Sermon: Pentecost 2, 3 June 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 3rd June 2018

IT’S ABOUT JESUS, NOT US!

(1 Samuel 3:1-10; Psalm 139; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23-3:6)

I wonder what you thought of Bishop Curry’s sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. It’s certainly unusual for a sermon on such an occasion to get much comment at all! The Bishop’s style is very different from mine or Ross’s, or anyone I’ve heard at St.Alban’s.

The question that occurred to me as I reflected on the sermon was whether it was really all about him. Was it a performance, rather than a sermon with a real message? I had my own ideas about that, which were confirmed when I checked out Bishop Curry on YouTube. The way he preached at the wedding was quite consistent with the way he generally seems to preach. He is a naturally animated preacher, as many American preachers are. He was not putting on a performance, but preaching his usual way.

My sermons start as I interact with God’s word and the message of the Gospel, and with issues that seem important. If I tried to preach the way Bishop Curry preaches, it would be unreal, it would be a performance! And it would probably be a very bad one.

The relevant test of Bishop Curry’s sermon is whether people remember what it was all about. And the great thing is that people do remember that it was about love, and the power of love! A very appropriate message!

This morning I want to focus on another preacher who got a range of reactions from people: the apostle Paul. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians is a very personal letter. In it Paul responds to a range of challenges about his ministry and his message. He is open about his struggles, including his inner struggles, and perhaps many people could conclude from this letter that Paul was prone to bouts of real depression.

In Chapter 4, part of which was our second reading, Paul writes about his role as an evangelist, a preacher of the precious Gospel. He is very much aware of people who go round with a different message, often a message which sounds similar to Paul’s message, but which in fact undermines that message, and denies its truth and power.

Paul constantly found himself battling those who added rules and regulations to the Gospel, setting up hoops for people to go through in order to be a real Christian. On the other hand, he also had to resist those who said that because God graciously forgives us, we can do whatever we want and live as we wish.

Paul’s opponents saw their message as an improved version of Paul’s Gospel, but Paul saw very clearly that these were not only distortions of the Gospel, but that they actually denied the truth and the power and the glory of the Gospel of Christ.

Paul saw enough of these preachers to realize that they were using their message to gain influence and power over people. He also recognized that many of them were also taking advantage of those who listened to them, making money out of their listeners as they peddled their distorted Gospel.

In contrast to these people, Paul was clear about the Gospel of God’s grace, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He knew that he had no right to change it or manipulate it for those who might prefer a different version. But he also knew how wonderful a blessing it was for those who responded, a wonderful treasure offered to all people. And as Paul reflects on those who were preaching their alternative Gospel he sums up the true Gospel in an unusual way: “we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.”

His message is that Jesus Christ is Lord: the Lord who conquered sin and death, the Lord who reveals in his very being the reality of God himself, the Lord who is the rightful ruler over creation – and over us!

Jesus is Lord: it might seem a heavy version of the Gospel, but everything flows out of this reality, and this expression of the Gospel makes it clear that our response to the Gospel can not be an empty faith: it must be faith that is lived out, in recognition of Christ’s Lordship.

But there is also that other side of Paul’s message: we are your slaves for Jesus’ sake. Paul’s ministry is not about manipulating people or using people or taking advantage of people: it is about humbly serving people. Paul is not the Lord and master: Jesus is Lord! It’s not all about Paul!

Paul had to maintain his consistency as he carried out his ministry of preaching and pastoring. When he challenged and corrected people, he had to use his God-given authority to serve Christ and to serve people: he was not simply to throw his weight around.

It is always a challenge for those who are called to ministry in God’s church. There are a range of responsibilities which involve the exercise of authority and influence. It is far too common for clergy and others in positions of leadership to use their position to exercise power over people, to seek popularity and prestige and privilege, to push people around or to manipulate them, to ride roughshod over them, and tragically even to abuse them – particularly those who are most vulnerable. But as Paul rightly makes clear, we ministers are here to serve you, not to use you, let alone harm you. Serving you: that is our task for Jesus’ sake.

We ministers are called to be faithful to Christ and faithful to his message. Paul reminds us that God is the God of light: the Creator of light, and through the Gospel God enlightens people who have been in spiritual darkness. Jesus himself is of course the light of the world, and he sheds his light on us all: showing us our need, and opening the way to salvation and true light. Through the Gospel God reveals his glory and he invites us to share in that glory.

In this chapter Paul describes the Gospel as like a great treasure: he is responsible to take care of it, and to use this treasure well. He realizes what a huge privilege it is to preach the Gospel. What a wonderful ministry it is! But that doesn’t make it an easy ministry.

Paul sees himself as like a clay jar: the Gospel of Christ, this wonderful treasure, has been entrusted to him. If you go to a good jeweller and get a lovely piece of jewellery for someone special, you expect the jeweller to put it in an attractive little box or bag. You would be a bit surprised to see him or her put something precious into an ordinary little paper bag and hand it to you. The paper bag will hold what is in it, but you would expect something more impressive. A little clay pot was anything but glamorous in Paul’s day, and it could be quite fragile: you might have expected that a valuable treasure would be kept in something more impressive.

But God entrusted the treasure of the Gospel to Paul, who sees himself as this rough clay jar: he didn’t see himself as a great orator, an impressive salesman. He was just a servant of Christ, nothing more. But the ordinary person who is willing to be faithful is just the person Christ seeks.

However, Paul faced many challenges as he sought faithfully to preach the Gospel and to serve God’s people. There were those who attacked his ministry: persecution was a reality for the early Christians, just as it has been so often over the centuries. There were those who preached a different Gospel: leading people up the garden path and away from the truth of the Gospel of Christ. There were those who confused people who had put their faith in Christ, and who brought Paul’s authority and his message into question.

As he says, he was “afflicted in every way… perplexed…persecuted… struck down”. It wasn’t easy being an apostle. But even in those tough times Paul found that God had not abandoned him: the Lord was still there, supporting and guiding him when things were tough, when life was difficult, when he was really struggling. And so he could say: “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed”.

Paul lived as one who so often faced hardship and death for Christ’s sake, but he knew that God was still with him, that Christ’s life was at work in him. And his aim was to share that life with others. If it cost him, that was part of what it meant to take up his cross and follow Jesus.

By comparison with the apostle Paul, I have ministered in situations when

my ministry was basically accepted, and the challenges I have faced have been nothing like those faced by the apostle. I am thankful, and I hope I have not compromised the Gospel of Christ. But like Paul, in our own circumstances we all are called to ministry and witness. Like Paul we may be unimpressive and fragile, like those clay pots or paper bags. God doesn’t shield us from all the challenges and problems of life: but when they come he will not let us down. He will still be there through the Holy Spirit to support us, to strengthen us, to guide us.

So our challenge is to always remember that it is not all about us! We are to seek to be people who serve: people whose lives and words bear witness to the love of God and the treasure of the Gospel. None of us is an apostle, but we all are called to be faithful servants of the Lord Jesus, taking up our cross and following him in loving service wherever he leads. Amen.