Sermon 94


Build Up the Church

1 Corinthians 14:12


February 10, 2019


Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (+) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

   Our theme for today is building up the church – as the Apostle Paul calls for it in1 Corinthians 14. This is needed because the laborers are few (Luke 10:2). The issue, then, is whether we need more people or more dedication with fewer people (Judges 7:2, 12, 8:4). So as we gather together today to keep the Sabbath day holy – worshipping on the first day of the week as did the early church (Acts 20:7) – we do so by focusing on what it takes to build up the church, which is Christ’s body (Ephesians 1:23).


The Church vs. Us

The Apostle Paul sets the stage for building up the church in 1 Corinthians 14:2, by castigating those who build up themselves. This is his overall contrasting point that must not be missed.

He makes it at the outset because Christians take advantage of the church for their own self-expression and glorified managerial projects. But Paul will have nothing of it! He detects this corruption early on, exposes it, and condemns it roundly and soundly. So if you’re building up yourself, you then are not – he thunders – building up the church! He’s flat-footed about this. I know it sounds like a modern consideration, with the advent of individual rights and social equity in our time, but it isn’t. It’s as old as the hills – “There’s nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Simply amazing, isn’t it?! We’ve been putting ourselves ahead of Christ’s holy church from its very inception.


Be Mature

Paul then gives his one piece of detailed advice for building up the church – don’t be immature in your thinking, but think in an adult manner about the church. So be clear and take everything germane into account. Don’t just passionately fixate on one or two things as children do. No, move on to coherence and consistency.

   This is important because teaching matters – that’s why thinking does for Paul (I Corinthians 14:20). So if you are going to build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:12), you’ll have to think in a mature fashion – using coherence and consistency as you go over what Christians teach about Christ and his church.


Thinking with Luther

But for all of Paul’s concern for building up the church, he doesn’t have much detail on the steps to take in his Corinthian letters. Martin Luther (1483–1546) felt this same frustration when reading our passage. But he knew the steps were to be found elsewhere in the Bible – believing, as he did, that you can’t understand any one part of the Bible without knowing it all (Luther’s Works 48:54 and R. F. Marshall, Making a New World: How Lutheran Read the Bible, 2003, 2015, pp. 26–30).

This is a reason why I’m glad I’m a Lutheran Christian – because I can then go regularly, and with theological justification, to our great teacher on the Holy Scriptures, Luther himself, and see what he turns up. And on this matter he doesn’t disappoint. He tells us clearly what will make for a strong church – a built-up church, as it were – and it isn’t what we think today. No, many people (contra Luke 12:32; LW 2:101), loads of cash (contra 1 Timothy 6:10; LW 3:248), and laboring after the “food which perishes” (John 6:27) will not do – only the qualities of the heart (Ezekiel 11:19; Luke 8:15, LW 12:87) and faith in Christ work.

Here then is what he turns up after combing through the entire Bible – “The Word is there, Baptism, the Eucharist, divine governance, the consolation of consciences, the fear of God, trust in God, waiting on God, the imitation of Christ” (LW 12:255).

And he prefaces these nine, with a general point that apart from faith the church looks good-for-nothing. It’s not ending hunger, after all – nor securing full employment with well-paying jobs, nor is it ending all disease and calamity. So our naysayers conclude – Why bother? Well, first we must say that this is helpful. We can’t deny that unbelief misses the point, so when it has its say, we mustn’t argue with it. We’ll instead just hope and pray that faith will come to the cynics, so that they may see what faith knows to be true, and what it deeply loves about the church.

God’s Word. So if the church is to grow, Luther says, it must have God’s Word at heart. We must simply hear it and keep it (Luke 11:28). It must dwell in us richly (Colossians 3:16). We need to read it weekly and memorize it as much as we can. If Christians are to grow up into salvation (1 Peter 2:2), they must think things through “in the way Scripture does” (LW 25:261).

Baptism. And Baptism builds up the church. It isn’t some arcane rite of initiation. No, it’s a washing away of original sin (1 Peter 3:21). It’s a dying and rising with Christ (Romans 6:4). It’s suffering with Christ (Mark 10:39) in order to live with him.

Eucharist. And in the Lord’s Supper there is also life (John 6:53). No snappy social program can ever do that.

Divine Governance. We don’t run the church – God does. It’s a mystical union with Christ (Galatians 3:27) after all.

Consolation. This is forgiveness – the peace of mind. Be “reassured, when your heart condemns you, God is greater than your heart” (1 John 3:20). Oh, how the church needs just that hope!

Fearing God. Without this fear, life is flippant and the church is flat. But by itself it leaves everything in a state of panic.

Trusting God. So paradoxically God is also trustworthy. But without the fear of God, it becomes rank spiritual manipulation.

Waiting on God. If you believe that you can only get things done right, when you do them yourself – then the church is done for. That’s because the church grows only when we patiently wait for God to act. “But he takes too long!” we complain. Too bad – it doesn’t matter. J. S. Bach was right – “God’s Time is the Best Time” (Cantata No. 106 – 1708). So those who fight least, fight best, and if we just were to wait on God, all of our problems would go away (LW 16:90, 261), because our efforts only make things worse – tangling up the ball of yarn, as we tug on it.

Imitating Christ. Without this Christians are all phonies – and the church is stupid (1 Peter 2:15). Jesus left us an example that we should walk “in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Read Charles M. Sheldon, In His Steps (1896), to help get you going on this.


Sharing in Christ’s Exodus

So, can we now take up these nine traits of Luther’s, and start building up the church? Once we now know them, can we deliver on them? Unfortunately, because of our wretchedness, the good we would like to do, we can’t do (Romans 7:19). This leaves us with Peter’s confession – “Go away from me, Lord, for I’m a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). And that is great place to begin.

   But we need more than this. If that confession is where we end up, then we’ll descend into dead-end despair and death (2 Corinthians 7:10). The gall of bitterness will grab us and choke us (Acts 8:23). All that’s then left is gloom and doom. But this isn’t right. It leaves out the other half of Christianity – the exaltation that comes to the humble (Luke 18:14)! Christ welcomes the humble – and exalts them. He lifts up the beaten down. He comforts the dejected. The cocky won’t fair as well (James 4:6), but the broken and contrite he will not likewise despise (Psalm 51:17). So rejoice in Christ with all of your heart and mind.

   But what enables Christ to lift up the humble? Well, he is the one who was “delivered” in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). That was his εξοδον– or exodus – from the dominion of death (Romans 6:9; Hebrews 2:14). And by faith it becomes our exodus as well. In his dying he frees us from punishment in hell for our sins (Romans 8:3) – if we but believe in him (John 3:16). May we then rejoice in him, in his word, and in the Lord’s Supper, wherein we abide in him (John 6:56), so that our faith may grow (Luke 17:5) and our love for the lowly increase (Matthew 25:40; Romans 12:16).


God’s Paradoxical No

Living in a built-up church will also include doing other deeds of righteousness – since faith apart from works is dead (James 2:26). And so we take up our first reading from Isaiah. There we learn about the forgiveness of Isaiah – and his subsequent serving of the Lord (Isaiah 6:8) – which is precisely our own sequence. But what is striking, is what he’s told to do. “Make the mind of this people dull… until the cities lie in waste… and are utterly desolate” (Isaiah 6:10–11). Wow – these are very foreboding and upsetting words! But why all this severity (Romans 11:22)?

   Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) – that great reader of Martin Luther – thought it had to do with Christian paradox. God’s “negative,” he writes, “is a mark of the positive, a primitivity that does not relate to the contemporary age” (Journals, ed. Hongs, §6918). Well, I should say not – and not even in our time, being the “snowflakes” that we’ve become (Lukianoff & Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, 2018, pp. 268, 19–32). But, let us oppose that. May we instead see divine judgment as the very harbinger of divine grace – to “soften” us up for grace (LW 35:18). Let us then gird-up our loins and bravely (LW 12:222, 33:150) press on, first declaring God’s judgment – his No, just like to Isaiah – so that his Yes may all the more build up the church! Amen.


(printed as preached but with a few changes)