Our subject this morning is PASTORAL CONCERNS and we are going to be looking at how Paul handled the tricky pastoral situation that was the church at Corinth in the first century AD.
We are looking this morning at 2 Corinthians 12.11-21. And my two headings are: first, CORINTHIAN CHAOS - something to avoid and secondly, PAUL'S EXAMPLE - something to follow.
First, CORINTHIAN CHAOS
The context and major cause of this chaos were (verse 11 of chapter 12) "super apostles":
"I am not [says Paul] in the least inferior to the 'super-apostles'."
These were people who were attacking Paul and saying that he was not the real thing. He was a mere "nothing". Paul may have been picking up their actual words when at the end of verse 1 he says:
"[I am not in the least inferior to the 'super-apostles,'] even though I am nothing."
So what were their criticisms? We are not told precisely. But in earlier chapters we read how Paul was falsely charged with being weak and indecisive. And probably, if Paul's "thorn in the flesh" (that we thought about last time when we looked at the first part of this chapter 12) - if that "thorn in the flesh" was some physical problem or deformity, these "super-apostles" may have said that Paul wasn't "macho" enough.
There is certainly a tradition that Paul wasn't the most robust of men. And these "super-apostles", reading between the lines, seem a bit like some modern charismatic leaders who have a prosperity gospel, limousines and large salaries. Money and, therefore, power was a big issue with them. They criticized Paul for not drawing a stipend from the Corinthians. For he was acting like a non-stipendiary minister; not like a stipendiary Apostle. Paul probably knew (and history has proved) that opponents of the Gospel regularly attack religious leaders over money, and so he wanted to be whiter than white. That is the context of the problems Paul was facing.
Let me now list for you just six of these problems.
The first problem was that the rank and file in the church had been seduced by these "super-apostles". So they were not supporting Paul as they should. Look again at verse 1 and the first part:
"I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you."
The Christians at Corinth were not supporting Paul when he was under attack. They were not commending him. Nor would this have been easy for Paul. When godly people are being attacked, in the press or in the wider church today, it is not easy for them either. So it is important that we support them.
I think of Charles Raven in Kidderminster. He challenged the revisionist Bishop of Worcester who opposed the decision of the last Lambeth Conference that sex is for marriage alone and homosexual sex is prohibited by the Bible. Richard Coekin in the Southwark Diocese had to oppose his bishop on similar grounds. Both of these men, Charles Raven and Richard Coekin, have been publicly attacked. How important it is for other Christian people to support such people in whatever ways they can. Many of us at this church have tried to do that.
Perhaps you are not in a position like those two clergymen - but in some other way you are seeking to take a stand for Jesus Christ at your work or your college. And you are finding that other Christians don't support you publicly. Oh! yes, in the safety of anonymity, a number will come up privately and say, "I so agreed with what you said." But it is hard when you are not publicly supported. Well, it was like that in Corinth for Paul. That was the first problem.
The second problem was that the Christians at Corinth were suffering from spiritual amnesia. They had forgotten things they should have remembered. So much error in the Christian life is caused by people forgetting what they should remember. These people seem to have forgotten that Paul led them to Christ in the first place. Paul had earlier reminded them that, in one sense, he was their Father in God. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 4.15:"you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I
became your father through the gospel."
That should have made them support him against these "super-apostles". Verse 14 is an echo of this relationship. There in discussing who should be responsible for funding, parents or children, Paul likens himself to a "parent" and the Corinthian Christians to "children" -
"children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children."
The third problem was that they had also forgotten that Paul had performed miracles. The Church at Corinth was a church where miracles and charismatic gifts were out of proportion. They did not seem to understand the full work of the Holy Spirit. Paul had dealt with this in 1 Corinthians 12-14. These "super-apostles" were probably majoring on miracles and teaching that you needed to be performing or promising miracles all the time. But Paul's ministry wasn't like that. So they called Paul a mere "nothing". That, of course, was to forget that it was rather the lack of love than the lack of miracles made you "nothing. And it was the lack of love rather than the lack of miracles that showed an absence of the working of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 13 verse 2 Paul wrote:
"if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing."
But, nevertheless, the Corinthians needed to remember that from time to time Paul had performed "signs, wonders and miracles". Look at verse 12 of chapter 12:
"The things that mark an apostle - signs, wonders and miracles - were done among you with great perseverance."
The fourth problem was that these Christians lacked critical ability and common sense. They seem to be entertaining the preposterous suggestion that Paul was only pretending not to take money from the Corinthians. In reality, it was being rumoured, he was siphoning off cash from the gift he was asking the Corinthians to make for Jerusalem. Look at the end of verse 16 and then verses 17 and 18. Paul is being ironic:
"Yet, crafty fellow that I am, I caught you by trickery! Did I exploit you through any of the men I sent you? I urged Titus to go to you and I sent our brother with him. Titus did not exploit you, did he? Did we not act in the same spirit and follow the same course?"
The rumour was that Paul was being very crafty. He was using the men he had appointed to provide security for the Jerusalem gift to trick the Corinthians. They were all in a big scam. But this is a bit like believing George Bush, Tony Blair and Kofi Annan are all stooges of Saddham Hussein. Anything is possible but reason says some things are 100% improbable. Such was the persuasiveness of the "super-apostles" and the gullibility of the Christians in Corinth that some believed this suggestion.
The fifth problem was the sad result of all of this. Look at verse 20. Paul feared that when he arrived in Corinth what he would find was (verse 20):
"quarrelling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder."
I was hearing fairly recently of a church with all that going on in another part of the country. But the Holy Spirit has caused these things to be written here in 2 Corinthians for us - not so that we think of other people and their churches but of ourselves. Are we tempted to any of these things -
"quarrelling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder"?
And, the sixth problem, was that some of the Corinthians were compromising with the pagan culture. Corinth was one of the most decadent places in the ancient world. It was the Amsterdam of the ancient world. There is a Greek verb for being sexually decadent. It is korinthiazesthai -"to behave as they do in Corinth". Sadly there was compromise in the Church in Corinth. Look at verse 21. Paul speaks of ...
"... many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged."
This is so serious. Paul is not referring to people who have been tempted sinned and then fully repented. Of course, there is forgiveness with Christ for every sin. No! He is talking about people who have made a lifestyle of their sexual sin and debauchery. These are the people he says in 1 Corinthians 6.9 ...
"... will not inherit the kingdom of God. Do not be deceived."
So these were the problems that meant chaos in the church at Corinth. There were "super-apostles" attacking Paul with the rank and file, one, not supporting him; two, forgetting that he had led them to Christ in the first place; three, forgetting that Paul, even though he did not stress miracles, had performed miracles; four, taking leave of their senses and believing a libel that Paul was stealing their charitable giving; five, causing the church to be an unhappy and an unpleasant place as a result of all this; and, six, with some being blatantly immoral. So what did Paul do? What should you do when you find a church - or a denomination - like this?. Well, learn from Paul. So my second heading is ...
Secondly, PAUL'S EXAMPLE
What I see here in this passage is Paul's humility, on the one hand, and his acting like the Good Shepherd, on the other hand. Let me explain.
Let's start first with Paul's humility. When Paul said in verse 11, "I am nothing", I don't think he was just echoing some criticism of the "super-apostles" for the sake of the argument. When he said, "I am nothing", he actually believed it. You see his conversion on the Damascus Road began his turn around from thinking that he was everything to thinking that he was nothing.
In chapter 11 of 2 Corinthians he has been listing many things that, humanly speaking, could put him at the top of the tree. On another occasion in Philippians (as we have been seeing in the Home Groups) in chapter 3 he wrote about his Jewish pedigree and his former zeal in persecuting the church and his legalistic righteousness, all of which he used to be proud. But once he was converted he said:
"whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ" (Phil 3.7-8).
At his conversion it was as though the light of Christ shone into his life and put everything into perspective. Now he didn't see what he thought was wonderful about himself, but the dirt he had never seen before.
It was like going into an old loft. Without a light it doesn't look too bad. Strike a match and you see it looking a bit sooty. Take up an extension lead and an electric light and you are horrified at what you see.
Paul may not have been an adulterer but there were sins of ignorance and sins of omission. And the same is true for everyone. Paul now realized that Christ did not just die for adultery and homosexual sex and greed and murder, but for all those lost opportunities of doing good that you and I have passed by and those sins of ignorance. Paul now knew that. And on that reckoning he was "nothing" in terms of meriting anything from God or from anyone else. For him it was like being presented with a huge credit card bill and no means of paying it. But he then learnt that Christ had paid the bill for him in full on the Cross where he died in his place for his sins.
Who needs to see, perhaps for the first time this morning, that Christ has also paid the bill for you and then to thank him for what he has done? What could be a better day to do that, than on the day when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit who convicts of sin, but also points to Jesus Christ as the Saviour from sin.
People define sin too narrowly. Paul knew the extent of sin. He genuinely on that reckoning saw the mess he and we all are in. That made him genuinely humble.
And because he was humble he could then be realistic without being proud. That is why he can write here as he does. Being humble doesn't mean not facing the facts. Perhaps you are a brilliant swimmer and life-saver and someone is drowning. And people then ask if anyone is a trained life-saver. Not to admit that you are, is not humble but culpably negligent; and to deny it is lying. So Paul knew he was nothing in the divine economy, but in terms of God's calling he had gifts and skills that he was to use for God.
Genuine humility gives you a freedom to exercise your gifts for the benefit of others and yourself, without being arrogant and proud. Humility also gives you the freedom to confront others when they are wrong without being wrongly judgmental, yet making right judgments. You know, "there but for the grace of God go I." Paul was humble - and we should follow his example.
Secondly, Paul was like the Good Shepherd of Jesus' Parable in John 10 where he contrasts the Good Shepherd with the hired hand. Look for a moment at John 10 verse 11. Jesus is speaking:
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep."
The Good Shepherd is willing to sacrifice all, even his life, for the sheep. The hired hand, by contrast, yes, feeds the sheep and looks after them, but when the crunch comes - when the wolf comes - he is not willing for any risks or any sacrifices. He simply runs away. Why? Because, at the end of the day, he is there for himself and to meet his needs (through taking home his wage packet). He is not ultimately there for the needs of the sheep. But says Jesus, Christian pastoral ministry is about being there for the needs of the sheep. So today that means for the people in the church you are called to help, from babies in the crèche to the oldest person.
When I talk to clergy I sometimes refer to Jesus teaching on the Good Shepherd and the hired hand. There is a temptation for clergy to be ultimately concerned to advance their own careers, rather than serve the people of God. It is the same with lay-folk - the only difference is one of role. But Paul was a Good Shepherd as we can see from three things in this passage.
One, as we have seen, he did not want to be a financial burden to the church at Corinth, when he was entitled to be - verses 13 and 14:
"How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong! Now I am ready to visit you for the third time, and I will not be a burden to you, because what I want is not your possessions but you."
Paul was not after a benefit for himself. He simply wanted to help the Corinthians grow spiritually and to sort themselves out. He says, "what I want is not your possessions but you." And what is more, he was not only willing not to be a burden but actually to incur financial hardship and also to be warn out in his work for them. Look at verse 15:
"I will very gladly spend for you everything I have and expend myself as well."
The second thing is this. Paul genuinely loved the Corinthians. Look on to the last part of verse 15:
"If I love you more, will you love me less?"
Paul still loved even when that love was not returned. He was more concerned with duties rather than rights, with giving rather than getting. How we need to follow that example.
And, thirdly, and finally, Paul was concerned to build up and strengthen the church. Look at the last part of verse 19:
"everything we do, dear friends, is for your strengthening."
I must conclude.
Paul was simply seeking to follow Christ in Christ's humility and to follow Christ who was the great Good Shepherd. So, may the Holy Spirit, on this Whitsunday, strengthen us all to follow Paul in seeking Christlike humility and in becoming more like the Good Shepherd than the hired hand.