Of Leaning Towers and Holiness – a look at 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

By February 19, 2017Sermons & Meditations

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

If you were going to build a house, what do you think the most important part of the building process would be? The planning phase is important, of course, but once the plans are in place and the construction has begun, the foundation is one of the most important things you build. A house built on a faulty foundation isn’t going to endure. The walls may start to crack. The house may begin to lean or settle unevenly. A poor foundation that is never repaired or strengthened may eventually lead to the collapse of the whole structure.

I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he told the parable about the man who built a house on the rock as opposed to on the sand. The house on the sand could not endure because it was built on shaky ground. The house on the rock was strong, and it weathered the storm that struck.

When I think about building projects gone awry, the first thing I think about is the Tower of Pisa – you know, the one that is famous for leaning? What you may or may not know is that the Leaning Tower of Pisa began to lean almost immediately after construction on it began in 1173. In fact, the Leaning Tower isn’t the only leaning tower in Pisa. The soil there just wasn’t sturdy. The famous tower took 200 years to complete, though only about 20 of that was spent building. Each story that was added only exacerbated the lean of the tower because it was built on such soft ground that could not support its weight.

Eventually, the tower leaned so much that there was fear it might topple over. To combat this problem, a seemingly impossible task was set before the crew who had to try and stabilize the structure: tilt the tower back enough that toppling over wasn’t a risk, don’t tilt the tower too much or tourism will dry up, and don’t do anything that changes the exterior appearance of the tower.

Simple, right?

So, the team tasked with this project first used lead weights to try and encourage the leaning tower to begin tilting back the other way. It worked somewhat, but did not completely alleviate the problem. Next, they used a technique called “underexcavation” where they carefully removed soil under one side of the tower. Using these two methods, the team managed to straighten the tower up by 19 inches! They expect the tower will continue to lean in the direction it’s been going for a couple of years, and then will begin to straighten itself out by leaning the other way. All because this tower was built – even after the builders realized it! – on foundational soil that could never support the weight evenly. [1]

If we are going to build something that lasts, we have to begin with a foundation that will endure.

In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, he reminds the church of the foundation on which they were built. He writes, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” The Corinthian church had a host of problems. Of all the churches Paul wrote to, it is possible that the Corinthian church had the most crises. There were in-fights, divisions, abuses of the Lord’s Supper, theological quarrels, and deep family issues. Paul writes to them and urges them to remember who they are: they were built on the foundation of Jesus, and no matter how many factions and divisions they may experience, they cannot be built on any other foundation. Paul tells them, “Remember who you are! Remember the One you are built upon!”

Our foundation is Jesus, and that foundation has already been laid. We don’t have to worry about losing it. We don’t need to build it on our own. The foundation is already there. Paul continues, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

Doesn’t that stop you right in your tracks?

It’s so hard to comprehend how this is possible. How can it be that despite all of our brokenness and foibles and flaws that God would choose us as the place where God’s Spirit would dwell?

Let’s break these verses apart just a little bit.

First, let’s look at the idea of God’s temple. I recently came across a lecture by New Testament scholar N.T. Wright called The Royal Revolution: Fresh Perspectives on the Cross, and was immediately gripped by his understanding of the relationship between God, the temple, and humanity throughout the story of God’s people. [2] Wright begins with creation and the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, we find what Wright calls “the single heaven-and-earth reality, the one Cosmos within which the twin realities of ‘God’s space’ and ‘our space’ are held together in balanced mutual relation.” In other words, the Garden was the ultimate temple because in the Garden, God and people dwelled together. But, as we know the story of this temple did not end there. Sin drove a wedge between God and Adam and Eve, and that absence of temple, that being cut off from communion with God is depicted painfully by a flaming and turning sword that guarded the way back to the Garden (Genesis 3:24).

From there, God gave the people the law, which more than the giving of rules and regulations was a call upon the people to work as restorers of the God’s creation, to begin the work of reconciling the now-rifted temple of the Garden. But, as happened with the Garden, so also happened with the law. God then gave the people the plans for building the tabernacle, a place where God’s presence would dwell among the people. And eventually, the people built a physical structure – a temple, and deep within the temple, the holy of holies – the place where God’s Spirit dwelled.

John’s Gospel begins with a look to the story of creation, and a continuation of that story through Jesus – “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” The word that is translated “dwelled” could be better translated as “pitched a tent” or “tabernacled.” The Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us. The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. In the person of Jesus, God’s movement towards restoring the temple where God and humanity dwells together took on flesh.

N.T. Wright said it like this, “We have been allowed where Moses was not. We have seen the glory, the heaven-and-earth reality, the human microcosmos, the Tent where the God of the Exodus is revealed as the One God of creation and new creation.” In Jesus, humanity was able to see reality of heaven and earth as one once more.

And on the cross, when Jesus died, and as the curtain of the temple ripped in two, once again it seemed as though the heaven and earth reality of God’s ultimate temple would never be possible. We know the rest of the story, of course, about Jesus’ resurrection and his promise that he is making all things new, but before that first resurrection, it was as though the people had been cut off once more from God. And then at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and dwelled within the people. The Holy Spirit dwells in us. Paul tells us that God’s temple is no longer of bricks and mortar. God’s temple is no longer within Jesus only, but has been extended in a mysterious way to the community – to the people of God – to us.

In this way, we are God’s temple, and God’s Spirit lives within us.

But, there’s something else I want us to pay attention to –  it’s that little word “you” in verse 16: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” The you in this verse is plural. “Do you not know that all of you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in all of you?

God has called each of us into a community, where each of us are living stones as it says in 1 Peter 2:5, called to be stones that make up the spiritual household of God.

We get some insight into how we live as members of that spiritual household from our Leviticus reading. Right before all of the commands that will follow, God told Moses to tell the people “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And what follows are rules and guidelines for living in community with one’s neighbors. Don’t take so much from your field so that there’s nothing left for the poor. Don’t steal. Deal with each other honestly. Do not hate each other. And after each set of guidelines comes the refrain: “I am the Lord.” Because these things are important to God, they should be important to us. Because God cares about community and love and justice, those should be part of our heartbeat, too.

Because we’ve been built on the foundation that’s already been laid – on Jesus. And we are living stones that make up the house, the place where the Spirit of God dwells and moves and acts while we await the New Jerusalem, when God’s dwelling will once more be with people.

The challenge before us today is to live as members of the community where the Holy Spirit dwells. At its most basic, we are called to be good neighbors, lovers of the people we meet every day, random-acts-of-kindness people who give others a little glimpse of what God deeply desires – the restoration of the world, and the day when heaven and earth will be one once more.

Today, this week, and in the days to come, we are called to love our neighbors in specific and tangible ways – to be a listening ear, a shoulder to lean on, a smiling face, an advocate, a friend. Even though there is so much to be done, so many places where the pain and need and heartache are overwhelming, we are called to begin with those who are the closest to us – our children and grandchildren, our spouse, our next door neighbor, the person in front of us in line at the story – you know the line…the one that doesn’t seem to be moving.

(Move to the table and start stacking up blocks) The foundation has already been laid – Christ Jesus. And the Spirit dwells in you – in us – the community called out by God to shine our lights everywhere we go. We need each other. We are builders – together. And even when we make mistakes (as we will), the grace and love of God are the mortar that will hold the whole thing together.

Will you build with me?


*[1]  Will the Leaning Tower of Pisa Ever Topple? 

*[2] The Royal Revolution: Fresh Perspectives on the Cross 

About April Fiet

April is a pastor, wife, mom, and lover of words. She finds inspiration under the big Nebraska skies, in the garden, in the yarn aisle, and in the kitchen. Learn more about April here, and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

  • JoMae Spoelhof

    Thank you, April. This was beautifully put together and most meaningful to me this morning. Blessings!