I Cor. 4:1-2
There is something that all of us have, no matter our age or nationality or gender. We all brought it with us this morning when we entered the sanctuary. In fact, it is with us all the time. While we all have this particular thing, it is unique to each one of us; no two are the same. Mine is different than yours, and yours is different than your parent’s or children’s. There is a sense in which you earn it, but you cannot buy it, nor can you exchange it for someone else’s. What am I talking about? It’s your reputation. It’s the way you are viewed by others, how others regard you.
Ideally, our reputation is based on truth; people regard us a particular way because that is the way we truly are. Sometimes a person has an undeserved reputation; for whatever reason others think of them as being better or worse or at least different than they actually are. But for the most part, our reputation will be based in truth. Those who know us and observe us see certain qualities, attitudes, and behaviors in us, and together those form our reputation, what we are known for.
All of which brings up an interesting question: What kind of reputation would you like to have? How do you desire others to think of you? Perhaps some of us would like to have the reputation of being a successful business person, or a visionary leader. Others of us may desire to have a reputation of being a caring person or a trusted friend. Maybe you would like to have the reputation of being someone who courageously stands for your convictions or for being a fair-minded person.
When we think about the kind of reputation we would like to have, what we are really doing is identifying certain qualities that we value, qualities we think are good, right, and important, and so we want those qualities to be associated with us. When people think of us, we hope what comes to mind for them are these qualities that we value and cherish.
In our Scripture passage for today, the apostle Paul speaks about his reputation – or at least, what he wants his reputation to be. Actually, he speaks on behalf of both himself and his colleague in ministry Apollos.
A little background information is helpful. Paul is writing to the church at Corinth. At this time, there was a lot of division among the Corinthian believers. Some of this division centered on spiritual gifts. Certain ones of them thought the spiritual gifts they had received we better than others, and thus they were more important to the church.
Some of this division also had to do with favoritism, i.e., they had their favorite leaders they identified with. It was Paul who planted the church in Corinth, and so some of the believers were saying, “I follow Paul.” That was a way of enhancing their status, because they were associating themselves with this great apostle. Others claimed to be followers of Apollos, who nurtured, discipled, and helped the church in Corinth grow after Paul left. To them, that was more important – to be associated with Apollos.
We do the same today. If we follow a particular sports team, we like to publicize that, especially if our team is winning, for in identifying with a winner it kind of boosts our own self-esteem. We’re on the winning side. We feel good about ourselves and the world when our team wins, and we brag about that to those whose team is not doing so well. Some people may brag about following a certain celebrity on twitter. Even thought that celebrity doesn’t know them, it somehow makes them feel good to be associated with that celebrity.
Now, the natural human tendency in the situation Paul was addressing in Corinth where people were following different leaders would be for Paul to try to draw attention to his outstanding credentials so more people would be inclined to follow him. He could have reminded the Corinthians of his keen intellect and first-rate academic preparation, or how the risen Christ appeared to him dramatically on the road to Damascus and appointed him as an apostle to help plant and establish the church in the Gentile world, and how God granted him a unique vision of the heavenly realms that no one else had been allowed to see, and so forth. In short, he could have tried to impress the Corinthian believers with his gifts, calling, and accomplishments so more would want to identify with him and follow him.
But that is not the way Paul responded. In I Cor. 4:1-2 read, “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”
Paul could have dazzled the Corinthians with his qualifications, but instead, speaking on behalf of himself and other church leaders, he declared that people ought to regard them simply as servants of Christ. In the context of a divided church as the members were choosing which leader they thought was the most impressive and thus the one they wanted to identify with, Paul wanted to be known simply a servant of Christ.
The word in the original Greek that he used for servant referred to those who rowed a ship. This was not like leisurely rowing a boat across a lake on a beautiful summer day. This was a big ship where those rowing were well below the main deck where they could not see out and it was hot and smelly. This was the work of slaves – hard work, unseen by others. This was how Paul wanted others to regard him – doing the work Christ had called him to do for the sake of the church and for the glory of God.
That’s the kind of reputation we should desire as well, that the way others would regard us would be first and foremost servants of Christ, people who have surrendered to Christ so He can transform our character, and as those who willingly do whatever Christ calls us to do, regardless the task.
That’s hard, isn’t it, to be a servant and to be regarded first and foremost as a servant? As you know, this weekend we are celebrating the Chinese New Year. We’ve probably all done lots of feasting. One traditional food, of course, is Yue Sang, for which ingredient symbolizes something. We had this at a restaurant the other night. As the waiter added the various ingredients, he said what each represented. He said, “The fish stands for abundance; may this be a year in which you experience great abundance. The salt and pepper represent prosperity; may you be prosperous this year. The nuts and sesame seeds symbolize gold, silver, and diamonds; may you gain more of these this year.” The whole Yue Sang represents prosperity and abundance.
This is my fifth Chinese New Year, so I have had Yue Sang numerous times. I have yet to hear someone say, “This ingredient represents servanthood. May this be a year in which you grow as a servant.” Being a servant is simply not valued. Perhaps we kind of gloss over that word when we read Scripture and prefer not to think about it too deeply. For a servant in essence has no rights. A servant is totally subject to the will of his or her master. Whatever the master says, that is what the servant does – and not just when it is convenient for the servant to do so. A servant is about as low on the social ladder as one can go – perhaps not the reputation we would desire. Certainly the world doesn’t value it.
That’s rather harsh. But it is true. When we come to Christ, we need to be clear that we are coming to the One who is Lord. He freely gives us eternal life, but in response we must give our lives to Him. He is free to direct us however He chooses so that our lives fit in with His purpose for us and for the world. Our lives are His and we are His servants.
But three things help us keep this tough reality in perspective. First of all, we are servants of the One who in His love for us came as our servant. In Mk. 10:43-45, Jesus told His disciples, and us as well, that in following Him we are called to be servants. He framed it like this: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many.” Jesus has already served us in the most costly way possible – He died for our sins. He did for us what we could never do for ourselves; He won our salvation. No matter what God calls us to do, it won’t be as costly as what He did for us.
Second, this One who is our Master also has our best interest in mind. Jesus proved it when He died for us on the cross. This master loves us and wants us to experience life in all its fullness. So while this Master will sometimes ask us to do things that are difficult, risky, and even costly, we can follow His instructions with joy and confidence knowing that He loves us and will be with us in whatever He calls us to do. God is committed to us.
Third, we must see that being a servant of Christ really enhances our sense of worth. Typically we would view a servant as someone being pretty low on the social ladder. But not so for servants of Christ. To be a servant of Christ enhances our sense of worth. For in being His servant, what Christ is really saying to us is: “I have a purpose for you. I want to entrust a task, a very important task to you.” Imagine if after coming to Christ, He were to say to you, “Well, you don’t have much to offer. I guess I don’t have much use for you!” That would be pretty shattering, wouldn’t it? But as it is, by making us His servants He raises our status. The God of all creation has a purpose unique to each one of us.
So we are His servants. As followers of Jesus we must be clear about that.
Then, related to the fact that being servants of Christ raises our status, we are also stewards, writes Paul. Different translations of the Bible render this somewhat differently. In this case, the Bibles we use here, the New International Version, renders it “as those entrusted with the secret things of God.” The phrase “as those entrusted” actually means those who are stewards.
The word in the Greek (oikonomous) literally refers to a person who managed the household on behalf of the owner of the house. This person took care of all the day-to-day details of running the household. This person would have a great deal of power and authority, and would have all the resources of the owner at his disposal. But he had to use that power and authority and manage those resources in keeping with the desires of the owner. The steward must take what the owner has put in his care and use it in the best way possible to fulfill the desires of the owner.
Obviously, in this context it is Christ who is the owner of the house. He puts us in charge of various aspects of His household and He gives us the resources we need to do the job. But we always remain accountable to Him for what we do and we must work under His supervision.
In short this is who we are as Christians, as disciples of Jesus. This is the kind of reputation we should desire. We are servants, men and women to whom God has given a responsibility and to whom God has also given the resources to carry out that responsibility. Just what the responsibility is will vary for each according to the gifts God has given us as well as by our personalities, our experiences, and so forth.
And then, as servants of Christ and stewards entrusted with a task, what does God expect of us? Paul wrote, “it is required that those who have been given a trust (stewards) must prove faithful. It is required of stewards that one be found faithful.
That is wonderful news for us. What God expects of us is that we be faithful to Him, faithful in carrying out the responsibility He has given to us. God has given all of us gifts to use in His service, and He has given all of us various responsibilities to carry out. To be faithful simply means that by the grace and power of God, we do our best to carry out those responsibilities.
If God has given us the gift of teaching, we want to be sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities God gives us to use that gift, to teach others in the faith, and to build up His church. It also means we keep growing as a teacher, learning all we can so we can be most effective.
If God has given us the gift of hospitality, we use that gift intentionally in showing love to others, welcoming them and sharing with them.
If God has given us the gift of administration, we seek ways to use that gift, organizing activities and ministries so the work of the church functions smoothly.
In addition to using our gifts faithfully, we seek to fulfill God’s purpose for us in the various roles we have. If we are a husband or wife, a mother or father, a mentor or friend, we strive to carry out those responsibilities as God would have us.
As I said, that God calls us to be faithful is wonderful news. The reason this is wonderful news is that this is something we all can achieve. For God doesn’t call us to be successful, but only faithful, doing our best to do what God has called us to do in the power of His Spirit.
As you know, we live in a world that is consumed by success – that is, by the world’s own definition of success. And success is limited to who makes it to the top. Whatever your field – business, entertainment, sports, you are only considered successful if you are #1.
A week from today the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will play in the Super Bowl. For those of you who do not follow American football, the Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event in the United States as the top two American football teams battle it out to be the champion. There are 32 teams in the National Football League. New England and Atlanta beat out the other 30 teams to go to the Super Bowl.
Of course, only one of them will win, and they will be the ones with the successful season. The team that loses will not be remembered as the team that beat out 30 of the other 31 teams in the league, although that really is quite an achievement; it puts them in the 97th percentile. But no, they will be remembered as the team that lost in the Super Bowl. Their season will not be seen as a success. Isn’t it great that in a society that places so much stress on success, on making it to the top and beating out everyone else, we don’t have to live under the burden of becoming successful in the eyes of the world. We don’t have to be seen by others as being the best; God doesn’t call us to that. God only calls us to be faithful.
The fact is, often we cannot control the circumstances that would lead to success in the eyes of the world. We can do our best at something, but we cannot guarantee a positive outcome. Paul alluded to this in the previous chapter, I Cor. 3:6-7. Speaking of himself as the one who planted the church in Corinth, and Apollos as the one who then nurtured the church, Paul wrote: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” Both Paul and Apollos faithfully did the work God called them to do, but the results were in God’s hands. God calls us to be faithful, not successful, and that is good news because we all can be faithful.
Someone who knew all about being faithful was Clarence Jordan.
Clarence Jordan was a very unique man. He was intellectually brilliant and a man of unwavering conviction. He earned his university degree in agriculture, and then went on to seminary where he earned several degrees, including a Ph.D. in New Testament Greek. He was offered positions teaching at Baptist Universities and pastoring prestigious churches. Instead, he chose a different path, one of serving the poor in a multi-racial setting.
In 1942, he founded a farm in Americus, Georgia, and called it Koinonia Farm. That name was chosen intentionally as a statement of their purpose, for koinonia, as you may know, is the word in the Greek New Testament for fellowship, or a close mutual relationship. It was a community for poor people, both whites and blacks. The purpose of Koinonia Farm was not only to provide a means of support for those who lived and worked there, but also to live out the Scriptural injunction, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but we are all one in Christ.
This was in the deep south of the United States, where there was still much discrimination and segregation, so you can imagine that this racially integrated endeavor did not go over well with the surrounding white community. In fact, they did all they could to bring a halt to Koinonia Farm. They boycotted farm’s products, refusing to buy them. They slashed the workers’ tires when they came to town. For fourteen years, they did all they could to stop Clarence Jordan.
Finally, the white supremacist group called the Ku Klux Klan decided things had gone too far, so they determined to get rid of Clarence Jordan and his farm once and for all. One night they came with guns and torches. They set every building on Koinonia Farm on fire – except for Clarence’s home, which they shot full of bullets. All the families fled but one black family that refused to leave.
The Ku Klux Klansmen had their faces covered with hoods, but Clarence recognized the voices of the Klansmen, some of whom were church people. Another was a local newspaper reporter. The next day, the reporter came out to see what remained of the farm. The rubble was smoldering, but he found Clarence in the field, hoeing and planting. Instead of packing up and leaving, Clarence was planting.
Somewhat cynically he said to Clarence Jordan, “I heard the awful news, and I came out to do a story on the tragedy of your farm closing.” Clarence just kept on hoeing and planting. The reporter kept at it, trying to get this quietly determined man to get angry. Finally, the reporter said in a haughty voice, “Well, Dr. Jordan, you got two of them Ph.D.s and you’ve got fourteen years into this farm, and there’s nothing left of it at all. Just how successful do you think you’ve been?”
Clarence stopped hoeing, turned toward the reporter with his penetrating blue eyes, and said quietly but firmly, “About as successful as the cross. Sir, I don’t think you understand us. What we are about is not success but faithfulness. We’re staying. Good day.” And so Clarence and his companions rebuilt Koinonia Farm, and it was out of that ministry that Habitat for Humanity was born. (Tim Hansel, Holy Sweat, p. 188-189)
As disciples of Jesus we are His servants, available and obedient to whatever He asks us to do. As with Clarence Jordan, sometimes that comes with a price. But because of his faithfulness in being a servant of Christ, not only did Koinonia Farm continue as a compelling witness for the Gospel, but it led to Habitat for Humanity and decent housing for now over one million families around the world. We can be sure that when we are faithful, even when it is costly, God will accomplish wonderful things in us and through us.
Likewise, we are stewards of God, having been entrusted by God with a calling unique to each of us, a calling that accomplishes some aspect of His work in this world. What a privilege that God would entrust the work of His Kingdom to us.
And so the one thing God requires of us as servants and stewards is that we be faithful, even as God is faithful to us. We don’t have to be the best; we just have to give our best in whatever God calls us to do. That is something we can all do – but we can only do it with God’s help.
So may we all determine to live in such a way that our reputation would that we are as servants of Christ; that is how people would rightfully regard us. That may seem lowly, but there is no higher position than that.