SERMON: The Formula for Spiritual Growth (1 Corinthians 1:1-9)
One of the pressing problems in many western churches today is the question of church growth. As in, “What do we as individuals need to do to grow in the faith?” And “What does the church need to do to grow in the faith?”
2. Personal Spiritual Growth
And this is particularly relevant today, because there are many people who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, but who feel the need for their own personal spiritual development. They want to feel closer to God; they want to feel more in tune with God at a personal level.
So much so, that we have the extremes. We have the phenomenon of church hoppers—people looking for spiritual teaching that fulfils their personal need and going from church to church to seek that fulfilment. We have people driving past one church to get to another—because they feel that a church farther away might better meet their needs. And we have people going from one seminar to another—searching for different spiritual ways in order to feel fulfilled.
3. Church Growth
And despite that, we have many churches which are languishing on the downward spiral to closure.
And consequently, we have congregations who are hoping that suddenly something miraculous will happen, and that the downwards slide will suddenly take an upward trend. We have congregations who are hoping that new people (and younger people) will suddenly come to the door and help build up the numbers. And we have congregations who are hoping that Christians from elsewhere will move into the area, join the church, and be the nucleus of rescuing their church from certain closure.
As can be seen, then, church growth and spiritual growth are issues which are very relevant to our churches today.
And particularly so because many people struggle with their own personal spiritual growth. Because despite their searching (and they can be very active in their searching), they remain frustrated, and unable to find anything really satisfying.
And furthermore, many churches are desperate to include new people in order to survive. But because they put limits and restrictions on what they are prepared to accept, they consequently get nowhere and experience no real spiritual growth at all.
So, the questions remain: “What do we, as individuals, need to do to grow in the faith? What do we need to do to build up our own personal relationship with God?” And “What do we, as a church, need to do to grow in the faith, so that our churches become healthy and vibrant and active?”
B. THE SPIRITUAL CHURCH
Well, to answer both of these questions I want to turn to Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. And I want to do that for two reasons. Firstly, because the first nine verses of Paul’s first describes the basics of what is needed for spiritual growth. And, secondly, because it appears that the church in Corinth faced many of the difficulties that many of our modern churches are facing today.
Indeed, the church at Corinth was full of cliques, with different groups following different personalities. Snobbery abounded. There was a great divide between the rich and the poor. There was very little church discipline—people were very lax in both their morals and in what they believed. Many were unwilling to submit to authority—and the integrity of Paul’s own apostleship was frequently questioned. There was a distinct lack of humility and of consideration for others. And there was a spiritual snobbery—where some considered themselves better Christians than others.
As a consequence, if Paul could provide a formula for spiritual growth for a church like Corinth, then it’s very likely, that that same formula could be relevant to the modern-day church as well.
And the formula for spiritual growth comes in three parts . . .
2. Lesson 1: The Need for a Sense of Calling (1:1-3)
And the very first part of the formula, Paul suggests, is the need for all Christians to have a sense of “calling”.
a). God’s Call to Individuals
Now, Paul was very conscious of God’s initiative in his own call. He was also conscious of God’s initiative in the calling of individual Christians in Corinth. The concept of the initiative of God was very important for Paul because he realised that a relationship with God (which was necessary for salvation) was just not possible based on one’s own abilities.
Without God’s initiative, Paul realised, neither he, nor any of the members of the congregation at Corinth, would have become apostles, or found Jesus, or become God’s special people at all. And therefore a sense of God’s “calling” was fundamental to the whole concept of spiritual growth.
b). God’s Call to His Church
However, Paul’s idea of God’s calling went beyond the idea of God calling us as individuals. Indeed, Paul was conscious of God’s initiative for individual believers to be members of God’s church too. So as far as Paul was concerned, there should be a close unity between Christians. God’s calling involved being “called” into the membership of the church as well as to their own individual calling. But in that, Paul recognised that the church was not “his church” or “our church” but it was “God’s church”.
Getting the perspective right, for Paul, then, was fundamental in his understanding of church growth and spiritual growth. Yes, we may come to God as individuals called by him. But we are also called to be members, together, of “God’s church”. And “God’s church” isn’t something we can own at all.
Now, of course, what this means is that when we are considering the issue of spiritual growth—whether as an individual or as members of a congregation—the very first thing we should do is to remember to whom we owe our existence as Christians and to what it is that we are called. Our faith is the result of God’s initiative, not ours. And God calls us not just as individuals but as members of a wider congregation. We are called to be members of a church that belongs to God and not a church that belongs to us.
And that means, if we only respond to the call of God from a personal level and have no time for his church, or if we relegate the church to non-essential, then we effectively deny a very important part of our call. As a consequence, we shouldn’t expect to grow spiritually much at all. We simply cannot be the people that God wants us to be if we leave meeting together regularly with other believers out of the equation. If we try to pursue spiritual growth on a personal level to the exclusion of spiritual growth on a corporate level, then it won’t be just us who doesn’t grow but the whole church will suffer as a consequence. And if we try to pursue the corporate angle but limit the church to being “my church” or “our church”, then we shouldn’t be surprised if the church doesn’t grow either.
Yes, God may reward us from time to time with spiritual gifts, and other ways in which we can grow spiritually as an individual. But we should never leave out the corporate aspect of our calling. We should never leave out the fact that this is God’s church—for him to do with as he wishes—and it is definitely not our own.
So it is very important, then, that we get our sense of “calling” right, if we are to experience spiritual growth either as an individual or as part of God’s church.
3. Lesson 2: The Knowledge that the Church is Fully Endowed (4-7)
The second part of the formula, Paul suggests, is that a congregation already has all the gifts it needs for spiritual growth.
a). The Apparent State of the Church
Now that might sound an odd thing to say—and we might look around the church to which we belong and say, “You’re kidding, how can that possibly be? We need more people. We need people with particular gifts and talents. We need new people with get up and go.”
But if we are tempted to think that way, then we need to remember, that this statement was made by Paul to the church at Corinth—a church that was in a real mess; it was full of problems. There were divisions, false teaching abounded, their moral standards were woeful, and some of their beliefs and practices defied belief. In fact, it probably wasn’t much different to many of our modern churches today. And the reality was that in this first letter to the Christians at Corinth, Paul had to deal with those problems too.
However, before Paul got stuck in about all the things that were wrong in the church, he wrote these nine verses we’re looking at today, stating that they already had whatever they needed to grow the church. They had already been given all they needed to be a church of great spiritual wealth.
b). The Underlying State of the Church
And consequently Paul made three statements about what the church in Corinth had already been given. He told them that they had already been given the grace of God. He told them that they been enriched by God in every way. And he told them, that they were not lacking in any spiritual gift. Three statements of the lavish generosity of God.
Interestingly, however, these statements all relate to the corporate side of our calling. They are statements about the church as a whole, even if they have implications for individual believers.
So if we consider that grace has already been given to us, if in every way we have been enriched, and if we are not lacking in any spiritual gift, then we, too, just like the church at Corinth, have all we need for spiritual growth. Indeed, if the church today is in just as much a mess as the church at Corinth—with its divisions, snobbery, dubious moral practices, false teaching etc.—and if the church at Corinth had all the resources at their fingertips to grow spiritually, then the implication is that God has given us all the resources that we need to grow spiritually too.
Consequently, this church as well as others does not need to look for outside help or more new people or younger people to get it back on track. We already have the means within. It also means that anyone who drives past the church to go to another more “spiritual” church does so needlessly. And anyone who doesn’t come because they believe the church to be spiritually dead in many ways is completely wrong.
God has blessed this and all other congregations with all the gifts that are needed to become a thriving church. However, maybe, like the Corinthian church, we just haven’t understood or realised what we have already been given or used those gifts to their full potential.
It’s the local church which potentially has every spiritual gift within its corporate life for spiritual growth. And therefore, it’s the local church which should prayerfully expect God to bring those gifts to mature expression. But it does take a certain willingness on our part for those gifts to be used to build up the whole. (Which in turn will help us in our own personal spiritual growth too).
The church is thus fully endowed with all the gifts of God’s grace. But these need to be discovered, explained and appropriated, if we are to see growth both as a church and as individuals.
4. Lesson 3: The Need for Confidence in God (8-9)
And the third part of Paul’s formula for spiritual growth is the need to have confidence in God for the future.
a). The Continuing Role of God
Now Paul was not only very positive about the resources of the church of God at Corinth, but he was also full of confidence in God for its future. Whatever ups and downs that the church had faced, Paul was sure of the faithfulness of God. Indeed, Paul believed that just as God had called the Corinthian church into fellowship in the first place, so, too, God would sustain them to the end.
As far as Paul was concerned, if God had called them to share his Son, then he would hardly be likely to abandon them or go back on his promises. And therefore for them to grow spiritually, what they needed to do, was to put their total dependence upon God.
b). God’s Terminus
As far as Paul was concerned, God’s faithfulness to his people wasn’t just to the end of an individual’s life, but it was to the Day of the Lord. That was how long God would sustain his church in this world. And on that final day the full disclosure both of Jesus as he really is, the true quality of our service for Christ, and the inner purposes and motives of our hearts, would be made known.
And because it will be Jesus who will matter on that day, and Jesus who will call the tune and determine the issues—the same Jesus to whom we are called to share—then that is how long he will be faithful to us. And as a consequence, we will we share in Jesus’s supremacy on that day too.
So the practical implications of this glorious hope means that in order to grow spiritually we need to be unreservedly committed to the church of God—where he has placed us. We should be unhesitatingly confident about God’s desire and ability to build his church where we are. And we are to be uncompromisingly certain about the call for us to be holy, as he is holy.
Paul, then, provided in the first nine verses of his letter to the Corinthians the basic formula for true spiritual growth.
Now, of course, the implication for the Corinthians was that all the division, dissent, snobbery, immorality, and false teaching would still have to be dealt with. (And Paul tried to tackle those issues in the other fifteen and a half chapters of his letter.) But nevertheless, what was required for spiritual growth as an individual and as a congregation, Paul told the Corinthian church, was at their very fingertips.
And the implication is that if that was true of the church at Corinth, then it is also true for us today too.
As I said at the beginning, the issue of spiritual growth—whether as an individual or in our churches—is one that has plagued many people over the years. And it certainly was a problem even in the church at Corinth in the first century. And yet despite the mess that the Corinthian church was in, the Apostle Paul was able to give clear guidelines on how the people and the church could really grow.
Firstly, he said, individuals need to be conscious of their call by God. But their call, not only as individuals into God’s kingdom, but their call into the life of the church as well. Because individuals cannot experience full spiritual growth if they exclude the church from their vision.
Secondly, congregations need to accept that as a congregation, God has already equipped them with all the gifts that they need to grow the church and to grow the individuals within them. Now, a church may be facing problems but that is usually because people hold on to things and refuse to be active members in the life of the church. Issues that still need to be dealt with. But churches have been endowed by all the gifts they need to grow, nonetheless.
And, thirdly, individuals and churches need to have confidence in God—that what he has already started he will continue until the end. Therefore, there is a need for all members to be unreservedly committed to God, and to the task in hand.
Get these three things right, Paul suggests, and you have the formula for spiritual growth. And the side effect of that will be, that whatever other troubles there may be—and there will be troubles from time to time—well they will disappear and come to be of no consequence at all.
But get these three things wrong and the consequences are well known—a lack of spiritual growth both as individuals and as a congregation; churches in the downward spiral towards closure; and all the fighting that inevitably comes with it.
Posted: 14th March 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Division in the Church (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)
What do we need to do to grow the church? This is one of the hot issues of the western church in the 21st Century. And the question is constantly raised, because of the decline in interest in the established church.
In the past, various different programmes have been suggested to combat that problem: youth groups, young married groups, teaching groups, etc. But if we were to ask the question, “What do we need to do to grow the church?” even here, within this church, we would get a variety of responses. The solutions would probably vary from one person to another. All sorts of ways would be indicated; all sorts of new programmes would be suggested—and even a diversity of approaches recommended to appeal to different kinds of people. And that is naturally so, because people have different interests, and different focuses.
But I’m going to issue a warning today. And that is that there are real dangers in starting new groups and activities, designed to attract either the churched or the non-churched. And the danger is that unless the whole church is united in moving in that direction, the quest for growth can actually be the cause of much disunity.
Because whilst diversity is good, and should be a sign of a healthy church, if we’re not careful that diversity can lead to a real trap. And that trap is: that in pursuing our different interests, thinking, and programmes, those things can actually end up taking on a whole new life of their own. If we’re not careful, and if we are not united in our approach—the whole church working together—those different interests can splinter the church. And they can become an impediment to church growth, rather than the creator of it.
Now this trap we can fall into is not new to the church. Indeed it is one that the church fell into within the first few years of its existence. And for that reason, I want to refer to the church at Corinth to illustrate what I mean.
B. THE PROBLEMS OF THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH
1. The Beginnings of the Church
a). Acts 18:1-18
Now the church at Corinth owed its existence mainly to the Apostle Paul. On his second missionary journey Paul arrived in Corinth, where the church did not yet exist. And there, every Sabbath, he went into the local synagogue, and argued the case for Christianity with his fellow Jews.
Of course it wasn’t long before the inevitable happened—he got kicked out of the synagogue. And so instead he went next door to the house of a worshipper of God who was prepared to listen. That man then became a believer, and consequently with his family, became the start of the Corinthian church.
Then, eighteen months later, having established a church with a very strong foundation (and having in the meantime faced some serious opposition from his fellow Jews), Paul left Corinth, and returned on his way back to Jerusalem.
b). 1 Corinthians
Unfortunately, about three years later, messages filtered through to Paul that all was not well in the church that he had founded. And why? Because the people in the Corinthian church had allowed their diverse backgrounds and thoughts, and their individual preferences, to dictate where the church should be headed. They were not united in their approach. As a consequence, instead of their preferences helping to grow the church, their preferences were helping destroy it.
In the three years since Paul had been there, the church at Corinth, had apparently received a series of high profile leaders—all who portrayed a different aspect of the Christian faith. And probably without any encouragement from any of those leaders, the members of the church had split themselves into various groups who either followed aspects of their personalities and teaching, or had reacted against it.
All groups claimed to be spiritually superior. And all groups claimed and pursued completely different programmes regarding spiritual growth and ministry—to the exclusion of all else.
2. The Divisions in the Church
a). The Paul-party
Firstly, there were a group of people who for fundamental reasons were strongly attached to the Apostle Paul. But, then, that’s understandable. After all, Paul had brought the Christian faith to Corinth. So they were, therefore, ever in his debt. (They would not have known anything of the love of God, and what Jesus had done, without Paul). So they were truly grateful for Paul’s labours on their behalf. Whatever Paul said, or was imagined to have said, these folk accepted verbatim. Paul may have been gone several years now, but his memory lived on.
b). The Apollos-party
Secondly, there were a group of people, who for intellectual reasons were strongly attached to Apollos. Now, Apollos had come from the university city of Alexandria. He had good speaking skills, good expository skills on the Old Testament, accurate teaching about Jesus. He was fervent in his enthusiasm, confronted the Jews in public, and he was bold in his preaching. And he had an invaluable ministry with young believers.
Apollos hadn’t stayed long in Corinth, but long enough for some to start comparing him with Paul. Because whilst Paul was good in his mastery of the Old Testament and intellectual ability, he was not an eloquent speaker—unlike Apollos.
c). The Peter-party
Thirdly, there were a group of people who because of their attachment to the Jewish law were strongly attached to Peter. Because, Peter, despite acknowledging that Gentile Christians did not have to comply with aspects of the Jewish law, was still in many ways a Jew at heart in terms of his own personal adherence to Jewish practices.
Now, there had been amongst the Corinthian Jews significant conversions to Jesus as the Christ. And the temptation to return to the old legalism, which marked the Jewish faith, must have been very strong.
d). The Christ party
And fourthly, there were a group of people, who because the other three groups paid such excessive attention to individual leaders, reacted to the situation by refusing to acknowledge any leader at all. To this fourth group “hero worship” as practiced in the other three groups was an anathema. And so they took a very strong anti-authoritarian line.
3. The Common Problem in the Church
Of course, the news of all the factions splitting the church came to Paul’s attention. And all the indications suggest that Paul found the news of what was happening—with the four groups—very painful. But, Paul knew enough about the realities of local church life not to be surprised. He recognised that there were bound to be different emphases and ideas within the local church—because all Christians select different aspects of the truth at different times for particular emphasis. However, he also recognised that when a Christian or a group of Christians become totally absorbed with one aspect of the truth, and they don’t have the support of the whole church, then a danger-point in the life of the church is reached.
Paul was therefore concerned that the church at Corinth should learn the right way of dealing with ‘selectivity’ and ‘diversity’. And consequently he began his letter by appealing to them for unity.
4. The Solution in the Church
But a unity not based on the lowest common denominator. But rather on the need to focus one’s eyes on the person of Jesus. The problems of the church at Corinth, Paul suggested, was that with all their preferences, and ideas, and focuses for spiritual growth, they had put their hopes in individual leaders, and styles of growth with their programmes and plans, and they had ignored the need to be united in their approach. They had taken their eyes off Jesus.
What they needed to do, then, was to step back from where they were, look at what they were doing, and focus their eyes on the person of Jesus.
a). The Wholeness of Christ
Because, as Paul rightly stated, firstly, people were either Christians or they weren’t. A person had either received Jesus or they hadn’t. There was no room for spiritual snobbery, or a debate over who was a better Christian.
b). The Cross of Christ
Secondly, Paul stated, that following people other than Jesus was a waste of time. It was Jesus who had died that they might have life. It was Jesus who had died for their sins, no-one else. Jesus was the only one who could unite people, and he did so through the cross. So what was the point in moving away from the only one who could provide reconciliation with God?
c). The Lordship of Christ
And, thirdly, Paul stated, that when someone was baptised (as an adult), they effectively signed their life over to the person to whom they were baptised in. They committed themselves to his authority and they were consequently at his beck and call. So in baptism the Corinthians had become the possession of Jesus Christ, and of nobody else. Consequently, all believers belonged to Jesus—not to Paul, not to Apollos, not to Peter and not to anyone else.
d). The Need for Unity
And on these three grounds, Paul appealed to them, not only for unity amongst themselves, but to preach the gospel in such a way that proclaimed the cross of Christ, and didn’t do anything to distract from it in any way whatsoever.
Of course it’s may be very easy for us to say, “That’s OK, but that’s the church in Corinth. That’s history, but what’s that got to do with us?” But, unfortunately, as the saying goes, history tends to repeat itself. And just as the conflict in Corinth began over different people having different ideas, and following different people’s teachings, until it got out of control with the establishment of specific focus groups—hence the disunity in the church. So is the same situation evident in our churches today.
a). The Paul-party
Indeed every minister of any Parish (with any kind of history behind it), has probably discovered a group of people within his or her congregation, that over time have taken their eyes off Jesus, and who are consequently harking back to the good old days.
And the group that purported to follow Paul almost certainly emerged as a reaction to the others in Corinth, who had different ideas and different focuses. As a consequence they dug in their heels; they went back to their origins. And they used what Paul had taught, or had purported to teach, to support their case.
And the same is true today. As a reaction to new ideas, and new focuses, there are groups in most churches who hark back to past times—or what is purported to have happened in past times. And they’ve dug in their heels, to prevent the church from changing, or modernising, at all.
b). The Apollos-party
In addition there are also people, in our churches today, who very much want to elevate the teaching of the church to a highly intellectual level. They want the focus of the church to be more on the good speaking skills of its leaders, and good expository skills of the bible, rather than on the practical aspects of living the Christian life.
The group that purported to follow Apollos almost certainly were trying to make themselves into an intellectual elite. Their emphasis was on spiritual growth for their own gratification, rather than in terms of actually growing the church. And so they clung to a leader who seemed to have all the attributes that they aspired to in order to achieve their aims.
And that same focus is evident in the church today too. There are people in most churches who coil from getting their hands dirty, in the practical everyday hands on approach to Christianity. But instead prefer to concentrate on becoming, or being seen as one of the spiritual elite.
c). The Peter-party
There are also those who like to have everything clear cut. They want rules and guidelines which can be followed—rules and laws which can be rigorously applied, no matter what the situation.
The group that purported to follow Peter obviously felt the need to resort to a system that was clear cut, where everything was as black and white as it could be. Where there was a set of rules and regulations covering almost every circumstance. And where, in addition, there was a set of guidelines spelling out exactly what those rules and regulations meant.
And the same is true today too. After the first flush of new life, having accepted Jesus as their saviour, many Christians feel more secure in such strait-jackets, rather than to trust in God and allow the Holy Spirit to work in their lives.
d). The Christ-party
And, in addition, there are also those in our churches today who have no time for authority whatsoever. A super-spiritual elite, who tend to cause problems in the church for a while, and then go off and start their own churches elsewhere—only for the whole situation to repeat itself over and over again.
Now, the group that objected to excessive attention to any particular leader may well have been one of this kind of group. Because forty years after Paul wrote his letter to Corinth outlining the divisions in the church, history tells us that whilst the three groups following Paul, Apollos and Peter sadly still existed, this other group—this super-spiritual elite—were no longer in the church at Corinth at all.
The reality is that where the Spirit of God is at work, there always seems to emerge a group of people who sit very lightly with any human leadership. There is an air of spiritual superiority which is beyond question or analysis. As a consequence, leadership of any kind, for these people, is something they have very little time for.
e) The Need to Focus on Jesus
So, with those four modern expressions of the same problems evident in the church at Corinth, we can say that if the same features of the church in Corinth in Paul’s day are evident in the church today, then Paul’s warning about disunity must apply just as much to us today as it did to the people back then.
So Paul’s appeal for unity amongst believers, and the need to preach the gospel in such a way that it proclaims the cross of Christ, and it doesn’t distract from it in any way, is just as relevant today as it was to the church at Corinth.
Paul’s message in his letter was that all four groups in the church had got it wrong. And instead, what they needed to do was to focus their eyes on Jesus, and not on their particular wants and desires and programmes or whatever. So what we have to do is to make sure that we don’t end up following our own wants and desires and programmes, to the point where we create and harbour disunity. Indeed we need to keep our eyes focussed upon Jesus too.
The question of where the church should be headed in terms of, “What can we do to grow the church?” is one of the hot issues of the western church in the 21st Century. And, with that debate, there are a variety of solutions that are currently being offered.
Yes we can come up with a number of programmes, or change our emphasis, to attract non-believers. And within the church, there will continue to be a variety of programmes and suggestions on what we should do—and naturally so, because it is natural for people to have different interests, and different focuses.
However, today, regarding church growth we need to heed the warning—we need to be united. Because whilst diversity is good, and should be a sign of a healthy church, within that diversity is a trap that we need to avoid. And that trap is that if we allow our diversity, our own individual preferences, to take on a whole life of their own, then we will no longer have our eyes focussed on Jesus. The church will then splinter, and whatever we hoped would be the solution to the church’s growth, will actually become the reason for the church’s further decline.
What is important for the church today, as it was for the church in bygone days, is that we should never allow our own personal interests, our own wants and desires, and our own preferences, or even our own church programmes, to be the cause of our disunity. We should never allow our eyes to be focussed on anything else, but the person of Jesus.
Because if we do, the recipe is, that even flourishing churches, like Corinth, that Paul left after eighteen months, will not grow. But instead they will decline and self-destruct. And that is something that we should want to avoid at all costs.
Posted: 17th January 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Let Us Be Mature in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:2; Hebrews 5:12)
Now what I am describing is probably a natural reaction of us all. Despite that, it’s probably what happens next, that is the most important. That is, do we then continue to deny any possibility of our immaturity, or do we see it as an opportunity to re-evaluate ourselves? After all, none of us can possibly know everything. And no matter how mature we think we are, we can’t always be right. Indeed, from time to time we can all wander from the path, and need someone to put us back on track.
Which is why I appreciate people like the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:2), and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 5:12). Because despite knowing how people were likely to react, they were brave enough to confront their readers’ anyway. But they didn’t do it to show they were superior; they did it because they cared. And what was at stake was their readers’ spiritual well-being.
So, should people call us immature, needing milk and not solid food, particularly in regards to our faith, we have a choice. We may immediately become defensive, and take offence. But what do we do then? Do we continue to be defensive, and not even consider there may be an element of truth in what they say? Or do we use the opportunity provided to reassess the path we are taking, and even, dare I say, change our ways?
Posted: 23rd July 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: Standing Firm in the Faith (1 Corinthians 15:58)
People have set ideas on what the church is about, and woe betide anyone who suggests anything different. People like things done their way. People don’t like change. And in a world that is constantly changing, the one organisation that has more pressure to stay the same would have to be the church.
There is a problem of apathy. People are not really interested in committing themselves to the life of the church. But they still expect it to be there. And they have expectations of the things that it should do.
And then there is the problem of faith. People tend to hold great store by the material, by the things they can see and touch and feel, rather than take a leap of faith and put their trust in the leading of God. Furthermore, people hold on to the way things have always been done, even though they may have never worked, or may be appropriate.
Yes, growing a church is never easy. And that’s why Paul encouraged his friends at Corinth, to stand firm in the faith. To be fully focussed on the work of the Lord, despite whatever pressures they may be facing to do otherwise.
As people of faith, we need to stand up to the idea that this is God’s church, not man’s. So, no matter what opposition or discouragements we may be facing, we need to stick with the task in hand—growing God’s church. We need to fight against the apathy that we see, and take the lead. We need to show others, by example, what commitment is all about. And we need to put aside the dependence on the past ways, and to trust in God. In short, we need to think in spiritual terms regarding everything related to the church.
And if we do that, then God will bless us. Because, as Paul said to the Corinthians, we will then know that our labour has not been in vain.
Posted: 5th August 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: The Isthmian Games (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Now Corinth didn’t have any gymnasiums, or Institute of Sports. Instead the athletes trained in the streets—beginning their training ten months prior to the games. So when the Apostle Paul wanted an illustration to teach the church at Corinth, he took images of the games which were familiar to the people. And he picked on two sports in particular—the foot race and boxing (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Now in the foot race there was normally only one winner. And the prize was more to do with glory and fame, than the prize itself. But Paul suggested that all church members needed to be training and competing to be winners. And that their life’s goal should be to know Christ. Indeed, they were to run the race with purpose, with their eyes fixed on the finishing line.
In regards to boxing, Paul suggested that if a boxer simply struck at the air (shadow boxed), then what was the point? Similarly, if anyone pretended to be a Christian, then there wasn’t a lot of point to that either. Instead, every member was to live with purpose, and with the intention of hitting home every punch.
Paul concluded that athletes needed to keep up their training to compete in the games. Similarly Christians needed to keep up their training, and to compete in the race too. And those are wise words we can consider as we watch the world’s athletes compete in this year’s games.
Posted: 3rd August 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Running to Win (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
There is a lot of sport on T.V. at the moment. Maybe it’s the time of year. But maybe it’s because Australia, as a nation, is so fanatical about sport. Because in the last fortnight alone we have had reports about tennis, soccer, cricket, football, basketball. . . and that to name just a few. And one of the features of many of the reports, has been the degree of dedication required for the players to get to their level of play.
For example, the level of fitness required for someone to play Open Tennis—to play three, four, or even five sets of tennis, so they can keep coming out and playing time after time—is amazing. And while some may bemoan the state of Australian Cricket, the athleticism of players needed to throw themselves around after the ball is also something to be admired.
Because as you and I know, being an athlete at the peak of their profession isn’t just something that happens. For sure many players have a natural instinct for their sport, but for any athlete to remain at their peak, requires time, effort, dedication, and exercise. And on a regular, if not daily, basis. Because without it, that keen edge would be lost, their fitness would fade, and their familiarity with the rules of play would be dulled.
Keeping fit and alert to compete at the highest level, then, is essential to maintaining a high standard of excellence in the sporting arena. But then keeping fit and alert, and being active, is essential when it comes to our own “spiritual” health too.
B. THE ISTHMIAN GAMES
1. The Isthmian Games
Now of course, it’s not just Australia—or even the modern world—that has shown a keenness for sport. Indeed, one of the places that was famous for its athletic contests was Corinth in the first century AD. And the Isthmian Games (second only to the Olympic Games) were held in that city every two or three years.
But in Corinth they didn’t have all the gymnasiums, and Institutes of Sport that we have today. No! In those days it was normal for the athletes to go into training for ten months prior to the games. And in the city, immediately before the games, the streets were filled with athletes in training.
It must have been a spectacular and memorable sight.
2. The Corinthian Church – Spiritually “Flabby”
As a consequence, when the Apostle Paul, sensed that the Corinthian church had become “spiritually” flabby—preferring to indulge themselves in worldly ways rather than in the ways of God—he took the images of those keen athletes out in the streets, and used their example to encourage the church to turn from their sloppy ways and to stand firm in the faith.
Now, of course, you could ask, “Just how was the Corinthian Church spiritually flabby?” But if we take into account the rest of the letter that Paul wrote to the church, we get a pretty good idea.
After all, he started his letter by pointing out the divisions in the church and the criticisms of his own leadership. He then continued by raising the issue sexual immorality, for which the church was either accepting or turning a blind eye. He pointed out that members of the congregation were actually taking each other to court, rather than sorting out the matters between themselves, or even getting the church to resolve the issues. Some were allowing the practices of other religions to be stumbling blocks to members of their own congregation. There were problems at fellowship meals, where some gorged themselves while others got drunk. And there were even disputes over the exercise of spiritual gifts—over which ones were more important than others.
So to say that the Corinthian Church was not a happy place, would be a major understatement.
Indeed, they let the exercise of their Christian faith slip; they had become very flabby indeed.
3. Paul’s Response
As a consequence, Paul’s response—knowing intimately the background of the city, including their great sporting heritage—was to respond to the flabbiness of the church in terms of the Isthmian Games. Indeed, he contrasted two events in particular—the foot race and boxing—with what it meant to live the Christian life.
a). The Foot Race (24-26a)
And firstly, regarding the foot race, Paul stated that the whole point about the race, was that there could only be one winner. For which the prize, which was a pine wreath, was more about the glory and honour of coming first than the value of the prize itself.
And in contrast, Paul suggested, if they ran the Christian race, they could all be winners. Indeed, their life’s goal should be to know Christ; their life’s journey should be about pressing forward for the prize. And for a prize that wasn’t perishable, like that of the athletes in the games. But it was for a more worthy crown: the eternal crown that comes from God himself.
But to do that, Paul stated, the perseverance and the self-discipline of an athlete would be required. Christians needed to run with purpose. Not aimlessly, doing their own thing, but with their eyes fixed on the finishing line. And so he used the strenuous self-denial of the athlete in training for his fleeting reward, to be a rebuke to everyone who was half-hearted and flabby in God’s service.
b). Boxing (26b)
And secondly, regarding boxing, and the practice of the athletes in training striking at the air (shadow boxing) . . . To which he said, “What’s the point?” It had no purpose at all.
Similarly, if a person only pretended to be a Christian (for whatever reason), then what was the point of doing that? Instead, every member was to live with purpose, hitting home every punch.
c). Paul’s Conclusion (27)
And as a consequence, Paul concluded, that just as athletes—foot racers and boxers alike—needed to keep up their training to compete in the games, so too did Christians. Because without the moral discipline to which every Christian should subject themselves to, they could find themselves, in the end, totally unworthy of the prize.
Now, in this instance, the issue was not about the Corinthians losing their salvation. On the contrary, he was concerned that they might fail to satisfy their Lord.
Paul had preached the good news of Jesus to others. He had used every faculty at his disposal and had got quite a few bruises in the process. But he knew that just as competitors of the Isthmian Games could take no short cuts in regard to physical fitness, so there were no easy options regarding spiritual fitness for the Corinthians either.
Quite a challenge then! The church at Corinth was in a desperate state. And Paul used images of the athletes in training to challenge the members of the church to get their act together. Indeed, he used images of athletes in the context of a city where athletics took a very high profile. And as a nation where sport is considered of major importance, we would do well to do the same.
As a consequence, Paul’s advice regarding the need to keep our eyes focussed on the goal and running for the line, is still something we would do well to note.
So, firstly, exercise.
Now there would be hardly a sport that didn’t require some sort of exercise: exercise required to keep fit—in terms of the stamina required to stay in the race and the agility required to play the game. But exercise too in the need to hone the skills and to improve the way an athlete thinks, to make the athlete a better player.
And as Christians exercise is important too. We need the stamina, and the agility to stay in the race. We need be forever honing our skills.
This can be in terms of our prayer life; the meeting together and encouraging one another; and any one of a number of ways. But we need to train to stay in the race. After all, it’s all very well stating that we believe in a God who cares, but if we do nothing to build ourselves up for the tasks that God has given us, or to maintain our knowledge and faith, how long do we think we’re going to last? And what sort of believer would we expect ourselves to be in the end?
2. Learning the Rules
Secondly, learning the rules.
Every athlete needs to know the rules of the sport of which they are involved. There are rules about how the game is played. There are rules about how it is not played. And there are penalties for things that are not allowed.
Similarly, as Christians we have rules. Rules from God to what is right and what is wrong, things that are helpful and things that are not. In fact we have a whole book of people’s experiences with God, which should give us a very good idea of the rules of the game: The Bible.
However, this one comes with a warning. Because simply sticking with the letter of the law, and not the spirit of the law, can get ourselves into trouble too.
3. Running the Race
And, thirdly, running the race.
Now the whole point of all the preparation—with the exercising and the learning of the rules—is to prepare an athlete to compete in the games. However, if an athlete does the training but then does not compete, what’s the point?
Similarly, for the Christian, preparing for the tasks that God has given us, in terms of exercising and learning the rules is good. But it is pointless if we then fail to carry out the purpose of that training and learning, which includes carrying God’s mission out into the world.
The act of being God’s witness in the world—whether in regard to the things that we say or the things that we do—is the very thing that we train for. But what is the point of the preparation if when we then refuse to run the race? Because there are many reasons why people don’t: because it’s too scary: because it’s too threatening; because of concern of failing; because it’s too inconvenient; or because it’s more fun doing other things.
The experience of the church in Corinth was that they were caught up in worldly ways. They were attracted by things that were not wholesome and were consequently being led away from their spiritual journey with God to follow other pursuits. They forgot to keep up the training. They forgot to keep learning the rules. They forgot God’s mission and their part in it. They lost sight of the goal, the finish line. And all because they took their eyes off Jesus and were more concerned with what they wanted for themselves.
Now, I’m not going to say that that won’t happen to us from time to time. Sometimes worldly pleasures are hard to resist. But the lesson to remember is the example of the athletes. To remember the things that he or she has to go through to compete. And to realise that the prize for which our sportsmen and women compete—whether for the athletes of old or even our own modern-day sportsmen and women—is nothing in comparison with the prize we should be seeking.
So, yes, there is a lot of sport shown on TV these days. Sport where there is a requirement for the athletes to know the rules, to keep their fitness up, and to play at a very highest level. And people enjoy the high standards we have got used to seeing.
But what we need to remember is that whether we are athletes or not, we are all competitors in a race—God’s race. A race that needs time, effort, dedication, and exercise, so that we can compete to the high standards he expects of us too.
Because if we don’t keep “spiritually” fit . . . Well, we too will become flabby and be open to the same problems that affected the Corinthian church.
Posted: 18th January 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Marks of a Genuine Church (1 Corinthians 12:1-11)
1. A Twenty-First Century Dilemma
One of the concerns of today is whether things are genuine or not. As a consequence, our money is now plastic and has a see-through panel, making it harder to forge. When you buy things, particularly artwork, a certificate of authenticity is usually required as part of the deal. When people collect money for charitable purposes, they are required to wear some sort of identification to show that they are genuine collectors. And when the issue is on the other foot, when you have to contact organisations like Centrelink, Aurora, or any number of other organisations, you have to answer many questions about yourself to prove that you are the genuine article.
Indeed, it seems these days that nothing is allowed to be taken at its face value. And proof of authenticity, proof that anything and everything is genuine, has become the order of the day.
2. A First Century Reality
But if I were to tell you that this was peculiar to the twenty-first century, then I’d be quite wrong. Because as the background to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians indicates, the question of whether the Christian faith was real was very much the order of the day. People required proofs that faith was genuine, and particularly within the local church. And they were looking for supernatural signs to prove that it was real.
As a consequence this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, dealing with the issue of what makes a genuine church, makes some very interesting reading.
B. THE MARKS OF A GENUINE CHURCH
Because Paul basically summarised how one can be sure that the church, as represented by the local congregation, could be proved to be genuine. And he suggested that the proof could be discovered in two ways:
1. Proclaiming Jesus is Lord (1-3)
And the first proof was whether, within the church, there were people who were proclaiming that “Jesus was Lord.”
Now the idea behind this, wasn’t that it was some sort of formula that people said when they met other believers. It wasn’t a creed that people said off by rote. This was a public confession of a personal faith in a living saviour. It was believers telling non-believers—telling people outside the church—what Jesus had done for them and what he meant to them. In other words, this was a public admission of commitment to Jesus, his gospel, his church, and his mission. And in those days, this would have meant speaking in a very hostile environment, where people were very suspicious of the Christian faith.
And as far as Paul was concerned, this sort of confession was not possible without the help of the Holy Spirit. So if that was happening, it was proof that the Holy Spirit was dwelling within the particular believer. And because the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, had a burning desire to glorify Jesus, anyone filled with Holy Spirit, could not help but to stand up boldly and proclaim that Jesus was Lord.
On the other hand, if that was not a feature of the local congregation and if Jesus was cursed and not blessed, then that, Paul indicated, would indicate the absence of the Holy Spirit and the absence of faith. It would prove, without doubt, that the local congregation was not genuine at all.
2. Service in the Church (4-5,7)
The second proof, that the church was genuine, Paul suggested, was that within the local congregation there were people who were very active. And, indeed, Paul, indicated three different methods of service that would be present within the congregation.
The first was the practice of exercising gifts, particularly spiritual gifts. And even amongst the members of the Corinthian church this was a controversial issue, the subject of much debate and much division. However, Paul suggested, that whether people felt comfortable or not, the exercise of prophecy, healing, words of knowledge, miracles, etc. would be proof of the genuineness of the church.
The second method of service was the more practical, every day way of caring for one another. They were to be servants to one another and to their neighbours outside of the church. And this would prove the sincerity of the church as well.
And the third method of service would be the involvement of the congregation in using their energies to work—within the Church and without—with the specific purpose of changing lives, transforming relationships, and building up the congregation both spiritually and numerically. And if this sort of thing was going on, then that would be proof that the church was genuine too.
Now it’s important, at this point, to remember that it was not Paul’s intention to give the idea that those three forms were mutually exclusive. Indeed, the distinctions between the three could be very blurred. It’s also important to remember that they were not to be ranked in order of importance, because each one was as important as the other.
What is important, however, is that they were three different methods of service which had common goals. That is, the intentional building up the community of believers and the spread of the gospel. And, if practiced, they were proof that the church, or local congregation, was genuine.
And what made these things prove that the church was genuine? Well, as far as Paul was concerned, it was evidence that that the Holy Spirit was working through his people, enabling the church to embody his presence in the world. And if these three different methods of service were not present in the local congregation, then that would suggest the absence of the Holy Spirit and indicate that the church was not genuine at all.
1. The Corinthians
Now we need to remember what Paul was responding to in his letter to the church at Corinth. And what he was responding to was a growing concern about the reality of the Christian faith, and of the genuineness of the local congregation in particular.
The members of the Corinthian church would have been mainly from a pagan background—and one based on Greek mystery-religions, where spiritual experiences were the norm. Indeed, they expected them as proof that the divine force they followed was genuine. As a consequence, they believed that if no such supernatural manifestations were present then the power of the divinity they were worshipping was suspect.
The Corinthians, therefore, were thoroughly absorbed by all things supernatural. And as a consequence, they needed this firm, wise, corrective, but encouraging advice from Paul.
2. Our Background
But our background is very different. We have an emphasis, in our culture, of doing away with God, and on concentrating on the things we can do for ourselves. We live in a society that often shows only lip service to all things religious. We live in a world where everything is questioned and tested to see whether it is genuine (which is probably not a bad thing). Except for the fact, that trying to explain away the mysterious and supernatural has become the order of the day.
And, yet despite that, the response that Paul gave the Corinthians regarding the proofs of the genuineness of the Christian faith, and the genuineness of the local church, are just as relevant today as they were in the first Century.
The answer is still the same. The marks of the genuine church are still that members will be involved in standing up publicly, proclaiming that Jesus as Lord, and actively being involved in the life of the church. And they will be active through the exercising of God’s gifts, through the practical every day serving of one another, through activities which at their heart have the spread of the gospel in mind.
And that, of course, leads us to the obvious question. If the proofs that the Church is genuine involves the church doing those things, who precisely is it who is that is required to do them?
1. Proclaiming Jesus is Lord
Well, regarding standing up in a hostile environment and declaring the faith and what Jesus means to us, the answer is all of us—every single person who has committed their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ. And in a sense that is natural for any Christian. Because the Holy Spirit that dwells in us has a burning desire to glorify Jesus at every opportunity.
The practical reality, however, is that even with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Christians find it hard to be obedient to God. It’s not easy making yourself vulnerable. Nerves, feeling out of one’s depth, not knowing what to say, fear of the unknown, never having done it before, wondering about possible reactions, and fear of repercussions, can be very powerful disincentives to allow the Spirit to use us in the different situations and opportunities that come our way.
However, if we give in to all this pressure there are also a number of consequences. Because we not only deny God (and his Holy Spirit), we also restrict our own spiritual growth. At the same time, we also put a nail in the coffin of the local church. Because it’s very hard for people outside the church to see that the local congregation is genuine if its members do not demonstrate the conviction of their beliefs.
2. Service in the Church
And, just as the answer to standing up and being counted is all of us, so is the answer to service in the church as well.
Paul’s words were quite specific: “There Spirit is one, but there are a variety of gifts. The Lord is one, but there are a variety of ministries. God is one, but there are a variety of activities” (4-6a). And then he came to his conclusion: “Yet the one God works all things in all people” (6b).
In other words, every believer should exercise service in the church in those ways. Yes, we may be different people, and God may give “to each person as he wishes” (11b). But regardless of that, the exercise of each of those three aspects of service—the exercising of God’s gifts, the practice of service, and participation in transforming lives—should be evident in every believers’ life.
Of course, not coming from a culture like that of the Corinthians—where there was an expectation of the supernatural—may mean that many in the church today will want little to do with the more controversial spiritual gifts. Nevertheless, God did not just endow us with certain abilities at our physical birth, but he endowed us with new abilities at our spiritual birth too.
And if we start to pick and choose, and only exercise the things that we are comfortable with, then again, we will not only deny God (and the Holy Spirit), but we will also restrict our own spiritual growth, and put another nail in the coffin of the local church. Because it’s very hard for people outside the church to see that the local congregation is genuine if its members cannot put their faith into action.
a). Those on the Fringe
Now obviously the church attracts a variety of people. Apart from people of faith, there are enquirers—people who are not believers but who want to know more about the faith. There are people who simply like the traditions and customs. There are those who want to support the church so it will be there for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. And there are those who like its physical presence—the building—because it gives them piece of mind.
However, the question of whether a church is genuine or not, is not about any one of the non-biblical extras. It’s about the people who stand up (or should be standing up) for what they believe.
b). Fund Raising
Similarly, there are many activities in the church these days. And one of the most common would have to be fundraising. (And, indeed, finance was an issue in the Corinthian church as well). And yet important as some might think that to be, the question of whether a church is genuine or not, is not about fundraising at all. It’s about the spiritual activities, the exercise of gifts, the care of others, and the spreading of the message of the gospel.
As a consequence we need to belong to a church that is genuine and is seen to be genuine. And we should not allow the advice that Paul gave to the church at Corinth go totally unheeded.
So whether we like it or not, we live in a world where there is a need to prove that things are genuine. And the church is not exempt from that.
When people look at the Christian faith, and at this church in particular—either within or without—what they are looking for is proof that we are genuine.
So, do we meet Paul’s criteria for a genuine church? Do we have people who stand up for what they believe—who openly speak out about their faith—even in outside situations where people can be quite hostile? Do we have people who are prepared to tell others just who Jesus is and what he means to them? And in our congregation, do we have people actively involved in serving God, exercising their spiritual gifts, being involved in caring for others, and taking their place in bringing others to Christ?
And not just do we have people among us who do these things. But do we all do them—–every single one of us—everyone who confesses a saving faith in Jesus?
Because those are the features of a genuine church. And if they are not features of our church, then we’re in danger of not being the genuine article at all.
Posted: 25th January 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis