A sermon preached on 2 Corinthians 11, at St Andrews Baptist Church.
There’s an easy sermon in these verses. Not a good sermon, but an easy sermon. The Corinthians had had their heads turned by false teaching about Jesus; this was bad; we should hold to true teaching. Now let’s have some coffee. But the Corinthian church were not stock cartoon baddies, to be used only as examples of how not to live; they were real people, trying their best to hold to Jesus. Think about how they felt…
It wasn’t our fault – I want you to know that. We can’t be blamed. What we did – what we thought – the things we decided – they were natural, normal. You’d have done the same. You would, I tell you – in our place, you’d have done the same. You would! Perhaps some of you are doing the same today…
I remember when we first heard about Jesus the Christ. And it was Paul, of course it was – and we honour him for that – we always have. He was staying with Titus – Titus Justus; you must know him; rich; house next door to the synagogue? Anyway, Paul was staying there, and he told us about Jesus, about the things God had done, about the resurrection of the dead and the hope of new life. And we believed; of course we did.
I remember that first time – how exciting it all seemed. Hearing Paul, and how what he said seemed – how do you describe it? It seemed to make sense, what he said, it seemed to gather up all the odd bits of my life and weave them into something satisfying, coherent, for the first time in my life. Maybe that doesn’t help you, but I’m training to be a weaver, you see – I watch, sometimes, when I supposed to be cleaning up, as my master ties up all sorts of bits of thread, a chaotic jumble of colours, and then it slowly all becomes a pattern or even a picture, as he pulls the shuttle across. That’s what it felt like for me, hearing Paul – for all of us here in Corinth. And we honour Paul for that – we do. I want you to know that.
Then – sneaking away from my master’s house before dawn one morning to be baptised. I was baptised the same morning as Stephanas, and we became firm friends after that. We would sneak out to join the sisters and brothers. We always met before dawn, of course – most of us slaves, or apprentices like me. There was no other time that we were allowed out. We’d get together, and break bread, and hear bits of the old Jewish Scriptures read to us by someone who could read. And then Paul, or Aquilla, or Priscilla, would teach us, explaining how those Scriptures pointed to Jesus, and all He did, and all He was going to do. They weren’t great speakers, any of them – Priscilla perhaps the best, but even she was fairly ordinary – but they taught us at the beginning, opened our eyes to so many new things – and we do respect them for that – I still thank God for them, sometimes, when I pray, alone.
But things changed. Of course, things always change. Paul left, took Prisca and Aquilla with him, left other folks in charge, asked them to keep teaching us, reminding us of what he had taught. And we tried, but – well, it’s hard, isn’t it? Someone would hear a Scripture, and say, ‘Well, that must mean this…’ and then someone else would say, ‘But Paul said that…’ then it was like ‘Are you sure? Do you remember what Paul said exactly?’ And we started to get confused – it’s natural, normal, understandable. You’d have done the same, if you were where we are. Stephanas was strong, quoting Paul, insisting we remember what he said – but sometimes I was less sure – did Paul really say that? I wasn’t sure I could remember.
Some of the arguments got ugly. Meeting with the sisters and brothers became painful, difficult. Squabbles before and after worship – during, even, sometimes. One of the prophets would bring us a word from God, then another one would start up, saying God said something completely different, while she was still speaking. None of us knew what was right, none of us really understood.
I was praying God would send Paul back to us, or Priscilla, or another teacher, to help us with all our problems. I think a lot of us were praying like that ourselves. And then some other teachers arrived – an answer to our prayers, we thought! Not Paul, but people who’d come straight from Jerusalem, sent directly by Peter and James and the others who had been appointed by Jesus Himself! They swept into town with followers and servants, and found us, and came to our meeting. And when they spoke – it was like listening to a philosopher, straight from Athens, or a lawyer out of Rome! Their speech was wonderful, and they could turn aside any question with ease!
Some of the things they said seemed new and strange to me – but – but they seemed to know what they were talking about. I remember, one day a sister openly challenged them – ‘That’s not what Paul said…’ Their leader looked at her kindly ‘Do you follow Paul, or Jesus?’ he asked, ‘Paul did you a great service by telling you of Jesus, but there is much Paul doesn’t know. Peter, who Jesus Himself called, sent us to teach you – more adequately than Paul could…’
‘I follow Paul!’ she said, stoutly. A brother jumped up and shouted ‘Well, I follow Peter!’ I winced. I thought there was going to be another argument, but the teacher smiled at them both, and smoothly calmed them down. ‘Your loyalty is commendable, sister; yours too, brother – and perhaps better placed. But Paul and Peter alike want us all to follow the Christ, do they not?’
I asked Stephanas, confused. ‘He was right,’ he said, ‘Paul wants no followers; he pointed us to Jesus. But she was right too – to follow Jesus is to follow the truth Paul taught us, and I fear these men do not…’
Soon the arguments died down. And it was exciting again, exciting to meet with the sisters and brothers and be taught. Their speaking was beautiful, and their cleverness astounding. We began to feel that the temples and the philosophers were just fools, that we had found true wisdom now. Then, one day, they said they had to move on.
We begged them to stay, of course, to help us know more of Jesus. They told us how much they would like to, but explained that they couldn’t afford to – they had given up everything to serve the Christ, and had to eat and clothe themselves…
‘Looks like the clothe themselves well enough,’ muttered Stephanas, darkly. And he was right – they lived well, enjoying luxuries most of us never saw. But they lived no better than the philosophers, and other travelling teachers. As someone said, should not the mouths of the Christ live as well as the mouths of Satan? ‘Paul lived with us nigh on two years, and never asked for a penny!’ shouted Stephanas when we met together. ‘Well,’ said a brother, ‘perhaps Paul knew what he was worth… He had no wisdom, no power of speech – of course, we honour him for speaking to us first of the Christ, but now we have real teachers – we should count it a privilege to pay for them!’
And so we paid, and they told us of the Christ. Wise and clever, they were, weaving arguments that delighted and amazed us. The fellowship was exciting again. Until the money ran out.
They left, of course, with much show of regret. And the squabbles began again. Sisters and brothers who remembered what Paul had taught us, questioning the teachings of these new ‘apostles’; others questioning Paul’s lack of wisdom – Paul was third rate, and knew it – that’s why he paid his own way, they said. An amateur was fine when it was that or nothing, but who wanted an amateur when you could have a premier league professional?
And so the arguments went on. Paul wrote to us. We wrote back. the arguments didn’t stop. Some of us scraped a bit more money together, and invited our old teachers back. They were wonderful once more, but even I was worried about what they were saying. Paul’s message of a humiliated Christ was only earthly truth, they said, all Paul could understand. We knew much better. The heavenly, glorious Christ who just appeared to humble himself – that was the real truth. And that was why Paul grubbed around, humiliating himself. Because he didn’t know the real truth. True apostles of the true Christ would display heavenly wisdom, and live lives of honour and glory. Not like Paul.
They were clever. They were convincing. Paul was a distant memory. We didn’t forget Paul – we honoured him, always, for starting us on the road – but we thought we’d learnt more wisdom than him. We moved beyond him, and his tales of a Jesus who suffered ignominy and pain and death, we started to believe in the Christ who made it look like this, to confuse simple people, but who lived always in heavenly glory. Who saved us by giving us wisdom to enable us to escape from the world, not by dying for us in the world. We believed what we were taught. Maybe what we did was wrong – but you’d have done the same in our place – wouldn’t you?
You would. We had our heads turned by people who looked good on worldly standards. They were clever, rich, and successful. They put their sermons up on YouTube and got thousands of hits. They ran huge professional conferences. They had every i dotted, every t crossed, all the answers ready and in place. They never had to change their mind because they saw something new in the Scriptures, never answered a question with ‘I don’t know…’ They sent us books and DVDs of their teaching, telling us how to follow their pattern for a successful church, full of clever acronyms about how to be purpose-driven, and easy lists of principles for church growth, and nine marks of a Biblical church, which we could go down and tick. Paul never gave us any of that. So we preferred what they gave us to what Paul gave us. You’d have done the same. Look at your bookshelves, your DVD collections, the links on your blog and your Facebook page, and tell me you wouldn’t!
And Paul? Paul wrote to us again. Angry mockery, scathing sarcasm. Not clever. Not polished. Powerful though. Is the Jesus who was stripped and beaten before Pilate really best served by smart suits and cufflinks on a conference platform? Do you really need a thirteen-piece amplified band – or a pipe organ costing ten years’ wages – before you can sing about Jesus who prayed, broken and alone, in Gethsemane? If Paul poured out his life for us, asking nothing in return, was this really good proof that he did not understand the gospel of Jesus Christ? He boasted to us, boasted of all he had suffered, boasted that he had followed in the footsteps of Jesus, who was despised and rejected of men. And you read the letter, and you want to hear the preacher tell you not to be deceived about the truth about Christ, so you can sit there smugly, thinking what fools we Corinthians were.
But look at your bookshelves. Look at your DVD collections. Look at your blogs and your Facebook pages. Tell me you haven’t had your heads turned by worldly success just as much as we did! Go on, honestly, tell me! And if you have, then who are the fools? At least we Corinthians didn’t pretend to believe in Paul’s Christ, whose very life and gospel tore up the notions of worldly success we’d surrendered too! Our lives and beliefs were coherent. What about yours?