Reflection on 1 Corinthians 3:5-15 and John 4:31-38

by Joy Kingsbury-Aitken

I have chosen to move away from the lectionary this week and instead seek out scriptures that may have something useful to say about the season we find ourselves in as a congregation; a season that we last experienced here at Bryndwr exactly eighteen years ago when the Reverends Brian Hardie and Sylvia Miller-Hardie left St Stephens in response to their call to St George’s in Takapuna, and we found ourselves without the leadership of a full-time minister of word and sacrament.  I remember the anxiousness we all felt at that time.  I also recall that it was during this season that my lay preaching ministry began.

Most of you know my story.  In December 2004 I graduated with a Bachelor of Theology degree.  I hadn’t undertaken this study with any future ministry in mind, but simply for personal fulfilment.  Just over twelve months later, in mid-January 2006, the Hardies left and Presbytery appointed the Reverend Bob Fendall as our interim moderator.  He and Mrs Fendall had an overseas trip booked for the winter months of that year, and shortly before they departed these shores (I have a feeling it may have been the Sunday before) Bob informed me of the dates he wanted me to take services.  When I protested that I had never taken a church service in my life and didn’t know how to, Bob breezily informed me that I would be fine.  I was, of course; but being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool is not a stress-free way to acquire the skills needed to swim.  Thanks to Bob I have been preaching ever since.  Last year I took twenty-one church services.  I do wonder, however, why I should have been appointed Parish Clerk at the meeting of Parish Council when Dan announced his call to a new Presbytery role.  Once again God has me splashing about in deep water.

I suspect we think that the members of the early church were all of one accord.  They certainly were on the Day of Pentecost when filled with the Holy Spirit, but the church at that time consisted of about 120 Jews who had been followers of Jesus or members of his family. As the gospel spread around the Mediterranean and further afield divergence of beliefs and worship practices began developing.  One of the most “out there” congregations was in Corinth.  The Corinthian converts were probably the most charismatic Christians in the church at that time.  On a journey from Athens to Corinth the ancient traveller would pass through Eleusis, the centre of the fertility cult of Demeter and Persephone.  Initiation into this cult involved secret rituals known as the Eleusinian mysteries.  Initiates were forbidden to reveal the nature of these.  They were probably highly emotionally charged and could have involved divination and perhaps drug-induced hallucinations.  While it would be foolish to imagine a direct connection between secret pagan rites and the early church, the Corinthian Christians lived within a culture where the divine was believed to manifest itself through humans, and so it is understandable that the Corinthian church placed a high regard on manifestations of the Holy Spirit through speaking in tongues and prophetic utterances.   What they didn’t hold as highly important was being unified. 

Roman Corinth was a port city, its harbour of Lechaeum being at the end of a deep gulf of the Ionian Sea. Corinth was located on the isthmus connecting mainland Greece with Pelopannesus, and six miles from Lechaeum on the Aegean side of that isthmus was the port of Cenchreae.  Goods were transported between the two. Corinth was the administrative centre for the Roman province of Achaea. It was, therefore, a busy metropolis of about 90,000 residents, full of Roman officials and soldiers, merchants and slaves, priests and temple prostitutes, sailors and travellers, including itinerant missionaries, who stayed awhile to instruct the Christians at Corinth.  Apart from their founder Paul, they had been visited by such luminaries as Peter and Apollos.  As I indicated earlier, early Christianity was far from united in beliefs and practices.  The fundamental belief in the resurrection of Jesus and its saving significance was held by all, of course, but how believers should respond to that amazing truth was very much up for debate.  Peter and James represented the conservative perspective that Christianity was a reform movement within second temple Judaism.  Paul held to the very liberal belief that God was drawing Jews and Gentiles together into a new religious expression that wasn’t based on the Mosaic covenant.  Apollos, a Jew of the Diaspora, probably taught something midway between these two extremes.  Depending on their cultural background, the members of the church in Corinth divided up into factions aligned with the teachings of the various visiting ministers and these factions were tearing the church apart.  A letter was sent to Paul, then living at Ephesus, about the troubles in Corinth, and he wrote back.  His reply is the letter that made it into the New Testament canon as First Corinthians.

While we aren’t struggling with factionalism, Paul’s observations on the contribution of a succession of ministers is instructive and encouraging.  He uses two metaphors, one of a field and the other of a building.  To have a crop, one just can’t plant seeds, one needs to water them, but their sprouting and growing is beyond us to cause.  One can only provide the conditions conducive to growth and avoid doing things that will thwart it.  The actual growing is up to God, Paul tells us, and that’s a great relief.  We don’t have to burn ourselves out trying to do what we can’t do – grow the church.  We do, however, need to create the conditions that will support growth, and avoid doing things that will restrict or even prevent it.  That includes being prayerfully careful in our choice of gardeners, each of whom cares for the garden in different ways, depending on the needs of the plants at their various stages of growth.  “[Paul] planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” 

In the metaphor of the building, Paul draws attention to the quality of our ministry, by comparing it to the value of different building materials.  The builder has the choice to build or not to build, and the choice of construction materials.  While the building depends on his or her labour, the salvation of the builder does not.  God’s grace is all-sufficient.  We aren’t being called to labour to the point of exhaustion to save either ourselves or the church.  Nevertheless, we do need to do something.  The building won’t build itself, nor will it be built with durable materials unless we choose to use them.

When we turn to the gospel passage, we come to the reason for the planting of seed which is to have a harvest to bring in.  We also see that the process has entailed a succession of labourers.  Those engaged in harvesting were not those who did the planting and those who looked after the growing plants.  As Jesus said to his disciples, “Others have laboured and you have entered into their labour.”  What The Village Presbyterian Church is today arises from the work and the sacrifice of the ministers and members of St Stephens and St Giles who preceded us.  We have entered into their labour, and those who follow us will enter into ours. 

We are about to embark on the process of calling a new gardener, so to speak, to help us look after our patch in the grain fields of God.  The calling of this minister may be the most important calling of a minister in our combined histories. They’ll need to be a missionary. I have been a member of this congregation for twenty-one years.  Seventeen of those years I have been sharing my scholarship with small congregations who clearly were once large and vibrant but have declined into being small and fragile.  As I look out over this congregation I can see a similar fate awaiting The Village Church unless the slow decline we are experiencing is reversed.  There have been great harvests in the past, and we need to start planting for a great harvest in the future, which we ourselves may not reap. However, we are living in the days of spiritual climate change.  We of European heritage are living in a post-theistic world, not just a post-Christian one, so what worked in the past is unlikely to work now.  We need to be open to new ideas and even new ways of being the church. We have already shown ourselves willing to change. 

Faith is most required when it is most tested, and when our faith is being tested we need to look back to the evidence of God’s presence in our past.  The Israelites’ failure to do this led to them being castigated by the psalmist who wrote: “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert! They tested God again and again and provoked the Holy One of Israel. They did not keep in mind his power or the day when he redeemed them from the foe; when he displayed his signs in Egypt and his miracles in the fields of Zoan.”[1] Looking back over the last two decades and the decisions that led to The Village Presbyterian Church, the presence and guidance of God is clearly evident.  We can be confident that God is with us in our present situation because we can see that God has been with us in our past situations.

We don’t know what great things God plans for the future of this congregation, but I do know that we need to pray for discernment.  We need to establish another Ministry Settlement Board, and I’m requesting three things of all of you.  Firstly, that you pray for God’s guidance as we go through the process of nominating and appointing people onto the Board, and that those approached to serve in this way will give prayerful consideration to doing so.  Secondly, that you pray that God will endow the leaders and members of the Ministry Settlement Board with the wisdom required for this responsibility.  Thirdly, that you pray that God will guide both Parish Council and me as your Parish Clerk so that our deliberations and decision-making will align with God’s will.

Finally, be people of courageous faith.  God is the chief horticulturist and the master builder.  Our task is to align ourselves with God, as very simple and as extremely difficult as that is for us to do, and to water and weed and plaster and paint as God inspires us to do.    Amen.    

[1] Psalm 78:40-43