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. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — the 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. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
We all hope our churches are based on the foundation of Jesus Christ but what we build on the foundations, Paul warns, will not necessarily be equally wholesome. Each generation chooses to build with gold, silver and precious stones or with wood, hay and straw. The latter will obviously be quicker, cheaper and easier. When the refiner’s fire – to use an Old Testament image for God’s judgement – sweeps through the building it will destroy the cheap combustible materials. The building will crumble back to its foundations. The picture of using gold, silver and precious stones instead introduces an echo of the Temple, the place where the worship of God was central.
Paul is not of course arguing that the church taps should be gold-plated. Those responsible for the taps and much more are challenged about how they are building the church. Our generation likes to look back on past ones and highlight their blind spots, perhaps even pulling down the statues of former heroes. Are we equally humble about the possibility that what we claim is gold will be seen to be straw?
One of the most stimulating and challenging aspects of regular contact with the World Church is to encounter different perspectives on what is of lasting value. Some British Christians seem very quick to decide any advice from another continent can be discounted as merely a result of their misguided culture; such friends do not always recognise how much of what is claimed as important in European churches is seen by a Pacific Islander as a terrible corruption of the Gospel, a result of our culture of individualism and consumerism.
For Paul, the judgment is for God to make, so we can spend energy not on criticising others’ false gold as much as on examining our own handiwork. We may need to dig down into our foundations rather than assume the fashionable is always golden.
Lord God We want to honour Jesus Christ, the foundation that has already been laid. We thank you for those who built more good foundations for us. Give us wisdom to build well on the best of them, resisting the allure of the easy and the quick. Give us discernment to recognise false gold, however seductively packaged. And when you come to judge our imperfect efforts, please do it with mercy. Amen
John Ellis, former Moderator of General Assembly and Secretary of Capel United Church in Kent
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