Sermon on 1 Corinthians 16:5-24
This is the final sermon in the series on 1st Corinthians. And we have come to the concluding words of Paul to the Corinthian Church. There is a big spectrum of topics that he is addressing in his remarks, and I have deliberated for a while how best to approach the text with such a diverse collection of concerns. In the end, I have decided to keep to the same tone as Paul’s words, and to use this opportunity to share some personal words about our own church. In the issue-based passages, I used a fair-minded problem-based analysis style, and in the theological passages, I presented in a logical persuasive manner. I think it is suitable that sermons can sometimes be about personal sharing just as how Paul has concluded in his Corinthian letter. There are times for theological debates, and there are times of spiritual and moral encouragement. But as demonstrated in letters and narratives in the Bible, God’s word can also come in the form of sharing about what is going on in the church ministries and in the lives of believers. I will share using passages in Paul’s personal words, and then I will share about personal parallels in our situation today.
Reading 1 Corinthians 16:5-9
On Planning in ministry
Paul wrote 1st Corinthians from the church in Ephesus. He intended to continue his ministry there because there was a window of opportunity. He would later go through Macedonia, presumably to solve some issues at the churches in Thessalonica and Philippi. And eventually he hoped to have a longer stay at Corinth. All these he would do if the Lord enabled him to do. There are 3 things I wish to highlight about Paul sharing of his plans with the Corinthian Christians.
Firstly, we see that Paul was not just an itinerary preacher making his rounds and just “doing his business”. Sure there were important tasks to be completed like collecting the offering for the Jerusalem churches and resolving conflicts, but there was also the personal wish to spend some time with the Corinthians. I think this is the best rebuttal against the modern mindset of “quality time” versus “quantity time”. Time has no quality if it does not have quantity. Very often the best form of ministry is simply to “spend some time”.
Paul could have just made a passing visit, took the collection money, set the gospel message right, punished the immoral ones, and then quickly move on to the next city. But I think there is wisdom in a prolonged stay at Corinth. Some things like relationships, healing, maturing, establishing solidarity takes time, lots of time. I sincerely believe quality time that takes the form of quantity time is the secret to true discipleship.
That in essence is one of the objectives behind the restructuring of both services since May last year. Sunday service must be more than just a passing visit to church. There cannot be genuine spiritual growth if you have a hit-and-run mindset to church, like a drive-through where you take what you need and leave. Now we ask that we spend time to pray together as a church in the morning prayer meet. For youths to spend time with parents during service; for youths to spend time in children ministry; for more adults to spend time in youth ministry; for members of both services to spend more time with one another during breakfast and lunch; spend time with newcomers; spend time with the elderly, when we all eat together. Come early so that you can leave late. If you didn’t come to church with the intention to mingle and to serve one another in the church, you have missed the greatest gift that the church can give to you.
Secondly, we see the beauty of Paul’s plans for his ministry. His strategy was specific, focused and intelligent. He targeted the major cities of every province of the Roman empire and based on the individual dynamics of the local church, he applied the necessary evangelistic message and appointed the church leaders. Yet at the same time, he was always mindful of the four words “if the Lord permits”. There is no conflict between wise strategizing and the permission of the Lord. There are places that flourish, and there are places where all effort fails. That is no excuse not to try hard and plan wisely every time, as long as we are always mindful that all results depend on the will of the Lord.
Thirdly, we see that Paul gave two reasons for his stay in Ephesus. One, because there was an opportunity. Two, interestingly, because there was also opposition. “An open door and much opposition often go hand in hand, and they may jointly signify that God’s Spirit is mightily at work… … A prolonged lack of results in ministry more often than not suggests that it is time to move on, while prolonged prosperity without any difficulty should make one question if the full-orbed gospel with all its demands is clearly being preached.” This gives us a proper perspective in planning our ministry direction.
I chose Jubilee Church as the place for my ministry not because I was bonded here. The session opened the door in inviting me to serve here, but God made me see a bigger window of opportunity. I saw God guiding many families in Jubilee for more than a hundred years. That is a big harvest field ready to be reaped and there is lots of work to be done if only everybody would just come together as one; young and old, English or mandarin speaking, progressive or conservative. But there is also opposition. There are many that want the church to change as long as they themselves do not have to change. They want to hold on to their personal ministry, personal community, personal routine and habits. This opposition is natural but against the gospel which challenges self-serving mindsets and concerns. For more than five years I have continued to stay because I know the door is still open, the harvest field is still plentiful, and I accept the opposition as a challenge that comes with the proclamation and manifestation of the gospel.
Reading 1 Corinthians 16:10-12
On teamwork in ministry
Next we look at the intricate workings of teamwork in Paul’s pastoral ministry. We have Paul, a strong and eloquent leader of the mission team. But he is only one person and he needed teammates to help him manage churches when he was not around. He needed to develop the next generation of leaders. He was grooming Timothy, who was already about 40 years old, and despite wishing Timothy to be by his side, he would be sending Timothy to Corinth first since he needs to stay in Ephesus. He asked that the Corinthians accept Timothy. Apollos was another strong and eloquent leader. And Paul urged Apollos to visit them as well, although Apollos was rather unwilling. There are two things I would like to highlight here.
Firstly, the problem with Timothy besides his age, is his modest and unassuming personality. As the saying goes, “nice guys finish last”. Because the Corinthian Church is filled with strong personalities, it is foreseeable that Timothy will be ignored if he is not assertive and domineering. If the church looked down on him and made him feel afraid, then Timothy would not be able to carry out his ministry. This I think is a real pity and it continues to be a problem in Christian circles today. It is all too convenient to covet after ‘natural leaders’, those with charisma and smoothness with looks and words. And it is also a common bias to associate age with maturity, outspokenness with wisdom, and forcefulness with leadership. This is a real shame because God has also blessed those who are meek and gentle with a lot to add to our spiritual lives.
Secondly, we have the exact opposite problem with Apollos with his winsome and charming personality. There were those in the Corinthian church who made used of his popularity to create factions in the congregation to gain status. They leveraged on his good relationship with others to increase their influence in the church by creating false rivalry with Paul sympathizers. Paul demonstrated that he was above such petty schemes and his good relationship with Apollos by urging him to visit the Corinthians. Paul was unconcerned about his own popularity as long as the gospel continues to be preached. On the other hand, Apollos demonstrated great sensitivity to avoid Corinth so that those pretenders could not make use of his natural allure to stir up more unrest.
Teamwork in pastoral ministry is a delicate matter. It is natural for members of the congregation to have preferences for different pastors induced by a variety of factors. But it is harmful and frustrating when church leaders are discounted based on youth, a lesser pastoral position or a less commanding personality. I am thankful that our senior pastor has smashed stereotyping tendencies with years of competence despite his baby face and bookish image. Stressing on the unity of the pastoral team, we foster common respect to all church leaders regardless of hierarchy, and I am thankful for the fading of the old Chinese church mentality that only the ordained senior pastor is the genuine pastor of the church.
Reading 1 Corinthians 13-18
On attitude in ministry
Next I wish to talk about attitudes that we should have when we do ministry in Church. We see here that Paul encouraged the Corinthians to be like soldiers, vigilant, strong, bold and mature. Yet at the same time, to do ministry in love. This is the first thing I wish to highlight. We often hold a dichotomy between strength and love. As if we are loving, we cannot be tough like a soldier as well. I think that in ministry, we need to rely less on sentimentality and the use of ‘guanxi’ and ‘face’ to get things done. That I think is a fictitious kind of love. Love must be a combination of truth and grace. There must be acceptance and allowance of time to grow and readiness of forgiveness. But the truth of the gospel and the integrity of a Christian community must never be compromised as well. In Jubilee, anybody can serve. You will be given opportunities and training, regardless of status or weaknesses. But we stress on commitment and a selfless attitude. Ministry is not a place for self-gratification or a chance to assert personal influence. This is an exercise of true love, and with such attitude in ministry there is genuine growth.
Secondly, Paul talked about the household of Stephanas. They served the community since the beginning with devotion. To these who have proven their heart of servanthood, Paul urged that they be given submission and recognition. In a place of big egos who take pride in their knowledge, status and wealth, it is intentionally ironic that Paul extolled the servant-like as the true leaders of the church. On this matter, I am immensely thankful to be serving in Jubilee. It is common to see the rich and the influential or highly educated to be chosen as leaders in a Chinese church. But here in Jubilee, for the past few decades, we have consistently elected those who have a record of serving the people with humility and love. The result is that our session meetings in Jubilee are filled with sincere discussions about programs and directions that best benefit the people of Jubilee, rather than petty squabbles for power that is sadly quite common elsewhere. This is one of the greatest blessings of God to the credit of our community.
Reading 1 Corinthians 19-23
On the matter of greetings
I would like to end with a few more personal words in the vein of Paul’s letter. A true authentic open embracing Christian community is not easily formed. Human weaknesses will threaten to bring about strife, oppression, discrimination and alienation. It pains me deeply whenever someone describes Jubilee as cliquish, cold or elitist. Christian community is difficult but it is what God has generously bestowed upon us for our Christian living. We are God’s gift to one another. (repeat). It is my dream that Jubilee continues to be a place of warmth. A place to convey love. A place to greet each other, maybe not with a holy kiss, but at least with a holy smile and a word of peace. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. And let Jubilee be the place you can receive it.
1 Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians (The NIV Application Commentary)
2 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nice_guy for actual studies on this phenonmenon.