Paul makes a shift at the end of our text for this week. He’s all about growing things, babies and milk and solid food; and then fields and planting and watering. But then at the very end, he throws in a building. It seems odd, until you go on reading. Verse nine is a metaphor hinge, or pivot. He swings from one to the other. It’s a great technique; it keeps you from getting bogged down on one image that can’t carry the weight of the argument alone. But it works or works well only when there is at least one common element of both images. In this case, there are many, but the one that Paul seemed to emphasize is that they are both labor intensive.
Well, maybe that wasn’t his most important element. Maybe he was really more concerned about the progressive nature of the metaphors. They built or grew; they developed along the way. The starting place was not the ending place; the originating state was not the ending state. However you want to describe it, Paul was stressing that there was more to come. And he wants you to grow. He wants the church in Corinth to grow, certainly. That’s why he is writing. Finally, a pastoral letter that says, “Stop acting like children!” How many pastors have wanted to write such a thing? Here it is.
Paul goes back to the beginnings, remembers when he first arrived and there was so much he wanted to say, but couldn’t because they were infants in Christ. But he met them where they were, feeding them milk, the “abc’s” of the faith, knowing that they would progress to more substantial matters. Even now, he argues, they are still not ready, because they are acting like, well, children, quarreling, being jealous.
Here is a good description of what Paul means when he speaks of being in the flesh. It isn’t necessarily a specific sin or types of sin. But it is doing that which hinders the growth of faith in the individual or the community. These selfish behaviors, even if done for good reasons, are of the flesh because they work against the common heart and mind of the body focused on the mission of the church.
So, then he turns back to the dividing issue as he sees it: this allegiance thing. Would it be fair to say that his response is basically, we don’t have time for that? Maybe that’s a bit simplistic but given that he then moves on to the mission field, it seems not too far off the mark.
There are those who argue that Paul is all about grace; grace and not works. And certainly his theological center is on salvation by grace through faith. But there is work to be done, of that he seems clear. There is work not to earn our place but work because our place has been given. We serve because we’ve been served. We love because we’ve been loved. All that we do is in response to what Christ has done in us and for us.
The life we are called to live is an active life. We are workers in God’s field. We are laborers on God’s building. That’s what binds it all together. It is God’s. We are God’s. Dividing up, choosing sides, setting up opposing camps only hinders the mission, says Paul. There is no room for “us and them” in a church that is at work in the field of the God.
Of course, this is more easily said than done. The church in Corinth struggled with it. And we struggle with it today. Our church is divided, perhaps terminally. And the “can’t we all just get along” approach doesn’t even seem like a good bandage for the broken bones all around us. Paul argues that our unity is in our shared mission – the mission given him by Jesus Christ, to love God and love neighbor. Our divisiveness handicaps our ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Maybe we’ve tried to do it ourselves, our way, according to our leaders long enough. Maybe we need to let God give the growth. Do what we can where we can as we can, but trust that God will take what we have and what we can do and make it flourish.
What would letting God give the growth look like in your setting? What vision can you proclaim that allows us to step out of our different camps and tend God’s field?