A Friend In Low Places'
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If you are into deep album cuts by Mihalia Jackson you’re familiar with the song “I’ve Been Buked.” Rebuked is one of those Bible words that you don’t hear a lot of today. I remember talking to a group of our young people here one time about the loving rebuke. Understandably I was getting a lot of blank looks. I said something like “Well rebuke is like a reproach.” More blank looks. “Like an admonishment.” Blankness. Which is why of course we always have to be careful about the words that we’re using or how we define them!
Loving correction. I see that you’re doing something that is not right. I love you enough to want to let you know so that things can be corrected. The loving rebuke. Hard to do and you must always make sure that your motivation is coming from the first word in that phrase – loving. Let’s ask for God’s help this morning as we look at the fourth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the people of Corinth.
We often say that when we’re dealing with matters of faith and the Christian faith in particular, as we are prone to do here at church, we are not merely dealing with generalities or theories. We have heard about how we are grounded in Christ and God and bound together by the Spirit of God. We have heard about the story of the cross and how it is folly to the world but wisdom to God. It is at this point that Paul turns his attention toward the church that he had founded in Corinth. There are issues which have come to Paul’s attention. Paul feels a great deal of love for the people he had left behind at Corinth not that many years ago. The issue with any church is often that there is a gap between theory and practice. There is a gap between what we say we believe or what we purport to believe and what that belief looks like.
And we must always remember that this faith is meant to look like something.
The problem at the church of Corinth has been described like this – “At the heart of the boasting at Corinth was the conviction that they were really a very successful, lively, mature and effective church. The Christians were satisfied with their spirituality, their leadership, and the general quality of their life together. They had settled down into the illusion that they had become the best they could be. They thought they had ‘arrived.’” When we start to think that we have arrived in our faith it is always an issue. The concern that is mentioned here is boasting. We have talked about how the society prized people who could speak, prized ideas about wisdom, prized speakers who had benefactors, speakers/leaders who could bring in the cash as it were.
Before getting to the crux of the matter here, Paul sets up his position. He is talking about leaders, in this case, apostles – “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” There are two images at play here. The first is servant. All of us are called to be servants. One can’t help but think of Christ’s words here – ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord is over them, and those in authority are called benefactors, but not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves…I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22) The other image is that of stewards. A steward in those days was a servant who was in charge of a household (the word here literally means one who is taking care of a house). The position has been compared to someone like the White House Chief of Staff. Commissioned to lead and manage and at the same time serving the one who rules or the Lord. The thing that is required of stewards is that they be found trustworthy. Don’t apply the standards to your leaders that the world applies to its leaders – whether it be rhetorical skill or image or the ability to formulate philosophical arguments or bring in the money or manage or execute the office. What standards are leaders being held to? These kinds of judgements mean little to me, says Paul. My own judgements mean little to me, he says, because I might miss something. Do not, therefore, pronounce judgement before the time. This does not mean that we’re not discerning or that churches don’t help leaders become better leaders or that leaders have free rein (let’s not get binary about this). It does mean that the standard by which we are measured is Christ’s. Paul came among them in Corinth determining to know nothing but Christ and him crucified. Paul has shown himself to be a faithful steward.
Therefore he has a thing or two to tell them. He loves them you see. Let us love one another enough to point out when things have gone wrong or are going wrong. Paul says he has applied all this to Apollos and himself for the benefit of the Corinthian church so that they may learn something. It was never simply about Paul and Apollos and who followed whom. It’s like a married couple having an argument about the toothpaste which becomes quite serious to the point of tears until someone realizes that this is not simply about the toothpaste. This chapter in our NRSV Bibles is entitled “The Ministry of the Apostles” but it’s not just about the ministry of the apostles. Paul and Apollos had nothing between them after all. Paul had nothing against Cephas or any other apostle. Paul is using this dispute and the tendency of the Corinthians to boast and to set Apostles against each other in order to make a deeper point. This is where the letter speaks to us. The question that is always before us is what is the wisdom of the world and what is the wisdom of God? What is the wisdom of the day and what is the wisdom of the Day? We live between the cross and Christ’s return. How then shall we live? When we go wrong it’s not so much a matter of rejecting God’s wisdom for something else. It’s more than likely a matter of letting something else that purports to be truth get mixed in with what we believe about God. For the people of Corinth, it was boasting in who they followed, boasting in the Spiritual gifts they had been given. For us, it might be feeling secure in the material goods and wealth that surrounds us. It might be to some extent buying into our culture’s focus on self-fulfillment, self-absorption. It might be buying into our culture’s notion of individualism and/or live and let live. Paul is bringing a prophetic word here and the problem with being a prophet is that prophets aren’t really very popular. They’re often killed actually.
But then for Paul, that’s kind of the point. God putting things to right mean that things very often seem upside down. “I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit, brothers and sisters, so that you may learn through us the meaning of the saying ‘Nothing beyond what is written,’ so that none of you will be puffed up in favour of one against another.”
In other words, it’s not all about you. It’s not all about having it your way right away. It’s not about go and live your best life or life’s what you make it or you’re your own hero. What is written? He humbled himself to death, even death on a cross. For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves. This bread that we break, is it not our sharing in the body of Christ? I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another.
Paul gets to what I would call the heart of this passage here. The part I would put on a plaque. He asks “What do you have that you did not receive?” Who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? (v7)
In other words “What exactly makes you think you’re so special?” I can’t be the only one who is ever in need of hearing this. Perhaps church leaders most especially need to hear it, as the temptation toward pride or “How great am I?” can be great. It’s a message for all of us though. What do you have that you did not receive? If the myth of the self-made person is a myth, how much more so the myth of the self-righteous Christian? We’re talking of course about grace, a gift freely given by God. All we’ve done as followers of Christ is to accept it. What do you have to boast about? Your social standing? Your money? Your education? Your talents? Your number of followers/likes/retweets? Your church budget? Paul becomes his most sarcastic here to make his point. You’ve become rich, he tells them. Apart from us, you’ve become kings! I wish that you had so that we might become kings with you! King like conquering heroes who would return to their city carrying plunder and captured slaves. We’re like those captured slaves, says Paul, sentenced to death, made a spectacle in the Coliseum where they are killed. The same image Paul will pick up in 2 Corinthians when he talks about God leading us in Christ in triumphal procession, dying to ourselves, dying to the things which the world says are worth our very lives, and in so doing finding life.
That’s who we are sisters and brothers. Don’t be coming all boastful because in God’s grace everything is right-side up. We are fools but you are wise. To the present hour, we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless. This life should look like something and while I don’t think Paul is being prescriptive here necessarily he’s making a point. How do our lives look different than those around us who aren’t so much into this upside-down world? How are our habits different in terms of what and how much and from whom we buy and sell and give away?
Do not think highly of yourself. Instead, think lowly of yourself in Christ. Everything is turned upside down/right-side up. When reviled we bless. We don’t threaten. When persecuted we endure. We don’t look for payback. When slandered, we speak kindly. We don’t return fire. We have become the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day. A whole new way of looking at the phrase the scum of the earth.
What a thing to enter into! How could we ever hope to live in such a way that these things might be true of us? Paul says something here that one might consider the height of arrogance. He’s not writing to shame them, literally to turn them in on themselves. Make them cover their heads with their arms and do their best to take the beatdown, he wants to help them. You have many guardians, he tells them, but one father, therefore become imitators of me. We may blanch at the patriarchal language here but recall that Paul is talking about things being upside down. It has never been about putting those at the top of traditional power structures in charge of things no matter if it was for reasons of gender or colour or money. The church has got this wrong in the past and we must be careful we don’t get it wrong now. Are our governing councils reflective of the faith families they serve or are they based on power structures? Paul did not come to the people of Corinth boasting about his education or wealth or training or intellectual acumen. He came a changed man because of the cross of Christ, commissioned by a group of believers to go spread the news of Christ to Gentiles.
Can church leaders say “Be imitators of me?” because they are imitators of Christ? If you’ve been following Christ for any length of time, think of those who have modelled what the Christ-following life looks like. Think of those who have shown you by their lives what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Being a Christian leader is not simply about imparting information or about being able to run things, not that we discount those gifts. At it’s best it’s about living lives in the power of the Spirit of Christ that are worthy of imitation.
I don’t think it goes too far to say that we’re called to be a Christian leader to someone either. Don’t think your leadership has to be in grandiose or demonstrated in grand gestures. Henri Nouwen described his own experience as a leader like this – “…I have tried to help many people and have been increasingly surprised that I often gave strength when I least expected to and received grateful notes when I thought that I had been no help at all. It seems that we often reveal and communicate to others the life-giving spirit without being aware of it. One of the most comforting remarks I ever heard was: ‘I wish you could experience yourself as I experience you. Then you would not be so depressed.’ The great mystery of ministry is that while we ourselves are overwhelmed by our own limitations, we can still be so transparent that the Spirit of God, the divine counselor, can shine through us and bring light to others.”
Beloved of God is where we find ourselves. It’s the primary marker of our identity in Christ. The choice is in how we respond to this love, freely given in God’s grace. Paul lays the choice out in rather stark terms here. He can come with a stick or with love in a spirit of gentleness. It’s because he cares. May we hear these words today and know they’re coming from a spirit of love in Christ, no matter what it is that God is addressing to our hearts. May this be true for each and every one of us this day. Amen