I love these opportunities we have to come together to worship. Three congregations, that normally meet on two different sites, worshipping our one Lord Jesus together.
Church unity is a precious thing. Too often, churches are divided.
The early chapters of 1 Corinthians are an impassioned plea by the apostle Paul to the Corinthian church: Please don’t divide around human personalities.
Chapter 10, verse 1: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
After Paul left Corinth, some other teachers came to Corinth. Impressive speakers. They made an impact. The apostle Peter. Apollos. The Corinthian Christians felt a loyalty to the specific teachers that had made an impact on them. They were in danger of splitting into factions. Chapter 1, verse 12: “What I mean is this: one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’”
Sadly today, churches can divide around loyalties to human personalities. Different people who have been influential in the past. “I follow Nigel Ashworth.” “I follow Colin Horn”. “I can remember Richard Bateman.” Sometimes different people in the present. People can feel an allegiance to particular people who preach or lead from the front, or particularly small group leaders.
I don’t think we’re particularly in danger of this, but it’s helpful to prepare ourselves. Our sinful hearts so easily drift in this direction. We form heroes in our minds within our church family, and before we know it we’re defining ourselves up by whose fan-club we’re in.
So let’s listen to Paul plead with us, too: Don’t divide around human personalities! Please!
I started to unpack Paul’s answer last week at 10.30 and at Woodlands. Today he continues, and there’s a particular focus in today’s verses. That focus is that God does not work the way you’d expect.
And we divide along human personalities when we look at church life along the lines you’d expect, and not along the way God works.
God’s ways are so surprising, so unexpected, that it’s possible to miss what he’s doing altogether. And yet what he’s doing is wonderful, that would be a tragedy in its own right. So let’s not miss what God’s doing in the world. Let’s not miss what God wants to do in our lives. Let’s not be a church with needless divisions.
In the verses we had read, we get two unexpected feature about the way God works. And then Paul will show us that what God is doing is simply wonderful! We need to focus on that, and not miss it by looking in the wrong place. Then there are blessings you never dreamt of, as well as the way to be a truly united church.
God calls unimpressive people
So here’s the first unexpected feature of how God works: God calls unimpressive people. God calls unimpressive people. This is chapter 1, verses 26 to 31.
Paul has been saying that God does not always work in ways we expect. God does not always work through people who are impressive on the outside. And here’s exhibit number 1: The Corinthian church themselves.
Verse 26: “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.”
Now maybe there were some among them who were wealthy, or sported a hereditary title, or had a vast string of letters after their name. But not many of them. Many of them were ordinary people. In ancient Corinth, that meant a good part of the church was made up of slaves.
God frequently works in this way.
You may know the story from the Old Testament when David is anointed king. God sends the prophet Samuel to visit Jesse and his family to anoint the next king of Israel. Jesse walks one son after another down the catwalk for Samuel to inspect. The eldest is tall, dark and handsome. Obviously kingly material. But God tells Samuel that he’s not chosen this one. All seven sons pass before Samuel, but none are chosen. Finally, Jesse admits that he hadn’t even bothered to invite the runt of the litter to the party. And so David is brought. The least likely one externally is the one God wants.
So it was in the Christian church in Corinth. And so it is today.
I was able to compare notes with a number of other church leaders, who all told the same story. You move to a new area, and you start to meet some of the people who live in the area but who don’t go to church. You think: “How good it would be if this person became a Christian. Their wealthy. Think how their money could help the church accounts.” Or: “How about this person. They’re well educated, they’re enormously talented. This person would be great on the PCC, and could even become a reader. I hope they become a Christian.” Or the person with land where the youth group could camp.
But then some people do become Christians. And it’s none of those. Instead, they’re people with little money, time or ability. A complicated life, that God graciously wants to help them untangle and use them to serve him.
“Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.”
It’s how God works. And unless you’re far more in tune with God’s ways than I often am, it catches us by surprise. It’s unexpected. It shouldn’t, but it does. God calls unimpressive people.
Why? So we put our confidence in the right place.
That’s verses 28 and 29: “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
One day Jesus will return to this earth. He’ll come back as judge.
How does that make you feel? One day, you and I will stand before him. Every one of us will. Do you feel confident at the thought of that? If you do, where is your confidence? And even if you only feel tentatively confident, what are you hoping will get you past?
It’s annual promotion day at work. One by one, you’re called into the boss’s office to be told if next year you’ll be one notch up the scale. What goes through your mind? Your CV? Your confident, extroverted personality? Your connections?
God wants to make sure that none of will boast before him on that day. So he makes sure that it’s not at all about how rich, how strong, how well-bred we are. Instead it’s about his kindness, his grace. It’s about Christ Jesus, “who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”
If we need to be wise, to see the world as God sees it. If we need to be righteous before God, free of guilt. If we need to be holy, chosen to be on his team. If we need to be redeemed, bought back from being slaves to sin so that we can serve God instead. If we need to be those things, and we do, they come to us as a free gift with the Lord Jesus.
When I was a child, cereal packets used to come with free gifts. Get the cornflakes, the spinning top comes free.
God has set the world up so that when we take hold of the Lord Jesus, those other things come free. Wisdom. Righteousness. Holiness. Redemption. And there’s no other way to get them than to have them free with the Lord Jesus.
The Beetles sang that money can’t buy you love. It can’t buy you God’s favour either. Neither can land, a title or our athletic prowess. God has set things up so that nobody can boast before him on the day of judgement.
Our confidence must be in Christ alone, and not at all in ourselves.
There’s the first unexpected way God works. God calls unimpressive people.
Which comes back to the theme of divisions. If this is how God works, we can’t go about defining ourselves by our class, ability or background. Or whether we’re drawn to a particular preacher or Christian minister because of their class, ability, or background. God just doesn’t work like that. God calls unimpressive people.
God uses unimpressive messengers
The second unexpected feature of the way God works is that God uses unimpressive messengers. God uses unimpressive messengers. This comes in chapter 2, verses 1 to 5.
They’re often unimpressive as people, and the message they bring is unimpressive too.
Start with the messenger. Verse 1: “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.” They had public speaking competitions in ancient Greece, and Paul didn’t stand a chance. His speech was not particularly eloquent. He was not polished.
Or verse 3: “I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling.” You could see him shaking with nerves as he took hold of the lectern. Maybe a slight stammer. He found speaking like this terrifying, and everyone could see. A class of teenagers would have made mincemeat of him.
The messenger is unimpressive, but so is the message. This is verse 2: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” We thought about this in some detail last week. The idea of a crucified Messiah was laughable. It was foolish. The Jews were waiting for their Messiah so they could have their own king again; instead the Romans polished him off in straight sets.
That was it. Paul had nothing clever or impressive to say. Just a message about the Messiah, the Christ, who was crucified by the Romans.
I have friends who lead churches in towns and cities where there are large established universities. Occasionally they get asked to debate some famous atheist. I have to say, rather them than me. A brilliant mind, who has come to marshal the strongest arguments to convince a bunch of bright undergraduates that there’s no God. … And me. What chance would I have in that kind of debate?
But it doesn’t rest on who can win the argument at the Student Union. What we have to say doesn’t sound desperately convincing. We may not be the most polished speakers either.
And yet this is how God calls people into his family. This is how God called the Corinthian church into being. By a rather unimpressive speaker, bringing a message that is utter folly to the unbelieving world, rather simplistic and naïve. And yet through this, God’s Spirit is at work.
That’s verse 3: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. And then we find out why God uses such unimpressive messengers to bring such an unimpressive message. It’s the same reason why he calls such unimpressive people. Because he wants us to put our confidence in the right place. “… with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”
Take your mind back to annual promotion day. You’re wondering if you’ll be moved up the scale or not. And a friend who’s worked there much longer than you have tries to put your mind at ease. He knows exactly what they look for, and believe me, you’re it. He sounds so convincing. But does he actually know what he’s talking about?
Here we are, facing the day when God will judge every human being. What matters is that you’re ready for the day. Maybe you hear a speaker telling you that they know exactly what God is looking for. You’ll be fine. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how convincing they are. What matters is whether they’re telling you the truth.
If we put our confidence in how eloquent and persuasive the speaker is, all it would take is to hear another speaker. More eloquent. More persuasive. Better rhetoric. And we find ourselves shifting the whole direction of our lives.
There are plenty of people in the modern world who can hold an audience. The stand-up comic, who can have an audience hanging on their every word for an hour of pure monologue. The speakers at TED talks, if you’ve come across those.
Then there’s what we listen to. A faltering speaker, telling us about a crucified Messiah. It’s madness, and it’s unexpected, but this is where must put our confidence. Not in the speaker, however polished, but in God and his purposes.
And once again, it’s when we don’t do that that we divide over personalities. If what matters is the speaker, and his or her performance, then we define ourselves by which speaker we want to get behind.
There’s the second unexpected way that God works. God uses unimpressive messengers.
God reveals his plan for our eternal glory
So we don’t put our confidence in ourselves, and we don’t put our confidence in the messenger. Is there anything we can put our confidence in? Can we have any confidence at all? Can we be sure what God is like? Can we be sure what will happen at the judgement?
And the answer is that we can. Because God reveals his plan for our eternal glory. God reveals his plan for our eternal glory. That’s in chapter 2, verses 6 to 16.
God has a plan. It’s a plan to take his people to glory. To take his people into a future that is so wonderful you’d never make it up, and you’d never believe it if you were told.
Verse 9: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ – the things God has prepared for those who love him”. It’s a future he describes as glory in verse 7. And yet it’s something that all the bigwigs of our time accept. That was even more so in Paul’s day, when the bigwigs had literally crucified Jesus, the Lord of glory. Verse 8: “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
And yet even though thousands miss it, even though thousands of really important people miss it, it’s real. It isn’t made up. God has opened up his deepest thoughts, and shared them with us.
Let me read verses 10-14: “… these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”
You see: Who knows the PIN number for your bank card? Only you do. It’s inside your head. Magicians may have party tricks that they call mind reading, but there’s no such thing as actual mind reading. The only way someone else would know your PIN number is if you told them.
God has a plan. In verse 7, he made that plan before time began. It was a plan for our glory. Just let that go in for a moment. God had a plan written before time even began. And if you are a Christian, that plan was all about the fact that you should spend eternity in absolute glory with God.
It’s a plan he cooked up before time began. But now, to Paul and the other apostles, he’s made it known. It’s no longer a secret in God’s head. It’s out in the open.
But lots of people miss it. God gave his Spirit to Paul and the other apostles so they could tell us all. And we need God to give us his Spirit so that we can believe it and accept it.
And right at the heart of that plan for our glory is Jesus Christ. He’s the lord of glory, verse 8. He’s the one they crucified.
Here’s the wonderful message of the Bible. God has a plan to take sinners like us to live with him in glory forever. He hatched that plan before time began. He acted on that plan when Jesus died on the cross. And he revealed that plan by giving his Spirit to Jesus’ apostles.
Can we live with confidence as God’s people? We can, because God has revealed his plan for our eternal glory.
It’s why it doesn’t matter how unimpressive we are. It’s why it doesn’t matter how unimpressive the messenger is. Or the message. What matters is what God has planned and what God has done. And that is everything but unimpressive.
If we take our eyes off what God has done for us, two things we’ll happen.
Number one, we’ll miss out. God has planned a future that is better than you’d ever dream. It’s all about Jesus and his cross, but if we focus instead on how qualified we are, or on how persuasive we find the messenger, we miss out.
Number two, we’ll be divided. There’s one Jesus and he’s wonderful. He has one church, and it’s a great place to be. Focus on which person told you about Jesus, or something that sets you apart from everyone else, we’ll fall apart into cliques and factions.
So let’s not miss out. Let’s not be divided.
Instead let’s keep our focus on Jesus, the Lord of glory, crucified so that God’s wonderful plan can come into effect and take us to glory. Focus on him, and we’ll be a united church, on our way to the unimaginable future God has for us.