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God Gives the Growth 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9

January 1, 2011 … one, one, one, one. This sanctuary was packed that night for the wedding of Tori Tucker to Dave Alexander. Last night we joined Tori and Dave and their families for a delightful meal. As we were reliving the night of the wedding and the reception, Tori commented on how she walked down the aisle and got up front in our sanctuary with her father, then was standing with Dave, and realized that they were not really standing in the center. So using the cross before them, she subtly centered the two of them. I figure there is a sermon in there somewhere! When Tori said this, I was struck to think that centering yourself by way of the cross is a really good way to start a Christian marriage. And centering your life around the cross is the only way to be a healthy church. In a sense, this is Paul's advice to the young Corinthian church. Remember what Paul wrote to them last week? "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." Paul thought the whole church should center its life and work by way of the cross, the death of Jesus as the once-for-all redeeming expression of God's love for the world.

So this morning we turn to chapter 3 of Paul's 1 Corinthians letter. Remember that 1 Corinthians is one extended plea for unity within this young struggling community of believers. And Paul reminds them that when he first came to them, he spoke to them as "infants," as "people of the flesh." He fed them with "milk," baby food, for they were not yet ready for "solid food." Then Paul lowers the hammer. He says, "Even now you are still not ready, for you are still in the flesh. For as long as there is jealously and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?"

Apparently the knock on Paul among some in the Corinthian church was that he was preaching too simple a Gospel in their midst. And Paul counters that he was preaching a simple Gospel message because they were not ready for a more advanced one. And the presence of jealously and quarreling among rival groups or factions is proof to Paul that they really are not ready for it yet. They are still "in the flesh," a term Paul uses three times in this passage. For Paul and other New Testament writers, it is always a negative term. The New International Version translates the same Greek word, εάρξ, using "worldly." To be "in the flesh" is to be shaped and influenced more by the values of this world than by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. It is to find the center of your life in something other than the Gospel, which finds its center in the cross.

The surest sign that they are off-center is the bickering and divisions in their midst. But let us pause for a moment and make an important observation. The life of faith is for Paul a life that calls us to grow, to mature, "to grow up into Christ in every way," as Paul will say later in this letter. The Corinthians long to be "spiritual people." This is how they think of themselves. It is why they prize lofty words of wisdom from their preachers. But for Paul, the Spirit is always none other than the Spirit of Jesus Christ. The Spirit's primary gift, you might recall from Paul's "fruit of the spirit" list in Galatians, is love. And in some ways, the whole climax of Paul's 1 Corinthians letter is his love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13. The real measure of spiritual maturity for Paul is unity and peace within the community, in a word, love.

So Paul returns to what is troubling him the most. And that is the rivalry of parties within the Corinthian church. "Some say, 'I belong to Paul,' others say, 'I belong to Apollos.'" Paul is just about crazy over this kind of talk in the Corinthian church. Indeed, this is the second time he has brought it up in his letter! It is a screaming sign for Paul that they don't understand in any meaningful way the heart of the Gospel. 

Do any of you remember Lou Holtz? He is now one of the many talking heads on ESPN, an expert on college football. I guess it is because he has had so many different jobs! Before he became an analyst, Holtz coached at Arkansas, North Carolina State, Minnesota, Kent State, Notre Dame and South Carolina, to name a few of his stops. Along the way Lou took up golf, and many suspect he took the South Carolina job with the implied deal that University of South Carolina Trustee Hootie Johnson would see that he became a member at Augusta, something that later happened. One day Lou was playing golf and he made a bad shot. Then he made another, and another, and another. Finally, he lost his temper, and in a fit, threw his club. Afterwards, a friend said to him, "Lou, you aren't good enough at golf to throw your clubs!"

Well, this is what Paul is saying in effect to these quarreling, contentious Corinthians. "You aren't good enough at following Jesus to create factions and fights within the church!" Mark Achtemeier teaches theology at Dubuque, one of our ten theological seminaries. Both his mother and his father taught in a Presbyterian seminary as well. Mark says something very interesting, especially given the deeply intellectual Christian home in which he had to have been raised. He says, "Instead of reading the Bible in order to learn to be disciples, we must first become like Jesus in order to be able to understand the Bible rightly!" Only one with a humble, gentle, Christ-formed mind and heart will ever grasp the Bible's message and meaning.

Paul first preached and founded the church in Corinth, but he takes no pride in this fact. "What then is Apollos?" "What is Paul?" "Servants," Paul says. The word is διάκονος, from which we get the word "deacon." "I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth." Paul describes himself and Apollos as field hands. That is what we all are. We are workers in God's field. We are God's migrant workers, nothing more. We may till the ground, plant and water, but God alone gives the growth. We are utterly powerless to make the smallest seed come to life. No one really even knows how this thing we call life or growth happens. Only God brings growth. That makes us utterly dependent upon God for whatever growth takes place in our lives, and surely in the life of this church. Which makes us, if we are the least bit mature, humble beyond measure and out of our minds grateful to God for every good gift we enjoy. And it ought to make us gentle with each other, not so ready to draw our lines in the sand when we are challenged.

Connie and I have a dear friend named Steve Crocco. I have actually known Steve since high school, and we went to college together. Steve went to a different seminary than I did, then did his Ph.D. at Princeton University. He works today as the James Lenox Librarian at Princeton Theological Seminary. The last four years have been very hard ones for Steve. His wife of over twenty-five years left, and it has torn up their family, and been really hard on Steve. Connie and I make it a point every time we go to Princeton for meetings to get to spend some time with Steve. When you go through something like this, you need all the real friends and all the genuine human kindness and care you can get. The divorce is now final, so two weeks ago, as we walked with Steve across campus to our car, Connie got down to business as she usually does: "So Steve, have you started dating at all?" "Not yet," he said, "but I did have an interesting encounter. I went to IKEA to buy some furniture for the house. And I spotted a very attractive woman. I could tell that she was looking at me, too. It was a strange feeling, but I have to admit that I liked it. I smiled at her, and she smiled back. I was feeling pretty good. Then she walked up to me and said, 'Pardon me, do you work here?'"

Steve is able to laugh at himself, even though he has been laid low by life. I think God's healing is beginning for him. We all need God's healing, don't we? "For we are God's servants." We are God's field hands. "We are God's servants working together; you are God's field; God's building." And only God gives the growth. So be who and whose you are. God will take care of the rest.

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