How Firm a Foundation (1 Corinthians 3:10-23)

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Ever since Monday when the construction site across the street started punctuating my days with a handful of controlled explosions, I’ve begun reflecting on the importance of firm foundations. With each new siren, with each expectant pause, and with each new window-rattling tremor I am thankful for those who took the time to build this church on a solid foundation.

But churches are more than buildings, and foundations are more than poured concrete. The Holy Christian Church is less about where we happen to meet as it is who we meet with. What we build here together, pastor and people together with our God is greater than any four walls. The unity of the Spirit, the bond of peace, the kingdom of heaven … bit by bit each successive generation adds to the foundation laid down for us in the church and prepares the way for those who follow after. And each one of us has their own part to play, their own piece to add for the benefit of others. This is what Paul has been teaching these past few weeks in our readings from 1 Corinthians.

10 Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 12Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—13each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Whatever we build in the church, our goal is to use only the most precious and enduring of materials. These are not merely casual relationships they are eternal ones. This isn’t just another social club. The church is something all together more lasting and important. In building up this community then, we are wise to use only materials that have been refined by fire. Tempered and tested in the crucible of experience. Materials that are purified by trial. The Liturgy, our Hymnody, the Lutheran Confessions are precisely such materials. As is the preaching, teaching and pastoral care carried out through them and in accordance with them … Their metal has been revealed again and again, and they are more precious today than they have ever been. These materials are what bring us unity, and keep the church strong and resilient while the social fabric explodes around us and the world tries to rattle our windows.

And yet, it is precisely in the face of such pressures that we often find ourselves failing to build up this church with only the best. Sometimes our effort is simply not what it could be. Our understanding is still not as firm as it should be. Our choices remain less pure than they ought to be. What then?

Even then, we have God’s promise that as long as we don’t go beyond those foundations He has laid down for His bride the church we will be corrected and forgiven. We will be refined and purified. As we read in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:

20 … this church actually exists, … And we add … it retains the pure Gospel and what Paul calls the “foundation” (1 Cor. 3:12), that is, the true knowledge of Christ and faith. Of course, there are also many weak people in it who build on this foundation perishing structures of stubble, that is, unprofitable opinions. But because they do not overthrow the foundation, these are forgiven them or even corrected. The writings of the holy Fathers show that even they sometimes built stubble on the foundation but that this did not overthrow their faith. Most of what our opponents maintain, on the other hand, does overthrow faith, as when they condemn our doctrine that the forgiveness of sins is received by faith. It is also an open and wicked error when our opponents teach that men merit the forgiveness of sins by their love for God before entering a state of grace. This, too, means to remove Christ as the foundation. Similarly, why will faith be necessary if sacraments justify ex opere operato, without a good attitude in the one using them? [1]

Here is the warning we should all take to heart. Every weak spot can be shored up. Any faulty materials can be replaced. Even wrong plans can be forgiven or corrected. But to remove the foundation will not be tolerated. 16Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

“Do you really not know?” Paul asks. “You Should know!” The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. She is His new creation by water and the Word. A building that has lost its foundation will not long stand. In the shock waves of this treacherous world a building without its foundation has no hope of standing firm. Woe to us if we knowingly remove the foundation from God’s temple. False teaching builds where it should not and leads people where they should not be. Wanton disregard leads to sloppy and dangerous additions and breaks the bonds of community and peace. Apathy and neglect leave her to molder and ruin, in isolation and poverty of spirit.

Beware the buzzwords of leadership, growth, focus, dream or vision casting, relevant, uplifting, strategic direction in your church. These are the foundations of business and marketing. They are wise words from our experience in this world but they are not the foundation of the church.

18Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 11For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

The only foundation is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. We are saved by God’s grace alone, not by the works that we do in building the church. We are Christ’s because of baptism – by water and the Word! The cross IS the wisdom of God, even though it appears as utter foolishness to the world. The rough wooden beams upon which Jesus hung don’t seem like much to build your church and your life on, but they are the only foundation that will last.

Bit by bit we add to the foundation laid down for us in Christ and prepare the way for those who follow after. Each one of us has our own part to play, our own piece to add for the benefit of others. But there is still no ground for pride in human achievement in the church! God does it all. He created us. He calls us. He redeemed and sanctified us. He gives us the gifts we use. He provides us with the opportunities we build upon. He places His own Holy Spirit within us and knits us into the One Holy and Catholic Church. And that is what makes our foundation so firm!

21So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, 23and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

In Christ we are so much more than mere wood, hay, or straw! We are precious in God’s Temple. This congregation, this body of Christ, all of us together built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and Him crucified … this is the place for the glory of God to dwell. And that is why it is worth only the best. The best gifts we have to give, the greatest effort we can put forth. Nothing less than the very best of what makes us who we are. For we are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. And resting secure on that firm foundation all things are ours to give!


[1] Tappert, T. G. (2000, c1959). The book of concord : The confessions of the evangelical Lutheran church (171). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

About kenmaher

When I'm not working I enjoy Astronomy, Camping, Comic Books, Epic Fantasy Novels, Games (both playing and designing), Hiking, Juggling, Sci-fi, and building strange things out of pvc pipe. I also enjoy being an honorary pre-schooler with my four great children ... much to their mother's dismay.
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