Friday, October 16, 2009

Two Views of Christian Success

This is sermon #12 from my First Corinthians series:

1 Corinthians 4:1-21


In one way or another success is a concern for every person on earth. Children want to be successful in school. Adults want to be successful in their jobs or as parents or in marriage relationships. Some people are very concerned about success in sports ––either for themselves or vicariously through their favorite team. Businesses are defined by their success or failure. Our self-image as individuals has a lot to do with how we measure success in ourselves. Success, in one context or another, becomes very important.

Success is no less an issue within the church. Numbers are one of the ways a church is deemed successful. Other standards of success include facility and program. When those things combine with the human element –– opinion, the result is the perceived success or failure of the church.

Unfortunately, opinions can be wrong as easily as they can be right. Is a church successful as long as it has an impressive building and a professional program? Or to look at an individual Christian, is one's life obviously blessed by God if he or she is healthy and wealthy? Is happiness the divine right of every believer? And what about the person who is not healthy, wealthy or happy? Does that mean he or she is not meeting the standard of a successful Christian? Those are some of the opinions one can find in the church at large today.

When we come to this fourth chapter, we find Paul bringing his opening main point to a conclusion. He has been talking about the conflict between the world's wisdom and God's wisdom. God's wisdom offers the world a crucified Messiah. People who embrace God's wisdom become people of the cross. The world has a wisdom that promises life, but gives death; God's people follow Jesus by embracing death to gain life. Christians really do believe one can win by losing.

Paul has not been saying these things merely to engage an academic exercise. His words are not philosophical ramblings. He is applying the message of the cross to real life. The Corinthian church had an attitude much like the one described in the third chapter of Revelation about Laodicea: "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing." And along with that self-sufficient attitude, the Corinthian church had a bad case of "opinionitis."

Using the language of today, we can certainly say the Corinthians did not have a poor “self-image.” They were children of the King! They deserved the best. They had been accepted by God, so why let sin get them down? And why should they allow their image to be tarnished by that radical fellow named Paul, who was more of an embarrassment than anything else?

Such is the context of this fourth chapter of Corinthians. But writing with the authority of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul responds not only to his defense, but to the very heart of the gospel and its application. To use this issue of success that affects us so much, Paul gets behind the “opinionitis” that forms our ideas of what success means in the church. The fact that this letter is almost 2000 years old only shows how timeless God's Word is.

The first question to consider is the issue of judging. We must be careful here. The meaning of the opening verses is clear –– the church is not the judge (v5). That seems simple enough, and consistent with what Jesus said, Do not judge... (Matt. 7:1). But we need to hear that in tandem with other commands and occasions which say the opposite. In the next chapter Paul will tell the church to judge a man. A bit further in the same chapter Jesus said to judge the character of false prophets by their actions –– by their fruit you will recognize them (Matt. 7:20).

What is it we are not to judge? First, I will say two things that are not excluded from our judgment: acts of sin and the character of a person who persistently sins. I will say more about that as we come to the next chapter.

So what is it we are not to judge? In the context of this first paragraph, the church is in no position to judge the style of a minister. The job Paul was doing was not the concern of the Corinthian church. Yes, he was one of their apostles. Yes, his stated objective was to be their servant. But they had no right to judge.

Now this has implications for today, but first I need to admit my discomfort as I give this particular point. Even as I tell you it is not your place to judge your minister (and there are reasons that is true), I will jump ahead and tell you that is conditional upon the person’s sensitivity to a higher standard than any other thing on earth. I will say more about that.

First, though, look at the reasons others in the church should not judge the minister or other Christian workers. First, they are servants of Christ (v1). Yes, the service is given to the church, but the service belongs to the Lord. He is the master; the servants and their actions belong to him. Second, the Lord is the judge (v4b). Paul does not care what the church's opinion of him is, or anyone else's. He goes on to say it is not even what he himself thinks of his ministry. That is because the only opinion that matters is the Lord's. He is the judge.

There are reasons implicit in the Corinthian church why it should be that way. When the Lord judges, it is always just. The standard is high, but it stands without bias. When we judge one another, our hidden agendas come into play.

The Fall has given all of us the tendency to have high opinions of ourselves and low opinions of others. And when we judge one another's performance in the church, it is often with a "stacked deck." It ends up with us saying, in principle, "I am good at this particular thing, but you are not." Or we imply something like this, "Well I see what needs to be done here; can't you?! Of course any of us could legitimately say those things in a given situation, because each of us has strengths where others have weaknesses. It takes no great person to point out another's weakness alongside a personal strength.

But even in their strengths, followers of Jesus should remember one basic fact: No one is personally responsible for his talents and strengths. Paul's words in v7 should be like a splash of cold water in the face for any of us who feel as though we do pretty good: For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

In this case, the Corinthians looked at Paul and saw an unimpressive man. Tradition says he was physically unattractive. He himself admitted earlier in the letter that his coming to the Corinthians was not marked by eloquence or superior wisdom (2:1). His message was simple and unimpressive –– a crucified Messiah.

On the other hand, the Corinthians used the gospel to better themselves. For people who had not been influential or of noble birth (1:26), they seemed to have done pretty good by the world's standards. Mimicking their claims (v8), Paul says they have all they want, they have become rich, and see themselves (as the NIV translates it) as kings. That is a poor translation; the idea is that they have looked ahead at the promise of the kingdom's consummation and have decided they have already begun to reign with Christ. The way some say it today is, "I'm a child of the king," and then they proceed to think they deserve the best house, the most expensive car and clothes, nor should they have to do hard work to have those things. They just wait for "God's blessing."

As if that were not bad enough, many of those same people, while professing Christ, both disclaim and look with disdain on anyone else who might be too radical, too fundamental, too evangelistic, too emotional or too simple in faith. That was how the Corinthians saw Paul, and their opinion of him was plain: he was an embarrassment.

Do you know people who are ashamed of being publicly identified as a Christian? Or maybe people who would not be caught in public with a person who might say "praise the Lord" or pray too loud in a restaurant? Do you know people who want the church to look impressive in the eyes of the world's values, and want to belong only to such a church? The Corinthian problem did not stop with the first century.

Paul had an anointing of the Spirit to see distortion in the church. As an apostle he had a distinctive authority for the church's judgment. Paul was applying the gospel in his life. He met the one requirement of one who would minister in the name of and unto Jesus Christ –– he was faithful (v2). He was faithful to the content of the gospel; he was one of those entrusted with the secret things of God (v1).

But the gospel is not just a concept to which one gives mental assent. The gospel is not something to be pulled out at "heady" moments so we have something religious to contribute in a discussion. The gospel is a way of life –– the way of the cross. Paul knew that, and he lived it. And when one looks at what living the way of the cross can mean, it is little wonder that even Christians try to find a different way to gauge success.

For Paul, successfully following Christ meant things like going hungry and thirsty, dressing in rags, being brutally treated, homeless, and doing menial work just to tell others about Jesus. It meant living non-resistantly and not just talking about it, so that when he was cursed, he blessed. When he was persecuted, he endured (instead of running or fighting back). When he was slandered, he responded with kindness. He lived with the realization that much of the world considered him the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world (v9,11-13). That is discipleship modeled after the weakness of Christ. That is how Paul successfully witnessed to a crucified Messiah.

When I look at my own life, and the attitudes and values of the American church at large, I see much more of Corinth than I do of Paul, much less Jesus. And at such a time I am thankful that our salvation depends on God's grace and not our performance. But grace is not our ticket for indulgence. Understanding our need for grace is to also understand our need to reject the opinions of success which make us so unlike Jesus and this apostle who followed him so faithfully.

Faithfulness is a tall order for a Christian. The standard of faithfulness is Jesus himself, and his obedience to the Father. I am very much aware of that standard as I give myself in ministry. I live in the consciousness that he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts (v5). My style may not always match your taste. You will surely see some things that I could do better –– and I welcome loving criticism. But I remind you today that my service will be judged successful or not by the Lord. He will judge.

In the meantime, I hope I can invite you on a journey. It is a journey into success, but a success unlike anything the world knows as such. It is a journey because I need to be on the road with you. I cannot give a success record like Paul's in following Jesus in suffering and death. I cannot, with the same degree of faithfulness, say with Paul, to imitate me (v16).

I can, though, say with Paul that the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power (v20). I can talk for years and not grow in faithful application of the gospel. A church can do all kinds of things that say "success" in the eyes of the world. We can do all kinds of things and not have the witness of the kingdom's power.

How shall we measure success? Do you know what really matters? It is the things that will have made a difference for Jesus' sake years from now: the way we judge.... the way we promote ourselves.... the way we live from day to day.... These things tell whether we are still stuck in Corinth or whether we are on the path of the cross with our Lord.

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