To Be Continued...
Topic: Anniversary Passage: 1 Corinthians 16
To Be Continued…
Pastor Allen Snapp 8/30/15
1 Cor. 16
When I was a little kid, one of my favorite TV shows was Batman. It came on every Thursday night at 7 and often it ended with the caped crusader and his companion Robin caught in a diabolical trap and it seemed certain that there was no way out and Batman and Robin were going to die. Just when you thought you were about to witness their demise, the words to be continued… flashed on the screen, and you knew that you had to wait until next Thursday night to see what happens. But you also knew that Batman and Robin would find a way out of the trap and live another day to fight the bad guys and bring peace to Gotham City.
This morning we come to the final chapter of First Corinthians and if we look back on the past 15 chapters and remember that Paul has had to rebuke and correct the church in Corinth for everything from being puffed up by pride, to divisions within the church, to flagrant sexual immorality, to carnality, to communion services where the poor are left out while the rich get drunk, to lawsuits against each other, to overconfidence fueled by pride, to the abuse of the spiritual gifts, and finally, for denying the resurrection, a tenet that is so central to the Christian faith that without it Christianity ceases to exist, it's hard not to think that we're seeing the demise of a church. If I were reading a news article about a church in Painted Post and that church had all the problems that the church in Corinth had, I know I'd be thinking, stick a fork in it, that church is done. Close that thing down already and do everyone a favor!
It's a sad thing when a church has to close its doors but sometimes it needs to be done. I know of a church in another state that has been going through serious problems for several years and has shrunk to less than a quarter of what it was, and this church was just recently faced with a new scandal that is so big that, with all the other troubles, it's hard to imagine the church making it through this. The truth is there are times when a church becomes so unhealthy, or is rocked by scandal, or for some reason simply doesn't grow, or its the church fails to attract younger people and its members grow old and die, that the point is reached when the church is forced to close its doors. It's a sad thing, but Jesus said in Revelation that there does come a time when he will remove the lampstand from a church. Though a sad thing, sometimes the death of a church is also the right thing.
I think most of us would say that it would be the right thing for the Corinthian church considering all the serious problems and unhealth they have in the church. But as Paul closes this letter, as tough as he's been on them, he isn't ready to write their obituary. Instead he writes To be continued… you may have serious problems as a church, but God isn't finished with you. God hasn't lost patience with you. God isn't ready to put you on the junk pile. In fact, there's more God is out to accomplish in and through you. To be continued…
This carries an important message to all of us because every church will have problems - sometimes serious problems - and every believer will hit walls of failure and mistakes and sin and we need to know that God isn't quick to close the doors on our church or our lives when we do. The other side of this lesson is to temper us if we're the type to quickly write off other churches or believers as dead and hopeless. I mentioned a church that seems like it's not going to make it, and apart from God's intervention I don't think it will. But God might have other plans for that church, and God may choose to write to be continued… on the doors of that church, just as He did on the doors of the church in Corinth. I want us to look at four things in this chapter that Paul says are to be continued in the life of the Corinthian church.
1. Ministry is to be continued -vv. 1-4
The church in Jerusalem was going through a severe famine, one that had been prophesied by Agabus (Acts 11) and Paul saw it as the responsibility of other churches, and specifically Gentile churches, to come alongside the mother-church with financial help. Everywhere Paul went he encouraged churches to give to help alleviate the suffering of the church in Jerusalem.
But after Paul's relentless corrections and rebukes, it'd be easy for the Corinthians to think that they had disqualified themselves from extending ministry to others. That God wanted to put them on a shelf, that He couldn't use them anymore. Paul dismisses that thought by including them with the other churches he overseeing: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. (vs. 1) Keep collecting money to help the Jerusalem church and chose a couple men of godly character to hand-deliver that gift. Outward ministry is to be continued.
Paul took this church to the woodshed. As they finish up reading this letter, it's got to hurt, it's got to sting. But Paul doesn't tell them to get lost, he tells them to get going!
Sometimes churches can buy into the thought that they need to get everything perfect on the inside before they can reach out to their community. Now if there is a significant problem that a church is working through, it might be wise to trim back on outward ministry for a season, but churches can go into death spirals when they get so focused on fixing their internal problems that they lose sight of extending themselves outwardly in ministry. There will always be one more problem to fix, one more issue to deal with.
The same is true for us on an individual basis too. When problems loom large in our lives, when we've blown some biblical principle, when our failures, or relational breakdowns, or mistakes seem like all we can see, we can be tempted to feel like God can't or won't use us anymore. In that place, it's easy (and tempting) to curl inward and think we need to get everything worked out before we can be used by God to care for others. While there may be times when God says pull back on commitments, but rarely does He say to stop all ministry and when He does, it should only for a short time. The outward focus, the giving of ourselves to care for other's needs, the investment in Jesus' kingdom is a major part of our being healed and restored by the Lord.
I have experienced times when I was discouraged by my sin and failure, and what I wanted to do was turn inward, lick my wounds, feel sorry for myself, and "work on the issues" - which for me was just another way of saying get introspective, and then I get into a conversation with someone about the Lord and have the chance to witness to them. By the time I'm done, my heart is light and those other things seem so unimportant. When we stop outward ministry, unless for a brief time for a specific purpose, we lose an important means of encouragement and grace for our souls. The issue isn't how much we have to give - each should give according to what we have - the issue is giving what we have to the work of the Lord.
Maybe someone here has felt like God has put you on the shelf. That you're of no use to Him anymore. Disqualified from the King's service. Be honest about the areas that God is working on, let Him do His work, but know this: God is writing over your life ministry the words to be continued.
2. Relationships are to be continued -vv. 5-12, 15-20
Relationships are an intrinsic part of the fabric of the church. This isn't just a bullet point to Paul: "oh, yeah, let's talk about relationships." He's not even talking about relationships per se, he's just talking about life, and that just naturally includes their lives intersecting, whether it be his desire to visit them, Timothy's upcoming visit and how he hopes they'll treat him, Apollo's inability to go to Corinth now but his commitment to do so as soon as he can, a couple families from Corinth that Paul has grown to love and value in Christ, and finally, warm greetings from their old friends, Priscilla and Aquila, whom Paul first met on his first visit to Corinth, and are now with him in Ephesus.
The church is all about relationships. God sent His Son Jesus to earth to restore a loving intimate relationship between wayward sinner and a holy God by removing the sin that blocked our relationship with God. When we are brought into relationship with God through Jesus, we are also brought into relationship with each other. Jesus commands us to love one another. And that's really easy to do… when it's easy to do. But what about when relational strains happen? What about when there's a sharp disagreement between believers? Or a believer is caught in a serious sin? Or one believer has to bring a strong correction to another believer? I think the principle we see Paul teaching here, not with so many words, but by his example, is Christian relationships should be big on grace, quick to forgive, and hard to break.
Consider the relational tensions between Corinth and Paul. First of all, there are some who are discrediting Paul as an apostle. On top of that there's division, immorality, heresy, and a bunch of other bad stuff going on in the church and Paul has to address all of it. He has to bring correction after correction after correction after correction! That's awkward, to say the least. But at the end of the day, he doesn't want to distance himself from them, he wants to be with them and plans to spend some significant time with them when he can. He isn't using his position to influence his ministry partners to shun the Corinthians, he's using his influence to urge them to visit the church and love them, lead them, build them up in their faith. The issues he's had to deal with hasn't affected his love for them or his relationship with them.
A young woman wrote to me an email a few weeks ago, asking me for my thoughts on what the Bible said about a particular issue. In this email she shared a little of her story, including how her mother got pregnant with her out of wedlock. My heart was really saddened to read these words: My mom's parents were very devout Christians and had disowned her after she had gotten pregnant with me outside of marriage. When her mom needed her own parents most, when she desperately needed their love, support, and forgiveness, they disowned her… in the name of being Christians! It wasn't in spite of their Christian faith they disowned their pregnant daughter, it was because of their Christian faith. That misses the heart of Jesus by a mile!
I wonder if relationships in the church are too fragile. Or maybe a better word is disposable. We hear that the church down the road is into this thing or is off in that way, and our response is to write them off. If they're teaching something that's off, we want nothing to do with them. Or if a church is victim of a moral scandal, and maybe they handle it all wrong, we treat them like lepers, can't put enough distance between us and them. The Corinthian church had it all - doctrinal heresy (denying the resurrection) and moral scandal - a man was sleeping with his step-mother - and the church was handling it all completely wrong. Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating ignoring or condoning sin or heresy. Paul never does that. But after addressing the wrong, he affirms his love and commitment to them and I wonder if the church today needs to grow in that kind of strong love, without compromising our commitment to God's word or moral integrity.
On a personal level, I can't help but wonder if Christian relationships are sometimes held to lightly. They're too fragile, and that makes it almost inevitable that there will be far too many broken relationships in the church. I feel like the Lord is challenging my heart about this issue. I don't think I get offended easily, but the Spirit was searching my heart as I was preparing this message and I thought of someone who offended me a few years back, and even though I don't see them much anymore, and that's ok, I know in my heart I've drawn back from them. Jesus never asked us to love each other with our love, he's commanded us to love each other with his love. Thank God Jesus' love to me hasn't been fragile or easily broken. How can I give any less to others?
This is a good moment to hit the pause button and remind us that we need the Lord's power and love to do this. If there's a name or face that comes your mind, ask the Lord to love them through you. That doesn't mean you ignore the issues, and sometimes relationships do get so fractured that they can't continue and you don't have the power to do anything about it. But let's follow Paul's example: Christian relationships should be big on grace, quick to forgive, and hard to break.
3. Pursuing godly character is to be continued -vv. 13-14
I like these two verses and I wish we had more time to unpack them. This isn't religiously bland, goody-goody language. It's manly language. Sorry ladies, but this section is aimed primarily at the men in the church - he isn't encouraging the women to act like men! But it's a call to be on guard and to be strong and to be godly all wrapped in one sentence: be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. And it's a call to be loving: Let all that you do be done in love. Love isn't weak, and strength isn't unloving.
It can feel like the church is getting banged around with scandal. I admit that I am tempted to feel a little cynical, especially about celebrity Christians. One week after our CG finished a book study, news broke that the pastor who wrote the book we studied was separated from his wife, both having been unfaithful to their marriage vows. In another situation, the pastor of a church I know of was caught in a sting operation soliciting a prostitute. How can you measure the damaging effect that kind of scandal has on a church and its members? If you read the news at all you know that Josh Duggar has been caught for a second time in a matter of months, only this time it wasn't for something that happened years ago when he was a boy. He has been cheating on his wife under the cloak of secrecy at the same time he has been publicly advocating family values. If you are tempted to be cynical I don't blame you, but I urge you not to fall into that trap. It's the easy road, but it's not the gospel road.
Paul could have been cynical about the Corinthians, he could have given up on them. But he's urging and believing that by the grace of God they can live a life that testifies of the power of Christ. Not moralism that says, look, we're so much better than everyone else, we don't smoke, chew, or go with girls that do. But godly character that seeks to live a life of integrity by the power of Christ and as a testimony for Christ. That's being watchful and standing firm in our faith.
And if we fail - God forbid, if we blow it, fall, fail, sin in a big way, like some in the Corinthian church were, let's own up to it. No spin, no trying to downplay it, no excuses. That's acting like men (and women).
But love then protects us from becoming cynical and jaded. We stand firm in the faith, but we know it's Christ that holds us firm and when someone falls, we know that, but for the grace of God go I, and at the same time that we call for truth and accountability, we also hold out hope for forgiveness, restoration, and the love of Christ to bring something redemptively good out of the mess they've made. And we believe that Christ offers that same strong love to us when we mess up.
4. Grace is to be continued -vv. 21-24
Paul warns them: there will be some who infiltrate the church who have no love for Jesus. He knows firsthand the damage that they can do to the gospel and he (in pretty strong words) calls for them to be accursed. But he immediately prays the grace of the Lord Jesus to be with the Corinthian believers.
I opened this series with a message called "Looking beyond the mess and seeing grace". Paul opens the letter up by praying grace to them, and closes it by praying that as they put the letter down the grace of Jesus will continue to be with them. And to top it off, he wants them to know that his love is with them too.
God used this letter to bring about real change in the Corinthian church. Grace was with them as they followed his advice about excommunicating the man who was sleeping with his stepmother, as their hearts broke over the way they had disrespected the apostle God had used to lead them to Christ and establish the church, and as they made steps in repairing the relational breaches in the church. They don't become a perfect church between this letter and the second letter, but they do become a much healthier church - and that is the grace of God at work in them.
If this mess of a church can experience God's continued grace, how much more can we be confident of God's continued grace in our church, working in our midst doing great things, and working in our lives individually doing great things. Let's close by asking God to pour out His Spirit on us in power and love. And then let's walk in that grace by continuing in ministry, relationships, and the pursuit of godly character.