A sermon delivered December 5, 2021 at New Creation Church (Anglican) by Fr. Justin Clemente.
Lord Jesus, Master Carpenter of Nazareth, on the Cross through wood and nails you wrought our full salvation: Wield well your tools in this, your workshop, that we who come to you rough-hewn may be fashioned into a truer beauty by your hand; who with the Father and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, world without end. Amen.
The Place of Ignominy (vs. 9-10)
Our passage today makes me think of a scene from a few years back in the life of our church. Bp. John was on Visitation with us here. We were in our old building on Leitersburg and we were preparing for a service. Folks were vested, ready to process in, and I remember us talking over the order of how we would walk in. We didn’t want to get that wrong, you know.
We were pretty sure the Bishop walked in last, certainly because he is the most important. He is, after all, a successor to the office of the Apostles. But Bp. John shared with us a different interpretation. The Bishop walks in last because he is the place ignominy – of disrepute. Bishop got that directly from our passage today. And so Paul writes, “God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools (literally morons) for Christ’s sake.” (1 Corinthians 4:9-10)
This is how Paul sees himself, as an Apostle of Christ and a bearer of the message of the crucified messiah. The picture here in these verses is of a Roman general returning in triumph from a great victory in battle, with prisoners in tow, awaiting death in the arena. Gordon Fee writes, “The position in which God has placed the apostles, at the end of the procession as those condemned to die in the arena, is the ultimate humiliation of the “dishonored.” The Corinthians, on the other hand, would be among those in the procession of the throng, “the honored,” who would watch the “dishonored” go to their deaths.” (Gordon Fee) Here, God is the victorious general and the Apostles of Christ are his slaves. We should remember that Paul nearly always referred to himself as the doulos (slave) of Christ Jesus.
This is the example Paul, father in Christ Jesus to the Corinthians, gives to them. N.T. Wright notes here, “Their own apostle, the one through whom they came to faith and learnt of Jesus and his death and resurrection in the first place, is not like a king or victorious general leading a triumphal procession. He is one of the prisoners, the bedraggled and humiliated captives, pulled along in chains at the back. This is a stark and shocking picture of Christian ministry.”
Side note: This is not my focus this morning, but we ought to see the massive rebuke that Paul gives to the modern church here. Too often personalities and giftedness are prized over character and content. This leads to personality cults and immature churches and leaders. St. Paul is interested in the character of the messenger and the content of the message. The messenger must be consistent with message. What is the message? Christ Jesus. Crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)
Also, we’re not focusing on verses 14-21 this morning, but it’s worth noting Paul’s admonition here. Does Paul have power and authority? Yes – real power and authority from Christ himself. But how does he exercise it? Not as a CEO of a company or corporation, but as a father in God.
The Corinthian Problem (v. 8)
Now, contrast Paul with the Corinthians. What was the unhealthy “thing” that was eating at their church? It was this: they did not understand spiritual maturity and so they were immature in their view of the Christian life. They were, if I can put it this way, intent on taking a shortcut to glory. And my friends, there are no shortcuts to glory in the Christian life. All our paths, no matter where God leads us, run through the Cross.
Here, someone may say, “Well, what about the thief on the cross? He went right on to glory!” Yeah, except for that whole “dying on a cross” thing.
It’s like this: Grace is free, but not cheap. The Gospel of Jesus will make you alive, but it will also kill you. The kingdom of God has arrived, but you must wait for it! And you must wait for it in a world that still in rebellion against God.
Commentator Greg Lockwood writes this of the Corinthians: “The Corinthians, in their own estimation, have already attained full spiritual maturity. Not for them is the attitude of the beggar, “the poor in spirit” who still hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mt 5:3,6). Not for them is the pressure of having to live between the times, in the tension between the now and the not yet. … They are already satiated with spiritual food. There is little to look forward to because they believe that they have already received and attained everything.” (1 Corinthians by Gregory Lockwood, pg. 145)
What a pitiable Christian life – to be so intensely focused on the present, as to forget eternity. “Already you have all you want” gives us a picture of someone who has eaten to the full – completed satiated, with no room left in their person. No room for want, no room for emptiness, no room for longing. No room for even simple contentment.
Friends, this is a description of a church that actually looks more like Corinthian culture than it does like its Lord. Are we hitting home yet? We live in a time when people shut their ears to the idea that they are empty and in need. We live in a time where we must, we are told, live our best life now (and that came from the church!). We live in a time where the holidays often mean, in the words of Malcom Guite, simply flinging more bling at our problems. At least, that’s what the commercials tell me.
One of the blessedly wonderful things about the season of Advent is that it’s a place where we can legitimately and honestly take our suffering, our sorrows, our losses, and our longings, and remember again, that the world is not yet right. The Kingdom of God has not yet fully arrived. We are free to be in need of God. In fact, in order to receive Gospel hope, we must.
As a church, I believe that the Lord is leading us into a season of greater dependency and trust. You might be thinking he’s doing that after COVID?! Yes. I believe he is calling us into a season of more intense working and praying and fasting. Against the backdrop of a self-satisfied church, Paul paints a picture of a church in need and blessedly dependent on God. I think that’s where we need to be in the year ahead. I’ll say more about that in my State of the Union talk next Sunday.
Some reflection questions individually:
- This Advent, today, where do you be reminded of your own need? Where does a false sense of being “full” need to be replaced with genuine repentance, faith, and truly satisfying hope in the soon coming again of Christ to renew, to redeem, to judge, and to set right?
- Where are you in danger of becoming heartbroken because you’re holding over God the unbiblical promise of a life without hardship or need? Where do you need to trust him as the prospect for loss and suffering looms upon your life? Where do you need to trust him in the wake of it?
- Are you self-satiated rather than satisfied in Christ? Are you saying to God: this far…and no farther?
Remember the words of Proverbs 3:11“My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof.” It is error to forget what we have been saved from. It also error to forget what we are saved to. The Corinthians had so lost sight of the goal post that they honestly believed they had already arrived. Two of the most deadly phrases in the Christian life, I believe, are I already know that and I don’t need to hear that again.
Listen: the goal of the Christian life is nothing less than perfect and glorious conformity to the Son of God – our glorification (Ephesians 4:13-15). Take my word for it when I say you haven’t arrived. And so long as you’re in this life, you won’t arrive.
In each season of life, all of us need further discipleship and fellowship. Paul was never afraid to tell believers that. And if you’re anything like me you know, that you are most susceptible to sin when you believe you don’t need those things. Advent is a time to awaken to the call of Christ! Are we slumbering this morning?
May we all hear the call of God and respond by walking in the way of the cross together this Advent. Amen.