You’re visiting a church for the first time. You’ve arrived only a couple of minutes before the service is due to start, so you slide into a seat near the back (you don’t want to be too obtrusive – we are British, after all). It looks like you arrived just in time, too, because everyone else is starting to sit down as well. But just as the congregation is quiet and settled, a man walks in. He’s clearly homeless: dirty and dressed in army boots and a big, old coat. His face has the raw redness of someone who sleeps outside in all weather, and it looks, by the bruises, like he was in a fight last night. You probably feel mildly uncomfortable, if you’re honest – you are British after all. But, you think, what a mark of this church’s care for the poor and genuine Jesus-shaped love for people! You mentally tick the ‘social conscience’ box on your church checklist…
But this guy doesn’t take his seat along with the rest of the congregation. Nope, he’s heading for the front, for the lectern and the microphone. Oh dear, it’s one of those, you think. There’ll be a rant, or a plea for money. Now you’re a bit annoyed, not looking forward to a guilt-trip on a quiet sunday morning. Where is the vicar? Someone needs to come and take control of the situation.
The man at the front, in his army boots and old coat opens his mouth and …welcomes the congregation to the service and prays an opening prayer. And no one bats an eyelid. And then finally you realise: this man is the vicar.
Would you go to a church with that sort of vicar?
In 1 Corinthians 4 we find that the apostle Paul was that sort of vicar! Listen to him describing his ministry to the Corinthian church:
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.
– 1 Cor 4:8-13
The Corinthian church thought that success in the Christian life looked like being ‘rich’, being ‘kings’, ‘reigning’ in power. They probably weren’t thinking in physical terms, but rather in spiritual ones – they thought that successful Christianity looked like being a spiritual bigshot with the poise, and the eloquent words of wisdom, and all the flashy gifts. And if I’m honest, when I think of a successful Christian life I think of similar things. Maybe I’m balanced enough to think that it doesn’t necessarily look like running a mega-church. But a ministry that visibly ‘makes a difference’; a family life that’s shiny and happy; a feeling of being strong and centred and in control?
But Paul says, ‘You’ve got it completely upside-down…’ And when he does, I realise that even when I think my priorities are Kingdom-centred I’m ‘still worldly – still an infant in Christ’ (1 Cor 3:1). Because my understanding of what the ideal Christian life is is just the same as the world’s understanding of a successful life, with a thin veneer of ‘piety-paint’ on top. I haven’t even begun to understand what a cruciform life looks like, if I’m shocked when Paul – apostle extraordinaire – compares the life of his ministry team to that of a gang of homeless guys, prisoners of war, men on death-row…