of the members of the church.

It changes the way we look at each other, doesn’t it? If we’re all in this together, then all the gifts that we offer—all our work, all our ideas, all our prayers, all our donations—are part of what we’ve built on the foundation, which is Christ. And before we point an accusing finger at those we think are piling their straw on our diamonds, let’s take note of this: Paul doesn’t tell us what qualifies as building material that will be burned up and building material that will endure. What if, in the end, your prayers are worth all my sermons? Or, if you don’t like my sermons, what if, when all’s said and done, they’re more enduring than all those committees you served on?

The question still stands: Don’t you all know that, together, you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit has made within all of you a home?
—©2023 Sam Greening