1 Corinthians 4:1-7
Living lives of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ is without a doubt the biggest challenge that any of us faces today. Because the church has continually divided itself since the days of the Corinthians, there are now probably just as many definitions about what it means to be a follower of Jesus as there are congregations and pastors. The trouble with Christianity today is that we have failed to become followers of Jesus; we have failed to discover what Jesus himself said about becoming his followers, and we have decided on our own and for ourselves how we will conduct ourselves in Jesus’ presence. This mirrors the attitude of the world around us almost perfectly. We have become the masters of the Christian faith rather than being mastered by it.
Pastors have become kingdom and cult builders and congregations have become focused on doing church rather than engaging in mission or ministry. In an environment where God will eventually judge the intentions and actions of all hearts, none of this bodes well.
But for every kingdom building pastor and for every congregation that focuses more on itself than on its neighborhood, especially as Jesus defined neighborhood, there are also lots and lots of other congregations and pastors who are working hard at becoming true followers of Jesus. And naturally, because we are all very human, there are also some varying degrees of success at being faithful followers of Jesus, among both congregations and pastors.
In Corinth, however, faithfulness to Jesus was not a high priority. The folks at Corinth had not yet come to an understanding that the church, and everything about it belonged to God and to God alone. They kept thinking that the church was theirs, and theirs to do with as they chose. So making the champions of their four personality cults into idols, (which they could not deny that they were worshiping), in effect, reduced the power of Jesus to have any authority over their church. They were, so to speak, very “local” in their focus. They had little or no connection to heaven.
And so it must have come as a bit of a surprise to them, when Paul says to them, “think of us in this way, as servants of Christ, and stewards of God’s mysteries.” Paul is repeating himself, of course, he’s pushing the servant of Christ image of himself rather than the much more tempting “Champion of the Corinthians” image, which some of them have applied to him, and to Apollos, and to Peter and to Jesus. It was a regular four ring circus in Corinth.
English is sometimes a rather pathetic, rather deficient language. There’s no reason at all to boast of its superiority, but of course we do it. The Greek language squeezes more meaning into its words than English could ever hope of doing. And so when Paul says, “Think of us in this way”, the strong implication is, stop thinking about us in the way that you have been thinking about us. Change the way that you have been thinking. We are servants of Christ. We are not the champions of your idolatrous worship. Strong language like this is very nearly, a call to repentance. And I have no doubt that this is exactly what Paul has on his mind.
And in this call to repentance, Paul sets up, what I believe, is a tremendous model for ministry among the followers of Jesus. If all of us, pastor and people, think of ourselves as servants of Jesus Christ, then there can only be one Lord and one master, and there can only be one calling, that of obedience to Jesus Christ. But, maybe that’s too radical a concept in a world where we prefer chains of command, and pecking orders, especially if we are somewhere near the top.
Servanthood though, has some serious drawbacks. It is a very unnatural way for us to see ourselves. It is not the model of success that we have learned from the rest of the world around us. Servanthood sounds suspiciously like slavery, and we will have none of that going on in our lives. We will be free. We will make our own choices. And so when we hear this talk of servanthood, there is always a tiny corner of our hearts, maybe even a secret corner of our hearts, that rises up and says, “Let freedom ring!” And does freedom want to ring? Of course it does! Freedom wanted to ring in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve concluded that God was selfishly keeping them from the good life, and we’ve been hunting down the good life ever since, though never quite finding it.
Freedom wanted to ring, when in the wilderness, the devil attempted to divert Jesus from beginning his ministry. Fly, Jesus, fly, was the devil’s invitation. Be free, be free. And we have been running from God’s calling in our lives ever since, in spite of the lesson that Jesus taught us that day.
Freedom wanted to ring at the end of Jesus’ ministry in the Garden of Gethsemane. Run, Jesus, run, was the demonic encouragement that night. Let this cup pass from you. Be free, be free. It is no cosmic accident that paradise was lost in a garden by one human being, and that paradise was regained in a garden by another human being. Sometimes when freedom rings it is nothing more than a summons to the worst, and deadliest kind of slavery.
The Apostle Paul not only wants to be regarded as a servant, but also as a steward. A steward is a servant who has been entrusted with the master’s most valuable and most precious possessions. In Paul’s case, that which is valuable and that which is precious is identified, in the plural, as the mysteries of God. God has many mysteries, some revealed, and some not. But one of the greatest of God’s mysteries is the absurdity of a crucified Messiah. Paul was compelled to proclaim that mystery. Like the Apostle, we have no other purpose in life but to continue the proclamation of this mystery, in word and in deed.
Expect, however, if that is our purpose, to be judged and to be judged harshly, by the court of human opinion. The court of human opinion does not abide mysteries at all, and so therefore, the judges in Corinth had delivered an unfavorable summary against Paul. Apart from the small personality cult that supported Paul, the rest of the folks in Corinth regarded him as a complete failure. Many were convinced that he was an impostor; that he was a demon disguised in the garb of an Apostle. Paul is not shaken by the court of human opinion. That puts him in a better place than most of us. Most of us tend to be influenced rather significantly by the court of human opinion. But because Paul has a clear sense of his calling, and confidence that evokes a clear conscience, Paul can say, “…it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.”
But he can also go on to say, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.” The time for judgment will come, but it will be the Lord who does the judging, and not anyone attempting to usurp the Lord’s authority by making themselves into both judge and God.
The end of verse 5, though, blows my mind. When most of us think of judgment, we think of condemnation; especially when we think of those people in Corinth, and a few others that immediately come to mind. Paul says when the time for judging is proper, “each will receive commendation from God.” Commendation, not condemnation! That’s awesome! It’s good stuff. If we are working hard at being faithful servants and stewards, we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” That, all by itself is a great and glorious mystery.
Finally, the Apostle concludes the passage by asking the followers of Jesus a couple of very difficult, deeply troubling, soul searching questions. These questions drive us to consider that rare, unguarded moment of total honesty, when in the presence of eternal, Almighty God, we recognize with full hearts that we are called to be both servants and stewards. And that is in fact a beautiful and glorious, and truly mysterious moment, because that is also when we know with a surety, that everything that we touch that brings us joy, is a gift from God, on loan to us, for the time being, so that we can be the stewards not only of stuff, but also of the mysteries of God’s gospel. We own nothing. Not our homes, not our cars, not great Grammie’s china, not our portfolios, not even our church. All is God’s, all is a gift of grace. Nothing is earned, nothing is deserved. Grace leads to gratitude, self sufficiency leads to boasting and judging. Grace can be our only choice. “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do boast as if it were not a gift?