Messy Church, Holy Church – 1 Corinthians

Messy Church



Ghandi famously once said of the church: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
While Ghandi is not an authority on Christ and the Church he did observe something that is true but hard for us to take. He heard one thing ‘The teaching of Christ’ but yet he saw something very different ‘The behaviour of the Church’. They simply did not match up!
That was true of the Church in Corinth and sadly it can be said of the Church today.

Gospel Beginnings

The church in Corinth was planted in 50AD (Acts 18v1-18a) during Paul’s second ‘missionary journey’. Having arrived in the city on his own he met Aquila and his wife Priscilla who teamed up with Paul as ‘Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks’ (Acts 18v4). Paul was later joined by his gospel team mates, Silas and Timothy, which meant he could ‘devote himself exclusively to the preaching …that Jesus was the Christ’ (v5). While there was much opposition ‘many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptised.’ (v8) Paul stayed in Corinth for at least eighteen months ‘teaching them the word of God’ (v11). After Paul left Corinth Apollos arrived where he continued on the good work ‘proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ’ v28.

Worldly Living

Despite these encouraging beginnings the church in Corinth did not mature and grow: ‘Brothers and sisters I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ’ (1 Corinthians 3v3). Sadly these ‘worldly’ issues were not new. Paul had already written to them before: ‘I have written to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people…but now I am writing to you…5v9,11. These matters had not been dealt with and it was causing the church to fall and fail in it’s witness. Paul was concerned for them and was firm in his challenge: ‘Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; (15v34).
While we don’t have any record of Paul’s ‘First’ letter to Corinth, we do have his ‘Second’ letter which we now call First Corinthians. Addressing each issue in turn Paul leads us back to a church that not only teaches about Christ but begins to behave as the people of Christ.

Called to be Holy

Paul starts by bringing us back to our true identity.
Encouragingly we are reminded that we are: ‘The Church of God…sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be Holy.’ 1v2.
Holy, as some people might think, is not hiding away from the world with your bible and singing old hymns, although reading your bible and singing hymns are great things to do. No! ‘Holy’ means to be made clean and pure so as to be made acceptable to God. It also means to be set apart, to be pure and different from that which is around you. Amazingly we have been made Holy (sanctified) through Jesus and are now called to be Holy in the world in which we live. Thankfully we do not do this alone: ‘He (God) will keep you strong to the end… He who called you… is faithful’ 1v8.9. The church is messy and the way back to being a true church is to remember our true identity – we are God’s holy people, made pure and blameless through the redeeming work of Jesus and called to live pure and blameless lives in the world.

But how do we live out our calling to be Holy? Well I Corinthians 16v13-14 are a good summary of the letter and what it means to be God’s holy people: ‘Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men and women of courage; be strong. Do everything in love.’

So lets go through these two short verse in four steps which will help us move from Messy church to Holy church.

First ‘Be on your guard’ – Sin is deadly 16v13a

The church was very messy because of the sin that was undealt with in their lives. There were: Quarrels among them leading to division and fall out 1v11; Superior attitudes over people 1v26; Arrogance towards leaders 4v18; Sexual immorality 5v1, 6v18; Disputes 6v1; Marriage break up 7v2; Causing others to sin and Misusing their freedom 8v12; Drunkenness at the Lords Supper 11v21; Disorder in church gatherings 14v40

Their sin was like ‘Yeast’ 5v7 which was impacting and effecting the whole church family. As a result God’s judgement was among them, some were getting sick and some even died 11v30! Paul’s encouragement to the church is clear: ‘Come back to your senses…and stop sinning’ 15v34

Second ‘Stand firm in the faith’ – Remember the gospel 16v13b

The way to deal with these sin problems in the life of the church was to get back to the gospel. The gospel is primarily about God and what he has done for us: ‘God who called us into fellowship with himself is faithful’ 1v9; God has chosen us by his grace 1v27; God has saved us through the power of his Holy Spirit 2v4; We are the temple of the Holy Spirit 3v16/6v19; We have been washed, sanctified and justified by God 6v11; We are now the body of Christ 12v27; We have been made alive in Christ 15v22; We have the victory in Jesus Christ 15v26

This is the ‘gospel by which we are saved’ 15v2. This is the gospel that saves us and it is the gospel on which we must stand. We need to make sure we are standing firm in the gospel: ‘If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall’ 10v12. To make sure we don’t fall and stand firm Paul takes us back to the gospel: I want to remind you of the gospel…on which you have taken your stand.’ 15v1. Keeping to the gospel will deal with the problem of sin in the church.

Third ‘Be men/women of courage; be strong’ – Live for God 16v13c

Living as a Christian in the world is tough, it’s hard to be church as God calls us to be. But we must resist following the ways of the world around us and live for God as his new holy people. To do this we must turn from living for self and live for God. There must be: No more boasting of yourself – it’s all of grace 1v29-31; Follow the Christ-like example of Paul 4v16, 11v1; Honour God with your body 6v20; Give undivided devotion to the Lord 7v35; Do everything for the glory of God 10v31

Paul knows it’s tough and the temptation is to give in so he reminds us: ‘He (God) will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear…he will also provide a way out so that you can stand’ 10v13. Paul is crystal clear in what he says: No compromise. No more split loyalties. Live as God’s people in the world but not of the world. We need Paul’s encouragement: ‘Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourself fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour is not in vain.’ 15v58. Be confident that God will use our efforts for his glory.

Fourth ‘Do everything in love’ – Love the church 16v14

Rather than be divided and fall out with each other as the church was doing we are encouraged to live out our new lives as God’s people by loving the church. The Christian life is never lived out in isolation but in community. This love means we: Are united together in Christ 1v10/13; Discipline those who are unrepentant to win them back 5v13; Care for the weaker brother 8v4; Surrender our rights for the sake of the gospel 9v19; Share with each other in the Lords Supper 11v33; Use our gifts to build up the Church 12v7; Love each other 13v4; Make every effort to build up the church family 14v4, 26

The good news is we have not been left alone to do this. We are not lacking anything: ‘For in him we have been enriched in every way…therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus to be revealed.’ 1v5, 7.

I Corinthians reminds us that the church is messy. It is made up of sinful broken people like us who are more worldly that spiritual. If our sin if not dealt with it will destroy the church family and fail in it’s witness. The way back to being a true church is to remember our true identity ‘Called to be Holy’. We remember the gospel, all that Christ has done for us on our behalf and in response live for God and love the church. This way, the church becomes all that we are meant to be. So ‘Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men and women of courage; be strong. Do everything in love.’ 16v13-14.

Berkeley Remembered

The loss of life is both shocking and horrific. One moment celebrating the joy of life the next grieving in the pain of death. For those of us watching and listening at a distance, we can only imagine the heartache for family and friends as they try to come to terms with what has happened to their dearest and closest. Exams over, The summer to enjoy, The freedom of life, Happy memories to create – an accident that would cut short six young lives was the last thing on anyones mind.  Death is cruel, it robs us of those we love the most and steals away our joy. As we remember we can only pray that in the midst of such brokenness and pain they will know and experience the comfort of others and the love and kindness of God.

We never plan for these events, we don’t live life thinking, Will it happen to me? Twenty four hours later we heard of yet more tragedy as nine people were shot dead in a South Carolina church. As the attending chief officer said: “It is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives.” Whether it’s a violent action or a tragic accident the sudden loss of life is never easy to explain.

It’s happened before

Sadly the recent events to hit our news are not new. They have happened before. The Gospel of Luke (Luke 13 verses1-5) records for us two events of similar proportions. Some people came to Jesus and told him about ‘the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices’. We don’t have all the details but it seems a group of people had gone to worship and pray. For no explicable reason (perhaps a reminder to the masses of who was in power), Pilate violently slaughtered them, cutting short their life. Those who came to Jesus with this news seemed to be looking for an explanation – ‘why do you think this has happened?’

If that event is not troubling enough Jesus reminds them of another terrible event: ‘those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them..’. Again we don’t know what happened, other than a tower on the city wall fell, killed and crushed it’s victims.

Like the nine people who went to pray in a church in South Carolina, like the six young people who were enjoying life on a balcony – suddenly and tragicly their lives came to an end.

Death comes to all

Jesus does not give us answers to all the questions we may have. He does not respond in the way we always want – but he does say something to us all about our life.

Jesus responds to one tragic event by telling the people of another. It’s a reminder that life does not go on forever – all life comes to an end. We all die. The reaction of many fellow students in Berkeley was: ‘It could have been me!’ And that’s the reality it could happen to anyone of us. We are fragile beings who do not control the number of days we have. Faced with the sudden and shocking loss of life we are confronted with our own mortality.

The reason for all death is sin

When Jesus responded to the tragic events he said something we would not expect: ‘Do you think that these were worse ‘sinner’s than all the others because they suffered in this way?…Do you think they were more ‘guilty’ than all the others?’

You see many have this ‘Karma’ view of life: Live a moral life and you will live long, Live an immoral life and you will die young. That is not true. Jesus dismisses outright this kind of thinking. How we die is not evidence of how good or bad we are. We make no judgement about those in the church or on the balcony. It’s not how or where we die but the fact we all die. The point Jesus is making is this: All death is evidence that we have all sinned. I may live a long and healthy life till I’m ninety, I may be struck down with cancer and die within a year…but however I die the reason is my sin. Death is part of our experience because we have rejected God’s loving rule over our lives, we have chosen to live apart from him and that always ends in death.

There is something worse than death

Like those who came to Jesus we are concerned about the here and now. But in his loving care Jesus directs us to think about what comes after death. While the people were all wondering: Why they died? What was the cause? How did they live? Jesus tells us to think about about our own life. In response to the murder in the temple and the falling tower Jesus says: ‘But unless you repent, you too will all perish’. To ‘perish’ is not just to die but to face the terrible reality of an eternal separation from God. In this life we enjoy so many good things; friendship, love, humour and creativity – all of these are good gifts from God. But to ignore God, to shut him out means an eternity without these things. It is a living death. So Jesus gently takes our focus away from the tragedy and pleads with us to be prepared for what happens after death: repent, turn away from self and turn to God. 

There is something more wonderful than life

All death is sad and in particular there is nothing so heartbreaking than the sudden loss of life to those who are so young. In fact we all long for life to continue, we all dream that life could go on for ever where there are no more accidents and no more killings. But that is not just a dream that is also a reality. There is a life beyond this life. It is life as it is meant to be: A life were there is no more suffering, no more pain, no more tragedy, no more violence and crime, no more funerals and no more death. That is what Jesus has promised to all who repent.

How is this possible? Well as Jesus spoke about the murder in the temple and the tower that fell – he also became a victim of sudden death. Within a few months Jesus was also cut down in the prime of his life aged thirty three. He was slaughtered at the hands of a angry mob, crucified and nailed to a cross. But Jesus death was no accident, this was planned by God from before the creation of the world. Jesus died not because he was a ‘worse sinner’ or ‘more guilty’ – He was innocent! Jesus died because he took my sin and your sin on himself. Instead of God’s justice falling on us it fell on Jesus and crushed him. Jesus suffered the eternal death that you and I deserve so that we might be forgiven. Three days later Jesus rose again from the dead securing our eternal life with him. To know and experience this forgivenss and life, to guarantee this future we must turn from our selfish life and trust in his perfect life.      

There is something  more wonderful than this life, it is life in God’s eternal Kingdom where death is defeated and destroyed once and for all.

May God continue to comfort those who are grieving.

 

Stephen Fry and Suffering

I like Stephen Fry. I find him funny, clever and real. Together my wife and I have enjoyed the eternal series QI, and we have appreciated his honesty as he has spoken about his own struggles with Bipolar disorder. That said, I do not agree with everything he says.

Last Sunday evening Gay Byrne interviewed Stephen on RTE’s ‘The Meaning of Life’. The final question put to Stephen, who claims to be an Atheist, was this:

‘Suppose it’s all true, you walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God. What will you say to Him, Her or It?’

In his usual clear and articulate way Fry answered: “Bone cancer in children – what about that? How dare you! How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault! It’s not right! It’s utterly, utterly evil! Why should I respect a capricious, mean minded stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”

Shocking!

Fry’s response has caused no end of discussion and comment, some apparently were shocked and horrified. While I do not level the same charge at God as Fry does, I have often felt like this, if not expressed it. I have asked it when our own daughter was born profoundly deaf. My wife has asked it when her sister, who was born normal, had a number of unexplained seizures that left her permanently brain damaged and with the mind of an infant. It’s the normal reaction when we face suffering – we look for someone or something to blame. In fact what is so shocking about Fry’s response is that he has put into words what we ourselves think but dare not express in words – whatever our belief.

The Reality of Suffering

The reality is live long enough and we will experience suffering. We face it physically through disease and cancer; We face it naturally through earthquakes and floods; We face it through our own choices (poor health care) and we face it through the actions of others like war, rape, stealing and words of anger. We simply can’t avoid suffering and all of us along with Stephen Fry have faced it and deal with it personally.

Now while Stephen Fry is an atheist (Does not believe in the existence of God) it seems a contradiction to charge God with being ‘Capricious, Mean Minded and Stupid’, when he does not believe in him. But that aside lets assume he does, for many people do and wonder why God did create the world like this and why God has not done anything to stop it.

Who is the cause?

So who is the cause of all this suffering? Fry seems to think that the blame lies squarely at the feet of God – after all he made the world! Well before we blame God I think we need to look at our own lives first. In the full interview Fry retold the amusing story of stealing a mans wallet and credit card and assuming his identity and spending his money at liberty. Of course Fry had a great time – but what suffering did it cause the person involved? What were the knock on effects? Yes Fry was sorry – but it explains that we are responsible for vast amounts of suffering in this world. Wars, greed, crime, lies and acts of injustice are all done by one human being to another. Of course I’m no different to Stephen Fry, I might not have stolen a credit card – but I misuse the resources I have, spending money on more food and gadgets while the majority of the world continues to suffer through a lack of food and clean water.

But that’s not the full answer. As a Christian I believe that God created a good and beautiful world and it was given for mankind to enjoy. But through our choices and actions we have rebelled against God and sought to live life apart from him. The result has been disorder and death. The good world is now twisted and broken. We are the spanner in the works. We have caused the cogs in the wheel to grind and crunch and the result is the suffering and pain we see all around us. Yes God has allowed suffering to enter the world but the cause firmly rests with us. One of the authors Fry respects and quoted in his interview was GK Chesterton. Chesterton once answered the question: What is wrong with the world?’ with the simple response; ‘I am!’ If we are to blame anyone we must first look to ourselves.

How is it fixed?

One of the charges against God is that God should clean up the mess he has caused. If God made the world like this then he should fix it. Well history proves that mankind can’t fix the problem. The ongoing conflicts around the world, the worsening humanitarian needs, the natural disasters on the daily news remind us that with all our advancement in technology and understanding we have done very little to alleviate suffering. So we either look to man or we can look to God – even if we do blame him.

If we are to ask God to end all the suffering the obvious conclusion is that he would have to deal with us because we are the cause! If we want a God who is fair and just then we must allow this God to take action and take us all off planet earth and start again. While God is within his rights to do that – it is not the way he has acted. God himself came into this suffering and broken world to redeem this world. He came through the person of Jesus Christ. The proof? His resurrection from the dead! All suffering ends in death and it’s the one reality of life we can do nothing about. The God/Man Jesus Christ defeated death as a sign of a full redemption he will one day bring about.

The Suffering God

Fry levels the charge that God is ‘evil and unjust.’ However the opposite is true. God is a suffering God. He faced injustice, he faced the mental and emotional horrors of being executed at the hands of people like us. He knows what it is to suffer and he is not immune from our suffering. In fact he has done something about it on our behalf. The fact is God loves this broken and disordered world and he loves us.

So what can we do about the suffering? Well we can either push God further away or we can run to God and lean on him. It does not answer all our questions, it does not make the suffering any less painful but it does give us real and lasting hope.

I pray Stephen Fry has the same conversion experience as his mentor Oscar Wilde, who turned back to God on his death bed, only a bit sooner!.