This is the first of three posts that comprise the bulk of the sermon I gave today, Sunday, October 20th, 2013. The passage was all of I Corinthians 4.
Father God, I pray that you send your Holy Spirit to work in ours hearts and minds this morning. We have praised you and openly declared how great you are with our singing, using cues from your Word as a starting place for our songs. Now let us examine your Word, given to us here in the holy scriptures. We ask that you would use it to change our thinking and change our hearts to desire you more. Please make these words that the apostle Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth many years ago have power here in our lives today. It is you God and no one else who makes this possible. Amen
We have been studying Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians a few verses at a time this fall. Today we come to chapter 4, which is not the most straight-forward of passages. There are several different ideas in presented in this part of the book but they are kind of mixed together so I’m going to be jumping around a bit instead of starting out, like we usually do, be reading the whole things straight down.
Instead, I’d like to start out by telling you a story about my youngest son and something that happened a couple of weeks ago.
Last month, my wife arranged to take the three older children and a neighbor to the science center for a homeschool field trip. I stayed home with my youngest son for a few hours and tried to get some work done. We had lunch together and played with some blocks. I saw that I didn’t need to get back to the office for another 20 minutes so I decided to take a quick power nap. I laid down on the couch for about 15 minutes and closed my eyes. All was quiet. Then I got up and took Cody with me back to my office and he spent the whole next hour quietly coloring at a desk. He was being so good! I could hardly believe it. I should have known right then that something was wrong. He was being so good because he had recently exhausted all his badness.
My wife came by to pick him up and I walked him out to the van. It was then I noticed a couple of red dots on his shirt. Where did those come from, I wondered? Oh well. I went back in my office and started typing away on some new software proposal. Then I got a phone call from my wife, who had just returned home. “WHAT is going on?”, she asked. “Ummmmm, I’m not sure. What’s wrong?” She proceeded to explain to me that Cody had gotten out a large bottle of red tempura paint and squirted it all over the office. There was paint on the walls, the floor, the carpet, the bookshelf, and more. He had even gotten out a bunch of Play-do and covered it in red paint as well. And all of this literally happened on my watch, right under my nose, during the time I fell asleep. There wasn’t even room to apologize the situation was so ridiculous. I couldn’t believe it. I cancelled my meetings for that afternoon, apologized to everyone at work, and rushed home and spent a good deal of time cleaning it all up – bewildered how I could have let it happen in the first place and how he could suddenly pull such a stunt.
Now one can imagine that I was very angry at Cody for what he had done. And I was. But at any time in there did I think of disowning him? Tossing him out the window? Selling him on Craigslist? Of course not. Did we still give him dinner that night and a bath and tuck him into bed? Of course. I love him and my only thoughts were how I could teach him to grow up and be more careful and less destructive. What if when he was older he, through his own carelessness, did something more destructive like wrecking a car? What if he got his girlfriend pregnant? What if he told me he hated me? Would that do the trick? Would that neutralize the love I have for him? No way. My love for him is unilateral – it’s completely one-sided. I desire for him to love me back, but if he doesn’t, it has no effect on my love for him. I think we have an easier time realizing this when our kids our young. Infants obviously can’t give anything back – it’s just a non-stop stream of crying and pooping and barfing. But when they get to be young adults, we start expecting them to come through for us. We start holding back then and making our love more conditional.
Quite a few of you here are older than I am and you have maybe had your own children do something much more destructive than covering part of the house in red paint. Maybe YOU remember doing something much more destructive in your own youth. Maybe you’re an adult and you did something terrible just last year or even last week. Did people stop loving you because of it? Very possible. They’re just human after all. God is different though. His love is utterly unfailing.
In the bible there are lots of different analogies used to describe God. Sometimes He’s a king. Sometimes he’s a shepherd. But most often he is a father. Not just any father, but a very good father – the best of the best. If fact, when WE are good fathers or good mothers, we are just being kind of like Him. He is the point of reference.
The parable of the Prodigal son that Jesus tells in Luke 15 is a good example. The son says to his father, effectively, “I wish you were dead!” The runs off with half of the family money and blows it all on hookers and booze. He’s terribly ashamed to ever show his face back in town again, but he decides to come back and beg to be allowed to be a slave in his old house. The Father sees him on the road far away and runs to him. He doesn’t even give the son a chance to make a big apologetic speech, he just hugs him and gets fresh clothes and food for him right away. All that terrible stuff the son did to spite his father? Not even on the radar. That’s what unconditional love looks like.
But love doesn’t always look like forgiveness and hugs. Sometimes it looks like discipline. God allows his children in Israel to be slaughtered and taken captive by foreign nations in the Old Testament. He hasn’t abandoned them – not at all. The thought never even enters his head. But he sometimes lets the consequences for their actions run their course. If you’re 16 years old with a new license and you drive too fast one evening and wreck the family minivan – there probably won’t be a shiny new Mustang waiting for you in the driveway the next day. In fact, if there was, it probably means your parents don’t really love you nearly enough.
In 1 Chronicles 21, King David disobeys God and takes a census of Israel to see how many fighting men he could put together into an army. God sends a plague that sickens the people until David realizes how unfaithful his motives were and repents. God was teaching him a lesson. The damage the king would have done by inciting unjust war with his neighbors was prevented.
(I won’t go into detail here, but the gist of it is that he got into a bottle of Rolaids and received some swift discipline. That is the sort of thing that can hurt someone, but an ounce of prevention goes a long way.)
So love can look like impossibly easy forgiveness for the most grievous offenses, and it can also look like strict discipline. I bring up all this talk about being a good father or a good mother because it is the language Paul uses throughout his letter to the Corinthians. Lets look now at some of chapter 4.
14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?
This is something to keep in mind while we are going through this book. Paul is writing to them like a father talking to his children. He may have some correction to give them, but he is not giving them preconditions for his love.
Paul isn’t like a Vice President of a company writing a memo to his employees. Has anyone here ever worked fast food before? Have you ever had your manager come and give you some kind of performance review? “You need to be making 100 hamburgers an hour to meet your quota but you’ve only been making 70 or 80 most shifts. If you don’t improve, we are going to have to let you go.” Or maybe if you worked at Starbucks it was something like, “Be sure to upsell more pumpkin spice muffins to go with those lattes. Corporate says you must have at least 10 upsells an hour to qualify for a raise.”
If that was the context, you could easily feel condemned by what Paul has to say in this letter. Heck, you could feel condemned by everything that was in the whole bible. Do this, do that, think this way, be careful not to do that. Geesh! That is how a lot of people see the Bible, and all of Christianity for that matter, but unfortunately they are missing the point. Yes, there are rules and strong admonitions in scripture, but the context is that of a loving father helping his children grow up. Jesus isn’t there to show us how to do it right, but rather to single-handedly fix the whole thing himself. That is the main story.
I’m going to quote from a piece by pastor and author Tullian Tchividjian that was (amazingly enough) in the Washington Post this week. (Incidentally, he is also Billy Graham’s grandson.) He says:
“The hub of Christianity is not “do something for Jesus.” The hub of Christianity is “Jesus has done everything for you.” And my fear is that too many people, both inside and outside the church, have heard our “do more, try harder” sermons and pleas for intensified devotion and concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is the work that we do instead of the work God has done for us in the person of Jesus.”
“As someone who loves the church, I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior, rather than a haven for the discouraged and dying. It is high time for the church to remind our broken and burned out world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a one-way declaration that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak; because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose; because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.”
That is something to keep in mind as Kirk spends the next two weeks going through chapter 5 of 1 Corinthians, which is all about sexual morality. If you are sitting there thinking – I’m a loser, I’m a failure at this stuff, you can know that that doesn’t change God’s love for you. And, you have a bunch of your life still ahead of you and you can learn to follow the right way. You can’t “make it right”. Jesus already made it right. To the degree that you can bring yourself to love him, then obey his commandments. That is how to read most of these New Testament letters as the apostles write to their friends and followers in churches abroad.