The Character of God's Servant - 2 Corinthians 6:1 - 7:1
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Tai Collins was formally Miss Virginia. She also posed nude, so I gather for Playboy magazine. Tai enthuses over the church she attends. Her voluntary work there, she says, ‘is very fulfilling.’ When asked whether this would affect her modelling she replied, ‘I don’t think so. I mean there’s a lot of people in my church that have been in Playboy.’
Some have dubbed it, ‘laid back religion’. Others refer to such churches as ‘Mac Churches’, the idea being that just like some people go for a Big Mac on a Monday night and a Kentucky Fried Chicken on a Thursday, so churches can be seen simply like junk food retail outlets, giving consumers simply what they want, immediately satisfying without any consideration of the long term spiritual dietary effects. The result is that increasingly people choose churches which simply make them feel good, being high on delivery low on demand with the Christian message being tailored to meet felt needs. So in practice they don’t appear that different to non-Christians-Playboy and all!
But then we turn to Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians we discover, not surprisingly, that he says something totally different. He insists both by personal example and passionate exhortation that the Christian life turns such views on their head. It is not we who are to demand things of God, but he who demands things of us. It is not we as customers who are king, but Jesus and what he requires is committed Christianity over and against comfortable Christianity. So how do the two match up: committed Christianity and comfortable Christianity, which is really no Christianity at all? Well, let’s turn to 2 Corinthians 6 to find out.
The first thing we discover about a committed Christian is that he or she is a consistent Christian-v3, ‘We put no stumbling block in anyone’s way, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way.’ The big question in the church at Corinth, as it is today is: ‘Which ministry is accredited by God?’ That is, ‘Which ministry is authentic ministry in contrast to the manufactured ministry?’ Paul has been put on the defensive by the self promoting false apostles with their impressive rhetoric and fascinating tales of special supernatural experiences. Paul, they say, is rather passé- hold hat. His lifestyle is hardly glamorous. The things that have happened to him make him look rather bumbling and pathetic- not what is expected of a spiritual superstar. But rather than playing down this aspect of his life, he plays it up. Whatever weaknesses characterise the man and his ministry which constitute an object of ridicule by his opponents, Paul magnifies them because they replicate the ministry of Jesus which culminated in the greatest object of scorn in the ancient world- a cross. Paul wanted to avoid every stumbling block which might get in the way of people hearing the message of Jesus the King who was crucified for his subjects. If people come to faith it is not because of Paul’s clever arguments- because once someone came up with cleverer arguments the faith would weaken. If they come to faith it is not because of Paul’s strong personality, because all that is needed is for someone to come along with a stronger personality to lead a believer astray. No! If anyone comes to faith it is because of the power of God which comes through the message of God.
Let me give you an impressive example of someone who took Paul seriously on this point. He was a gifted Egyptian journalist who became a Christian. In fact he was a very gifted communicator and could speak two types of Arabic. There was the coarse street level Arabic and the rather fine and exalted classic Arabic, I guess like our Shakespearean English. God took this man and made him into an evangelist. At first he would recount the glories of the Lord Jesus Christ and the wonder of the new life found in him using classic Arabic. Literally hundreds would crowd around to hear him as they became enthralled by his eloquence. People simply just loved to hear him speak this beautiful Arabic. What would you or I have done? I would imagine that with such pulling power we would have continued speaking. Not this man. What he did was to switch to street Arabic. Why? Well, because he didn’t want the beauty of the language to become the centre of attention- a stumbling block- he wanted people to hear the message of the cross. Also only a select number could grasp the classic Arabic but everyone could understand the other. So he spoke street Arabic. The crowds shrank, but people did get converted. It is possible to build a church around gifted individuals, personalities, performances. The problem comes when the personality disappears- for then so often does the work too.
And so Paul and his colleagues commend their message as much by what they do as by what they say-vv 4-5 living through ‘troubles’- that is, circumstances which rub or grate; ‘hardships’- circumstances we can’t avoid; ‘distresses’ finding yourself in dire straights feeling totally hemmed in. But in all of these things, says Paul, ‘we endure’- we stick at it. And even when we face beatings, sleep deprivation and even starvation we keep keeping on. Do you see what Paul is saying? His commitment to Jesus is real. Why, he is amazed by his own resilience.
But Paul and Christians are not stoics, simply soldiering on, keeping the British stiff upper lip. Something else is happening-vv 6-7: ‘in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and the left....’ A few years ago I heard the American Christian speaker and apologist Ravi Zacharias relate the time he was speaking at a major university in the States. He was arguing very convincingly the truth of the Christian faith against all comers. One woman who was present was mightily impressed by what he had to say. On her way back from the meeting with a friend of Zacharias’s in the taxi she said how much she was taken by what he said. However, she then raised this telling question: ‘But I wonder what he is like at home?’ The Ravi Zacharias then went on to make this important point. He said that 30 years ago when he started out doing university missions, by and large people were persuaded by the integrity of the message: ‘Is there a Creator and what is the evidence? Did the resurrection take place and what is the evidence?’ But now, he said, people are concerned with the integrity of the messenger. Do his actions back up his words? What is he like at home? That is a tremendous challenge isn’t it? But it is perfectly understandable in a society which has become rather cynical with politicians who lie and spin, who say one thing and do another, and indeed with TV evangelists and others who claim one thing but who are the caught out in some shameful act. But such charges cannot be laid at the door of the apostle, and they should not be allowed to be laid at ours.
In the second place, committed Christians are contented Christians vv 8-10: ; ‘…through glory and dishonour, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.’ Paul knew in his own experience the fickleness of fame and fortune. One minute people are hailing him as the great apostle, the next minute they are hissing at him as a washed up charlatan. That is what ministry is like and there are dangers facing both situations. The success can go to your head and that is when the Christian worker is not only open to the sin of pride but that which tends to come next- a fall, as he feels immune from the temptations of lesser mortals until it is too late. As the Australian evangelist, John Chapman is fond of saying in his own inimitable Aussie way, the big three temptations in ministry are, ‘gold, girls and grog’ – money, women or drink. On the other hand the criticism and apparent failure can cast you down so you feel you can’t go on. It is just too much of a thankless task. That is the way it can feel sometimes in ministry. But Paul refuses to go in either direction-but steadfastly steer a steady course between the two- glory and dishonour, bad report or good report, being the genuine article and yet being thought of as fake. Whatever comes his way, Paul has a humble and realistic assessment of himself and his ministry because he has been called by God. He knew that in Christ he had everything he needed.
The great hymn writer, John Newton once advised a grumbling self-pitying Christian like this: ‘Don’t tell me of your feelings. A traveller would be glad of fine weather, but if he is a man of business he will go on.’ It is a great pity that many people regard Christianity as being for wimps and whinges, and it is an even greater pity when we give people grounds for thinking such things. But intrinsically and historically this is not so. There is nothing soft about Jesus and his men as they travelled around Judea and Galilee, more often than not roughing it, subject to the elements and the constant hassle from the religious authorities. There is such a thing as a courageous, adventurous, even odd Christianity which would dare to be different and dare to attempt the unattemptable for Christ. This is the Christianity that sends the brilliant Australian doctor I met and his family to Japan, not to do medicine, but to plant a church. This is the Christianity that sends an attractive young nurse to go out and work for the Red Cross in war torn Afghanistan. Let me tell you something. At the beginning of the 20th century a bishop visited the Cambridge Christian Union in order to make an appeal for a dozen students to go to Sierra Leon to replace a dozen missionaries who died out there. It was advised that they took with them their own coffins. Do you know that by the end of the meeting he had his dozen students. Why? Because as we saw last week it was ‘the love of Christ which constrained them’. Is that what we can expect today?
Just let me draw out an implication for those of us who are Christians with children and grandchildren by reading something written by Dr Don Carson, who has spoken here on a few occasions. This is what he says: ‘I look at my children, and I wish for them enough opposition to make them strong, enough insults to make them choose, enough hard decisions to make them see that following Jesus brings with it a cost. A cost eminently worth it, but still a cost.’ (HLOL-p86). There is such a thing as a kindness that kills, that over protectiveness which effectively kills off character in a child. No. We need gutsy Christians and that kind of character, as we see here in Paul, is forged in adversity, not cotton wool.
But this doesn’t mean we want harsh Christians- toughness and gentleness can go hand in hand-v 11-13: ‘We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. 12We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. 13As a fair exchange--I speak as to my children--open wide your hearts also.’ It is so obvious that Paul loves these people and is not afraid to show his feelings, even though they may not be reciprocated. I know it tends to be a word which is in danger of being over-used but Paul made himself vulnerable. He ran the risk of being rejected, misunderstood, abused and so- hurt. Working with people, even Christian people always involves such a risk, but it has to be taken. And when the hurt comes, it has to be endured. Here is C.S. Lewis: ‘To love all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it safe in a casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket- safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable…The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is- Hell.’ But that was not for Paul. He so loved these people that he is willing to be hurt by them. No cold detached professionalism for him.
So how does the comfortable Christianity seep in? By compromise-vv14-7:1. Look at 14Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. What is Paul getting at? Surely it is this: that comfortable Christianity as distinct from committed Christianity is a product of compromised Christianity. One writer, James Denny commenting on these verses says this: ‘The common application of this text to the marriage of Christians and non-Christians is legitimate, but too narrow. The text prohibits every kind of union in which the separate characters and interest of the Christian lose their distinctiveness and integrity…we are to have no compromising connection with anything in the world which is alien to God.. There always will be things and people to whom the Christian has to say ‘No’.’ He is quite right. ‘Being yoked together with unbelievers’ is a picture taken from a command in the Book of Deuteronomy 22:10, which forbids ploughing with an ox and a donkey harnessed together- it just doesn’t work, it is good neither for the animals nor the land. This is how some of the Old Testament laws are re-applied for the New Testament situation-there is a spiritual application. Why should the church avoid yoking itself to the world? Paul gives four reasons.
First it is incongruous-v14b-15- ‘For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?’ A Christian and none Christian are simply incompatible not only in terms of their core values but overall direction in life. It is like trying to mix oil and water, it simply doesn’t come off. Usually it is the Christian who goes down.
Secondly it is sacrilegious-v 16What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." The church is not just a human club; it is the temple of God. The Christian is not just someone who has got religion; he is a new creation. To tangle up Christian with non-Christian values is like introducing a pagan idol into God’s temple.
Thirdly it is disobedient- v17 "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you." Paul brings together two quotations from the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel spoke originally to the exiled Jews going into Babylon- the Mecca of idolatry. They were not to surrender their religion or principles to paganism. Well, says the Bible, Christians are exiles too, living in a pagan culture. Without being standoffish, Christians are expected to stand out. Where relativism rules- morality being what you make it, the Christian believes in absolutes-what God has said. Where pluralism reigns- that one religion is as good as another, the Christian humbly submits that Christ alone is the ‘way, the truth and the life.’ And it will cost.
But fourthly, it is unprofitable, "I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty." There is a reward for keeping faithful to God. Here Paul quotes 2 Samuel 7, a promise made to David and his descendents. This has now been fulfilled in Jesus, King David’s greater Son, the Christ. And if we are united to him, that promise now belongs to us. But it can be lost if we flirt with the world, as happened to David’s son, Solomon. Where did he go wrong? The Bible tells us: he married non-Jewish women who brought with them their pagan religions and so corrupted his heart. But that should not be the case with us, hence chapter 7:1, ‘Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.’ In other words, Paul is saying, please do not bring shame upon the family name of Christ by adopting values, attitudes and practices which quite frankly are not Christian. The world may be obsessed with sex, power and possessions, but not God’s people. They will be chaste-sex within marriage and seeking to marry fellow Christians. They will want to serve, not exploiting people by their power and positions. And they will want to be generous with their money giving the stuff away for the sake of the Gospel- being everything the false teachers are not.
What is the world looking for? Precisely what Paul has been describing- people who are different- committed Christians. Not super-heroics. Not impressive programmes. Not gimmicks-trying to ape the world and doing it badly. But men and women, boys and girls, who mean business in following their wonderful Lord.
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