Without trying I can think of two Sunday Schools immediately that remind us the church is not a building. Can you sing the ones I’m thinking of?
The first says, “The church is not a building where people go to pray, it’s not made out of sticks and stones, it’s not made out of clay. We are the church; the body of our Lord. We are all God’s children and we have been restored.”
And the other is just as classic: “I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we are the church together. The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.”
And since I know better than to argue with my Sunday School teachers I will not disagree, but I do have a question. If the church is not a building, how come Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “You are God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9)? Looks like he missed his Sunday School lesson…
I’m kidding of course. This devotion is part two of a series of Lenten devotions focusing on different metaphors for the church. One of those metaphors used by Paul in the first century is that the church is a building.
We can be more than certain that Paul was not being literal in his analysis (thus contradicting our sacred Sunday School songs), because unlike us when Paul was writing the New Testament letters there weren’t church structures. Communities of believers gathered in homes or wherever they could. When he wrote to the church in Corinth or Philippi or Galatia or Thessalonica he wasn’t sending his letters to a place. He was sending his letters to a people—a people he tried tirelessly to share the good news with and strengthen in their common life together.
And the people Corinth needed all the help they could get. They were divided. They were idolatrous. They were proud and boastful. Mostly they were like we are today. They constantly needed to be reminded of who they were together and how they were to live. So one of the thing’s Paul told them is that they were God’s building. Then he unpacked the metaphor like so:
You are… God’s building. 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:9b-15)
The church is not made out of sticks and stones, but the church in the metaphorical sense is still God’s building. We are here because we are built on a rock solid foundation that is Jesus Christ. We are here because so many master builders have come before us and laid the bricks upon which our faith stands.
And now, like people came after Paul and continued his work, it is left to us to build on the foundation. And as we build we must remember that construction tells the truth. A builder may be able to mask a mistake or cut corner initially, but over time their work will reveal itself. This is a guarantee.
The metaphor of the church as a building is rich. It is rich because it comes with both promise and responsibility. The promise is the reminder that Jesus is the foundation. We have been built with the best building materials around. The promise goes deeper when we give thanks for the hands that laid that foundation. The hands that sacrificed, worked, preached, shared, loved, and gathered for years before building up the church through now. But the responsibility, of course, is that we are deciding what kind of church we are leaving for those who follow us. The responsibility comes with the knowledge that construction tells the truth or as Paul said, “the work of each builder will be visible.”
Metaphorically speaking, the church is still God’s building. So what are we making of it? What is our contribution? Will it be nothing? Have you ever seen what happens to a building that is not cared for? No matter how grand it once was, without care it will deteriorate right down to the foundation. Will that be our gift for our children? Is that how we will honor our ancestors? No. According to “the grace of God given to us” we will “choose with care” how to build on it (1 Cor. 3:10), just as our forbearers choose carefully what they were handing on to us.