Defining Church – 1 Corinthians 1:1-3

Good morning church. Hope 2024 has been treating you alright so far. Just wanted to welcome everyone who has joined us today both in the hall and online.

We kickstarted a new sermon series from 1st Corinthians last week titled The Church: God’s Dwelling Place and I’m really looking forward to seeing how God’s going to use His Word to shape us in this coming year.

I came across this article online which was referring to the state of churches in Europe. It said “across Europe, churches and other Christian religious buildings stand increasingly empty.

These empty churches are being repurposed. That means they are being changed into other things like hotels, sport climbing businesses, and even dance places.

Supporters say the changes remove the need for costly repairs and care of the buildings. But critics say such changes raise ethical concerns.”

Now the reason I brought this up is to make us pause & ponder on this question on “What is the church after all? How do we define “church”?” How we answer this question has deep practical implications for our lives.

So what we’ll try to do is answer this not from our felt experiences but from Scripture. In fact, this is one of the reasons why Paul begins the letter in v1 saying “Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus”.  

As an “apostle” or an “ambassador” of Christ Jesus, he has a weighty responsibility that is on him to communicate what Jesus wants to say and not air his personal opinions on “church”. He is responsible to transmit and relay God’s Word through this letter.

How do we define “church” from this passage?

1. The church is a People (v2)

2 To the church of God that is in Corinth,

When we read V2, one thing that stands out to us immediately is that the word “church” doesn’t seem to be referring to a building but rather to a People.

Look at the way Paul addresses the church in v2 – he addresses them as “the church of God that is in Corinth”. In other words, “the church which meets in Corinth”. If Paul wrote a letter to us, he would refer to us as “the church which meets at DN Nagar”. The language is clear – the church is referring to a People and not a building!

And for many of us, that is a radical shift in mindset, right? Because we’re so used to saying things like “Let’s go to church” or “Come to church”. Sometimes we’ll say, “church is between 10am to 1pm Sunday”. So it’s usually defined in terms of a church building or a meeting time. And now to see this verse tell us that “The church is a People” is a radical shift in mindset and perspective.

Now take a minute to ponder on what this implies: it’s implying that God’s presence is no longer confined to a building or a meeting time but a People!!

That’s countercultural for us not just today but also for those who are aware of the Old Testament. In the past, God’s presence was in fact tied to a building. His presence was confined to the Temple – specifically to the “Most Holy Place” section within the Temple.

And that section wasn’t frequented or accessed by anyone and everyone. The High Priest would be allowed to enter the Most Holy Place once a year on the Day of Atonement to offer sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people so that God could continue to inhabit among His people. So God was around His people but with restricted access.

But with the coming of Jesus, it was a paradigm shift in understanding God’s presence. In fact, one of the names given to Jesus at His birth was “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us”.

And this idea of God’s presence being with us reached its culmination when Jesus died on the cross, because it says that “and behold, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matt 27:51) symbolizing how the way was made for us to access God’s presence without any barrier or restriction.

Now no longer was God’s presence going to be confined to a building or a Place, but God’s presence was going to dwell among His people – His church!!

And the reason why that matters is not just to change our language or the way in which we refer to the church, but it has deep practical daily application.

If the church is no longer confined to a building or a meeting time, then we could be sitting together at a coffee shop or a restaurant or someone’s home or a movie theater and the church would be gathered there.

Now off course, we wouldn’t have a full-blown worship service in these spaces but make no mistake about it, the church is there and if the church is there then God’s presence is there as well.

And this radically changes the way we think and live our lives not just within the four corners of this hall but outside it as well.

This understanding means that I’m not only called to live a holy life not just on a Sunday Gathering or when I’m with my GC or DNA group but also from Monday to Saturday when I’m at the office or college or my neighborhood where I spend most of my awake hours.

This means that I’m called to live a holy life while I’m chilling socially with my friends who aren’t part of my church. This means that I’m called to live a holy life even when I’m alone no one else is with me.

This should remove that pressure to live two different kinds of lives. Moreover, in all these spaces which we generally refer as “secular”, the church has a calling to be “an open door” to invite others to be part of the church.

There are so many people in our lives and the city who aren’t part of the church – no problem. We’ll go to them – we’ll bring the church and God’s presence to them – because the church is not a building or a meeting time – the church is a People.   

2.The church is Global and Local

2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

When we look at the last part of V2 where it says “those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” – it’s referring to the Global church or the universal church which consists of followers of Jesus from every corner of the earth.

But the first part of the verse refers to a local congregation – a specific group of people at Corinth which should tell us something – that although we all are part of the Global church of God the moment we become believers in Jesus, but yet it needs to have a local expression – we need to be connected to a local community of believers whom we know personally and also who knows us personally.

The importance of the local church has also been diminished especially in this age of internet where we can basically access the livestream of any church service across the globe.

There’s nothing wrong with watching or listening to sermons from other churches, but it’s important to make a distinction for ourselves that it’s not supposed to replace our membership or connect with a local church but just supplement it.

I might be listening to the best pastors in the world, but that can’t replace the need to be part of a church which has a loving family and pastors who know me and care for my spiritual life and also likewise where I’m able to also know and care for them.

Another argument is to realize that there are about 59 commands in the NT which we’re called to do in the context of a local church. Love one another, be devoted to one another, honor one another above yourselves, build up one another, admonish one another, care for one another, forgive one another, bear each other’s burdens, be patient with one another, teach one another, comfort one another, pray for one another….and many more.

It’s hard to ignore the point of these verses – which is that we need to be closely and intimately connected with a local church as a prerequisite to be able to obey these commands.

And I think this should also check our tendencies sometimes to keep moving from church to church (church hopping) because church hopping isn’t part of God’s design. How can we bear with each and build each other up without being committed to a local church. God intends for us to be committed long term to a local church unless it stops preaching the Gospel or unless God’s provides clear missional reason to move to another church.  

But not only is the church a People & not only is the Global and Local,

3.The church is a Redeemed People

2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Look at the way V2 identifies those who belong to the church – those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints & call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s break this down one by one.

i)Sanctified in Christ Jesus: Sanctify means “to purify” and “to be set apart for the Lord’s purposes”.

By using the word “sanctify / purify”, he is assuming that there’s something in us which needs purification. There is something impure which needs cleansing.

The Bible calls that as “sin” which is anything that we think, do or say against God’s character and will including our thoughts. Jesus said “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery in his heart”.

And this is just one among the infinite number of sins we’ve committed in our lives. That’s why Romans 3:23 declares “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.

That’s our sinful condition and this has devastating consequences. Romans 6:23 “for the wages of sin is death”. So the problem with us is that we are extremely sinful and worse pronounced spiritually dead.

Which is why Jesus’ sacrifice is so precious. Because by His life, death on the cross and resurrection, He purified us from all that sin, restored our condition to being alive and now gave us a new purpose to be set apart for Him alone. Imagine a broken-down vessel at home which has been perfectly restored and beautified so that it can be used now.

ii)Called to be saints: This word “saint” stood for me as I read it.

Because when we read through the letter of 1st Corinthians, the problems and issues that they struggled with don’t necessarily align with being saints. This was a church that struggled with division, sexual immorality, idol worship and theological confusion.
It was an imperfect church like every other church but still they are called “saints”…how come? Is God just hiding their sins under carpet? How are they saints?
And then we realize the beauty of what Jesus did for us on the cross. He didn’t just cleanse us, He handed over His own righteousness to us so every time God looks at us – He doesn’t see sinners but “saints who resemble His Son Jesus”.

iii)Call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: The third aspect of the church is that they are people who have made Jesus their Lord. He is not just their personal companion or friend, He is their Lord, Master and Owner.

Because if Jesus Christ is our Lord, Master and Owner, then I can’t hide any area of my life from him.
If Jesus Christ is our Lord, Master and Owner, then I can’t be still sitting on the throne of my life.

If Jesus Christ is our Lord, Master and Owner, then He determines how I need to live my life, what my goals and ambitions in life are, where I need to live, where do I work, where do I play and enjoy, whom I need to marry, how I respond to people…everything falls under the remit and authority of Jesus Christ.

And when we invite people to follow Jesus, we are inviting them not just to befriend Jesus but to come under the Lordship and authority of Jesus.

And as a church that’s what we need to constantly remind each other of – that He is your Lord – He is your Master – He is your Owner – you can’t be living lives on your own terms because you’ve given it to Him.

And here’s the thing – He knows how to run your life better than you because He is the One who created you. And also He is One who saved you. Don’t fight His authority…submit to Him!

In Mumbai you’ll find different kinds of fellowships – people who have a common interest and enjoy some hobby together – there’s football fellowship (for those who love football), there’s chess fellowship, there’s music fellowship, there’s hiking and trekking fellowship and so many others…so is the church any different than that?

What brings us together isn’t our common interests or our common background or common personalities…is that we are sanctified in Christ, we are called to be saints and we all call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is our collective identity.

That’s why it doesn’t matter if we have a building to meet in or not. Tomorrow if rules change and we’re not able to meet in this hall, we would still alright because God’s church is a People, it is both Global with a local church expression and consists of Redeemed People who come together not on the pretext of a common hobby or not because we like listening to the same worship music – we are all sanctified and saints in Jesus and have Jesus as the Lord of our life.

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