Friday, July 31, 2009

Problems, Prayers and Promises

I am intending to repeat the first series I did at my previous pastorate. It was 20 years ago that I began my 18-year tenure as senior pastor. Preaching through First Corinthians was the first offering of what would be the main characteristic of my ministry. I will attempt to edit (slightly) and post one sermon a week. Here is the first one:


1 Corinthians 1:1-9

I have never known of a church with no problems. Some are more obvious than others; some are under the surface. The problems can be doctrinal. They can also be moral and ethical problems. Yet again, they can be relational problems. Some churches are very aware of their problems; other churches go stubbornly on in a confirmed ignorance.

The Corinthian church had major problems even though it had been planted by the Apostle Paul, and even though he stayed at Corinth longer than any other place except possibly Ephesus. Yet it is quite obvious: the church at Corinth had doctrinal problems; it had moral problems; it had relational problems.

We know about these problems because of this letter Paul wrote. It deals with an historical situation which existed in the church at Corinth. Actually, this is the second letter Paul had written to them (we do not have the first one), and they had written to Paul as well. The relationship between the Corinthians and Paul was not too good; that comes through in this letter. It is frustrating that we do not know everything –– one side of a correspondence is like listening to one side of a telephone conversation.

Still, this half we have is timeless because it is part of God's Word as the Holy Spirit worked through Paul as he dictated the letter. And it is to our advantage that we do not know everything; that makes it easier, I think, for God's words through Paul to be even more applicable to us today.

Corinth has been likened, all at the same time, to the New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas of the ancient world. It was wealthy, pagan and immoral. The Christians of Corinth were very much a product of their environment. Even though they were Christians, their thinking and their behavior reflected that of the Greek-thinking, hedonistic city in which they lived.

I think the best work available on First Corinthians is a commentary by Gordon Fee (in the series, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm B. Eerdmans, Pub., 1987), who was one of my New Testament professors at Gordon-Conwell. Dr. Fee offers these words as we look at the Corinthian church of long ago alongside the church today:

The cosmopolitan character of the city and church, the strident individualism that emerges in so many of their behavioral aberrations, the arrogance that attends their understanding of spirituality, the accommodation of the gospel to the surrounding culture in so many ways –– these and many other features of the Corinthian church are but mirrors held up before the church of today. Likewise the need for discipleship modeled after the "weakness" of Christ (4:9-13), for love to rule over all (13:1-13), for edification to be the aim of worship (14:1-33), for sexual immorality to be seen for what it is (5:1-13 & 6:12-20), for the expectation of marriages to be permanent (7:1-40) –– these and many others are every bit as relevant to us as those to whom they were first spoken

It is out of such concerns that we turn to this letter of Paul's to the Corinthians.

What do we do when a church has problems? What would you do if suddenly you were responsible for the well-being of a church that had problems with doctrine, morality and relationships? Other than walking away from it, there are two main options. First, you can focus on the problems. You can get legalistic and say that certain things will or will not be done in the future. The second way to approach the problems is to begin by looking at what is right. Alongside the truth, the error will show up for what it is, and the presence of the right way may attract the correct response. That is how Paul starts his letter.

The beginning verses of First Corinthians illustrate an important principle in Paul's thinking, and in New Testament theology in general. It's the idea that the indicative precedes the imperative. In other words, fact undergirds actions. Let me work through this one with you. In grammar, an indicative states something; it "indicates" what is. An indicative statement is a "matter of fact" statement –– something listed as straightforward truth (whether it is actually true or not). An example might be: "All smart people eat sardines."

An imperative statement is a command. To follow through on my ridiculous example, a parent who wishes his child to excel in academics might say, "you must eat sardines." The point is lost, though, if the indicative statement, "all smart people eat sardines," does not come first. Thus the indicative precedes the imperative. The imperative makes sense only as it is based on the indicative.

When this is applied to Paul's writing, the same is true –– the indicative comes first. Imperatives are built on what is indicated as being true, or to put it more in the context of Paul and the New Testament, what you do or do not do (imperatives) should be based on what you are (indicatives). This then, is the point: one does not obey the commands of God in order to belong to him; instead, the one who belongs to God obeys his commands precisely because he belongs to God. The being is foundational to the doing; the doing is based on being. This cannot be over emphasized if we would understand Paul and the New Testament.

As Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians, he starts with several indicatives which form the base for everything else that follows. There are four things which are true about the Corinthians, and Paul wants them to see it, to understand it, and allow those truths to give perspective to everything else –– especially their problems.

The first thing that is true about the Corinthians is their formation. Something happened to them to make them who they are. And who are they? Whatever else might be true, they are the gathered people of God who are in Corinth. Paul says he is writing to the church of God in Corinth. He is not writing merely to people in Corinth. That's a major distinction. It has to do with self-identity. How do we see ourselves? Is our association with God a major part of our self-understanding? That is where Paul implicitly begins.

How is it that these people are part of God's church? There are two other things here connected with their formation. They have been sanctified. There are any number of words Paul could have used here to signify the Corinthians' salvation. Why did he use "sanctify?" As we will see later, the Corinthians were a stand-offish bunch. They had the big head. They thought they were ahead of everyone else. Paul reminds them with this word "sanctify" that when they became Christians they were consecrated. They no longer exist for themselves. They have been “set apart”; they now belong to God.

He also tells them they were called to be holy. What does that mean? Whole books can be written on holiness, but here I want to suggest it means "different." When we are holy we are different. The Corinthians still had too much of Corinth in them. Paul is reminding them that as Christians they can no longer be the same. Their identity has changed, and that means changed behavior.

How has this happened? On what is this new identity based? This leads to the second thing about the Corinthian Christians: they have a foundation. They have been sanctified in Christ Jesus. They are among others from all over who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. God's grace has been given to them in Christ Jesus. Over and over the reference is to Jesus Christ. The emphasis is on Christ. Later Paul will address the problem the Corinthians had of thinking one person was better or more important than another, but he begins with the positive reminder that Christianity is Jesus Christ.

Jesus always has the priority. We did not choose him; he chose us. That is always the starting point for the way we understand ourselves and the church. No person or church is independent. It did not matter what the Corinthians thought if it did not start with who Jesus was and what he had done. The same is true for every gathering of people which calls itself after Jesus Christ.

The next thing Paul recognizes is the Corinthians' fortune. He tells them that being in Christ has caused them to be "enriched in every way." Later we will find that this was one of their problems –– they knew they were gifted, and were proud of it. The interesting thing here is that Paul did not back off from a truth even though these people abused it.

Have you ever known someone in the church who had an ability, but the trouble was that they knew it too, and flaunted it? The misuse does not change the gift; it only means the use is wrong, and that's a problem with the person's attitude instead of the gift. Spiritual gifts in the church come from God, so Paul is thankful for them. The fact, though, that they come from God means the person with the gift has no reason for pride. Neither should another person be resentful. We need to let God work through his people in the church.

The last thing Paul affirms to the Corinthians is their future. Again, we will later see that the Corinthians thought the present was so good they did not need the Second Coming and the consummation of the kingdom. They were so pleased with themselves in the present, they did not think much about the future. But Christianity is a faith based on the future as well as the past. This life is not all there is, and to settle complacently into the here and now is to deny the faith.

On the one hand Paul is rather optimistic about them when he says, you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. Paul can be optimistic because God has begun a genuine work of salvation in them. And because God is the one who does initiate his relationship with us, his faithfulness is what we depend on. If God is only faithful as we are faithful, then it's little faith we can have. But if we are faithful in response to God's faithfulness, all God's promises can be true.

Yes, the Corinthian Christians are quite a mess. They are proud. They are independent. They are immoral. They misuse God's gifts. They put little importance on the need for Jesus to come bodily back to earth. Still, in spite of that, God has begun his work in them. They belong to him, and Paul wants to help them live up to all they actually are.

And what was true of the Corinthian church is true for every other church. Every church is like Corinth in the sense that every group of people who is called of God and in Jesus Christ is part of the great thing God is doing through his people –– and no single congregation has “arrived.”

Yet.... We too are sanctified. We are called to be holy. We have been given spiritual gifts. We have the promise of God's faithfulness. And all that we are and have is based in and through Jesus Christ.

The Army had a commercial that was so good I wish they had not used it. It should belong to the church. You have heard it: Be all that you can be. In the church, whether it was Corinth or whether it's in your home town, being all we can be is a lot because it is not all up to us. It is up to the one who calls us.... who sets us apart.... who helps us to be different.... who gives us his gifts.... who promises us his kingdom.

Whenever you hear about a problem in the church, do one thing –– first think of these things Paul said. Then see what it is God wants you to do because you belong to him.

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