Selfish or Serving?

            You may have seen this in the news this past week.  There was a 17-year-old boy who became the youngest person ever to fly solo around the world.  He landed on Wednesday in Bulgaria, which is where his journey began five months ago.  Originally, the plan was for the trip to take about three months, but it ended up taking longer because of several unexpected obstacles along the way.  For his efforts, Mack Rutherford earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.  I don’t know what he said when he landed his plane, but I’m sure it was something along the lines of, “I finally made it.”

            I mention that because, as we take a look at the very last chapter in I Corinthians this morning, we can say, “We finally made it.”  We began our journey through this letter about seven months ago and our study has taken a little longer than expected due to some unforeseen obstacles along the way.  But, this morning, we come in for a landing and we complete our journey.  Unfortunately, none of you will get a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, but maybe we can get some certificates drawn up that say something like, “I survived Alan’s sermon series on I Corinthians.”

            So, what does it mean for us to live like a Christian?  That’s the question we’ve been looking at since January, and this morning we’re going to try to pull it all together and summarize what we’ve discovered along the way.  We’ll start with chapter 16, make a few comments on this chapter and then, we’ll do some review.

            Verse 1:  “Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do.  On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.  And when I arrive, I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.  If it seems advisable that I should go also, they will accompany me.” (I Corinthians 16: 1-4)

            While Paul was on his third missionary journey, he took up a collection from several different congregations for the Christians back in Jerusalem.  They were struggling to survive, perhaps because of persecution, perhaps because of famine.  And Paul’s plan was to take this offering from all these churches back to Jerusalem.  It’s a beautiful picture of the church coming together to meet the needs of Christians around the world.

            There are a couple of things I want us to notice here.  First of all, there is a clear statement that these Christians met on the first day of the week — Sunday.  That was their day to gather and worship.  Paul tells them that he doesn’t want to have a fund-raising event when he gets there, so gather the money on Sundays when you’re together for worship.

            Secondly, I think it’s significant that Paul doesn’t set a specific amount for them to give.  He just simply says, “If God has prospered you, then you need to share what you have with others who are in need.  Give it some thought, pray about it, and then put something in the basket.  When I get there, I’ll pick it up and we’ll deliver it.”

            Verse 5, “I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.” (I Corinthians 16:5-9)

            Paul says to the Corinthians, “I hope to see you soon, and when I do, I plan to stay for a while. I don’t want to just rush in and rush out.  Hopefully, I can spend a few months with you.”  But first, Paul felt that he needed to stay a bit longer in Ephesus. 

            Now, if you read Acts chapter 19, you can see what was going on in Ephesus while Paul was writing this letter.  There was a mob riot in the city because the people who made those little idols that people used to worship the heathen gods weren’t selling as many because people were becoming Christians.

            And so, Paul said, “there are many adversaries”, there are “many who oppose me” (NLT).  We see this not only in the city of Ephesus, but throughout the whole book of Acts, this is a consistent pattern. Whenever there was an open door for ministry, whenever God was doing great things and people were responding to the gospel, there were always a lot of adversaries. And that’s to be expected.

            We need to understand that whether you’re talking about your life individually or our lives collectively as a church, whenever God is doing a significant work, there is always going to be a battle.  There are always going to be adversaries; there are always going to be people who will try to make things difficult for us. 

            So, it’s important for us to expect that and to accept it and to make a commitment to faithfully continue moving forward to do what God has called us to do.  God never promised us that living the Christian life would always be easy.  But he did promise us that it will be worth it.

            In the next few verses, Paul talks about Timothy and Apollos coming to visit the Corinthians.  But I want to focus in on verse 13, Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong.  And do everything with love.” (I Corinthians 16:13-14, NLT)

            For the rest of the chapter, Paul gives his farewell and I’ll let you read that at your leisure.  But I’d like to use verse 13 as a jumping off point to go back to the beginning, walk our way back through the book, remind ourselves what we have learned along the way and then come back here  to close things out and make some application.

            There are a couple of themes that have emerged through this study and I think it’s important to see how they play out throughout the entire book of 1 Corinthians.  In chapter 1, verse 2, Paul addressed his letter “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” (I Corinthians 1:2a)

            Now when we started this letter, we talked about this. But now, having been all the way through this book and having seen the level of sinfulness, the level of selfishness, the level of arrogance, the level of dysfunction in this church.  The Corinthian church was a really messed-up church.  So, it seems a bit surprising that Paul would refer to them as people who were sanctified -– they were saints. 

            And it’s important to remember that what made them sanctified, what made them saints, was not their performance; it was their relationship with Jesus Christ.  Paul goes on to say in the next few verses that the Christians in Corinth had everything they needed to live the way that God called them to live.  And Paul says that one day they’re going to stand before God blameless.

            And again, having gone through this entire letter and having seen the way these people were living, those words are a bit shocking. Because these people weren’t blameless in terms of their performance; the truth is, they were a pretty messed up bunch of folks.  But that’s the point.  

            We need to understand the difference between a performance-based system where our value is determined by how good we are and a grace-based system, where our value is determined by what God has done for us.  Using a performance-based system, the Corinthians failed miserably.  But, under a grace-based system, Paul is able to say, “on the basis of what Jesus has done for you, you’re sanctified, you’re saints, and you will be blameless before the Father.”

            In Genesis chapter 2, we’re told that we were created in the image of God and that we find our significance, our meaning, our purpose, our self-esteem, if you will, by having a relationship with God, and our life is to be lived out in the basis of that truth.

            But, in Genesis chapter 3, sin enters the world and sin separates us from God.  And if you’re separated from the basis of your significance, your value and your worth, then where do you find it?  

            And the answer that humanity came up with is this:  I need to determine my significance, my value, on the basis of my performance.  I feel good about myself based on how well I’m doing.  What am I good at?  What can I do?  What have I achieved?

            But the only way I can grade my performance is on the basis of competition and comparison.  So, I can only determine my significance and my value and my worth by how I compare with you.  That’s why there’s so much competition and comparison in this world.

            But that kind of value system forces us to be selfish.  If you have a value system that says your worth is based on your performance, then you’re forced to think every single day, “What about me?  Am I good enough?  Am I smart enough?  Am I better than everyone else?”  And, at the end of the day, you have two options: You either end up thinking you’re better than everyone else, in which case you become arrogant, or you end up thinking you’re not as good as other people and you end up feeling pitiful.  Either way, it’s a “crash and burn” system.

            But God’s alternative is the system we know as grace.  A grace-based value system tells me that I don’t have to be “good enough”.  Rather, on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross, his burial and his resurrection, through my faith, repentance and baptism into Christ, God offers me a gift, the forgiveness of my sins.  And that allows me to once again to have a relationship with God and to find my significance, my worth, my purpose in life, by being connected with God on the basis of his grace, not on the basis of my performance.  Which means that I no longer need to compete and compare myself with everyone else.  For the first time in my life, I’m actually free to be a servant and to think about other people, rather than myself, every single day.

            Those two value systems are at odds with one another all throughout this Corinthian letter. It shows up in chapter 1 where Paul rebukes them for the factions in their church; there are these divisions.  You have all these different groups, each of them thinking their group is better than all the others. A performance-based value system always causes this way of thinking because the only way I can affirm myself is to think that somehow, me and my group are better than you and your group.

            And, at the end of the day, that value system causes us to think that we’ve got everything figured out right; we’re doing things better than you.  That always creates arrogance; it always creates division.  And Paul confronts them with that right from the beginning.

            But he closes out that chapter by saying, “Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (I Corinthians 1:30-31)

            Under a grace-based system, there’s simply no basis for spiritual arrogance. There’s absolutely no basis to think you are more important than anyone else in the kingdom of God.  Grace says that we all come as broken, needy people, in need of a Savior.

            In chapter 3, Paul tells the Corinthians they’re acting like children.  He says in verse 3: “You are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (I Corinthians 3:3)  “You’re so concerned about being better than everyone else in the church, and it’s causing jealousy and strife.”

            In chapter 4, Paul reminds us that we are all servants of Christ.  And that’s important for us to understand.  Because every single one of us is going to live out our life either in selfishness or in service.  If we have a performance-based value system, it will force us to compete with others.  You can’t serve other people and lift them up if your goal is to be better than they are.  Only an understanding of grace gives us the freedom to serve others as Jesus served us.

            In verse 7, Paul says “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (I Corinthians 4:7)

            Paul says, “You want to boast about what you have and who are.  But everything you have and everything you are has come from God.  And what that means is that you have no basis to think you’re more than or less than anyone else.  All of us are broken people, radically changed by the power of Jesus.

            In chapter 5, Paul goes into a discussion about church discipline and dealing with the sin that was in their midst.  This wasn’t a matter of a difference of opinion.  It was a man who was having sex with his stepmother and the Corinthians had decided that was okay.  They were so spiritual that they could somehow just tolerate this behavior.  Paul said the reason they did that was because of their arrogance. They were even boasting about it.

            You see, when I buy into a performance-based value system, I get to decide what performance I’m basing my system on.  Maybe I base my value on how much money I make, so I compare how much I make with how much you make.  Or maybe I base my value on how fit and trim I am, so I compare my body shape with your body shape.  But, you see, when I start deciding which values are important and which values aren’t, then, in essence, I become my own god.

            And, as a result, I think I have the right to redefine the rules. I get to decide for myself what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong. And that’s where we are as a culture.  We have decided that everybody has the right to decide for themselves, which means that each one of us has the right to decide what’s right and wrong, what’s good and what’s bad, and no one can ever force their belief of right and wrong on anyone else.

            But when did God ever say, “I’m putting you in charge of right and wrong?”  God is the one who determines what’s right and what’s wrong.  God is the one who determines what’s good and what’s bad.  And he has called his people, the church, to live out his standards of what is right and what is good.  And so, Paul says to the Corinthians, “You can’t tolerate that sort of sinful behavior. It’s offensive to God and it has to be dealt with.”

            In chapter 6, Paul deals with the issue of lawsuits, members of the church suing one another. And it was all because of their selfishness, this need to have their own way.  They were saying, “How dare you treat me that way?” which is always going to lead to conflict; it’s always going to lead to disunity.  So, Paul says in verse 7, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (I Corinthians 6:7b)

            In other words, Paul says that sometimes for the sake of your Christian example which is following the pattern of Jesus Christ, you may have to be willing to just walk away and let somebody do you wrong.  What you could possibly get in a courtroom that would be more valuable than the souls you’re trying to bring to Christ?  That’s the point Paul is trying to make.

            If my actions are going to compromise my ability to reach people for Christ, sometimes it’s better to just be mistreated for the sake of the gospel.  But if you have a performance-based value system, you will never do that.  You’ve got to win.  You’ve got to make sure everyone gives you what you deserve.  It is only when you are rooted in the grace of God that you’re able to walk away and say, “In light of eternity, it’s not worth the fight.”

            Paul goes on in the second half of chapter 6 to talk about the issue of sexual immorality. When people are involved in sexual immorality, they’re engaged in a very selfish pursuit.  Sexual sin is always selfish.  That’s why people do it.  I’m going to meet my needs.  I’m going to do what feels good to me. 

            But Paul reminds us, “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (I Corinthians 6:20).  The only way to be set free from a selfish mindset is to remember that Jesus died for us.  My life is no longer my own and I live for the glory of God, not for my own selfish needs.

            That rolls right into chapter 7 where Paul talks about marriage.  The issues in marriage are exactly the same.  For some people, marriage is all about selfishness. It’s all about me, what about my needs, what about my rights? And that will always tear a marriage apart. The only way to make a marriage work is to realize that my life is no longer my own and I live for the glory of God, not for my own selfish needs.  

            Chapters 8, 9 and 10 deal with the issue of our freedom and our rights.  And Paul reminds us that the essence of Christianity is not about my rights. It’s about love.  It’s about the calling I have to give myself up for the sake of others.  And Paul tells us that love always, always, takes priority over liberty.

            In chapter 9, Paul used himself as an example of what he was willing to give up for the sake of the gospel.  He said in verse 12, “We endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” (I Corinthians 9:12)

            In chapter 10, “All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.  Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.”  (I Corinthians 10:23-24)

            “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God…just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”  (I Corinthians 10:31-33)

            Paul says, “The only thing that matters to me is helping other people to come to Christ, and I’m willing to give up whatever it takes to make that happen.”

            In chapter 11, Paul talks about how this attitude of arrogance was affecting their worship when they came together.  They weren’t concerned about one another.  It was all about, “Our way is better than your way,” and “Our way of thinking is better than your way of thinking.”  And because of these divisions and these factions, they actually walked away from worship worse than they were before they came. 

            In chapter 12, Paul moves into a discussion of spiritual gifts and you had two groups – one group thought their gifts were the best, and they were arrogant.  Another group was upset because they didn’t have the better gifts, and they were jealous.  But Paul said they were all missing the whole purpose of spiritual gifts.  “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other.” (I Corinthians 12:7, NLT)

            The spiritual gifts that God has given me are not for me.  It’s to help all of you.  We’re to use our gifts in such a way that we will all serve one another for the glory of God to accomplish his mission.

            Chapter 13 reminds us that the ultimate gift of the Spirit is love. “Love never seeks its own.” And no matter how long our list of accomplishments may be, if there is no love in my life, it profits me nothing.  Everything I do comes back a big fat zero if it isn’t motivated by love.

            In chapter 14, Paul summarizes his discussion of spiritual gifts: “Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.” (I Corinthians 14:12, NIV)

            In chapter 15 last week, we said that the resurrection of Jesus Christ guarantees that we, too, will experience a resurrection from the dead.  But there’s a correlation between our lives today and our life to come, so we’re busy building the kingdom of God right now, longing for that day when it’s fulfilled when Jesus comes again.

            So, that brings us back to chapter 16.  Verse 13 again, “Be on guard.  Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous.  Be strong.  And do everything with love.” (I Corinthians 16:13-14, NLT)

            What does Paul mean when he says to be on guard?   I think he means to be on the alert because of the competition of these two value systems.  Every single one of us is tempted to buy into a performance-based value system.  And we need to be on guard or we’re going to find ourselves guilty of spiritual pride.  We will either be spiritually arrogant about what a wonderful person I am or self-loathing about what a terrible person I am.  Either way, we’re guilty of a worldly value system that’s bringing that about.  Be on guard!  Be watchful! Think differently than that!  Stand firm in the faith!  Stand firm in what’s true.

            And do everything with love.  You see, it’s not so much what you do as why you do it.  There’s a lot of good religious behavior that is motivated by selfishness.  It’s motivated by a performance-based value system. You can go on a mission trip and be selfish to the core. You can feed the hungry; you can house the poor; you can give money to the homeless; you can clean up the environment; you can serve in a ministry and be selfish to the core because deep down, it’s about how it makes you feel.  It’s about how it makes you look to others.  Because it makes you look like you’re doing better everyone else.  It’s not so much what you do; it’s why you do what you do that separates the two value systems.

            It’s only a true understanding of God’s grace that sets us free from that and truly allows us to think about something in life other than me….and to give myself away for the sake of the gospel.

            So, as we come in for a landing and bring our study of I Corinthians to a close, we’re left with a choice.  We can live with a performance-based value system and try to be good enough.  If we do that, we’ll spend our lives comparing and competing, and living very selfishly.

            Or we can live with a grace-based value system that says it’s not what we accomplish, but our relationship with God that gives us value.  Because of what Jesus has done for us, we’re sanctified and one day we will stand in the presence of God blameless, not because of what we have done, but because of what he has done. 

            And, in the end, that’s the only thing that will allow us to take the focus off of ourselves and live in service to others for the glory of God and for the building up of his kingdom.

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