What We Proclaim (2 Corinthians 4:1-6)
Today as a church we’re celebrating our fiftieth anniversary. This is a moment to look back and give thanks for all that God has done in our past. But this morning I also want to use our anniversary to remind us of what is at the core of our ministry as a church. I want to do this because it’s very easy for me to forget, and if it’s easy for me to forget, then there may be some others who have the same problem. So I want to preach to myself today as much as I want to preach to anyone else.
This morning I’d like to ask a simple question: What is at the heart of our ministry as a church? If someone was to ask, “What is Richview Baptist Church all about?” how would you answer? Would you say it’s about the preaching or the music or the friendliness or our seniors residence? All of these are very important. But what’s at the core of our ministry?
Then there’s a second question: how would you define success for our church? Would it be a certain attendance level at Richview? Or feeling like things are really happening? Would it be certain programs that we’ve always wanted to get going, or our reputation in the community?
What is at the heart of our ministry as a church? And when would you consider Richview to be successful?
I don’t know how you would answer, but this morning I’d like us to look at how the apostle Paul answered. Paul was writing to the Corinthians, and some of the Corinthians didn’t have much time for Paul. To them, Paul’s ministry was a failure. They questioned his motives, implying that he was benefiting financially from his ministry. They questioned his courage, wondering if he could really handle confrontation face to face. Most of all, they questioned his success. If you looked at Paul, you wouldn’t be overwhelmed by his accomplishments. Most of the time, people rejected what he preached. If he put together a resume, the resume would be filled with more failures than successes. By their measurements, Paul was a failure, and you get the impression that they were surprised Paul didn’t see it that way too.
Now, if we’re failures, then it’s important to recognize that we’re failures. We don’t want to be like the preacher who complained to his preaching professor that he only got a C on his sermon. The professor told him, “That’s fine, I’ll give you an A instead, but don’t forget – you’re still a C preacher.” We need to be willing to face the truth, and if we’re failures, then it’s important for us to know that we’re failures.
But it’s also important to know what failure is and isn’t. If you take a course, you get a syllabus at the beginning of that course. That syllabus tells you what you’re going to cover in the course, and what you’re going to be marked on. And then it tells you what weight will be given to the various assignments and exams. This helps you as a student understand what success is going to look like in that course.
This morning we have kind of a syllabus before us for our church. This passage tells us what is and isn’t important for our church. This is going to help us make sure that we are focusing on the right things, so that when God evaluates us, we will be found to have passed.
So what I want to do this morning is to ask us to honestly evaluate our church, and if necessary to refocus our energies on the right things so that we will be in line with what God expects from us. Paul tells us two things that aren’t important, and that we shouldn’t focus on, as well as the one thing that truly matters.
So first, let’s look at the two things that don’t define success in God’s eyes.
Here’s the first: God does not measure our church’s success by the response we get from people. Paul says in verse 1, “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” You have to ask, why is Paul saying this? Why is Paul basically telling them, “Don’t worry, I’m not discouraged. God has called me to this ministry, so I’m doing okay.”
Once in a while, someone will ask me if I’m getting discouraged. It’s sort of like when you’re feeling really good, and someone says, “You don’t look too good. Are you feeling okay?” You feel like saying, “I was feeling great until you asked!” But evidently some people were wondering if Paul was really doing okay, or if he was starting to get bogged down.
And here’s the reason why. Paul’s ministry could not be considered a success if you looked at the number of people who rejected his message. Most places where he preached, some responded, but most rejected him. And a lot of the time they never rejected him politely. He was beaten. There were riots. He was run out of town. It would be easy to get discouraged because of this alone.
There were also lots of people in the church who were against him. You could call Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth complicated. They had teachers in that church who had badmouthed Paul. Paul went to straighten things out with them, because the Corinthian church was in open rebellion against him. Paul had a choice what to do, and he chose to be humiliated and leave rather than retaliate as an act of mercy. But he called the visit painful. Paul wrote them a tearful and severe letter, which led to most in the church coming to their senses. But still, as Paul wrote, there were some who continued to reject Paul and his message.
So Paul really couldn’t consider himself successful if you measured success if you looked at the number of people who rejected his message. It was a problem, even within the church.
I want to be careful here, because what I’m about to say can be used as an excuse. There are churches and ministries that are ineffective and use something like what I’m saying as an excuse. In fact, some take smallness as a badge of honor, as if there’s something wrong with a church if it’s big.
What I’ll say is this: we face a temptation to change our message so that it’s more palatable. Do you ever think read the Bible and cringe and think, “Oh man, that’s not going to fly. That might actually turn people away. We may have to soften that a bit.” Paul knew about this temptation too. He speaks about it in verse 2:
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.
The word “distort” there was used in Paul’s day of merchants who used to take wine and water it down. He says that he refuses to do this with God’s Word. He refuses to downplay parts of the gospel that are hard for people to swallow.
Why wasn’t he willing to change the message of the gospel? Because he says that the problem is not with the message. The problem is spiritual. He says in verses 3 and 4:
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
The problem is never with the gospel that we have received. We don’t have to play fast and loose with the gospel message. If we are proclaiming the gospel, we need to remember that Satan is at work. He is hardening hearts so that people can’t see the beauty and truth of the gospel. The gospel divides. It always has. It divides people into categories. Some accept it, and some flat out reject it.
So Paul says he’s not losing heart even if people reject his message, because success isn’t measured by how many people accept or reject the message. This means that even if Paul looks like a failure because people reject his message, he’s okay with that. God doesn’t measure our church’s success by the response we get from people.
There’s a second thing that Paul mentions that doesn’t define our success as a church. This is going to sound strange at first. God does not measure our church’s success by our church’s appeal. I told you that would sound strange, so let me explain.
When I tell people about Richview, I want to tell them about the things I like about this church, and there are a lot of things. I want to tell them that you people are real, that there are people from various ages and cultures. I like to tell them that you’re friendly without faking it, and that there are people here you can count on to help out whenever there’s a need. I want to tell them that you are accepting of people who are different from you. There are all kinds of things that I want to tell them.
But someone has said something of pastors that is probably true of churches as well: “Of the various temptations which beset the Christian minister, one of the chief and deadliest is the temptation to preach himself.” In other words, one of our biggest and most deadliest temptations is to proclaim the greatness of our church, to make our church the message.
It’s easy to do this. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to. The sign in the window highlights the things people might like about our church. Pretty soon we begin to build ministries around the things that people really like about us. I heard of one church this week that doesn’t list their pastors or staff on their website; they list “personalities” along with trivia about what they like to eat for breakfast and what they would do if they didn’t work at the church. It’s easy to begin to do this: to make ourselves the message. But as John Calvin said, “He that would preach Christ alone, must of necessity forget himself.” There is a very real sense in which we need to say to people, “Richview is not the point. We are not the point. We have something – someone – much better to talk about!”
I don’t want to imply that we aren’t important. Paul does say that he’s part of the message, and so are we. He says at the end of verse 5 that he proclaims “ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.” You know what a servant is? A servant is someone who puts aside their own self-interest to serve others, who takes a lower position for the sake of a higher purpose. Paul says that the thing that he proclaims is that he willingly sets aside his own self-interest for the sake of something better, and he calls us to follow his example.
Theologian and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright talks about showing up early for an appointment with the head of an organization. He had met her once before, but it had been a long time, and he wasn’t sure he would remember what she looked like. A porter met him at the front door, and handed him to an assistant. The assistant took him up two grand flights of stairs and through an imposing door. There he met a well-dressed woman who walked up to him with a smile and outstretched hand. She looked familiar. There, he thought, my memory isn’t so bad. She wasn’t exactly what he had remembered, but she wasn’t that far off. He shook her hand and said, “How very good to see you again.” She looked surprised, walked across the room to an inner door, lightly tapped on it, and opened the door. There, in the middle of the room, was the woman he had some to see. She hadn’t changed a bit. N.T. Wright had mistaken a personal assistant for the head of an organization.
We must never let people mistake us for Jesus. We are one of Jesus’ office staff. We are simply porters, servants, secretaries, and assistants. We take people by the hand and introduce them to Jesus. We don’t keep people in the outer office and talk about ourselves. If we did that, we would be disloyal. As Wright says, “Our job is to make Jesus known, and then to keep out of the way, to make sure we don’t get in the light.”
The treasurer of the Billy Graham organization was on an elevator with Billy Graham when another man in the elevator recognized him. He said, “You’re Billy Graham, aren’t you?” “Yes,” Billy said. “Well,” the man said, “you are truly a great man.” Billy immediately responded, “No, I’m not a great man. I just have a great message.”
So, Paul says, we don’t judge success in ministry by how people respond, or even by how remarkable we are. We aren’t the point. We are only servants who introduce people to the one who is the point. We are not a great church; we just have a great message.
So what, then, should we be about? What does it mean to be assessed and found faithful as a church? Paul tells us in verse 5.
Our church is measured by how much we make of Jesus.
Paul says, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” Spurgeon said, “‘Christ Jesus the Lord’ is to be the great theme of our preaching; and when it is so, we naturally take our right position with regard to our hearers, as Paul and Timothy did: ‘and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.'” Another time, Spurgeon said, “I take my text and make a bee-line to the cross.” Our church is measured by how much we make of Jesus.
We need to ask ourselves if we, in every aspect of our church’s life, we are doing this. Dietrich Bonhoeffer studied for a year in New York City. He visited a number of churches there, and this is what he concluded: “One may hear sermons in New York upon almost any subject; one only is never handled, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, of the cross, of sin and forgiveness.”
We have nothing to offer except for Jesus. And the Jesus we proclaim is not Jesus the life-coach, CEO, copilot, or moral example. We preach Jesus Christ as Lord: the one who created all things, who was born as a baby, who lived a perfect life, offered himself as a perfect sacrifice for our sins, ascended to heaven, and who will return one day to judge the living and the dead. It’s him that we proclaim.
So on this, our fiftieth anniversary, we could do nothing better than to commit, or recommit, to make much of Jesus.
You may be here this morning for all kinds of reasons, but what we want to do most is to welcome you, to tap lightly on the door, and to bring you in to introduce you to Jesus. If you have not yet met him, then there’s nothing I want more. I want you to know him, to know forgiveness, to experience the power and new life that comes only from him. Everything else is secondary. I’d love for you to know Jesus.
If you’ve met Jesus, and if you’re part of this church, then I would like nothing more than for us to resolve that for the next fifty years, we won’t focus on what people think of us. We won’t focus on our personal appeal or our church’s appeal. We’ll focus on becoming servants of others so that every person and every ministry is about Jesus, so that they will never say, “What a great church.” Instead they will say, “What a great Savior.”
I ask nothing more, Father, than for the privilege of being servants who make much of Jesus. We ask that he would be lifted up among us, that he would be the centre, that he would be the theme of our preaching and the theme of the church. To paraphrase George Whitefield: “Let the name of Richview perish, but Christ be glorified. Let Jesus be our all in all so that He is preached. I care not who is uppermost. I know my place…even to be the servant of all.” May what Charles Wesley wrote of Whitefield be true of us:
No party for himself he ever desired;
His one desire to make the Saviour known,
To magnify the name of Christ alone.