I’m delighted and privileged to be with you this evening. For over ten years the church plant of which I was Rector until a fortnight ago, Christ Church Wyre Forest in Worcestershire, has been linked with Jesmond Parish Church as a mission partner and your generous support has been a great encouragement to us. It is a pioneering work and we have had our fair share of difficulties, but as we left, it was wonderful to hear people talking not just about Gillian, myself and our family, but also about having coming to a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ. So although I am leaving congregational ministry for a new role in Kenya, I am still excited about what God can do through the local church and in our passage this evening from the last chapter of 1 Corinthians 16 there is much to encourage us to persevere and be creative despite the indifference and apathy towards the gospel which has become typical of our times.
At first sight this chapter comes as something of an anticlimax. It looks like a series of somewhat random thoughts after Paul’s powerful affirmation of Christ’s resurrection in chapter 15, but as we look more closely, we see that his apparently incidental remarks are the outcropping of a rich understanding of what it means to belong to God’s people. Here is a great encouragement to us never to lose sight of the immense potential of the local church as a place through which not only individuals, but whole societies can be transformed. In particular notice Paul says that ‘a great door for effective work’ has opened for him in Ephesus. God has given him a strategic opportunity to preach the gospel and in his history of the Church’s beginnings, Luke tells is that as a result of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus,
‘all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks’ (Acts 19:10).
Although of course ‘Asia’ here means the Roman Province, which covered most of what is today western Turkey, not the continent, that is still no mean achievement; it was indeed a ‘great door’.
1.The Dynamics of Growth
In attributing the effectiveness of the work in Ephesus to God, Paul is expressing the same principle he set out earlier in the different context of chapter three – aware of the tendency to factionalism in the Corinthian church, he reminds them that although he planted the seed of the gospel and Apollos (who is mentioned again in the passage before us this evening) watered it,
‘neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow’ (1 Cor.3:7).
I love this simple expression: ‘God, who makes things grow’. Is that the way you think of God? Too easily we slip into thinking like deists even though we assent that we believe in God as Trinity. Deism was popular during the 18th Century Enlightenment amongst rationalists for whom it seemed much tidier to think simply of a God who made the world like a giant mechanism and then left it to its own devices. But the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the living God who not only sustains the whole created order moment by moment, but dwells with his people in the power of the Holy Spirit whom we affirm in the Nicene Creed as ‘the Lord and Giver of Life’. Life entails growth and where the reign of God is recognised, we should expect to see life. So it is hardly surprising that in the teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God the parables of growth are prominent - the mustard seed, the yeast, the parable of the sower – all speaking of great growth from apparently insignificant beginnings.
Paul has this growth mindset. He sees it as natural for a church to grow when the gospel is preached because it is the gospel of God. Right from the very beginning of the Bible when we read in Genesis chapter 1v3
‘And God said “Let there be light” and there was light’
we see the principle that God’s words are effective. They are not just words. Things happen. One of the classic statements of Scripture which expresses this truth comes in Isaiah 55:10-11 and perhaps Paul has this in mind when he writes of planting and watering in this epistle:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
This God centred perspective is very helpful in two ways: Firstly, it alerts us to the fact that whatever claims a church may make about itself and however impressive it may appear, without the life giving message of the gospel, it has become no more than a religious club or a debating society. What makes the church totally unique amongst all other human groupings is that its life comes from God. Without God’s grace touching our lives through the preaching of the gospel we are, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:1 ‘dead in trespasses and sins’, quite unable to respond to God in our fallen human nature. By the same token the fact that we often behave in all too human ways, despite our experience of God’s grace, shouldn’t allow cynicism and unbelief to creep in. The church at Corinth, the ‘sin city’ of the ancient world, was no exception. It is clear from this letter that it was not immune from the depravity of the surrounding culture; there was serious immorality, factionalism and abuse of the Lord’s Supper and charismatic gifts. Paul exercises apostolic discipline, but this is precisely because he sees the Corinthian church, for all its faults, as a genuine work in progress. The real problem today is not so much that there is sin in the church – that will always be a problem one way or another - but that sin all too often goes unrebuked. For instance, within the Church of England those who claim to have apostolic authority act more like chairmen of interminable debate than guardians of the flock. Indiscipline comes to be seen as a virtue and Christian teaching loses its influence in wider society. It is unlikely that we have got to the point where we are actually having to campaign to prevent the government hugely overreaching its authority by attempting redefine marriage to include homosexual unions if the biblical understanding of marriage had been promoted and defended as it should by church leaders. Local churches must commit ourselves wholeheartedly this battle, but it is one that we should never have had to fight. Secondly, the confidence that God will give growth gives us confidence despite outward circumstances. It is not an excuse for passivity. The open door is Paul’s way of expressing an opportunity and opportunities have to be taken – we need the planters and the waterers and everyone else playing their part as God has called and equipped them. Awareness of our reliance upon God actually gives us the encouragement and strength to keep going. At the end of the previous chapter, chapter 15, Paul concludes his great affirmation of the reality of Jesus’ physical resurrection – and ours with him – with the very practical exhortation ‘Therefore, my dear brothers, 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 Cor 15:58). Far from being passive, here is a great stimulus to living for Christ, especially during those times when we see little immediate fruit and discouragement begins to set in. We can be confident that it is worth persevering because this is an investment of our time and energies which will not be fruitless and carries an eternal reward.
2.The Doors to Growth
So what does a church that is looking for this true growth, the growth that God gives, actually look like? As I pose this question, I am aware of course that I am about to embark on the spiritual equivalent of bringing coals to Newcastle, preaching in one of the largest parish churches in the Church of England. All I can say in my defence is that, firstly, it is a Scriptural principle that we remind ourselves of what we already know, lest we drift. Some in the church at Corinth were losing their grip on the truth of the resurrection and as Paul embarks on his great defence of this doctrine in the chapter that precedes ours this evening, he says ‘Now brothers I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you’ (15:1). Secondly, a large part of the reason for the growth of this church over the years has surely been the commitment of those who occupy this pulpit to open up the Scriptures week after week because they know that here we have the inspired, living and active Word of God himself. We never get to the point where there is nothing new to feed our hearts and minds. There is always fresh light to be shed.
3. Dependence on God
The first characteristic of a growth mindset we see in Paul is his sense of dependence on God. This is simply logical. If it is God who gives the growth, then we must trust and rely upon him. So, for instance, the recognition that his travel plans are in God’s hands as he writes
‘I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits’ (v7)
is of a piece with the recognition of the opportunities that God provides, here the ‘great door for effective work’ in Ephesus which has touched a whole region. Of course, we express such dependence in prayer, which is the acknowledgment that we cannot do God’s work in our strength alone, but there is more to this than simply asking God to bless what we have decided to do.
We might wonder why we don’t seem to get so many opportunities, so many open doors as Paul, but it may be that we don’t always recognise them. Dependence upon the God who gives the growth means being willing to go through the doors he opens. In my own ministry this happened in a surprising way. Twenty years ago the door opened – literally - for me to be the incumbent of a parish which had no history of gospel teaching. In fact it was worse than that – the congregation had actually been warned to be suspicious of anything evangelical and I was, as it were, the vicar the previous vicar had warned them about! After six months, one of the churchwardens took me to one side and complained ‘Why do we keep getting all these sermons about Jesus?’ Well, they did keep getting sermons about Jesus and many came to know him as Lord and Saviour, but with the opportunity also came opposition and this was just what Paul found, in a much more extreme form, in Ephesus. He simply refers here to‘many who oppose me’ (v9) but Luke tells us in Acts 19 how Paul faced violent riot and was forced out of the synagogue. Just because there are difficulties and conflict does not mean we are out of God’s will. In fact if Paul’s example is anything to go by, it is more likely that we are out of God’s will if these things are absent.
We shouldn’t be blasé about these things. Some of us are better at toughing it out than others, but we all have our limits. Paul’s ministry in Corinth also met determined opposition and even he seemed to be close to giving up. Luke tells us in Acts 18:9-11 that
‘one night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city”’.
And what happened as a result? Luke goes on to say ‘So Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.’He carried on that vital ministry of the word with a new sense of dependence upon God’s grace.
Paul had of course extraordinary gifts and a unique apostolic calling, but we are called to the same dependence upon the God who makes things grow – and this could have some very practical consequences. John Calvin in his commentary on Paul’s ‘open door’ and the suffering it involved says that Paul.
‘sought everywhere Christ’s glory, and did not select a place a place with a view to his own convenience or his own pleasure; but simply looked to this – where he might do most good, and serve his Lord with the most abundant fruit’.
Is your life being shaped by convenience and pleasure rather than the desire to ‘do most good’ by being fruitful for Christ? If so, what changes do you need to make?
4.The interdependence of God’s people
If dependence upon God is the guiding principle in Paul’s expectations for the growth of his churches, then interdependence is one of the key values in sustaining that growth. If the life that Christian’s share is new life in Christ then we should expect to see a unity across very different cultures. Paul’s ministry of the word was not simply the delivery of a message and the battle we fight is not simply an individual struggle. God is not looking for lone heroes, but communities that demonstrate the gospel by growing Christ likeness in their relationships one with another. The staccato imperatives of verse 13 echo the language of battle ‘Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong’ but are immediately followed by v 14 ‘Do everything in love’. We are in a spiritual battle and we need each other. The depth and quality of Paul’s relationships are clear. He does not want to visit the Corinthians in passing (v7), but to spend significant time with them. They are not an item on his ‘to do’ list to be crossed off. He is looking for deep and lasting growth in discipleship. Paul knows that discipleship is not only a matter of hearing the Word of God, but also seeing what the Word of God looks like in godly living – which interestingly is linked with church growth in your vision statement – ‘godly living, church growth and changing Britain’. This godly living is more than morality, essential though that is, but extends to the care and respect we show to one another, including leaders who he mentions by name – Stephanas, Apollos and Timothy. Now of course it is quite impossible to know everyone well, especially in larger churches, but a home group structure provides a way in which relationships can be built along this New Testament pattern and these groups in turn can build relationships beyond the church which express the regional relationships we see Paul encouraging here. He speaks of the way that Stephanas and his colleagues ‘refreshed my spirit and yours also’ (v18) and this has been our experience too through having one of your home groups led by Duncan and Claire and Leith as our mission link. The group have become regular visitors to Christ Church, often with loads of stock for our nearly shop at The Lighthouse, our outreach centre in a particularly tough council estate. They have certainly ‘refreshed our spirits’ and I hope that has been a mutual experience. Particularly in the early days of Christ Church we felt very isolated, having been effectively forced out of the normal Church of England structures and to establish real personal relationships was such an encouragement to us all. I must conclude. You are a church that has consistently modelled over the years what it means to recognise and use ‘open doors’ and God has given you great growth, even in the spiritual winter of contemporary British society. So as someone who has personally been much blessed and encouraged through this ministry, may I simply encourage you to continue in this great adventure of faith and let us pray that God in his great grace will open doors for the gospel through which the whole life of this nation will be transformed. The great Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century was a deep work of God in which a slumbering church was reawakened and an indifferent nation turned around by the gospel of grace. And what God has done once, he can most certainly do again.