Built to Last
‘…Now if anyone builds on the Foundation…’ (1 Corinthians 3, 12)
Next Sunday we celebrate our Church anniversary, remembering the events depicted in the second of the banners hanging in the alcove to my right: how in 1910 the Hampstead Garden Suburb Free Church was constituted as a congregation, leading in turn to the calling of its first minister, Revd JH Rushbrooke, and then, in 1911 to the construction of this church building. But that banner is only second in the sequence. The one further over to my right contains a weaving together of images borrowed from both Old and New Testaments, reflecting the readings we heard earlier. From the Old Testament we heard of Solomon’s intention to build a Temple; a place sacred to the worship of God, a building that was to be the ‘House of God’. Paul employs this image as a metaphor for describing how the newly formed Christian congregation in Corinth was to understand how each should relate to the other. Most especially, how to assimilate their understanding of the Gospel message in the light of the various personalities that had visited the city to share the Gospel with them. What was vital was that they realised that the most essential aspect of their life together was the foundation upon which it was being built. Elsewhere in the NT Peter employs the metaphor of ‘living stones’ to describe the Christian community.
In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about a ‘building not built by hands, a spiritual House’. What was vital for Paul was the acknowledgement that any such ‘spiritual house’, any congregation, any church should be built upon the one foundation, Jesus Christ…’The Church’s ONE Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord…But what appears to be implicit in Paul’s discussion, especially re Apollos, is the acceptance that whilst there is the need for the one FOUNDATION it may well be that that which is built upon it will vary from place to place, people to people. Paul is not appealing for a monolithic Christianity, demanding that all who would own the name of Christ, that all who would commit themselves to following in Christ’s footsteps, that all who would be prepared to take up their cross daily to follow Him; that all such people should have to sign up to some statement of faith imposed upon them, reinforced by an authoritarian structure designed more to exclude than to include….Paul’s condemnation of the Judaizing faction is pertinent here. From the outset, particularly from the time that both Jews and Gentiles were equally welcome into the Church, there was always going to be a diversity of understanding, of expression and of outworking as far as what it means to be a Christian was concerned, what a Christian congregation would represent. Paul’s concern was not that such diversity of understanding be extinguished but rather that such diversity should not lead to division, conflict, and schism, rather that it should be a spur to the mission of the Christian Church amongst all sections of the wider community. Paul’s genius was his realising that it would be counter productive to over prescribe the Christian credo. In The Letter to the Romans he gives us a definition of what it means to be a Christian – ‘To confess with one’s lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in one’s heart that God raised Him from the dead’ –a deceptively simple statement of faith. To profess the Lordship of Christ at a time when the Emperor cult at the heart of Imperial Rome was embracing deification was tantamount to treason and would have had inevitable consequences. Yet Paul demanded no less. The earliest extended creed was published in around AD125 – the so-called Apostles’ Creed – a beautifully simple, simply beautiful expression of what a Christian should believe.
Fast forward to AD325 and the Nicene Creed; not so much a statement of faith as a theological treatise. The truth is this: the Christian faith prospers according to its ability to find expression in a variety of ways. It is only the Christian faith if what is believed is derived from the foundational belief that, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father’.The real challenge to the believer is to realise that how one lives one’s life will be visible to God, every moment of everyday. Indeed, much of our lives will be open to the scrutiny of others and we will be ‘judged’ accordingly. For Paul, what was important was to get his hearers and readers to appreciate that it is the way the Christian lives rather than what the Christian believes which is the benchmark of faith. Jesus’ description of what is required of His followers as spelt out in Matthew 25 is all to do with what is done in His name to those who have need of it, regardless of who they were. One senses that it matters little whether or not one understands Christ to have been of the same homousios as the Father or the same homoiousios as the Father; that it matters less whether or not one believes in the single or double procession of the Holy Spirit within the life of the Trinity; and that it matters even less what one believes happens to the bread and the wine when communion is celebrated. What does matter is that when confronted by a needy world personified by particular individuals with whom we share our space, share our lives, that we do not turn our backs on them but that we recognise each one of them as a child of God equally deserving of all the help they need, in Christ’s name and for God’s sake. Provided the foundation is secure, then however we build, provided we build to the glory of God, that will be sufficient. Sufficient that is provided that what we build is the best it can be; not prone to corruption, but rather able to withstand the challenges of the day.