WHAT TO FIND AT CHURCH
Dear Christian friends,
I don’t want to make you sad today. Church worship and sermons are to be uplifting. We just celebrated Easter; we know our sins are forgiven. We know there is nothing like being a Christian. I am going to read to you part of an article that will probably make you sad. The author writes and asks himself, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ…?” Well, kind of, but not the way you mean that and not the way I used to. I believe in a Jesus who is kind of a pinnacle of humanity and philosophy, the incarnation of love itself, but… not the incarnation of God. I believe he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” I don’t think anyone really knows what it means that he descended into hell. And I don’t really believe that he rose again. I think the ascension is just weird. And as for a second coming, I think that’s just kind of a way of explaining why so many prophecies the first time went unfulfilled.”
That’s sad, isn’t it? Now the shock! He was a pastor for a number of years and served in three churches. He doesn’t believe a word that he taught anymore. Can you imagine if someone who was a member of one of those churches read that blog? What did he teach me? Should I believe any pastor or priest anymore?
The apostle Paul speaks today to assure us and guide us “What to Find in a Church.” 1) Find a committed messenger; 2) Value his powerful message.
There is a background to what Paul says that we need to understand. God used Paul to establish a church in Corinth. He did so the second of three missionary journeys. His second missionary journey took him to Europe and to the present country of Greece. Corinth was in Greece. He taught and preached there for eighteen months. Eventually he returned to Jerusalem and then set out on a third missionary journey. Most of that journey was spent establishing a church in Ephesus due east from Corinth across the waters on the continent of Asia.
Paul got word that Satan was really having his way in Corinth. While in Ephesus he went to Corinth for a short time and saw the church was divided. The visit didn’t go well. He returned to Ephesus and wrote the first letter to the Corinthians. It was a “take you to the woodshed type” letter! It was “tough love! What was in the letter? Read it for yourself. Titus was the courier to deliver the letter.
Paul intended to get to Corinth eventually but he had other places to go and share risen Christ. To make a long story short, before Paul would get to Corinth he and Titus were to hook up in a place called Troas. Titus could fill Paul in about what took place when they responded to I Corinthians. Y’all following me?
Paul arrived at Troas but Titus didn’t show. Paul writes, “Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me,I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.”
Paul was in the between the rock and the hard place. What was he to do? Troas presented a huge mission opportunity (the Lord opened a door for me), but he was concerned about Titus and the people of Corinth. What was the effect of that letter? He had no peace of mind. He left for Corinth.
Let’s pause and consider. Paul really had a heart for God’s people. He was concerned that they might be wavering in their relationship with the Lord.
They sure say something to me as a pastor. I hope they say something to you as a congregation. My job is to care for souls, your souls. But yet that’s a job for everyone. We have a common purpose to be used by the Lord to get as many people in heaven as possible. We also have a common enemy; that’s Satan! Our common resolve should always be, “Satan, you are not going to get your way here. Lord, use me so he doesn’t.”
For that to occur a congregation needs to grow up and grow together – pastor with congregation, congregation with pastor. A congregation and pastor need to grow inwardly through Bible study and grow outwardly by doing evangelism. A congregation and pastor need to be concerned about outreach and inreach. A congregation needs to go but it needs to grow. The committed pastor needs to show the way. A committed congregation needs to be ready to be shown the way.
Germans called it seelsorge - to take care of souls, precious souls, immortal souls that will be spending it either in heaven or hell. Ministry is all about leading people to Jesus who leads us to heaven.
God has given us the message to do that – the Gospel, the good news of Jesus. Paul uses an illustration that is so striking and gives us all kinds of things to think about as God’s church. He pictures that army returning from battle. “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.”
War is dirty and bloody and messy. People get offended when we use that term with the Lord work. There are denominations that have gotten rid of hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” from their hymnals because they want God to be about peace and love. Tell the devil that.
Paul pictures the victory march after the Gospel has been preached. God’s messengers are in the parade. People are lining the streets to celebrate the victory of the Gospel. They carpet the streets with fragrant flowers and incense fills the air. Celebration!
I remember walking through a department store with my family once. We were in the perfume/cologne section. I wanted to test some perfumes so that if my wife didn’t need a frying pan for her birthday I had a backup gift. So I started to test some perfumes. Ben, our son, was with us and got sick. Perfume made him sick. That’s an irony, don’t you think? That which is to give pleasure made him sick.
That’s what Paul means when he says, “To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.” Those who were captured and defeated were in the parade – those conquered. The nice smelling fragrances were a stench to them. To the believer the Gospel is a fragrant aroma, but to the unbeliever the message of Jesus stinks and is offensive. The Gospel saves some but dooms others because they don’t believe.
That’s sad, isn’t it? Yet that is what is happening. I once visited the gravesite of George Washington at Mount Vernon. I was moved by what I saw. When we looked at the grave of the Father of our country, engraved in the marble of our first president was John 11. “I am the resurrection and the life.” George Washington was buried “in the hope of the resurrection.” Nowadays if a public official mentions God, they are afraid they will lose votes and lose an election or get sued by the ACLU. It hurts to think that the world would rather be “politically correct” instead of “godly.” It hurts to think that Jesus has become a stench to far too many.
It is really something when someone is saved from hell for heaven. Yet, while God used Paul, and he uses preachers and teachers and moms and dads and good godly friends to deliver the message, it is the message that saves and not the person. That’s what he means when he says, “And who is equal to such a task?”
Finally, it is this book – God’s book – and the message inside that saves. What you need to find in a church is a messenger and a congregation that is committed to the salvation of souls through the message of Jesus.
One of the many problems that the Corinthians faced was that when Paul moved on, others who were not committed came to replace him. If you look ahead to chapter 11 of II Corinthians Paul talks about "Super-apostles." That title was probably a sarcastic title Paul gave to a group of false teachers who were troubling the Corinthian church and trying to take over.
He describes them. “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.” The “super-apostles” were in it to fatten their wallets.
The news media in Atlanta seem never to run short on stories about corrupt government officials and pastors who seem to be chasing the almighty dollar via evil and conniving ways. They make the headlines and bring disgrace. No wonder people don’t respect pastors like they used to.
But it is not fair to generalize either. God calls pastors to be full of integrity, sincerity and filled with a heart a love for the Word of God, to be filled with the Spirit. Pastors should require that of themselves.
Let’s continue. It is a bit difficult to piece together everything that went on in Corinth, but “super-apostles” appear to have come into town with letters of recommendation written by others that they were worth following. People ask me to write letters of recommendation for a job or for school. I am happy to supply it. The “super-apostles” appeared to desire to take over leadership of the congregation based on what others said about them. They also seem to have made it clear that Paul never gave them that courtesy He just waltzed into town and started to preach. That’s what Paul seems to refer to when he says, “Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?”
Paul didn’t need a letter of recommendation. God produced results through his preaching. “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” Look at the changes that took place in you by God’s grace. In Paul’s first letter he made reference to that. “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were.” Look what you were and no longer are! You don’t need “super-apostles,” all you need is God’s Word. You need the Law to show you are sinners; you need the Gospel – to show you how God forgives you and loves you through Jesus.
Is the Word at work here too? Sure we are all a work in progress, but we are repentant people. We are people who have broken and contrite hearts but also know God doesn’t despise us. He forgives us in Christ. Here are grateful people who want others to know the same. Here are grateful people who treasure the promises of baptism and the blessings of receiving his body and blood for forgiveness of our sins. Here are people, while not perfect by any means, who want to declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.
In the end here are people who know that none of this could happen if God’s Spirit had not been at work. “Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant.” All this is done through the preaching of law and Gospel.
A minister could stand up here all day and quote Shakespeare. He might be very good at it; he might even act it out well. He might even get a standing ovation, but quoting Shakespeare won’t change a single heart. It won’t save a single soul. It’s all about the Law and the Gospel - not the smoothness of speech or the grandiose vocabulary – but Jesus’ death to pay sin’s penalty and the resurrection assurance that it was paid in full. That’s what to find in a church.