There is a very old story told that takes the form of a parable. It probably originated sometime in the Middle Ages, and it is directed to the Church. One day there were a set of tools belonging to a master craftsman that decided to hold a meeting to discuss their respective roles and responsibilities. The hammer decided that he would chair this meeting, for after all, the hammer is powerful and used a great deal. But there was an objection from the screw. The screw said, “I am sorry Mr. Hammer, but you are always violent. You make a lot of noise. I don’t think you are suitable. I should chair the meeting.” Then, along came a plane. The plane said, “I am terribly sorry Mr. Screw, but you cannot chair this meeting because you are always turning around. We never know where you stand. You are not the sort of leader that we need. I will chair the meeting.” Then the ruler said, “I am sorry, but you Mr. Plane are so superficial. All you ever do is deal with the surface of things. We need someone with some real depth and solidity.” No sooner had the ruler gotten comfortable, the sander said, “Now just a minute. The last thing we need is someone who is always into rules and regulations, measuring up the success or failure. Too rigid! We can’t have a ruler in a meeting like this. We need something that moves around more freely.” Then, there was a rising of all the other tools, saying, “But you are so abrasive Mr. Sander! You cannot lead a group like us. We need someone else.”
Then the master carpenter arrived and said, “I have come to build a pulpit and I need you to help me. I need a hammer to put in the nails. I need screws for very seriously disjointed places. I need the plane to keep things smooth. I need the ruler to make sure that it can stand up right. I even need the sand paper just to finish everything off. There is not one of you I don’t need; I need every one of you, but I am the one who makes the pulpit not you.”
This parable was told by an ancient preacher in medieval time, probably as an illustration of today’s passage from the Book of Corinthians, where the Apostle Paul was concerned about the church in Corinth following all kinds of leaders, but not the one who ultimately brought them together. You see, in many ways, the church in Corinth reflected the city of Corinth itself. It was a city of great, rugged individualism. It really extolled the virtues of the individual. Often these individuals, with their different philosophies and outlooks were adulated. Not only was it a place where individualism reigned, but there was a lot of corporate tension. Some scholars have suggested that modern cities like Toronto reflect Corinth of the first century, where merchants gathered and commerce was carried out. In fact, the whole area was totally dominated by Corinth in terms of commerce and banking and activities in the business sector. But it was also a port, and shipping companies would rival each other to have shipping lanes, often competing in a vociferous way to make sure that their shipping lanes were exclusive to them. It was a very competitive city.
It was also a city that was highly pluralistic. There was a strong and large Jewish community in Corinth that had traded there for hundreds of years before the Apostle Paul arrived. People had come from Western Europe, from Gaul, and from the north to be able to sell their wares in Corinth. People had even come from North Africa and up through the Middle East to Corinth to sell their products. Of course, Greece and Asia Minor were great centres of commerce and activity. I sometimes laugh when we think that the modern cities and metropolises are the only really pluralistic cities that have ever existed. Utter nonsense! Corinth was the place where the world would meet. It became a fascinating place. It was also, and this is significant, a very religiously diverse city. Throughout the streets of Corinth were monuments to Isis, Necessity, and Demeter, to Aphrodite, and Apollo, and the god above all gods in a port city: Poseidon. People had fierce attachments to their gods. When they said that they followed Demeter or Aphrodite, a great deal of their thought and their life went in to worshipping that deity. Some, on the other hand, would say, “Well, we can worship any deity we want” and never affix themselves to one particular god or goddess. Nevertheless, it was a highly charged pluralistic religious city. Now Christianity had arrived.
What was also fascinating about this was that the church Paul had helped create was taking on the form of the city. Citizens are always going to be the citizens of the culture and the ethos that they are in. Every church, every country has its own particular style of worship, its own prayers, and its own structures. While there are international churches, as we know, and those that have a great Catholicity, there is still a very great difference in the way that people worship. I was contemplating that this last week when I was thinking about what has been going on in Chile. As you know, some years ago I visited Chile and some of its Roman Catholic leaders. It was fascinating to watch the people at noon go into their churches and worship, and apart from moments in the mass, you would never know that it was a Catholic church, as one down the road on St. Clair. There is a great difference in ethos and character in the religious bodies.
The problem that Paul noticed, however, was that the Christian community in Corinth was acting like the society as whole. It was celebrating individual leaders, elevating people politically and spiritually, and groups were developing. Some of these groups attached themselves to the Apostle Paul; others to another evangelist leader called Apollos. And as we read in Corinthians, some even followed Cephas, Peter – one of the great Apostles. The Apostle Paul is concerned about this because there was far too much emphasis on the messenger and not enough on the message. Everyone was affixed on the individual who was doing the proclaiming rather than on the message that was proclaimed. Paul says, “This is thinking in a fleshly way.” Not in a literal fleshly way, but a way that natural, normal human beings operate. In other words, like the city they were in. People were elevating the Apostles in the same way that they celebrated the wise teachers and the gods, and they made a god in a sense of the messengers of the Gospel and forgot the Gospel. Paul says that this is fleshliness and divisive, and could lead to the destruction of the Church. He feels that the antidote to this is what he calls “a spiritual view”. Not looking at the Church through the eyes of the world in worldly cultural terms, but looking through the eyes of the Spirit, as something that worships God above all other things. For Paul, the messengers were not even close to being as important as the spirituality of following God.
He borrows a simile from the great philosopher Philo and many of the Jewish rabbis and says that one of the things the Corinthian church has got to do is stop feeding itself on milk and feed itself rather on solids. In other words, don’t be infantile, don’t lead your life through the eyes of milk as a child, but mature, get beyond the boundaries of saying “I follow Paul” and “I follow Apollos” and have a maturity and a sense of dignity in what you do, feed on the things that really make you strong. Paul says that the distinction that exists between a mature and an immature church can be seen in the extent to which they argue with one another. Paul says that the existing divisions within the Corinth Church are merely a manifestation of being unspiritual, and so strife in the Church as far as Paul was concerned was a sign of a lack of spirituality, a lack of an openness to God.
How can this be rectified? Paul might identify problems, but he also was very good about providing solutions. He simply says this, and it is one of the greatest phrases in The New Testament, “I plant, Apollos waters, but God gives the increase.” In other words, Paul has a role to play, Apollos has a role to play, but God is the one who gives the increase. What was Paul’s role? Well, he was a preacher who proclaimed the Word of God. It was his activity of proclaiming that created the church in the first place. The Church has always needed the proclamation of the Gospel, has always needed the Word to be explained. Preaching is endemic to the Church and was there at the very beginning. It is one of the reasons why I have dedicated my entire ministry over the years, not only to preaching, but supporting the actual process of preaching and the teaching of preaching. But Paul knew that his preaching wasn’t enough. He had, unlike others, a direct encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. For those of you who don’t know the story, Paul, before he was a Christian, was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to persecute Christians on behalf of the religious authorities. He is struck down by the presence of the Risen Jesus who says to him, “Saul, (for that was his old name), why do you persecute me?” Paul, in an encounter with Jesus, is changed. His name changes from Saul to Paul, and he changes from a persecutor to a preacher.
For Paul, all that is needed is Christ, nothing more. No need to make great arguments in support of the Christian faith, no need to try to justify the Christian faith in logical terms to others; just proclaim it and let God do the rest. Apollos, on the other hand, was very different. Apollos was more of a scholar of the written word. He was someone who has probably been baptized by John the Baptist. He had grown up in the Qumran community and was more of an intellectual than Paul. He entered into discussions, particularly with the Jewish community, about the Messianic nature of Jesus, and that Jesus is the Messiah. He would use The Old Testament to prove his point to the Jewish community that Jesus was the Messiah. He was known as an apologist. An apologist isn’t someone that apologizes, but rather who speaks and argues on behalf of and defends a position. He had moved from Ephesus to Corinth for the very purpose of trying to convince the Corinthians of the truth of the Christian Gospel. These were two very different approaches. Paul was the one who planted the seed, but Apollos was the one who watered.
What was fascinating for me during my sabbatical was that every Monday, at 10 o’clock, I went to lectures in Apologetics to the Apologists. I listened to the great Alistair McGrath, who is at Wycliffe Hall at Oxford, lecture on faith and science. What makes Alistair McGrath so clever is that he had both a PhD in science and a PhD in theology – a very rare combination – and he is brilliant at bringing the two together. He tries to be an apologist for Christianity within the scientific community, and to show that there is cogency and coherence to the Christian message. It is brilliant! The arguments are winsome! But even though I sat listening for three months to these lectures, I left thinking that they don’t actually make you a Christian. They give Christians a solid foundation on which to stand. They are great arguments, and in our society we need apologists, we need people like Ravi Zacharias and others, who do this on a daily basis, but they are not sufficient. I would go to church to listen to the preachers because I know that it is the preaching of the Word and the redeemed Christian community where people find the love of Christ in their own lives. There is a need for both: for the planting and the watering. The hammer cannot say to the plane, “You are no good” and the plane cannot say “I am better than the screw” and vice versa. All are at the hands of the master carpenter, who brings it all together. You see, if we continually focus only on a worldly point of view, on the messengers and not the message, the presentation rather than the inherent dynamic of what is said, then we forget about the need for the Spirit.
Paul was speaking to a congregation that had been baptized, many of them had a strong faith, but they had never really opened their lives to the power of the Holy Spirit. John Piper, a really excellent preacher, says: “When Paul uses the word ‘servants’ to describe himself and Apollos, he is referring to a table waiter.” That is the literal meaning. In other words, the table waiter is someone who does not make the food, but delivers it to you, presents it personally, but is not the source of it. That belongs to the chef. He said, “When people would hear what the Apostle Paul said, that is the image that they would have in mind of someone who serves, or is the presenter, but not the creator.” That is exactly, says John Piper, what Paul is getting at here. A church needs all kinds of people. It needs the diversity that is manifested in its own culture. It needs to have representation from the hammers and the screws and the planes and the rulers, but it needs fundamentally a spiritual core. It is God who gives the increase.
There is a very old First Nations aboriginal parable about a young brave who one day finds an eagle’s egg. Because they had what was known as Prairie Chickens, he decided to put the eagle egg amongst the prairie chicken eggs. They all hatched, the eagle in the middle of all the prairie chickens. The eaglet grew up with the chickens, thought it was a chicken, and would go around pecking and flapping its wings, would only fly when it did an inch or two off the ground, and just kept its head down pecking away like the prairie chickens. One day, the eaglet saw something in the sky and noticed there was this big bird with great open wings. These wings were majestic and the bird swooped down. They eaglet said to the prairie chickens, “Who is that? What is that?”
They said, “That is an eagle. The eagle is the greatest of all the birds. Just look how the eagle can fly.”
The eaglet said, “Yes, majestic, isn’t it!” and put his head down and continued to peck away at the seed until he died, never having realized he was an eagle that could soar.
Often, we are like that eagle. We peck away at the things that are around us in kind of an earthly way. We become consumed by them. We follow the traits of our own culture, not understanding that the one that makes us soar is God, the Spirit is the one who gets under our wings, and the Spirit binds us together. It is the Spirit who makes the difference in our lives. Paul is right. The Church needs preaching, the Church needs apologists, the Church needs the hammers and the sand paper and all of our flaws, but ultimately, the spiritual thing is for us to be united in our love of God. Amen.