February 19, 2017
The Seventh Sunday in Epiphany
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Rev. Ryan Slifka
“Do you not know that you are God's temple,” asks the Apostle Paul in this morning’s reading, “and that God's Spirit dwells in you?” “Do you know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” Paul asks. To which we would likely give a resounding “yes!” Because it’s plenty common to think of our bodies as a temple, and ourselves as the focus of spirituality. “I don’t smoke,” says one person. “My body is a temple.” “I exercise every day,” says another. “Because my body is a temple.” “You know you probably shouldn’t be eating that Little Caesar’s pizza,” someone else says to me. “Don’t you know that your body is a temple?”
While this phrase “your body is a temple” is usually used as a metaphor for our physical health, it also gets at how we view spiritual health in North America in general.
A temple is a holy place. Something that needs to be cared for. Something that shouldn’t be polluted or defiled by junk. We as individuals should think of our individual lives as sacred sites. Yoga has become one of the most popular spiritual practices out there, with the goal of healthy mind, healthy body, healthy soul. Self-help books carry titles like “your best life now,” and “the beginners guide to a better you.” Spiritual gurus encourage us to “seek our bliss.” Much of the Christian church, in fact, approaches spirituality the same way. Churches exist for individuals to cultivate a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And the end goal of Christianity is to assure the salvation of one’s individual soul from the fires of damnation. Spirituality is thought of primarily in individual terms, how we seek enlightenment. How we might have mystical experiences. How we might honor the divine that is within us.
In our way of thinking, the world full of a few billion tiny temples. Some are in better shape than others. We think of the spiritual life, and our relationship with the divine primarily in individual terms. As a one-on-one relationship.
Now there’s a lot of truth to this way of thinking. Personal growth, whether physical, spiritual—or both—is good. We are known and loved by God in our individuality, and can indeed have a personal relationship with the God we meet in Jesus. One that is powerfully transformative. This is all true. It’s all true… but it’s ultimately incomplete. It’s an incomplete vision of the spiritual life. Despite the incredible popularity of all kinds of individual spiritual practices and paths, there is still something missing in our lives. Not only is our culture—especially younger people—experiencing a deep hunger for community. We are a culture of loneliness. A sense of being alone, only being able to rely ultimately on ourselves. You might say the way we look at spirituality is a mirror to the way we think and act as a culture. Or maybe the other way around. Despite the fact that we do individual spirituality quite well, we are still missing something crucial. We’re missing the community component. And we are the poorer for it.
We’re continuing with Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. You’ll remember that this community that Paul helped found three years earlier is in conflict for a variety of reasons. There’s spiritual arrogance, some people are doing things they shouldn’t be doing. And factions have developed around favorite leaders. Last week, Paul tried to remind them of their reason for being as a community by describing them as God’s garden, growing together in Christ. This time, Paul switches gears. He switches images from a garden to a building. He refers to himself as a master builder. He came to lay the foundation with a message of Good News, the good news of God’s healing work in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the foundation laid for this building. Then he describes the rest of the community as various kinds of tradespeople. Each using various materials different materials to build on this foundation. There is a place for the individual for sure. Each with their own unique role to play. But each of us contributes to this or her own part to this final, holy project.
Jesus is the foundation, and they’re the carpenters, framers, electricians and plumbers who are going to throw up a building on top. But this isn’t any old project, but a special project:
“Do you not know that you are God's temple,” asks Paul, “and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple,” he continues, “God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
You see in the Bible, the temple—the Jerusalem temple—is the dwelling place of the divine. Not the only place where God is, but this unique place where God’s presence can be encountered. But this temple Paul is talking about isn’t made of wood, concrete, or bricks. It’s made up of people. As the song for all ages we sang earlier in the service says “the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple… open up the doors, and see all the people.” Following in the footsteps of Jesus, feet firmly planted on in the foundation of Jesus and his way, each bringing their gifts and skills to the task. In fact, when Paul says “you are God’s temple” the “you” is plural. It doesn’t work well in modern English, but Paul is a group. As my teacher Pat Dutcher-Wells would translate it “all y’all are God’s temple.” God’s dwelling place is not them as individuals, but as a community, as a body. Together they are building the dwelling place for God’s Spirit. In and through them, the divine love and will for the world is being embodied, encountered. It’s being made manifest.
Authentic spirituality, then, is not only individual—it’s communal. Together, the Corinthians are building a community. Not just any community, but a community build on the foundation of Jesus Christ. One where God herself comes to dwell. And made known to the world. This is what Paul says the church is all about, what a Christian community of faith is all about. This is what the church in Corinth was all about. This is what St. George’s church is all about. Not just individual temples, individual people working alone to be our best selves. But working together, building a temple of the Lord. Person by person, life by life. Gift by gift in to one community. One where God is known, and then made known to the world. Authentic spirituality, according to the scriptures, the tradition. According to the path set for us by Jesus is not just individual. But it’s true power is discovered most fully in community.
This is why the church—why a community of faith like ours is so important in a time like ours. Something that sets it apart from others. Because our culture is so weighted towards individual spirituality, individual growth, individual well-being and progress that we are becoming isolated, lonely, disinvested from each other. In focusing on our individual selves we are actually missing out on something crucial, something important. To put it in starkest terms, we can’t truly know God… unless we come to know God in each other. In a community like ours, with Christ as our foundation, we have the opportunity to bring together our individual lives in order to build a temple of God’s Spirit. One where we can encounter God in each other. In all of our gifts and goodness for sure. But also in our brokenness, our heartbreaks, our suffering. Bearing one another’s burdens, and shouldering each other’s pain. And fully, truly experiencing the transformational, healing power of God’s Holy Spirit. Authentic spirituality is not only individual spirituality. We can only truly experience the presence and power of God in community. There’s a saying in South Africa: “Ubuntu,” meaning, “I am because we are.” For Christians this is true, with one step further. “I am because we are. We are because God is.”
So what a perfect text for a day like today, the day of our annual general meeting, to be reminded of the importance of this community of faith in God’s plan to heal all creation. That together we are building God’s temple. A reminder that we all have resources, we all have gifts, we all have been blessed. And that no matter how inconsequential these things may seem. Our lives are littered with the raw material, just waiting to be used, to put in to service.
So, remember: in Christ, all y’all are God’s temple. Each of us has been gifted by God with all the building materials we need to make a difference. So, brick by brick, life by life, so we as a community, as a people, might be a sanctuary for the transforming presence of God’s Holy Spirit.