Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Cross as Critique of Triumphalism and of Premature Eschatological Glorying

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 4:6-21

Last week, I was looking for a book online. I happen to surf into some online forums in Amazon. They have forums on every type of book subjects, and these forum threads I happen to read are debates on religious issues. It is a discussion on the identity of Jesus and the truthfulness of the Bible. The participants of the forum include Christians, as well as atheists and Muslims. One of the main points of contention is this: who is Jesus really? And what is his significance? Most people do not doubt the real existence of Jesus. On the forum, atheist and Muslims respect Jesus as well as Christians. But what is generally claimed by the anti-Christianity opponents is that Paul has distorted the significance of Jesus, and he has exalted Jesus even beyond Jesus’ own claims. The bible is hence not truthful and believable, especially Paul’s letters. Upon my own reflection, it is indeed rather true that my own understanding of who is Jesus Christ and the significance of Jesus Christ is heavily influenced by the interpretation of Paul. Is Paul to be trusted? Can we accept his interpretation? What is the implication of following Paul's understanding of Jesus? These are questions which I hope to address today.

From the passage we have read, it appears that Paul has opponents not only in the online threads of modern day internet forums. His opponents are present in the Corinthian Church as well. These opponents in the Corinthian Church, just like the modern day opponents, have their own interpretation of Jesus and Jesus' significance. Needless to say, their interpretation differ widely from Paul's own understanding. Because of their different understanding, it also directly impact their Christian living in the Church. Who is right? How do we know who can we trust? Unfortunately, it is not possible to return to the first century church to witness the debate for ourselves. But thankfully we still have Paul's rebuke of his opponents. If we can believe Paul's side of the story, then we can trust Paul's interpretation of Jesus. And just as how Paul defeated his opponents in the first century church, we rely on him to defeat his modern day opponents. We uphold his version of Jesus' significance against all other interpretations today. If we can trust Paul, then we have a formidable witness against doubters of the claims of Christianity.

What are some of the thoughts of some members of the Corinthian Church? They thought that by conversion to Christianity they are now on a new plane of life. They felt that they could do anything, they are like kings, they are superior to the unconverted men around them. How is this possible? This is because they believe that the kingdom of God has already come. They are victorious already. Therefore, they believe that the spiritual gifts that they have is for them to show off how special they are. Jesus is only a tool for them to attain all these special gifts and elevated status. They can claim the promises of Jesus and live like they are in heaven already. It is a form of religious self-satisfaction.

Now, it would be wrong to say that there are no truth in what these people are thinking. Certainly we all believe that conversion to Christianity means that we enter into God's eternal kingdom. Certainly it is true that we are given new life. And to live this new life, we are given the power of the Spirit. We feel liberated from the law and sin. We inherit the status of the child of God, it is an honored king-like status. On one level, it does seem like these new teachers of the Corinthian Church are right. However, they missed out one key ingredient to all these. And that is God eternal kingdom is only fully realised with Jesus' second coming. We know that Jesus is already victorious over death and evil, but for us who are waiting for the second coming, it has not yet fully arrived for us.

Today, it seems pointless to debate with these Corinthian false teachers on the point that it is not yet the end of times. After all, the church has waited for almost two thousand years. Based on hindsight, we know with almost absolute certainty that their thinking that the kingdom of heaven has fully come in their time is wrong. For if they are right, why then are we still waiting today? But it is not immediately obvious to the first century Church, some of whom believed that Jesus will come again in their lifetime, and hence they are living in heaven already. For that, in accuracy in theology, Paul has it right, even though he doesn't have the hindsight of two thousand years like us. For that, in truthfulness in the real significance of Jesus, Paul has already score one over his then opponents in Corinth.

But this is more than just a nitty-gritty detail in theology, because the proper understanding of the significance of Jesus has a direct implication on our Christian living. Because of the wrong understanding of the Corinthian Christians, they thought that they are totally free to do anything since they are already safe in heaven. In a society where knowledge is supreme, they thought that their knowledge is their salvation. And since they are the privileged ones to be saved, they get to show off their privileged status by showing off their spiritual gifts. Paul is furious about their immorality and their selfish use of their gifts. And the only way to slave the problem is to confront them with correct theology. Many of the problem will be solved in future sermons as we explore the later half of the epistle, but first Paul puts forth a strong counter argument against their false understanding of Christ. There is something missing in their understanding of Jesus, and that is the Theology of the Cross.

The Corinthians see Jesus like a tool to be used to arrive at a higher status in life. Jesus makes them powerful and free. But Jesus is more than just signs and wonders. Jesus is also about a life that is driven towards the sacrifice on the Cross. And Paul understands this. You cannot have the victory without the sacrifice. You cannot have the eternal life without the righteous living. You cannot have the power without the heart to serve. And you cannot have the knowledge without the mission to love. This is the theology of the cross. As followers of Jesus, we cannot overtake the master. We are called to love and to serve. We are called to live well and to live for a good cause. And this is what the church must continuously do until the second coming. It is only with the second coming that all is being fulfilled. Until then, we do not have the right to live as if we are already in heaven. Not yet.

So Jesus is more than just an instrument, a tool that we use to get what we want. Jesus is a life that we imitate for he reveals to us the true way as a child of God. He shows us what it means to live this life in full obedience to God, the way it should be when man have a proper relationship with God. This is why his life is a fulfillment of all that is written. His life is a fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Paul states it clearly that this is the life that Paul and Apollos live as well. And he will continue to display this life through the physical model of Timothy living among them. Timothy will remind them of the patterns of life which Paul live in Jesus Christ. This is the true understanding of the significance of Jesus Christ. He is not someone to be used for the gains of man, he is the life to be lived.

With a correct understanding of Jesus, the implication for Christian living is direct as well. If this life is one of obedience and grace, living by full dependence on God, then how can there be boasting? Paul states it clearly. Let no one be inflated against another. Can another Christian claim to be superior to another Christian? No! Are we more righteous? No! Are we more gifted? Are we more important than another member or another ministry? No! Why? Because all that we have, we received from God. Even our good works in ministry or good living or good relationships are simply by the grace of God. And if all is by grace, let us live like we are in grace and we live graciously. If all that we have we received, we cannot hoard them as if it belongs to us. We use our gifts for the welfare of the community. After all, we are all on the same lifeboat to the island of paradise.

The Corinthians thought that their gifts and their knowledge made them special. They thought that their relationship with Paul or with Apollos made them outstanding. Paul uses the example of the Apostles to show them what is “special” and “outstanding”. Needless to say he is using extreme irony to knock some senses into their pride and pompous attitude. He is not do this to shame them, but to warn them so that they do not go down the wrong path. If they only care about the benefits of Jesus, but fail to capture the true essence of living like Jesus, they are not true followers of Christ.

Paul says you are “strong, wise and honored”. But the apostles are fools, weak and disgraced. They go hungry and thirsty and poorly clothed; they are roughly treated and have no fixed place to stay. They toil until they are weary, laboring with their own hands. They are abused, persecuted and slandered. Up to this moment they have become, as it were, the world’s scum, the scrapings from everybody’s shoes. In case you have failed to catch the dramatic emphasis of Paul, think of the most disgusting thing you can imagine. The snot, the spit or the bird-shit. That's Paul. The point is plain and simple, but it is sad that throughout church history it is repeatedly forgotten when Christian lived in good times. The point is that Christianity can never be just about the success and glory. Because if that is so, then the lives of the apostles is the exact rebuttal. None of the apostles including Paul himself “come to a good end.” They were seldom rich and prosperous, whether it is financially or in healthy. Even Timothy too.

Paul's understanding of the theology of the cross is more than just a rebuttal of the Corinthian Christians. It is also a sharp rebuke of any other form of prosperity gospel or success theology. Yes, there is a divine exchange of Jesus' sacrifice for the new life that we receive. But this divine exchange only comes into complete fulfillment in Jesus' second coming. The lives of the apostles is a stark naked truth of the reality that we are not in heaven yet. Not yet. There is nothing that we can claim with absolute certainty on earth, unless it is its fulfillment in eternity. Paul is not using his life or the example of Apollos to shame these people who preach such nonsense. But it is a stern warning.

Paul's life is not only a rebuttal of such deviants of Christianity but I feel it also makes a convincing argument of his modern day opponents. The modern day skeptics that thinks that Paul is distorting the truth about Jesus. Paul's life of pain and suffering is a true testimony that he is teaching what he is teaching because he believes in it. Else, why would he give up his past status as a honored Roman Pharisaic leader. Is he a fool? Only in the eyes of the world. He is embarking on the same road of sacrifice for the sake of God's people just as Jesus has done. We know that Paul knows that truth about Jesus because he lived in the truth and preached, suffered and died for the truth. To the non-believers of Paul, I have only this to say: I believe that Paul chose to live such a life because he had seen the resurrected Christ. I think to believe otherwise would take even more faith, but I can only believe the simplest explanation. Paul's life, like the sufferings of all other apostles, is a testimony to the truth about Jesus. Such a truth is worth a life of sacrifice, a life of waiting for Jesus' second coming. Because it is displayed so clearly in their lives, so that I believe, and that kind of life I will follow as well.

By holding on to the truth and proclaiming it, Paul has become a father to all who accept the gospel coming from him. It is the father that must bite the bullet and discipline when it is time to do so. The Presbyterians do not follow the same system as the Catholic Fathers. But we can imagine our senior pastor holding on to this fatherhood through his proclamation of the truth. Just as Paul sent Timothy to the Corinthians to remind them of this life of Jesus that Paul is living, we have the same father figure to imitate this life of sacrifice and obedience to the truth. This is not just empty talk but true living. I cannot imagine our senior pastor with a big stick on his hand. That is scary. Let us hope that when he comes to see our ministries, our cell groups, our family and personal lives, he comes with love and a gentle spirit.

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