Bishop Paul’s letter
Rev Paul Smith
Bishop, Lutheran Church of Australia and New Zealand
I am not much of a gardener. I have seen a long line of pot plants sadly wither and die. Thankfully, I married a farmer’s daughter who watches, waters and nurtures plants. It is a joy to observe my wife, Heidi, watering her garden. She focuses with genuine love for each plant or flower, and she is doubly annoyed when some pest has been eating the leaves.
God is a great gardener, and not simply with respect to God’s wonderful work in creating and preserving all that exists in creation. God is a great gardener of ‘the church’. In 1 Corinthians 3:5–9, the apostle Paul writes: ‘What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labour of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.’
This text cultivates the image of you and me and all the church as ‘God’s field’ where there is planting and watering going on. Did you notice that twice this scripture talks about God and ‘the growth’?
The first time it speaks of growth is in the past tense. ‘God gave the growth’ or ‘God was giving the growth’. We look back on our journey as church from the moment those early disciples ran from the empty tomb, and we see the hand of God actively at work in an ongoing way through women and men in the various places of the world ‘growing the church’.
The second time that the apostle Paul writes about ‘the growth’ in this passage from 1 Corinthians, it is present tense, describing the hand of God at work among us in and through us today. This is a tremendous promise for all seasons of life. When we hear the promise that God gives the growth, we are tempted to complain to God, ‘Well, where is it?’. As we are hammered by economic projections day after day with percentages and forecasts, our human reason eagerly wants to translate growth into numbers. When you look at our declining church numbers, our reason then supposes that, if we cannot see progress, then God must not be giving ‘the growth’ or we quickly find someone to blame for the decline.
We can also overlook the language of the activities of ‘planting’ and ‘watering’ in the cause of the gospel. The apostle Paul begins with the presumption that the people of God are caught up in active hands-on evangelical work in the church. This is the same message that Dr Martin Luther shared in reflection on his own witness. He wrote, ‘I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s word; otherwise, I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf … the Word did everything’.
Our scripture from 1 Corinthians 3, directs our attention away from ourselves and from our human reason’s evaluation of growth to our gracious God. The apostle writes, ‘So, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth’. It is important to remember that the letter to the Corinthians was written to a congregation conflicted with dispute and disagreement. Sisters and brothers in Christ were not giving proper regard for their common faith and unity in the work of the gospel as ‘God’s field’. So, the apostle Paul directs our eyes to look for God’s hand at work in each other for we are ‘fellow labourers’ in God’s field. This includes the people we don’t get on with.
And God gives the growth, tenderly watching and watering with abundant grace. In the Small Catechism we were taught to acknowledge God’s ‘daily’ continuous, loving gardening work in the church. ‘Daily in this Christian church, the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins – mine and those of all believers’ (Explanation to the Third Article of the Creed).
‘Lord Jesus, we belong to you,
you live in us, we live in you;
we live and work for you –
because we bear your name’