AAll things are yours... you belong to Christ... and Christ, the unique foundation, belongs to God,@1 a quotation of First Corinthians 3:23 with an insertion of a paraphrase of 3:11, has been chosen as the scriptural theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2005 in materials provided by the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. This scriptural theme is gleaned from the international theme, developed by the Christian churches of Slovakia and is based on the whole reading of First Corinthians 3:1-23.
The theme can be rather seductive. All things are yours, because you belong to Christ and he, the unique foundation, belongs to God. It is seductive in a positive way in that those who have become Afools to the wisdom of this world,@ that is Abelievers@, have cause for great joy: all is theirs in Christ. It is seductive in the negative in that it can Afool@ the Awise@ into thinking self righteously that they are masters of the universe simply because they are members of the church. Ecumenically, it can assure the church that by the gifts of all the one Church can prosper upon the sure and unique foundation that is Jesus Christ, truly confessing AWe belong to Christ@ in one communion of the baptized. In opposition to the ecumenical movement, a selfish interpretation held individually or denominationally could lead to a smugness among the divided churches whose slogans remain Awe are of Paul@ or Aof Apollos@ or Aof Cephas@ self-justified in that division by too facile a conclusion Awe are of Christ.@
Belonging has two meanings: first, one is on the right path, or in the right place; she or he is Aat home@ with whom she or he Abelongs@; one is Aof Christ.@ The other meaning is that one is the property or possession of the other; one is the Abelonging@ of Christ. Thus the faithful Christian is granted the grace of the use of Aall things@while they are at the same time subordinate to Christ. Creation is not responsible to humanity; humanity is given full use of creation in Jesus Christ. Humanity is responsible to creation. In Jesus Christ creation is entrusted to humanity until it is brought to the fulness of redemption in Christ. This is the work of Jesus Christ, who in turn belongs to God and is of God while subordinate to God in total filial love.
In the process of human development, as well as spiritual development, it is important to grasp the two-fold nature of belonging. Some spiritual direction programs of the present day include workshops on Abelonging to the group@ or Abelonging to a foundation@, etc., in which the two-fold character is emphasized and explored, usually on the level of individual development, but also on the level of the whole community in its acceptance or rejection of the individual, as well as the mutual responsibilities of both.
When one understands that she or he is Aat home@ or Anested@ or, especially, nurtured and challenged to develop their gifts and contribution of love to the world by belonging to a particular community, the first nature of belonging is grasped. The result is a sure sense that being part of the group is right. Once it is known to be right, effort must be made to join or persevere in the group. Maintaining membership results in great blessing. Denial of participation leads to stunted growth. The part about being sure is always a bit of a mystery. One just knows it is right.
The other sense of belonging is in the response of the group or community. The individual is, figuratively speaking, Aowned@ by the group. This makes the community responsible to her or him, and aside from offering nurture and security, love and support, the community continuously offers the individual a life of challenge.
The church in ancient Corinth displays much of the tension present in the modern church in Corinth, New York, Rome, Geneva and Canterbury. In other words, everywhere. At times it is easy to forget the commandment for unity and the grace of koinonia, or fellowship, built upon the unique foundation Jesus Christ, who is always One with the Father and the Holy Spirit while at the same time One with humanity in the incarnation. This forgetfulness can be based on a mutual empathy between a gifted leader, a powerful group or parochial culture and the person of faith, sharing in a particular history or set of circumstances.
This leads to the phenomenon of some belonging and others not belonging. Paul challenges this level of development as stunted, or immature, praying that all who have heard the gospel and confess faith in Jesus Christ will know they belong all to one another and with one another in Christ. Sadly, many Christians feel quite comfortable in these divisions that foster support of their way of doing things, their way of praying and their way of expressing theology. At times these can be diverse gifts used for the building of the unity of the church, prompting dialogue in search of truth. At other times they become Aprecious@ symbols of a division that can succumb to sloganism and stereotype.
The Corinthians are so divided and Paul is compelled by love of them and the gospel to correct them. He refers to the Corinthians as Apeople of the flesh, infants in Christ@ (1 Cor. 3:1). He must feed them Awith milk@ for Aeven now@ they Aare still not ready for solid food@ (3:2). Scripture scholarship suggests that Paul was trying to teach the Corinthians about the qualities of good ministerial leadership and the cooperation the community should give such leadership when he wrote the third and fourth chapters of First Corinthians. Leadership must exercise all its talents and gifts for the up building of the community, but it must never divide or be the foundation of division. Paul tries to help the church understand that he and Apollos, and for that matter Cephas, share duties in the ministry of Christ. They are together the instruments of Christ proclaiming the gospel for the church. In this way the God of creation constantly uses the incarnation of his word. Grace effects a response: human work in spreading the good news, which ultimately is participation in God=s work. Paul, Apollos and Cephas belong to Christ and Christ, the unique foundation, belongs to God.
Paul writes, Awhat then is Apollos? What is Paul? (3:5). Note he does not write Awho is?@ but Awhat is?@ They are Aservants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.@ Paul goes on, AI planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.@ (3:6). He emphasizes that he and Apollos share a common purpose and that their gifts are complementary: Paul is the evangelist and Apollos is the catechist, AFor we are God=s servants, working together; you are God=s field, God=s building@ (3:9).
From here, in verse 9, Paul shifts his attention from the theme of leadership to a discourse on the relationship of every Christian and of the whole community with God in Christ. His use of the phrase Ayou are God=s field, God=s building,@ is particularly poignant because in ancient time one built the walls and the house in which they lived from the stones cleared from the field. In order to grow the crops, the stones had to come out. Thus the field could produce food and the house could be built. Naturally, for any house, a solid foundation is necessary. Paul has plowed the field in Corinth with the word of the gospel and laid a foundation upon which the house can be built. In great conviction Paul writes Ano one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ@ (3:11).
The word Paul uses, themelion, a word of conveying strength and security, is always connected with construction. It is akin to the Hebrew yasad, in the context of laying a foundation, and musad, sometimes repeated for emphasis, in the context of a completed foundation, one that is steady, strong or sure.
As used in Isaiah 44:28:
Who says of Cyrus,
Ahe is my shepherd,
And in Isaiah 28:16:
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD,
This hearkens one to the reading of Psalm 118, chosen for the AEcumenical Celebration of the Word@ for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2005:
The stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone.
Verses 19 and 23 proclaim:
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
This is the LORD=S
Paul instructs the Corinthians that in building the house upon this sure foundation they may add other materials: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw. These are metaphors for the gifts of the faithful leaders and people of the church in Corinth, built up over the years. It is their response to or cooperative work with the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ that builds the church. It is their charity for one another and the world, their keeping of orthodox doctrine handed down from the apostles, their proclamation of the gospel by word and deed. All these gifts add upon the foundation and to one degree or another are more likened to gold or more likened to straw. As long as they keep it on the certain foundation, the unique foundation that is Jesus Christ, Paul tells them they will Abe saved@ (3:14).
The Apostle goes on to describe his own understanding of the need for actively engaging in the life and work of Jesus Christ conferred by grace. By this work that builds the edifice of the church, the faithful will be judged on the Day of the Lord, tested by fire, as is precious metal for its purity. Those who have added well to the building will be rewarded greatly; those who have not done so well will not, but at least they too will Abe saved, but only through fire,@ (3:14), indicating that the foundation that is Jesus Christ is sufficient for salvation, but just enough. One can imagine a scene of persons fleeing from a burning house made of straw with just the clothes on their backs. At least they will not die; they can be sure the foundation is sound, if that foundation is Jesus Christ. Yet they are not the best examples of bearing witness to their faith.
The Gospel chosen for the Week of Prayer for
Christian Unity 2005 is the text of Matthew 7:24-27:
Everyone then who hears these words of
In the twenty-first century many in the church ask the question Awhere shall we stand?@ on issues such as personal morality, justice, the rights of individuals versus the obligations of individuals to the community and whether or not any absolute truths can be held. In verse 11, Paul emphasizes against the Cephas party in Corinth that the foundation is Christ, not Cephas (Peter) and, by extension, not the Covenant with Israel. This is because the authority of Cephas is taken most seriously and the Cephas party insists on some maintenance of Jewish custom for the apostolic church. Both Cephas and the Covenant with Israel share in the ministry of Jesus Christ as instruments of the will of God, but the sure foundation that supports those who have been freed by the gospel is that unique foundation, the God-man Jesus Christ. In his perfect unity with human nature through the incarnation, God makes Divinity manifest in creation.
By the incarnation of the Word of God and by the gift of the Holy Spirit sent upon the believers, each human being and particularly each Christian plays a role in God=s reconciliation with creation, in preparation for the consummation of all things. They are to act upon the word they have heard. Christ Jesus wills this so in obedience to the will of the Father. This is the happy consequence of the new covenant in the blood of Christ. Spiritually mature Christians recognize the power of communal witness to the Word of God active among human beings. Each brings a gift B a building stone B to build the edifice of the church upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, the Afaithful witness@, the Aobedient servant.@
As Christians grow in maturity, they reject deceptions such as hero-worship of particular leaders and camps, so as never to be distracted from the unique foundation in Jesus Christ. Those who are still in need of Amilk@ and who can not Aeat solid food,@ have a difficult time, being swayed by the excitement of the moment or the fashion of the times or the convenience of letting others think for them into a mediocre fellowship with one another based on divided opinion and sloganism. They are unable yet to accept the Afoolishness@ of the cross, that is of the subordination side of belonging. Paul writes that they prefer a worldly wisdom of Acraftiness@:
If you think you are wise in this age, you
should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this age
is foolishness with God. For it is written,
In light of this, Paul urges the Corinthians to do more in the work of building
up the church, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, by telling them, ADo you not
know you are God=s temple and that God=s Spirit dwells within you?... God=s
temple is holy; and you are that temple@ (3:16,17).
The building up of the edifice of the church is a response to grace. There is no meriting of grace through good works intended here. That is the farthest thing from Paul=s mind. Coming to recognition that one belongs to Christ in the church and that the church belongs to Christ brings about a mature response to work for the up building of the edifice in such ways as stated above, by charity for one another and for the world, by keeping the faith handed down by the apostles, sometimes referred to as orthodox doctrine, in sum by proclaiming the gospel by word and deed. Do we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless? Do we defend and protect every human life, no matter what his or her condition, status, race, gender, sexual preference, language, religion, political leanings, innocent or criminal? Do Christians take seriously the stewardship of creation?
Do Christians engage with one another in common prayer and study for the sake of the unity of the church, and not only for the needs of the world, for peace, for justice, for freedom and so many other worthy needs for which charity and love of neighbor command our attention? Christians, compelled by the unique and sure foundation, that is Christians who without doubt have their feet firmly planted on the foundation Jesus Christ, have no freedom of choice when it comes to dialogue about the truth.
These are increasingly difficult times for theological discussion on the nature of the church, the authority of the church both within itself and to the world at large, the meaning of full communion. But these difficult subjects are addressed by the Faith and Order Commissions of the World Council of Churches, National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, the Foundation for a Conference on Faith and Order in North America, the church to church bilateral dialogues, conciliar movements, evangelical and Pentecostal fellowships and in small bible and other study groups in seminaries, colleges, church/fellowship halls, business offices and family rooms all over the Christian world. This is done along with the other difficult theological issues of the Petrine ministry, apostolic authority, the right ordering of the church, scripture and tradition, justification by faith and so many other historically neuralgic issues. Ecumenical Trends journals many of these works-in-progress.
Modern twenty-first century issues, especially in the developed word, are also becoming church dividing. If the Christian=s feet are planted on the sure foundation of Jesus Christ, if the churches claim to Abelong to Christ,@ they can not avoid the discussions needed on issues of personal morality, personal freedom, the freedom of the human conscience, science and religion and the truth found in the other religions of our world. This is also a dialogue in search of truth. So much needs to be done in building the edifice of which Paul speaks.
All this is done in the church, in the community of faith, the assembly of the faithful joined in koinonia. Cephas has a role of leadership that is not denied, but put into perspective. It is a role of ministering for unity. Paul has a role of leadership that is not denied and also put into perspective: evangelization. The same can be said of Apollos in the role of the teacher of orthodox doctrine. These are gifts given by God in the Holy Spirit for the communal effort of erecting the church. Leaders can easily be tempted by insecurity and lack of trust to form different camps in which some belong and others do not. But all are founded on Christ. If the foundation is sure they will join as one in koinonia and never sever the bonds of love in Christ, but they all have to remember that uniquely sure foundation is Christ and him alone.
It is said that prayer is the Asoul@ of the ecumenical movement. Prayer is motivated by grace. The prayer for Christian unity is motivated by the grace impelling towards unity, slowly coming to fruition by the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the prayer is being answered. Paul gives us one particular answer: our whole existence as a church, as Christianity, is based on the unique and sure foundation of Jesus Christ, who Abelongs to God,@ the always-faithful Son and servant.
With this understanding of prayer as the soul of the ecumenical movement combined with the theme of the unique foundation, one is tempted to sing or quote Samuel John Stone=s classic AThe Church=s One Foundation@ to the music of Samuel Sebastian Wesley, but another lyricist, to the tune of Wesley, has given us words closer to the mind of Paul; that of Chinese lyricist Timothy T=ingfang Lew composed in 1933 and translated by Mildred A. Wiant in 1966. It is entitled AO Christ, the Great Foundation@:
O Christ the great foundation On which Your
Baptized in one confession, One church in all
hold is tightened, Where strong devour the weak,
This is the moment glorious When he who once
This is akin to the old seventh century hymn AChrist is Made the Sure
Foundation@, translated in 1851 by John Mason Neale and updated to modern
English in 1972. It is even closer to the mind of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3 and is sung
to either the music of Henry Purcell or Henry Thomas Smart::
Christ is made the sure foundation, Christ
the head and cornerstone,
To his temple, where we call You, Come O Lord
of hosts, today;
Here bestow on all Your servants What they
ask of You to gain,
Laud and honor to the Father, Laud and honor
to the Son,
All the baptized belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. Of this we can be sure. Whatever sin divides Christians has no ability to last forever in light of Christ=s continual obedience, but if Christians refuse the grace of belonging, if they are too distrustful of the hard work of belonging or too proud to be possessed by Christ, if they prefer the Acraftiness@ of the Awise@ and resist the Afoolishness@ of the cross, then the divisions will indeed continue to live into healthy old age.
For more information on celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2005 go to www.geii.org
(Rev. James Loughran, SA is Acting Editor of Ecumenical Trends and Director of the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute.)
1. All scripture in English is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version, with Apocrypha, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
2. Lew, Timothy T=ingfang. AO Christ the Great Foundation,@ Translated by Mildred A. Wiant. From Hymns of Universal Praise, revised edition Hong Kong: Chinese Christian Literature Council Ltd. 1977. Reproduced in Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Songs. The Presbyterian Hymnal, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990. Hymn number 443.
3. Neale, John Mason, translator. AChrist is Made the Sure Foundation,@ Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Songs. The Presbyterian Hymnal, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990. Hymn number 416/417.
Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute