Friday, January 28, 2011

Come and Follow . . . But Who?

Sermon delievered to Shepherd of the Hills United Methodist Church, January 23, 2011

At the beginning of the service, I asked “What are you here for?” I now submit another question for your consideration: “Who are you here for?” Perhaps you are here for yourself and to have an encounter with God, praise and worship our risen Savior and Lord Jesus Christ and to be filled with the Holy Spirit for this upcoming week. Maybe you’re here because your spouse dragged you here! Or your parents! I won’t be so presumptuous as to think that you are here for me, but perhaps you are here to hear a sermon from Buddy. (Sorry you’re stuck with me today.)

Now you might be wondering why I am asking you questions that really don’t matter. You’re here and isn’t that all that’s important? And to a certain extent, you are right. You could be anywhere but here this morning but you’re not. You’re “parked in the pew.” But I would propose that the reason you are here is much more important that some might give it credit for. And the person you are here for is important as well. I will also submit to you that if you are here for any other person than Jesus, you’re probably here for the wrong reason.

We learn from the Epistle lesson today that the church in Corinth is having some issues. In fact, if you read the entire letter written by Paul, you’ll discover that the church in Corinth had a lot of issues. The city of Corinth was an important city. Corinth was a port city and most all of the trading between East and West took place there. It hosted a population of different ethnicities, backgrounds, socio-economic classes. The church there reflected these things.

The people in the church at Corinth were aligning themselves based on criteria they thought were important rather than on the teachings of Christ. Things like who had baptized them and who their favorite preacher was. Some were in Paul’s camp. Some were in Peter’s. Others in Apollos’ camp who had come sometime after Paul had left. Some claimed to be in Christ’s camp but that wasn’t a good thing either because they were placing themselves in a higher status than others.

And so what happens? Somebody tattle-tells to Paul. We have no idea who Chloe was or who her people were. We just know that one of “Chloe’s people” told Paul what was going on. And judging by today’s text, Paul was none too happy about it.

Paul’s problem with the Corinthian church is that they were dividing themselves up into “fan clubs” rather than uniting themselves under the one true Christ. They believed that they gathered together to judge a message based on what was said and the speaker’s power of persuasion rather than to worship and glorify God and to build one another up. So in today’s text, Paul is trying to reorient the Corinthian church to the way they needed to think about their preachers and the messages that were delivered to them.

It’s a good thing that we don’t have this problem today, isn’t it? We never place the messenger of God above the message that is delivered do we? We don’t idolize pastors today. The names Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggert, Joel Olstein, and Rick Warren mean nothing to us today, do they?

Maybe we need to investigate this a little more.

First, we need to examine what exactly a preacher’s job is. A preacher’s job is to deliver the word of God – the good, the bad and the ugly. Then their job is to help you take that word of God and apply it to your life. By doing this, the preacher helps you little by little, step by step – in some cases, centimeter by centimeter – to move closer to God and become like Christ. The issue is – preachers and pastors are not two separate jobs. Preaching is just one part of a pastor’s job.

The pastor is the one we call when the big events in life occur. I want to get married – I need to call my pastor. I’m having an operation – I need to call my pastor. I’ve just been diagnosed with an illness – I need my pastor. I’ve just lost my spouse – I need my pastor. And by sharing in these intimate moments of people’s lives, pastors become a player in these sacred moments. We – both parishioners and pastors – develop relationships with each other. And those relationships can be strong depending upon the circumstances of the situation! So it’s no wonder that our pastors hold a special place in our hearts and in our lives.

But consider this - in sharing in these sacred moments with members of a congregation, pastors are still bringing the word of God. The word that God loves you and because God loves you and you are important to him, I love you too and you are important to me.

The danger arises when we place following a particular pastor above following Jesus Christ – or in thinking that we can’t follow another pastor. Because in doing so, you’re placing your trust and faith in a mortal, rather than in God – in something temporary, rather than something eternal. You’re counting on one particular person to deliver something that can only be delivered by God. You are also believing that one particular pastor is the only one capable of leading a congregation and sharing God’s word. This isn’t the case.

This is what Paul is trying to explain to the Corinthians in today’s passage. He begins by making his appeal “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” – grounding everything that he is about to say in the single reality of Christ.

Christ is the reason for the church. Christ exists for the church and the church exists for Christ. Scripture compares the relationship to a marriage. Jesus is the groom – the church is the bride.

Every bride needs her attendants – the ones who help her get ready for the wedding. Pastors are more like the maid or matron of honor. We help the bride prepare for the wedding. We make sure her dress is ok. We hold her bouquet when she needs us to. We smile as she lovingly looks at her groom. But we aren’t the one she’s marrying!

Paul then sarcastically asks in verse 13, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The answer, obviously, is no. And perhaps we have no problem seeing it from that perspective. Let’s make it a little bit more personal.

Take a minute and think about a pastor that you hold in high regard. Now replace his or her name for Paul’s in verse 13. Since he’s not here today and I can get away with it, for my example, I’m going to use Buddy. Was Buddy crucified for you? He might argue that he has been figuratively crucified, but we can be assured that he has not been physically crucified. Were you baptized in the name of Buddy? I doubt it. And yet, I’ve heard rumblings from people that when Buddy retires this summer, they will be leaving the church as well. This means that there are people within this congregation who are identifying themselves with a Christian leader – Buddy- rather than with Christ. They are marrying the maid of honor rather than the groom!

If you think that because a pastor leaves, God will be leaving the church as well, you need to do some re-evaluating. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God is not going anywhere and neither is his word. If God’s not leaving, why should you?

Brothers and Sisters, hear me when I say: The word of God is the word of God no matter who it’s delivered by. It doesn’t matter if it’s Buddy, me, Darrel Hinshaw, a preacher from another church or a child during children’s time. The word of God will be spoken and if a person is truly called to share that word, God will make them heard. And shame on you if you are more concerned about the messenger than the message!

Let me share something else with you. Preaching is not and should not be a celebrity-making or celebrity-sustained enterprise. Our job is not to entertain you. If you have a pastor who chooses their words based on what they think people want to hear rather than what God wants him or her to say - if you have a pastor who is more concerned about winning a popularity contest with the congregation than sharing God’s word – you have a dud. If your pastor is in the game for his or her own glory rather than God’s there is a huge issue! And a pastor who’s in it for their own glory is pretty easy to spot.

The church universal – and our own church – has an important mission. That mission is to bear witness to the good news of God’s love that was shown to us by Jesus, to bring people into fellowship in which that love is shared, and to help people grow into followers of Jesus Christ. There are people within the reach of our church who are hungry for the love of God that we were given to share – some who don’t even realize how badly they need it.

Doesn’t it make sense that we focus on this mission rather than who is leading us in the charge? For if we are focused on this mission, who is leading us is inconsequential as long as they share in the mission with us. We are all called by Christ and everything that we have is owed to him. We don’t abandon the mission because of a change in leadership. We keep battling, because our true leader is Christ.