Saturday, October 3, 2009

To Each His Task

This is sermon #10 in the First Corinthians series:

1 Corinthians 3:5-9


The Corinthian church had a problem. They were divided into groups, each with its own cause and champion. Another way to say it might be that the church was suffering from "opinionitis"–– different people thinking their favorite person or program was the most important thing in the church. It has been a common malady in the church ever since.

Previously, Paul has told them (and us) it is not enough for Christians to behave like ordinary people. Why? Because Christians are not ordinary people. Christians are people who have begun to believe the message of the cross. Christians have entered into a covenant to become people of the cross. Christians no longer see life only from this world's point of view. Christians are people in whom the very Spirit of God has come to dwell so they can have the mind of Christ. Obviously, this is an upside-down, inside-out happening in the life of a person, and the way our conversion happens gets all tied up with our understanding of the Christian life itself.

How does this life-changing event happen? In some way, a preacher usually has an influence. Earlier, Paul said the message of the cross is communicated by the preaching of the cross. Here he recognizes that both he and Apollos were preachers through whom some of the Corinthians had come to believe.

Sometimes preachers get a lot of recognition and glory. I appreciate the affirmations many have given about my preaching. I would just say that when my preaching "works" it is because Someone far greater than I makes it happen. I know you know that (and I want you to know I know it, too), but I know as well that it's the preacher you see.

It is not at all unusual for us to esteem the person who brought us to Christ. You are going to have a special place in your heart for the person who helped you to make significant steps in spiritual growth. You will personally rank a pastor who brought you through a crisis ahead of other good pastors who do not touch your life as deeply. All of that is natural, and is not to be discounted.

I have been slowly reading my way through Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones' book, Preaching and Preachers. It causes me to be all the more enthused about and committed to preaching. It is an exaltation of the call and the ministry of God's Word. It explains and affirms the authority of one called to be a preacher, and to that degree it's an excellent book for the laity to read; it gives criteria for understanding and assessing a preacher. I say that to say it is with trembling that I embrace a calling as a preacher.

I have another reason, though, for recognizing the place the preacher has in a congregation. I say those positive things to also give a context for a preacher's limitations. For all the glory that the Scriptures place on the ministry of God's Word, there is also the balance that the person doing it is a fellow-servant. The glory in the ministry of the Word comes from its association with God; the humility is that God chooses to use human beings.

Paul's point here is that the church must not see its preachers outside the context of other things: everyone else in the church, the church as a whole, and ultimately, God himself. The preacher is not the object of faith. At best he is only a medium (through whom you came to believe –– v5).

How do we see each other in the church? What will help us escape the "opinionitis" that so divided the Corinthian congregation? Three things need to happen to everyone in the church for us to keep our energies in ministry instead of using them to second-guess others and always be explaining ourselves.

The first is that we need to be mastered by a controlling perspective. The idea of being mastered is implied by its contrast: Paul reminds the Corinthians that he and Apollos are only servants (v5). The visible minister is not the reason for the church. The church is something much bigger than a legion of preachers! Yes, preaching has its place. It's an important place, but its importance is relative.

The churches I have pastored are not there because of me. Neither is the church here because anyone who is there. Rather, we are here because the church is here! Yes, we each have a contribution to the church being here (more on that later), but we are here because, in the church, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Apart from one thing we are just another collection of people –– like the Jaycees –– and that one thing should always be the most prominent part of our identity.

Why are we not ordinary people? It is because of God's presence. He is the one who has provided the message around which we gather. He is the one who comes in his Spirit and changes us. He is the one who, as Paul has said in another place, is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:6). He is the one, who as Paul closes verses 6 and 7, makes it all happen.

Unless we come to church and work within the church out of that perspective, we will get in each other's way. I will think that my opinion is more important than yours, and you will think your opinion is more important than mine. Seeing each other as servants under one Master doing different facets of a common task will free us to have our respective opinions and jobs, but with all of them contributing to God's work.

Flowing out of that is a second thing: we need to be motivated by a central purpose. What is it we are all about? Why do we do what we do? If I preach just to exalt my gift, then I'll be touchy whenever another's gift threatens to overshadow mine. Everything in the life of the congregation is meant to build up and encourage. Maybe your child will say something that lets you know he or she is learning who Jesus is, and your heart is full of thankfulness because of the people who work week after week with the children. All of those things need to be happening because, as Paul says in v8, the one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose. That purpose is to make God's church be what it is supposed to be.

I know very little about agriculture. I can't drive a tractor. I know nothing about the planting and fertilizing that makes a big farm productive. I did observe a few things, though, when I lived in Kansas. I watched the wheat cycle with the fall planting, the winter hibernation, the spring growth and the early summer harvest. Many farmers use custom harvesters, people who own big combines and go from state to state and farm to farm to harvest the farmer's wheat, because each farmer can't afford another big piece of machinery. The farmer would not have a harvest without them. In turn, those custom harvesters would not have a job if the farmer had not first planted and nurtured. It takes a collective effort for us to be able to go to the super market and buy a loaf of bread. Paul says the church is God's farm, and it takes all of us to get the job done. We have a central purpose.

As a preacher I want to help us understand who we are, and to encourage us by seeing who God is and what he has done. That is what I try to do through my preaching, but I cannot do that by myself. The needs of a church are staggering. There are programs to run and people to see and reports to be made. If you look to the pastor for all those things, he will not have the time to develop this crucial thing God has called and gifted him to do. Every task that each one does in the church is part of the one purpose for which we all work. As Paul tells the Corinthians in verse 5: to each his task.

And not only in the church, but in whatever context, a person can do a task that makes the total effort go. Someone in the congregation once gave our family, as a Christmas present, the gift of ironing. Someone else often filled in for child-care when out-of-schedule occasions happened. One person doing something like that helped us as a family, and the result was more quality time for me to exercise my gifts.

One last thing to keep our energies in ministry instead of promoting “opinionitis” is a need to be molded by a common possession. This is another angle of our work, in the final analysis, being God's –– literally. Paul says it explicitly: For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field (v9). It is there twice: the possessive, "God's."

We may have our opinions, but it is God's church. The church does not belong to the pastor, but neither does it belong to the board. It does not belong to the congregation. It does not belong to the charter members or their families. It does not belong to the biggest financial givers. The church is God's, and whatever we do in his name, we must not presume that by merely doing it in his name he will bless it. All of our decisions and structures and attitudes and ministries must flow out of this one thing: God is the owner. The work is his. We are his servants.

There are different tasks, yes, and "to each his task." There is a place (and an order) for each task. (You don't harvest without nurturing, and nurturing must come after planting.) But none of that can happen unless there is a farm, and to continue the metaphor, God owns the land, hires workers and pays the wages.

I do what I do because God called and gifted me to preach. We are here collectively because God brings us together. But foundational to pastor and congregation the identity of being God's people. The work to which he calls us is his work. That means we are not competitors; we are complementers. We are not here to be seen by others; we are here to serve others. When we do a task, it is not for our own glory; it is for the good of all so that God's work can be done.

And there is much to be done –– far more than a single pastor (or anyone else) can ever do. It is there for all of us.... together.... because it is under God that we recognize: to each his task.

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