December 15, 2013

Third Sunday in Advent Sermon

Ministers and Stewards
1 Corinthians 4:1-5, Matthew 11:2-10
Third Sunday in Advent
December 15, 2013

            In 1 Corinthians 4:1 and 2, the Bible addresses the issue of the nature of the ministry in the New Testament Church.  Written by the Apostle Paul under the direction of the Holy Spirit, these verses help the Corinthians, and through them, all Christians, understand who and what a minister is.  The Corinthian Christians were not Jews.  Therefore, they were not raised in a home or culture that worshiped God.  They did not know the Old Testament.  They did not know the synagogue.  They knew only the pagan temples and the rudimentary understanding of the Gospel they were able to learn during Paul’s two year ministry in Corinth.  And they knew Christ. I admire them for trying to be faithful to Christ in a hostile culture, with very limited understanding of the Scriptures, and with only novice clergy to lead them in the faith and worship of God after Paul left.  But I have to recognize the fact that the Corinthians compromised the Faith.  They mixed Christian doctrine with pagan mythology, and they tried to worship God the way they formerly worshiped their pagan idols. This brought them into serious trouble, so serious the Apostle Paul, referring to their corruption of the Lord’s Supper, wrote, “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor. 11:30).  Many are dead because of their abuse of the things of God.
            A big part of the problem in Corinth was the large number of self appointed apostles teaching and leading people into wrong and heretical doctrines and practices.  Paul has spent much of the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians addressing this problem.  He started in the very first verse, saying, he is “called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God.”  From there he defended and explained his calling and ministry.  He was not boasting.  He was not claiming to be a great man or trying to force the people to honour him.  He was simply telling them he was a real apostle, called and commissioned by Jesus Christ for this ministry, and the others in Corinth who claimed to be apostles, were not.  In chapter two he said the Corinthians can tell a true minister of Christ by the way he builds upon the foundation Paul laid when he was preaching and teaching in Corinth.  That foundation is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11, 12).
In chapter four he returns to the issue of his true apostleship and what that means in the way the people of Corinth should think of him and the other true Apostles.  How should they account the Apostles?  How should Christians account any real minister of the word?  The first thing he says is “let a man so accounts us, as of the ministers of Christ.”  It is interesting to read this verse in the original Greek. We all know that the Latin word from which we derive our English word “minister” means “servant” or “slave,” and I expected to find the Greek equivalent for it in 1 Corinthians 4:1.  I was shocked (again) to find that the Greek says, “let a man so account us as official representatives of Christ.”  Paul is saying something similar to what he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:20, where, again, writing about the Apostles and their relationship to the Church he said, “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us.”
There was something special and unique about the ministry of the Apostles.  They occupied and performed a unique ministry in the Church and their office ended when the last one, probably John, died.  There are no more Apostles.  There is an apostolic ministry in the Church, and listen very carefully to what I am saying here, because the apostolic ministry is different from the office of an Apostle.  The apostolic ministry is the ministry that continues to preach and teach the Faith and Practice given to the Church by Christ through the Apostles.  There is much more that I want to say on this subject, and I hope to return to it soon.  For now I must simply say that a man who is dully called and ordained, and who preaches and teaches the Apostolic Faith and Practice, is to be regarded as an official representative of Christ.  He is called and ordained to his ministry by God through the Church, and God Himself uses that man to lead His people.
There is another word in 1 Corinthians 4:1 I want to talk about for a moment, and that word is “stewards.”  A steward is a person who cares for some one or some thing for the benefit and in the service of another.  In Roman times, which is when the New Testament was written, it usually referred to a slave who was put in charge of his master’s property.  A steward had authority from the master to direct the property, and other servants, for his master and according to the master’s directions.  A steward could be in charge of the kitchen, the house, the estate, or several estates.  There are four main points I want to make about a steward.  First, he was installed in his position by the master.  Second, he acted by the authority of the master.  Third, the property and other servants did not belong to him.  Fourth, he was accountable to the master for his actions. “It is required in stewards that a man be found faithful.”
I want to turn quickly to what the Apostles and those who carry on the Apostolic Faith and Practice are stewards of.  We are stewards of the mysteries of God. That, in its purest sense, means the Faith.  It is our task to “preach the word,” as Paul wrote to Timothy.  It is our task to guard and keep the Faith pure, to defend it from enemies.  It is not within our authority to change the faith in any way. It is not ours to change.  We preserve it for our Master.
The Apostolic Faith and Practice is given to us in the Bible, so we are stewards of the Bible.  We are to proclaim its message and to preserve it unaltered for future generations.  We are to teach all of what Jesus commanded.  That is the Apostolic Faith.  We are also stewards of the Apostolic Practice.  We are called to preserve the practice of the Apostles in worship, Church ministry and organisation, and public and private life as followers of Christ.  We are stewards of the Apostolic Practice, not innovators and inventors of new and better things.
We are stewards of the Sacraments. The sacraments are not given to individual Christians; they are given to the Church.  When a person is baptized he is baptized into the Church, and especially into the local manifestation of the Church, which is the local congregation.  He is not baptized to be a Christian at large.  Sometimes there is no viable church to attend where a person lives.  Such a person can be a member of a believing church outside of his area, as many of our Anglican Orthodox members are.  But church membership and participation are important parts of following Christ.  The Lord’s Supper is given to and celebrated by and in the context of the Church.  It is not to be celebrated by random groups of Christians who happen to meet at the RV park or at the beach.  It is celebrated under the authority of the Church.
Finally, we are stewards of the Church herself.  We are responsible for leading and teaching the Church in the things of Christ.  We are responsible for ordering and organizing the Church according to the pattern given in Scripture.
I know this is a brief and sketchy presentation, and each of the points and sub points I have made today could be a sermon, or a book, or a library of its own.  I hope to preach more about them in the future, especially those which may be easily misunderstood, such as the point I made about the Apostolic ministry.  But I want to hurry on now to another important point, namely that clergy aren’t the only ministers and stewards in God’s house.  There is a sense in which the Bishop is the head steward of the Church, and the priest or deacon is the head steward of the local congregation.  But there is another sense in which all Christians are ministers and stewards of the mysteries of Christ.  Let’s go back to the Roman slave who was the head steward of, say, the master’s house.  Was he the only one charged with seeing that the house ran the way the master wanted it?  No.  Every servant in the house was a steward of something.  One may have been steward of the kitchen.  One may have been steward of the stable.  Another was steward of the furnishings.  And all were required to work together to keep the house for the master.  We are all stewards of the Lord’s House.  We are all ministers in His Kingdom.  Let us be found faithful.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

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