A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (1 Corinthians 15:58-16:2)

1 Corinthians 15.58-16.2 from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.

You could sum up the news headlines this week in one word: ‘exposure’. Exposure to bad weather and travel chaos. Exposure to corruption among FIFA officials. Exposure of false accounting by some MP’s over their expenses. And above all, the exposure of the first few hundred of 250,000 US embassy cables. However we feel about WikiLeaks, Jesus promises there’s lots more exposure to come.

“What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:3-8)

The reason exposure has been so painful for some of our politicians, football officials and diplomats this week is because at some critical moment they have lacked integrity.  The word comes from the Latin ‘integer’ meaning ‘whole or complete’.  It describes an internal consistency between our words and actions, between our private and public lives. Integrity is the opposite of hypocrisy.

Sadly, all the good service these leaders may have given over many years has been forgotten. It was in vain because when it mattered they lacked integrity. Knowing that one day all will be exposed, how can we avoid the same embarrassment?

Jesus promises “Do not be afraid… whoever publicly acknowledges me, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God.” Jesus wants us to acknowledge him in what we say as well as what we do. When as Christians we show integrity in our public as well as our private lives, others may come to believe in Jesus also. They will see we are, albeit imperfect, but authentic Christ followers. And the passage before us gives some timely advice on how to achieve that.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:58)

The word ‘therefore’ points to the preceding verses where Paul speaks of the two most important events in history. The death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus (15:55-57) and the glorious return of the Lord Jesus (15:52-54). As a result we are doubly victorious.

Victory in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)

Because of his death and resurrection for us, Jesus gives us the victory over the power of sin and death. The whole of chapter 15 is about the significance of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and of our own. We can look back with confidence because Jesus gives us victory through his resurrection. But our victory is assuredly ahead of us also.

Victory in the Return of the Lord Jesus Christ

“in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:52-54)

One day we will be free not only of the penalty of sin but from the presence of sin also. We look back and see our victory in Jesus and we look forward and see our victory in Jesus. We live between these two great events. They hem us in and give us strength and courage in the here and now.

“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:58). A closer look at the verses that follow reveals how believers were to give themselves fully to the work of the Lord.

1. A church which is international but also interdependent
Although Paul has personal comments to make, the context is markedly international. At least five Roman provinces are mentioned: Galatia (1), Judaea (3), Macedonia (5), Achaia (15) and Asia (19). These areas of the Roman Empire reflect vastly different cultures: European and Asian, Jew and Arab, Greek and Roman, urban and rural. We see the emergence, from the Day of Pentecost, of an international church of people of every class, culture and race, now one in Jesus Christ. united through the power of the gospel. The vision and dedication of single men and women, of married couples, military personnel, businessmen, slaves and missionaries produced an international church which took full advantage of the situation, as we must too. We are drawn from at least 25 nationalities on any given Sunday and God has put us together for a purpose – world mission, beginning in Virginia Water, Surrey, England, to the ends of the earth. Our 2020 Vision portrays the kind of international church we aspire to become. Our Five Year Plan identifies our God-given priorities.  Our Distinctive Values encapsulate how we do Church. Our membership covenant identifies our responsibilities. The interdependence of the church in Corinth was expressed in several ways.

In this chapter we see a generous sharing of both money and ministry. The chapter begins with Paul’s heartfelt concern for the church in Jerusalem (1–4). He was burdened with the needs of the mother-church, facing hunger and poverty as a result of a severe famine (foretold by Agabus in a prophecy – Acts 11:27-28). In every church Paul stressed the opportunity, privilege and responsibility of meeting the needs of the saints in Jerusalem. There was more tangible way of cementing relationships between Jews and Gentiles. A church which was international but also interdependent.

2. A church facing opportunities as well as opposition
A wide door for effective work has opened …, but there are many adversaries (9). Paul is describing the situation during his two and a half years at Ephesus, mentioned in Acts 19. One of the main reasons for his long stay was the number of openings for the gospel he discovered. He ‘dialogued’ daily in a public lecture-room, the hall of Tyrannus. As a result, the whole of the province of Asia ‘heard the word of the Lord’. If Paul faced great opportunities in Ephesus, he also met bitter and concerted opposition. To describes this in his farewell speech: ‘You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which befell me through the plots of the Jews (Acts 20:18-19).

There is one simple lesson: the presence of opposition does not mean God is against us. When the Lord brings opportunities, we should expect opposition too. A church which was international but also interdependent. A church facing opportunities as well as opposition.

3. A church recognizing its resources and responsibilities
A most penetrating insight comes in Paul’s description: “You know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the Lord’s people. I urge you, brothers and sisters, to submit to such as these and to everyone who joins in the work and labours at it.” (1 Corinthians 16:15-16).  C.K. Barrett sees this as the beginning of what we now know as Christian ministry. Stephanas’ extended family ‘devoted themselves’ (the word speaks of a dedicated and disciplined lifestyle) to serving others. And fellow believers began to recognize in them the marks of true Christian leadership. Paul felt able to urge the Corinthians to be subject to such people, i.e. to respect their leadership gifts.

David Prior says “This insight challenges our notions, but particularly our practice, of leadership. We tend to give leadership to those who have received one particular kind of education, who have a measure of articulacy … the ability to think and speak on their feet, who measure up to worldly criteria of leadership. Do we ever take with proper seriousness the perspective Paul provides on leadership as service? Jesus taught the same truth: ‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.’ (Mark 10:43). Authentic leadership of a local church will come from people who give themselves to serving God’s people. Such leadership does not depend on education, qualifications, degrees, or natural charisma. It comes from the grace of God equipping his people with gifts which enable them to be servants of others in the fellowship of believers.

How do the staff team at Christ Church match up? On Tuesday, we spent the morning helping to set up the Besom Christmas Kitchen in Egham. Moving and cleaning tables and chairs. Before that and again on Thursday morning, most of the team were clearing snow and gritting the paths and church car park. And they were doing so from 8.00am to make our grounds safe for you and the church family. In fact, on Thursday one of the staff left home at 7.00am to walk to church and another walked a considerable way just to get here for 8.00am. Jesus set the standard when he washed the disciples feet and said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15).

Our greatest asset and resource as a church is not our buildings or our money. It’s our servant teams. Paul not only outlines their resources, he also emphasizes their responsibility to alleviate the poverty of believers in Jerusalem.

“Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.” (1 Corinthians16:1-2)

Appropriately on Pledge Sunday, lets note 3 aspects of giving:

3.1 Giving Regularly to God
“In the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money.” “the first day of the week” became the day of worship, giving and service for God’s people. Indeed, our text appears may be the earliest mention of this fact.  In God’s wise economy this is the remedy for our irregularity and indifference in worship. Giving Regularly to God.

3.2 Giving Responsibly to God
“Each one of you.” No one is excluded. The words are specific and the application is inescapable. Old and young, rich and poor, all are expected to steward the resources God has given. Indeed, as Paul reveals later in his second letter to Corinth, “we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” (1 Corinthians 8:1-2)

Let us never forget that our Lord accepted the widows mite so that no one could be too poor to give, but He also received the wealth of Barnabas because no one is too rich to sacrifice. With this inclusiveness notice also the intentional nature of our personal responsibility, “each one of you should set aside” This requires thought, time and planning ahead. That is why each December we ask you to pray about what God would have you pledge for the year ahead. Giving regularly and giving responsibly to God.

3.3 Giving Reciprocally to God
“I keeping with your income.”  Reciprocity is the principle of taking and giving. We are bound to reciprocate in some measure what God so bountifully lavishes upon us. There is first the need to consider what we receive of God. Do you regard your income or investments the result of your own skill or hard work or do you see them as God’s provision also? Second, there is also the calculation of what we return to God. Paul does not state the amount that we are to give, but leaves the matter open suggesting only that it should be proportionate to our income.

That is why we asked you last week to prayerfully consider before God what you believe he would have you pledge to give to and through Christ Church in the year ahead. We invite you to make that pledge today because it will help our leaders to plan wisely and budget prudently. Then like the church in Corinth, we too can be a church which is international but also interdependent. A church facing opportunities as well as opposition. And a church grateful for our resources and recognising our responsibilities.

May God give us the grace to give regularly, responsibly and reciprocally and may God’s blessing most surely come to our families as well as to our church as my dear brothers and sisters, we stand firm. Let nothing move us. Let us always give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because we know that our labour in the Lord is not in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:58)

What Eugene Peterson once described as “a long obedience in the same direction.” Until He comes, Maranatha.

Let us pray.

This sermon draws, with grateful thanks, on David Prior’s commentary The message of 1 Corinthians : Life in the local church. The Bible speaks today (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press. 1985) and Craig Blomberg’s 1 Corinthians, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zoindervan, 1995)