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08.15.21 Who Judges Whom 1 Cor. 4.1-7 Sermon Summary

by on August 17, 2021

Some scriptures are easier to apply than others. We have histories to help us remember, psalms to teach us to pray, and wisdom sayings to guide our lives. But letters are more difficult. We don’t know the whole story. And we don’t have the responses.

For example, when the apostle Paul writes “us,” sometimes he is referring to himself and his companions, and other times he includes those he is writing. In this passage, Paul is speaking of himself: “Think of us as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” And later he says he, “applies all this to Apollos” and himself (and no doubt he would include Cephas, i.e., Peter, as well). So it’s clear that he is referring not to the Corinthians, not to us, but only to himself.

Paul is defending himself in this passage, not against attacks on his teaching—though he did have to do that, most vehemently in the Galatians letter—but against the judgments of the Corinthians. 

As a teacher Paul wasn’t as compelling as Apollos. As a preacher he wasn’t as captivating as Peter. As a speaker he was not as eloquent as other philosophers in Corinth. And the Corinthians judged his message, “Christ crucified,” as too simple and upside down culturally. 

Simply put, they didn’t like Paul as much as they did others. You might have heard someone say, “I didn’t get much out of worship today.” Or someone else, “Paul didn’t deliver for me.”

This attitude caused divisions in the Corinthian churches. Opinions and impressions took priority over content and truth. “I like Apollos!” “I prefer Peter!” “Well, I like Paul!”

Paul’s response to all this? “We’re all just serving Christ and stewarding God’s mysteries. We’re trying to be faithful to God.” And finally, “We’re not trying to impress you.”

That was a hard lesson for the Corinthians to hear. They were a cosmopolitan city and used to fine things. And it’s not easy for us to hear either. We’re consumers. We live in a merit-based culture. 

We say, “The customer is always right.” Well, not according to Paul. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you.” Wow.

I know a pastor who was run out of a small town in Iowa for wearing jeans—and not on a Sunday! Other judgments I’ve witnessed? “I don’t think a preacher should have a beard.” “Her high-heels are too high.” “He drives too nice a car.” “His children are ill-mannered.” “Her spouse is uppity.” “I just don’t like her voice.” “You talk too fast.” “You talk too slowly.” “You spilled grape juice on the table cloth.” “The Communion bread is too dry.” “He spends too much time in his office.” “He’s never in his office.” “We are paying her too much.”

I was once part of a Presbytery with a megachurch in it. That church got sideways with the Executive Presbyter and the pastor said, “He should keep in mind we pay half of his salary.”

Can you see how hard it is to hear Paul say, “It’s a small thing that you should judge me.” Where does that kind of strength come from? Because most pastors cave to that judgment. 

And Paul wasn’t just self-assured. He wasn’t arrogant or boastful of his superior education or his ecstatic religious experience. He wrote, “I don’t even judge myself.”

Paul’s confidence came from one place: His single-minded loyalty and devotion to serving Christ and stewarding God’s mysteries. And one, and only one, judgment mattered to Paul: Whether God would say to him on the Day of the Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You called my people to conversion. You called my people to gratitude. You called my people to social justice. You called my people to right relationships.”

Paul tells the Corinthians, “Save your judgment. Judgment comes with the day of the Lord.” There is no “day of the church member.” “Shut it,” Paul says, “and listen.” This rubs privileged folk like the Corinthians wrong. And it rubs consumer cultures like ours wrong also.

So can the preacher say whatever she wants? No. Our lives are judged based on what we have built. Paul often expresses concern that if his audience doesn’t grow both in numbers but more, in spirit, he will have run his race “in vain.”

A shepherd is judged by how many sheep reproduce and how many sheep make it to market. Teachers are judged by the lives of their students, which is why James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

Servants are judged according to the will of their Lord. And Paul isn’t the Corinthians’ servant. He’s Christ’s servant. So on one hand he would agree with Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing.”

And on the other hand he would agree with the very next verse: “Pray for us; we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.” 

Paul ends this passage with a question. “You who judge me, what do you have that you didn’t receive? Since we are all recipients of God’s grace, when you judge me, you judge yourself. For what are you doing? Are you doing all that you can, Like Apollos and I are, to serve Christ?”

We’re listening in 1 Corinthians for guidance for our church in these challenging times. Today’s guidance is this: Instead of judging leadership, pray for them. And then get involved. Remember, Paul started the letter with the hope that together without division the church would share one mind and purpose in the proclamation of Jesus as Lord.

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