I came across a television show recently called Grand Design. The program tells the story of homeowners in the United Kingdom who build their dream house, often in a location with a wonderful view of the ocean or with country vistas stretching toward the horizon, facing magnificent sunsets. This house was built not so much with the view in mind, but within the canopy of a forest in the Wye Valley of Wales.
In this television program, often the owners/builders take on projects that lead to unforeseen challenges. In this case the owners wanted to transform an old bungalow in to a home which had features of a typical middle class Japanese dwelling-all in an effort to help the Japanese-born wife not feel homesick. The previous structure was not large enough to house the features they wanted to incorporate-a roof bath and a tatami room with sliding paper walls. So, they chopped off the roof of the bungalow and attempted to use the old first floor walls as the foundation of the new larger structure. As is common on the stories followed in this television program, there are many unforeseen complications.
The featured couple wanted to do the project in ways that would limit adverse affects on the environment. So, they chose to use locally sourced Japanese larch wood which had the nice connotation of "Japanese." There were two issues however to be tackled in that choice. One, though they could source the wood locally, once they paid for milling the lumber it was still quite a bit more expensive than spruce sourced from off-shore. The second hurdle was even more challenging. This material had no widespread record of being used in a structural way for building. This meant they had to have the lumber tested for strength to be reassured that it could help hold up the building.
To the surprise of many, the material was far in excess of the normal structural strength of such wood materials, though there are often inconsistencies in larch wood from one stand to another. It was particularly good news because the larch tree has suffered the same kind of ‘fallout’ as our ash forests have with the Asian ash borer. In the case of Japanese larch wood, it has been attacked by a Fungus which is rampant in much of Great Britain.
In an effort to work within their meager budget this adventurous couple chose not to engage an architect or a building engineer. They actually had next to no drawings of the finished product they were looking for. As a result they worked day to day with workmen and tackled challenges as they came along. The original house first floor walls actually let them down, when they found that one wall was unsound and had to be demolished. Steel posts and girders had to be employed to make things study enough. The lack of a plan also resulted in parts of the old structure not fitting exactly with the larger finished 2nd floor structure leaving a gap that had to be addressed.
Paul warned the Corinthians of the need to have a firm, steady, well planned, sure foundation. Amid quarrels over who belongs to which church leader, Paul reminds early Christians in Corinth to remain unified, to remember that they have only one true leader---Jesus Christ---and that they must take care to build up the church that still is new and fragile.
Corinth was one of the most diverse cities in the Empire. Things were rather ‘worldly’. One can imagine the good and bad of that. It was a major port and commercial centre as well as the seat of regional government. People from across the empire lived and worked in Corinth. And the church in Corinth had this amazing idea that anyone could become a Christian, male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free. So the question became how does this diverse group of people organize themselves so that they really do reflect the light of Christ in the world? Then as now, the task was not easy and lots of people had different ideas about the right way to go about it. Who are we and what are we to do? What is the church?
Church, ekklesia is the Greek word used, did not refer to a building as it often does today but to a gathering of people. Sometimes the church building is much easier to manage than the church, the people. Wherever human beings gather, there is the possibility of disagreement, dissention, conflict and worse. Lots of human organizations have ways of dealing with such potential problems—codes of conduct, membership agreements, rules of order, laws. But the church, says Paul is not merely another human organization. There is a divine element that unites it—one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism is the way Paul writes about it in Galatians. Here in Corinthians he uses the image of a building to describe what is really much more than a building.
Paul makes three assertions about the characteristic of this non-building, building which is the church.
He says the foundation of the church is Jesus. Does this mean then that all churches should be the same? Not necessarily. We all build on the foundation as faithfully as we can. As we build and rebuild, add to, demolish, renovate or redecorate, we build on the same foundation. We must build upon what those before us have established using the best materials of our age. Sometimes I am envious of the newer denominations that don’t have a small old building in every town across Canada. Wouldn’t it be nice to start fresh and have one modern United Church to serve Caledon? Fifty years ago the United Church knew that we needed one church for every 250 families so we built one in every new subdivision as people left the farm and the city and moved into the suburbs but we kept all those rural churches too. Now we have 70% of the population of Canada living in cities and 70% of our churches in rural towns. Times have changed. There doesn’t seem to be one right way to fix things. You’ve heard me make reference to the remits now being discussed by our Church Council and all UC congregations across the country. It seems that in the United Church now we probably need more local autonomy because although we have the same foundation, each community of faith finds itself in a unique context. Toronto is not Newmarket, nor is it Caledon East, let alone Halifax or Musquodoboit. However, the twenty people who gather in the community centre in northern Ontario are built on the same foundation as the 400 that gather in the historic Methodist cathedral. That foundation, Paul reminds us is Jesus.
Secondly, Paul says that the church is temple of God. Ancient people knew that if you wanted to encounter God, or a god, you went to that god’s temple. Athena resided in the Parthenon at Athens. The Egyptian sun-god Ra lived at the Place of Pillars at Heliopolis. The Hebrew God lived in the temple in Jerusalem. But for this new faith, the Christians, their God dwelt in the gathered community whenever it came together. We forget that was revolutionary-God dwells in us and through us. God has moved into the neighbourhood through us. If people don’t encounter God when they come into our building or meet our members, we are not being the church. Our faith is not just a matter of individual spiritual experience but corporate expression. Christ is in our midst not just within each of us. We together are the temple, the dwelling place of God. God is present in public worship, community action, and cooperative expressions of love like a community soup kitchen. But if the gathered community has become a place where division has become mean-spirited, where there are winners and losers, where there is little evidence of the love and grace that Jesus lived then not only will the church get a bad reputation or become dysfunctional, it will cease to be what it was meant to be—the place where God dwells, where God’s grace moves bringing truth and reconciliation and justice and mercy to bear on the evils of the world. Last week you graciously welcomed the Regeneration Community choir. Jacob Visser sent a note saying, "Your congregation was so welcoming and accepting of our quirks and oddities!"
Thirdly, the church, the dwelling place of God built upon the foundation of Christ is accountable to God, not to any human leader or to any political power. It is not judged by human wisdom but by God’s wisdom. In fact, human wisdom, the ways of the world, are rather foolish when they try to hold sway in God’s temple, among God’s people, built on the foundation of Christ. Just like the way of the cross looks foolish to the world. Paul says to the church, "All things are yours, the world, life, death, the present, the future, everything belongs to you." You are in charge. That doesn’t mean that we can do what we will with that power. All things are yours, the church holds sway over all things but it must not use the wisdom of the world to care for all things. Faith expressed in the community of believers governs all of life but you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.
When we work together to build up the church, heaven forbid we use shoddy materials. Sometimes, we look to the ways of the world and end up using shoddy materials, grass and straw when we should be using stone. The Corinthians had forgotten that the person they were following was Christ. Paul says it is not about who the contractor is. It is about the materials you are using to build on the foundation. If you choose the right materials, the church you build will survive when times get tough. It will be able to withstand the fire. If not, well, it will disappear. God’s temple will be found in another group, a group that is building a community worthy of the foundation laid by Christ. It is about working together to build a community with kindness, justice, respect, inclusivity, love—all those things that Christ laid for our foundation. Then God will continue to dwell in our midst and all who encounter you, will know God. Amen.
Acknowledging inspiration from
Michael Chittum, and
Kate Foster Connors