We're going to be diving into a new 8 week teaching series on 1 Corinthians this morning – so it would be great if you could grab a Bible and have chapter 1 open in front of you. Let me pray for us:
Father God, as we look at these words written by the Apostle Paul so long ago – we pray that you would give us the same burning love which he had for your church… So that we would truly seek to live out all those wonderful hopes for the church which we've just sung about. Be at work in our hearts by your Spirit to unite us in your loving purposes. Amen.
Well imagine that you were involved in starting a new church. For many of you that won't be too hard to imagine, as you were on the team that started this church just over two years ago. But let's just say that you help start a church and then you move on to a different church, in a different city. And one day you get a visit from some friends from the first church. 'So how's it going there?' you eagerly ask. Heads drop, feet shuffle… and there's an embarrassed silence from your old friends. 'Err… so how bad is it?' you ask. And the answer is, 'Very bad.' And out it all spills:
- A case of incest has sprung up in the church – and people think it's OK.
- A good number of the men are also using prostitutes to supplement their sex-lives – and people think that's OK too.
- Some members of the church are suing one another in the local courts.
- Others are coming to church meals and they won't share – the rich are stuffing themselves full and getting drunk, while others go hungry.
- The church meetings have become more like a talent show than a worship service, as anyone with any sort of gift insists on taking part – so much so that they are slowly scaring people away.
- And to top it all the church is divided into factions – with everyone choosing their favourite leader.
Sounds like a nightmare, right? But everything I've just described comes from reading 1 Corinthians. Can you imagine when we started this church if we'd advertised it like this: 'We're immoral, selfish, chaotic and divided – Come and join us!' But before we get ahead of ourselves and think: 'Well at least we're not like them' – let me say that all churches are messy… because all churches are full of sinful, broken people like me and you.
That's why I think it's going to be really helpful for us to see how the Apostle Paul begins to tackle a problem church like Corinth. I mean put yourself in his sandals for a minute – how would you handle it? I'd be tempted to bang heads together: 'Come on! Stop being immoral, stop being selfish, stop being chaotic, stop being divided.' But Paul doesn't. He goes deeper… because he knows that those things are just the symptoms, and underneath there is a much more serious issue. And here it is: They have made church all about themselves. And in the process they have pushed Jesus out. And the church gets messed up when Jesus gets pushed out.
It's like the '10 in a bed' philosophy of life. You know that nursery rhyme, don't you? "There were ten in the bed and the little one said, 'Roll over, roll over!' So they all rolled over and one fell out…" It's just that in Corinth, the one that fell out was Jesus. They've all rolled over and Jesus has fallen out of the church – because they wanted more room for themselves! So, here's the key, what Paul is going to do in this letter is – he is going to put Christ back in the church. He's going to constantly be saying: 'You've got to look at Jesus! You've got to look at him and really listen to him and seek to be like him. You've got yourselves all messed up because you have pushed the message and mission of Jesus out of your thinking and your affections – out of your bed.' And so, as Paul starts this letter, he rams it full of Jesus! Here's the first thing he reminds them about Jesus:
1. All that You Are is Because of Christ (v.1-3)
Paul says that's true of me, verse 1:
"Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus…"
That's who I am – I am defined in terms of Jesus. I am his. And so are you – verse 2:
"To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus…"
What does that word "sanctified" mean? That's a proper Bible-y kind of word, isn't it? But what does it mean? Well it means 'set apart'. Set apart from one group into another. And set apart from one purpose for another. So, for example, every time you buy a toothbrush you 'sanctify' it. You take it from amongst all the other toothbrushes in Asda or Lidl or wherever it is you shop, and you set it apart in your bathroom. But that's not all you do! You also set it apart for a very particular purpose – which I hope is for brushing your teeth! I mean you don't use it to scrub potatoes, or apply your make up, or get the dog dirt off your shoes after a walk in Hodgkin Park. You could, but then you would never put it in your mouth ever again! No, you set it apart, for cleaning and protecting your teeth and that alone.
And folks, the story of anyone who becomes a Christian is that when they turn to Christ and confess their sin and put their trust in Jesus, God doesn't merely say: 'Great, that's you, you're forgiven, you're ok.' No, he says: 'Yes, you're forgiven, but I've got an even bigger plan for you now. I have sanctified you – I have set you apart from the world and living its way, into my people so you might live differently for my purposes.' That is why Paul goes on to say, again in verse 2:
"to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…"
When we call out to Jesus to save us, God in turn calls us to be one of his "saints" – literally 'God's holy people'. So do you see? Three times over, Paul gives us the same opening shot. Church in Corinth, St Joseph's Church, remember who you are in Christ Jesus: You are God's people. I am his. You are his. We belong to Him.
That is very striking. Paul doesn't begin by rubbing the Corinthians noses in everything they're doing wrong. He begins by reminding them who they are. Satan does it the other way round. Satan begins by rubbing your nose in what you've done wrong and then telling you that you can't possibly be a Christian after all you've done! Whereas God, through Paul, begins by reminding them who they are, and goes on to tell them that they can't possibly carry on living the way they're living, because it's a denial of who they now are in Christ.
So whenever you feel like a problem Christian, of being a failure, whenever you feel like you couldn't possibly be one of God's "saints" – don't dwell on the failure and let Satan tell you you're not a 'proper' Christian. Go back to Jesus, go back to the foot of the cross, and let Christ remind you that you are his – because he paid for you in blood dying there to make you acceptable to God.
And can I also encourage us in our relationships with one another – whether in Midweek Groups or catching up with one another one to one – we need to follow Paul's lead when trying to help brothers and sisters who struggle. We can try as hard as we like to change people's behaviour – to 'sort people out' – but true life change only comes when we gently and lovingly seek to lead one another back to Christ.
"You are God's people", says Paul. All that you are is because of Christ. But that's not all he says, as secondly he tells the Corinthians…
2. All that You Have is Because of Christ (v.4-7)
Have a look at verse 4:
"I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus…"
Now that word "grace" means 'undeserved gift'. And when the Christian sees or hears that word they usually think of what I've just been talking about – the amazing and utterly undeserved gift of forgiveness that Jesus offers us on the cross. It's accepting this gift of "grace" which makes us a Christian in the first place. But "grace" is not simply how you get started as a Christian... "grace" is also everything that God gives you to help you grow as a Christian. As do you see what Paul writes next? Verse 5:
"… because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift…"
God's grace not only saves us, but it "enriches" us. So if you are a Christian you have been "enriched" in every way. I heard some zoo keepers being interviewed on the radio a while back and they were talking about how proud they were of the 'enrichment program' they had for the lions in the zoo. And this is what they said: "We put in a toy, a plastic toy into their enclosure and then we leave it there for two weeks. And after two weeks we take it out because we don't want them to get bored with it and so we put in another toy." Folks, when I heard that I thought: 'These are magnificent animals who let's face it – live in a very small enclosure. I think 'enrichment' is a very overstated word for what you are doing there!'
But when the Bible says that God enriches us in every way – what it means is that God is so generous to us. He doesn't want his church to be a poor little church who he's given a few little toys to chew on. He hasn't given his people some trinkets so we don't get bored. No he says – verse 5: "…in every way you were enriched in him…" So that – verse 7: "…you are not lacking in any gift…"
I think sometimes we can imagine that God is a bit mean. But this makes it clear. All that we have, the gifts that we have, the abilities that we have, and even our willingness to use them in the service of the Lord are given to us because of Christ. God is going to give us all that we need to grow and go on in him.
But 'hold on' you might say – 'the Corinthians didn't look "enriched" in every way!' They may have been gifted (verse 5) "…in all speech and all knowledge…", but later on in the letter we'll find that those were two of their problem areas. Their gifts had made them proud. And let's face it – that's a temptation for all of us! Well Paul had the spiritual discernment to look even at the problem areas and still say: 'God is at work.' Yes, there are problems, but these are the problems of life.
- Better some doctrinal knowledge with an attitude that needs sorting than no knowledge at all.
- Better that they had begun to speak about Jesus being their Lord – in church and outside – than not being willing to speak of him at all.
- Better a desire to use spiritual gifts than no such desire at all.
Paul looked at God's people stepping out in faith and using Christ's grace gifts (albeit imperfectly) and it gave him confidence that God had started a work in them – and what God starts, he finishes. As thirdly Paul tells the Corinthians…
3. All that You Will Be is Because of Christ (v.8-9)
Have a look at verse 7:
"you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."
I remember being at home when Lucy, my eldest daughter, took her first steps. "Quick! Come and look at this! Lucy's walking!" Fiona shouted. And I rushed through in time to see her fall over and face plant into the sofa and collapse in a heap. It was kind of funny to see. But that's not what Fiona called me through to witness. Parents of toddlers don't shout: "Quick! Come and look at this! She's flat on her face again!" Because the falling over is to be expected. The wonder to behold is a step... even a single step. And Paul is like that as a spiritual father to this problem church. The sinfulness of the church is to be expected. The wonder is that God is at work. The wonder is the signs of grace, not the many, many faults you can spot.
And we are to dwell primarily on those signs of grace in ourselves, in our small groups and areas of ministry, in our families and flatmates, our husbands, wives and children. Dwell on the signs that God is at work, not on the fallings and failings. Take the sinfulness of your fellow church members as read. Like yours, that's to be expected. When others let you down or fail to love you as they should don't let that embitter you towards them or use it as an excuse to write them off.
Because the church is really, in the end, God's building site – onto which he takes the raw material of sinners and starts to work on them. And those of us who live on The Rise can tell you first hand that building sites are messy places – unfinished, untidy and disappointing to look at. Not places you want to live next to, let alone in. And so sometimes you feel you'd like to move churches. But the next one you try will only be a building site, too. That's why Paul says in verses 7-9: 'You're not the finished article yet – you're only a building site… and God's still got an awful lot of work to do on you. In fact, only the return of Jesus and your own transformation beyond death will finally get the sin out of you completely and finish the work.'
That's a great antidote to despair, isn't it? But it's also a great antidote to pride too. Because if we don't see how all that we are and all that we have and all that we will one day be is because of Christ – then we, like the Corinthians, will be full of life, full of gifts, full of knowledge, but then also… full of ourselves. Very pleased with ourselves. And ultimately we'll end up worshiping and following ourselves rather than Christ. That is why Paul finally weighs in on the first problem in the church at Corinth by saying:
4. So No More Boasting about Men! (v.10-17)
Do you see it? Verses 10-17 lift the lid on a church situation where people are uniting around leaders not Christ. Verse 12:
"What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul", or "I follow Apollos", or "I follow Cephas", or "I follow Christ.""
Now the New Testament makes it clear that there are times when we should separate from false leaders who are teaching or living contrary to the Bible. But here the issue was about style not substance. You can imagine it can't you?
- Some prefer Paul's weighty theological teaching
- Others were more appreciative of Apollos' powerful speaking gifts
- While others warmed more to Cephas – otherwise known as the apostle Peter – because he was more human and 'authentic' in his leadership style
- And then still another group try to make themselves sound above it all by saying, "We follow Christ". But the commentaries suggest that they were really all about throwing off tradition. They certainly weren't helping by their holier-than-thou attitude!
And Paul is so horrified that he goes for shock tactics in verse 13:
"Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?"
In other words: 'Just who is God in this church? Did I die for your sins to become your Saviour? Do you owe me an eternal debt of gratitude and service? And when we baptised you, were you saying by that… that I was your Lord, that you were going to live the rest of your life for me?'
Folks, how we need to beware the danger of hero worship! We need to beware the danger of so valuing certain preachers or authors that we will only listen to them and not expect God speak to us through some other less gifted servant of his word. We need to beware the danger of overemphasising certain leaders' ministries – as if God works more powerfully through one programme rather than another. And if you are involved in leadership in the church, beware the danger of so valuing your own performance or wisdom that you neglect your own soul. Paul says, 'Don't put me or anyone else on the pedestal that belongs to Jesus alone. Don't push Jesus out of the church! Instead remember all that you are, all that you have and all that you will one day be is because of Christ. We need Christ… and him alone!' Let's pray:
Heavenly Father we pray that we might be a church that clings to Christ. Please forgive us for all the times we have been tempted to follow or even worship certain people instead of him. Help us to see Jesus and our desperate need of him, that we would cling to him, delight in him, trust him, and call on him… because all we have is Christ. In his name we pray. Amen.