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1 Corinthians: The Church the World Needs: The Real Deal
1 Corinthians 4:6 - 4:13
November 14, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
Becoming a Christian is simple, but living out an authentic Christian life in today's world is easier said than done. In this sermon we explore how to follow Jesus along the way of humility, courage and love, and what that looks like in our everyday life.
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What does it take to be a Christian today? I'm not asking how do you become a Christian. Becoming a Christian is easy. It's as easy as A-B-C. First of all, you simply have to A: Admit. Admit that you're not the person that you know that you're supposed to be, and no matter how sincere your beliefs, no matter how hard you try, no matter how many tears you shed, there's nothing that you could ever do to make up for all of your faults and failures. Then B: You believe. You believe that despite your faults and failures, Jesus lived, and died, and rose for you, not only to reconcile you in relationship to God and others, but also to renew the whole world, to make all things new. Then finally, you simply C: Commit. Jesus gave his life for you, and now he asks you to give your life in service to him. Becoming a Christian is easy. It's as easy as A-B-C, but what does it take to live as a Christian in today's world? That's a different question, and from my point of view, I would say that living out an authentic Christian life has become increasingly more challenging. There's a number of reasons why. Perhaps, I could put it like this: The culture has shifted. The gospel has been distorted. The church has been corrupted.
It's more challenging to live out the Christian life today because the culture has shifted. You could say that we are increasingly moving into a post Christian context, at least within certain pockets within the Western world—certainly here in New York City. Ever since Constantine first legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in the fourth century, Christianity has enjoyed a comfortable relationship with the structures of power as the privileged religion within society. But over the last 17 centuries, we've seen that Christianity has fallen from this position of dominance. Whereas in the past, many of the values and even the laws of the Western world were ostensibly based on Christian principles, the Western world now is all the more resistant to Christianity, for having once been so deeply shaped by it. The church is struggling to keep up with the change. Many Christians, especially Christians who have considered themselves part of the majority culture, are struggling to handle this newfound outsider status. They don't know how to live as outsiders within their own culture.
The culture has shifted, but that's not all. The gospel has also been distorted. The one, historic, timeless message of who Jesus is and what he's done for us has been distorted by various factions pursuing ulterior motives. We see this on both the left and the right. We see people twisting the message of Jesus in order to fit their own agenda—whether you're talking about cultural skirmishes, over race, or class, or gender, or sexuality, or how one relates to one's nation. The gospel has been twisted to serve other ulterior ends.
Thirdly, the church has been corrupted. Perhaps we see this most clearly in the politicizing of the church. For the last several 50 years, starting in the 70s, through the 80s, and 90s, and then on to today, people have used the church as a pawn in order to secure more political power for themselves. That corrupts the very nature of the church, and that's compounded by the fact that the political polarization that we see in the broader culture has now seeped into the church, creating division and drawing battle lines where there should be no lines within the fellowship of those who name Christ as their Lord and Savior.
The culture has shifted. The gospel has been distorted. The church has been corrupted. It's an absolute mess. Many Christians simply don't know how to respond or they respond in all the wrong ways. What do we see Christians doing? Some withdraw, others assimilate, and still more attack. Some withdraw from the broader society. They say, “I'm too good for the world,” and so they retreat into some safe enclave, some subculture that they have designed for themselves out of pride. Then there's others who assimilate because they don't want to stick out, and therefore, they're all too ready to capitulate on distinctive values, beliefs and practices all in an attempt to blend in out of fear. Still more there are those who attack because they say, “I'm not going to take this anymore. I'm not going to take this lying down. No, I'm going to get up, and I'm going to fight. I'm going to fight my perceived cultural enemies out of anger.”
But the way of Jesus is not the way of pride, fear or anger. The New Testament calls us to something different because the way of Jesus is the way of humility, courage, and love. The encouragement to us in the passage before us is that if God can turn around a church that's an absolute mess in the first century, he can do it again in the 21st century. Here in this specific passage, the Apostle Paul spells out for us what humility, courage, and love really looks like. If you want to be an authentic Christian, if you want to be the real deal, then you have to follow Jesus along this path of humility, courage, and love. Let me invite you to open up your Bible to 1 Corinthians 4. I'll be reading v.6-13,
"6I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. 7For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?
8Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! 9For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things."
This is God’s word. It’s trustworthy, and it’s true, and it’s given to us in love.
The situation in Corinth in the first century is not exactly parallel to the situation that we confront today in our world, but there are a number of parallels. The Christians in Corinth were living in a pre-Christian society rather than a post-Christian society, but both are oftentimes hostile towards Christianity for different reasons. One because Christianity is brand new, and the other is because it's old. Let me set the scene here. Paul founded the church in Corinth around the year 50 AD. Then he was followed by his colleague, Apollos, who built on the foundation that Paul had laid, and sought to develop and nurture this young congregation. After Apollos left, other Christian leaders slipped in, who claimed that they had the ability to help the Christians in Corinth rise to new heights in their spirituality. Why? Because they were better than Paul. They consider themselves more gifted public speakers. They were smarter and wiser, more gifted, more knowledgeable, and more charismatic. They believed that they could lead the Christians in Corinth to a richer, fuller experience of God. What's interesting is that Paul never questions whether or not these people were Christians. There's no question that their faith was sincere and devout, but the problem is that they were misguided. As a result of that, their ministry proved to be not only divisive, but destructive because inadvertently—they probably didn't even intend to do this—they were creating cliques within the community with themselves at the center, which was leading to all kinds of quarreling, and infighting, and class divisions. People were abusing their spiritual gifts and abusing their so called freedom in Christ in order to do whatever they wanted. As a result, rather than reaching new highs, the church in Corinth continued to hit new lows.
How does Paul respond to this? Paul brings his opening argument, which essentially spans from chapter one through chapter four, to a close. As he does so, what he reveals here at the beginning of the passage, for the very first time, is that everything that he's been saying all along about himself and Apollos has really been simply for the sake of illustration. There is no issue between Paul and Apollos or between Paul and Peter, for that matter. No, the real issue is with the leaders whose names are too sensitive for Paul to mention. That's how delicate the situation actually was. These leaders had split the church into competing factions, depending on each person's individual loyalties. We all know how easily this can happen in a church or any other organization. People choose sides based on certain leaders, and it just leads to friction. Paul addresses the problem head on, and what is it that he is worried about? He is worried that the Christians in Corinth are full of themselves. They're full of themselves, and he needs to knock them down a notch or two. In v.6, he begins to explain by saying, “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers [and sisters] that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written.” As we've seen, Paul consistently piles one Scripture verse on top of another from the Old Testament, that has to do with the dangers of pride in order to encourage the Christians in Corinth not to go beyond what is written, not to go beyond the Scriptures, because the Scriptures make clear that in the Christian life, there's no room for boasting. There's no room for favoritism. He's written all these things, "that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another." That phrase “puffed up” is one of Paul's favorite expressions that you find in his letter to the Corinthians. He doesn't want us to get "puffed up in favor of one against another."
Then he goes on to say in v.7, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive?” They are prideful about their abilities, but boasting in your abilities is like boasting in the color of your eyes. Your eyes might be very beautiful, but you didn't have anything to do with it. Paul wants us to see that everything we are, everything we have, is a gift. Therefore, there's no room for boasting. If you know that everything you have is something that you have received from God, then why do you act as if you've made it yourself? The point is that everything you are, everything you have, every talent, every ability, every skill is a gift from God, so don't put on airs, and act as if it's not.
The problem is that the Christians in Corinth not only boasted in their gifts, they also assumed that they had already "arrived" spiritually. They had already attained everything there was to attain in the Christian life, here and now. Here we need to strike an appropriate balance. The message of the gospel is that when you are united to Jesus by faith, then everything that is true of him becomes true of you. Just as Jesus died on the cross in your place for your sins, and was raised to new life, and is even now reigning over all things, then if you are in Christ, then you too have died to your old life. It doesn't have any hold on you anymore. You've been raised to new life in Christ. Even now Christ is sharing his rule with you because that is part of our original vocation as human beings—to exercise responsible stewardship over God's world. That is true not only in the old creation, it'll also be true in the new creation. Jesus will share his throne and his crown with us. We will rule with him over the new heavens and the new earth. We will exercise responsible stewardship over the new creation. The appropriate way of thinking about this is that while all of these promises are already ours, we have not yet experienced them in their fullness, and we will not until Jesus returns and makes all things new. Christians live in that tension between the already and the not yet. The promise is already ours. It's already operative and active in our lives. Nothing can ever take it away from us. Yet we have not yet experienced that promise in its fullness, and that's what we long for. That's what we pray for. That's why we lament, how long, oh Lord, must we wait.
The Christians in Corinth believed that everything was already theirs, and that there was no ‘not yet.’ They claimed that they already have everything they want. They're already full. They're already rich. They're already kings reigning with Christ. Paul responds to this with a hint of sarcasm, and he says, I wish it were true. I wish it were true that you were already kings because then you could share your rule with us. But that's not the way it works. We see the same problem today with many of those who preach prosperity. There's a lot of people out there who say, “If you just have enough faith in Jesus, then he will give you health, or he will give you wealth. If you have just enough faith, then you can live your best life, now.” I'm sorry. It doesn't work that way. Those prosperity preachers might promise you the moon, but they forget the words of Jesus. Jesus tells us that, yes, he will share his crown with us, but not until we first share his cross. We must share in Christ's sufferings before we share in Christ's glory.
I love this story about C.S. Lewis, where he once gave a sermon on a Sunday morning at St. Mary's Church in Oxford. The way in which he concluded the sermon was by saying, “You have got to remember, the cross comes before the crown, and tomorrow is just another Monday morning.” The cross comes before the crown. We have to share in Christ's sufferings before we share in Christ's glory. In this life, we live in that tension between the already and the not yet. If you think that you've already arrived in the Christian life, you're deluding yourself. If you know that you still have a long way to go, then that's how you know you're on the right path.
If you want to live out an authentic Christian life, if you want to be the real deal, in today's world, number one: It's going to take humility. That brings me to our second point. The leaders who came to Corinth after Paul, likened themselves to the traveling wisdom teachers that made their way around the first century world and who called themselves Sophists, which is where we find the root for the Greek word wisdom: Sophia. They call themselves Sophists. They prided themselves on their public speaking ability. They had the gift of oratory. They were trained in rhetoric, and so they emphasized style over substance, oftentimes at the expense of truth. They would often claim that they could win any debate, even if they knew nothing about the subject at hand, which just goes to show it was all theater. It was just a stunt. These Sophists, these travelling wisdom teachers, would make their way from town to town, and they would gather together a crowd of people who wanted to see what they could do, and they expected to get paid for the performance. It was all just a show.
Paul, by contrast, made a point of refusing to try to dazzle people with his words. In 1 Corinthians 2, we saw that when he came to Corinth, he did not come proclaiming the lofty wisdom of God with eloquent speech, but rather he determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Paul was very careful to not be a financial burden on the fledgling church in Corinth. He didn't want anything, especially money, to stand in the way of people coming to embrace the message of Jesus for themselves. Acts 18:3 tells us that Paul deliberately paid his own way throughout the year and a half that he spent in Corinth, by plying his trade as a tent maker or a leather worker, together with his new friends, Priscilla and Aquila, who were involved in the same business. If I had to pick a theme song for the Christian leaders in Corinth, who came after Paul and who styled themselves after the Sophists, the theme song I would choose would be, “All I do Is Win.” Although I'm going to resist the temptation to sing it for you. All I do is win, no matter what.
Paul uses a very different image to describe the authentic Christian life. Paul has a very different conception of what triumph looks like within the Christian faith. Let me give you a little background in order to understand this image. When a Roman general won a great victory for the empire, they were granted the honor of being able to lead a massive procession, like an enormous ticker tape parade, through the streets of Rome. This whole event would often be referred to as a triumph. This was how everybody within the city knew that the general had been victorious. Oftentimes, the general and his soldiers would pass through an arch, symbolizing the cleansing that was required, because of all the terrible things that they might have done while they were away at war. The general would usually lead this procession, riding on top of a gallant white warhorse, followed by his soldiers and the adoring crowds, and then towards the back of the procession, they would parade the treasure that they had seized and the prisoners that they had captured. They would show off the spoils of war as a spectacle for the whole world to see. Then at the very end of the procession, what would you see? You would see the bedraggled, defeated enemy king in chains, already sentenced to death. At the end of the day, the triumph would conclude with the execution of that defeated king, and the prisoners were likewise either killed or sold off into slavery. You have to picture this in your mind's eye in order to grasp what Paul is saying because Paul is saying, do you want to know what it's like to be an authentic Christian leader? Look at the man at the end of the procession, sentenced to death, exhibited as a spectacle, and a laughingstock. That's what authentic Christian leadership looks like. He'll go on to say, “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.”
The Christians in Corinth had a lot in common with New Yorkers today. They were status conscious, and they were power hungry. They were drawn to popular successful leaders who seemed to have it all together because they figured that if they attached themselves to leaders like that, then it would reflect well on them too. While their ministry might look good on the outside, Paul makes clear that it’s not the genuine article. He contrasts his actual situation with the one that they pretended to have. Again, he does it with a heavy dose of sarcasm. He says, “We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong.” We are fools for Christ, whereas you claim to be wise. We're weak. But you claim to be strong. We're nobodies, held in disrepute and sentenced to death, whereas you? You're celebrities, held in high honor. We hunger, and we thirst. We're poorly dressed. We're buffeted and homeless, and we labor. You see how he makes the point? We labor working with our hands, paying our own way. Paul would be more than happy to do without all the criticism and the opposition, without the long days and the sleepless nights, but this is what authentic Christian discipleship looks like if you are following a crucified messiah.
All of this raises the question, do Christians today have the courage, the courage that is required, to live out an authentic Christian life within a post Christian context? To be honest, I'm not so sure because to me, it seems that there are far too many Christians who are willing to fold at the first sign of trouble. If you say, I'm willing to follow Jesus as long as it doesn't cost me—as long as it doesn't cost me friends or reputation or dating prospects or career advancement—then you're not serious. If you say I will follow Jesus, if..., then whatever is on the other side of that if is your real God. It's not Jesus. If you are going to be the real deal, if you're going to follow Jesus authentically in a post Christian world, it's going to take courage. It takes courage to call out racism and greed, when people don't want to hear about it. It takes courage to fight for racial reconciliation rather than racial animosity. It takes courage to fight for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, to defend the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and refugee. It takes courage to stand for the sanctity of human life, across the breadth of human experience, from the most vulnerable unborn child, to the mentally incapacitated person at the end of life. And it takes courage to uphold a biblical view of sexuality. It takes even more courage to live it out in your own personal life. It takes courage to stand with Jesus when it seems like the whole world is turning against you, and disparaging the good that you do as evil, slandering your thoughtful convictions as nothing but bigotry or hate. Will you be among those to whom Jesus says, “Do you also want to go away? Do you also want to go away? Do you want to give up, and turn aside, and go back?” Or will you be among those who say to Jesus, “Lord, where can we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
If we're going to live out an authentic Christian life, it's going to take humility, and number two, it's going to take courage. Let me make one final point. Courage is necessary, but courage alone is not enough because as we look out at our world today, we know that there are plenty of people out there who are not lacking in courage. No, they are fearless, and they are itching for a fight because they are angry, and they have had enough. But notice, Paul had countless opportunities where he could have said, you know what? I'm not taking it anymore. The gloves are coming off. If you hit me, I'm going to hit you even harder. Paul refuses the way of anger or retaliation because he has learned to follow a different model. This comes out at the end of the passage. Perhaps because of all the beatings, the stonings, the imprisonments that he endured, Paul says in v.13, “We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” Can you imagine ever saying something like that about yourself? We have become and are still the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. Both of these images come from the world of the kitchen. The word “scum” refers to the nasty filth that would build up on a busy kitchen floor that would need to be swept away, and the word “refuse” refers to the gunk that would stick to the bottom of a pot that would have to be scoured and scraped, and then either poured down the drain or thrown into the gutter. Paul is telling us, ministry—to which every Christian is called—is not for the faint of heart, and if you want to be an authentic Christian leader, then you should assume that you're going to be treated like scum.
Here's the amazing thing: Paul allowed this to happen to himself. It didn't have to be this way. He allowed this to happen to himself. In v.12, he says when people revile us, when people curse us, we bless them. When we are persecuted, when we are mistreated, we endure. We keep going with our head held high. When people slander us, when they say lies about us, we entreat. We continue to pursue them. We speak to them kindly. Paul is saying, you can do whatever you want. You can say whatever you want. You can treat me like the scum of the earth. You can treat me like the refuse of the world. You can come at me with all the hate in the world, but I'm only going to respond in love. He refuses the way of retaliation, and let me just say that this is what the world needs. This is what New York City needs. This is the kind of church the world needs, a church filled with people like this.
But who actually does that? Who actually lives this way? Only those who know that this is how Jesus lived for us, first. Jesus came to his own and his own did not receive him. Jesus came to the world—the world that he had made—and his own world rejected him and treated him like an outsider. Jesus came into the world and let the world do its worst. Yet Jesus, when he was reviled, he refused to curse. When he suffered, he didn't threaten retaliation. No, he continued to entrust himself into the hands of his Heavenly Father, the one who judges justly. In the end, Jesus is beaten. Jesus is flogged until finally, Jesus has to be scraped off the floor of Pilate's torture room. He is scraped off like the scum that sticks to the bottom of your shoe. Then he is dragged to the local garbage dump, which is known as Golgotha, and there, what did they do? They treated him like trash. They hoisted him up on a cross. They put him on a cross. Yet, all the way through, Jesus never said, if you hit me, I'm going to hit you back. No, what does Jesus say? "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Father, forgive them, because they just don't know what they're doing. If we want to live out an authentic Christian life, if you want to be the real deal, rather than a fake Christian, it's going to take humility. It's going to take courage, and most of all, it's going to take love.
Let me pray for us.
Father God, we recognize that living out the life of a Christian in today's world is incredibly challenging because the culture has shifted. The gospel has been distorted. The church has been corrupted. We pray that even if the ground moves underneath our feet, that you would give us the grace to follow Jesus along the way of humility, courage and love, not pride, fear or anger, so that in our own day, the gospel might be clarified and the church might be renewed. Help us to do that by your grace and through your Holy Spirit's power. It's in Jesus' name we pray. Amen.