Isaiah 42:1-13, I Corinthians 4:1-13
August 24, 2014
I love the picture Paul gives us here, of the Apostles in the first century. From this and other of his writings, we see that they were persecuted men! Tradition holds that all but one of the twelve would die martyrs’ deaths. Only John would live on to die of old age. And that wasn’t that people didn’t try to kill him! He was just a tough old guy who refused to die! And we have his Gospel, and several New Testament letters to thank for that!
Of course, we get some of the details of the apostles’ lives in the book of Acts. As we read these New Testament letters, it’s good to keep that book in the background. It’s good to remember that, when these letters were written, Paul and the other Apostles were in the throes of the persecution of the early church. And it’s also good to remember that that persecution would last for 300 years!
Think about that! 300 years is longer than the history of this country! But that’s what the early church endured. At first the persecution came at the hands of the Jewish religious leadership. But that would change. It wouldn’t be long before the Romans took over. And as history would tell us, the church would endure some very bad times, under some very brutal and sadistic Roman emperors – men like Nero and Domitian. (He was a really nasty dude!)
So here in our passage from I Corinthians, we find Paul talking about the himself and the other Apostles and the persecution they endured in those early days. Here he says, “God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death. We have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.” Then he makes these comparisons between their difficulties, what it meant for the people of the church. And this is the place we find those familiar words, “We are fools for Christ’s sake…” We often hear those words quoted, don’t we? (Actually, we often hear them misquoted!)
Paul writes, “We are fools for Christ’s sake but you are wise.” “We are weak, but you are strong.” “You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.” “To the present hour, we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless…” And it wouldn’t be all that long before he could add “in prison” to that list.
Then, in the last of these descriptions he says, “We have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things.” That doesn’t sound very nice, does it? If you read the J. B. Phillips translation, you would find the last part of that phrased this way. “We are the world’s rubbish, the scum of the earth.” I’m not sure if that’s where we get that modern phrase, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Again, that doesn’t sound very nice, though, does it? I was once asked to read these words from that version as a preparation for the sermon of a colleague. And I changed versions! It somehow didn’t seem appropriate to say “The scum of the earth” in church. Well, that’s exactly what my friend wanted me to say, so he wasn’t very happy! And he corrected me when he started.
That’s the picture we get, though. That’s how Paul saw himself and his fellow apostles. They were persecuted men. They suffered disrepute, they were arrested on a number of occasions, beaten, jailed. Theirs became a life of total sacrifice for the faith and for their calling. That’s one of the reasons Paul wrote so often, and so adamantly, about people not thinking too highly of themselves. That’s why he told them not to be boastful people. He knew that’s not what the kingdom of God was about. That was his perspective. But at the same time, it’s what compelled him to be very encouraging of the people. “We (the apostles) are weak, but you are strong.”
I, for one, am glad of that encouragement! I think that’s what we need to hear. And not in the sense that it’s something to boast about. But in the sense that we know that the strength we have is in God. We’re not persecuted like the apostles were. In fact, it’s hard for us to imagine being persecuted like the apostles were! But that doesn’t make our involvement or our responsibility in the kingdom of God any less! In fact, it’s the opposite!
If you think about it, it wasn’t the message and the strength of these early leaders that prevailed in the end. Yes, they went out and changed the world. And without their leadership and perseverance, the Church wouldn’t exist. But in the end, I’m convinced it was the sheer number of believers that prevailed! It was the growth and strength of those believers that established the Church as it was, and as it has come down to us today! That was what eventually made the Church the Church. And that was the Church, against which “the gates of hell would not prevail!” as Jesus told Peter! I hope you know we’re part of that!
Several times in Acts Luke tells us of the number people who responded to the Gospel message. On Pentecost, he tells us that “over three thousand accepted Peter’s message. A little later we’re told, “over five thousand heard the word and believed” and so on… And that’s how it went. The Word spread like wildfire across the Roman world. That’s how it’s been described. And as my firefighter friends all say, they would rather fight a building fire than a wildfire!
In Jesus Christ, God himself came to this earth! He came here to reach the people he created and he loved. And as we look back, we see that as the pivotal moment in all of history! That’s the way they saw it then. That’s the “Secret hidden for ages and generations now revealed to us,” as Paul described it. God has stepped into history! That’s the message to which people responded. That was the strength of the church in the early days, as it grew and prospered. And that it did – despite all that was thrown at it!
That response to that message is still the strength of the church today – not the boldness of the preachers, but the response of the people! But sometimes churches forget that. Sometimes churches make the leaders the biggest part. They put them on pedestals, and make them the strength of the church. They forget the vision Soren Kierkegaard gave us. He was the one who said how many people think of the Leaders of the church as the performers in a play, with God as the prompter, and the people as the audience. But he said no! We the leaders are the prompters in the play, you are the performers, and God is the audience.
You – all of you – are the strength of the Church! It’s not me, it’s you! And I hope you appreciate that perspective! Because, unfortunately, there are people in the clergy who don’t get that. They’re just fine with being put on pedestals. One of the things I’ve noticed over the years, is that there are many pulpits that are simply too small to contain the egos of those who occupy them! I hope you appreciate that I’m not like that. I hope you appreciate that I can say that indeed – beyond the shadow of a doubt – it’s not me, it’s you!
You are the strength of the church! So how do you, live that out? Think about that. The first thing I would say is for you to strive to live an “active” faith. I say that because there are many who would rather live a “passive” faith. They’d rather do what I’ve called “the minimum of faith.” They stay on the periphery. They avoid involvement. They pray only when they are desperate. They don’t bring God into their everyday lives. And then they wonder why their faith isn’t all that meaningful to them.
In encourage you today to be “active!” And I have to tell you that I’m proud of the fact that this church has chosen to set standards for “active membership.” They include things like “regular worship attendance.” And I would add “regular worship participation.” Because there is a difference, isn’t there? They also include, “regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” “Participation in activities and leadership positions,” and “Regular support of the ministry, both in prayer and in giving.”
I think those are great standards! They are great encouragements! And I would add to them one more. I would add “Regular participation in the kingdom of God!” In other words, share your life with God every day. That’s what he really wants the most, anyway, not just for us to come here to worship once a week. So make God part of your life every day. Pour your heart out before him. Let him be part of the joys of your life, as well as the sorrows. Don’t just talk about him, talk to him. All of that is the strength of this church!
Now, I could say this every week, couldn’t I? We all need those encouragements on a regular basis, don’t we? So what better time than when we’re preparing for a new “church year.” As your leaders make those preparations, I encourage you to make preparations of your own. Decide that this will be for you a year of greater participation. Decide to make this a year of a more “active” faith, rather than “passive.” Make it your goal this year to grow closer to God, in the context of this wonderful thing he has given us, the Church of Jesus Christ. And remember it is the people that are the church, and it is the response of the people that is the strength of the Church.
Eternal God, help us to seek you with all our hearts, and to find you in our lives every day. Help us to share ourselves with you, to grow in our faith, and to grow in the joy of your kingdom. Help us to support and uphold each other, and to know we are one in you. For these thing we ask in Jesus’ name, and for the sake of his church and his kingdom, Amen.