9th Sunday after Pentecost: Building Materials and Principles

In today’s epistle we hear Paul describing our short journey here on planet earth as a building project. This is something I can relate to fairly well as most of my life I have been involved in one or another aspect of house building. He also describes us as God’s field so perhaps some of the farmer types here may relate better to this image. We are God’s crop. However, the very first verse in today’s epistle says “you are God’s building” and explains that the building being built – the main project we are to be involved with building on our visit to this little planet – is the building of our very body and souls to conform to God’s blueprint.

I spent several years as a home inspector, and one thing I found when inspecting was that all well built homes started with a good blueprint. The initial process in building a high quality home always starts with a good understanding of what good building practise is, and a very carefully drawn up set of plans based on these principles. These plans need to be followed if the end result is to be a solid well built home that will give decades of trouble free living. Pretty much every problem you encounter when doing a home inspection is the result of someone taking a short cut or simply not understanding the proper method for building a home and instead doing their own thing. A home built by someone who doesn’t have the experience to really understand the proper building principles, and hasn’t taken the time to educate themselves, will be a home that is well worth passing up, although we often say that any home can be repaired given enough time and money.

When architects and engineers set out to build a set of blueprints, they follow carefully the boundaries set down in the national and provincial building codes. However, before they are permitted to stamp their first set of blueprints and working drawings, they have spent at least 7 years in school learning how to interpret the building codes, reading hundreds of books and taking dozens of courses. Then when they first graduate, they are considered to be a very special menace as they have much head knowledge but little practical experience. I would recommend a home built by a builder who has 30 years of actual field experience far before a home built by a freshly graduated architect. However, all of us builder types and architects need the whole team to complete the building successfully. One trade that doesn’t care can really mess up the building so ideally the fresh graduates are all helped along by the experienced builders in the homebuilding company. This is also how the body of Christ works, we all need each other and we all have different but essential skill sets within this body. If one member doesn’t come through, the whole body suffers.

The blueprint for our lives and the essential textbook from which to learn the proper principles is of course the scriptures. They are the building code for Christian construction. Contained in the scriptures, in the word of God, are the essentials we need to first create a proper blueprint, and then once this is in place to begin construction according to these instructions. However, it is Church Tradition that teaches us how to correctly understand and interpret the scriptures, and correctly apply them to the unique building that is our lives, so we will be able to withstand the severe storms and foul weather that crashes against us. That which has been faithfully discovered from trial and error over the centuries and lovingly passed down to the next generation of builders, and catalogued carefully so we could all benefit from this immense and saving experience, is precious, of priceless value. We continually apply the time honoured and tested principles given to us in the ecumenical councils and from our venerable elders – the saints gone before us – in interpreting the scriptures and building a solid God-pleasing life. Perhaps we may find ways to apply these principles to our present modern situations and the culture in which we live that are not covered verbatim by past situations. In a similar manner, an experienced roofer takes the rather simple but unchangeable principles of roofing. – water flows downhill and blockages create dams which leak, and applies them to both old and new roofing products, or rot will set in and someone will be getting wet.

The essential principles are both simple and must be followed or disaster will soon appear in both building practises and in building our spiritual houses. Paul says “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid which is Jesus Christ.” You can put a beautiful looking building with the very best of materials and workmanship on a bad foundation and all of the wonderful work and effort put into the building will end up in a rubble pile when the foundation fails. This will be the end result of many beautiful looking new age spirituality practices built on human potential hopes, or even worse on a counterfeit “Christ” who is not the only begotten Son of God, of one essence with the Father, begotten before all ages, fully human and fully God and one of the Holy Trinity. If we build the building of our life on any other foundation than the true Christ, we will resemble the leaning tower of Pisa, with 15,000 tones of surface material on a shallow 10-foot foundation on marshy ground.

Hopefully this is not a problem for us here within the Orthodox Church. We certainly have all of the teaching and tools possible available to us, with the writings and prayers and encouragement of all the millions of saints who have run this race before us, and that are interceding for us constantly that we finish the race and come and join them in the glories that have been prepared for us! Christ is our rock and firm foundation.

Paul then goes on to talk about the materials we use to build upon the solid foundation of Christ, which each of us then get to build on. He says some will build with gold, silver and precious stones a wonderful and skilful work, whereas others of us will choose to build with easier to access materials, those materials that are perhaps more readily available and not so costly in terms of time spent in obtaining them; wood, hay and straw. God will work with us and be by our side as we work, but in the end, this building will be examined and tested for what we in the home inspection world call “service life” – that is, just how durable and long lasting will this building be? Service life is largely determined by the quality of the building materials you use. If you just want to get by for the next few years and have a rather short sighted approach, a cheap asphalt shingle roof should be fine. Of course, in 15 years if you are still in the same home and you once again need to put on a new roof, you may wish you had dug a little deeper and put on a more durable material. If you had selected say a concrete roof tile roof the first time, you would be feeling like you had made a pretty wise decision 15 years ago as you watched your neighbours’ fork out for another new roof. And at year 30 when they are again doing the same thing you might be really glad that you made all that extra effort and paid the extra cost to put on a roof that lasted 60 years or more way back when.

We were just visiting Bartlett’s in Creston a couple days ago and I was really impressed by the house Mr. Archibald built which is on their property. He imported the highest quality asbestos filled fibre cement roof tiles from Europe and they are still completely functional. The house is more than 90 years old still with this original roof. When you make a really long term great decision, even those who you never met and generations who lived well after your time sing your praises, this is why we honour the saints through the ages; they wisely focused their lives on what truly matters, on eternal construction. Too late too smart it is sometimes said, but no matter what our age, we can start afresh today.

The same applies to the spiritual work we choose to do while here. When we are young, we have so many demands on our lives, new families, careers to build, places to see, things to do, how do you ever find the time for reading the scriptures and the Fathers, for prayer, almsgiving, works of charity and for building that spiritual building, someday when we have a little saner lifestyle we’ll get to more of that. When we get older however, our habits seem to work against starting new things, it takes a great effort and discipline and there is still plenty to keep us occupied in other ways.

But we are told in today’s epistle very clearly that there will come a day when our building, the building of our lives, will be inspected very thoroughly. It will be tested with fire. Similar to the story of the 3 little pigs who built their houses of hay, straw and bricks, the big bad wolf blows instead of burns the houses down, but that which is true and eternally solid always remains. The image of fire is used very often in the scriptures and in the writings of the Fathers. It is a great destructive force, but also a great cleansing and renewing force. It only destroys that which is of no real value, leaving room to shine forth with great light that which is of true and everlasting worth. Similar to the uncreated light of God we just witnessed on Wednesday in the Feast of Transfiguration, so bright the apostles could not look upon it yet full of God’s cleansing and energy.

Paul gives us great news regarding the outcome of the testing of fire for each of our work. We will be greatly rejoicing for the times when we dug down a little deeper and sacrificed some of our temporal benefits, to spend time and energy accumulating the things of lasting value in the kingdom of God. These are the gold and silver and precious stones which are not touched by the fire, but rather become gloriously visible when all the dross and overburdening material surrounding them has been burnt away. Paul says we will receive our reward. Bur we have a loving and saving God, Paul tells us that even if we have not been the wisest and have taken the easy way much of the time, we will still be saved. Our works of wood, hay and straw will be burned up and we ourselves will suffer great regret that we did not make better decisions and dedicate more of our time towards the things of the kingdom of God.  Yes, we will certainly suffer loss, but we will still be saved, for He is a good God, He loves us and all of mankind.