Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Have you ever felt like you had to impress people in order to gain their acceptance? Perhaps it was a club or clique in high school. Or the special circle of people at work who “really run things.” Sometimes we feel compelled to put on a show in order to prove how smart or athletic or funny or wealthy we are before people like us. Unfortunately, all this self-promotion leads to hypocrisy and a lack of real intimacy in our relationships. It becomes difficult to believe that any of us are the way we represent ourselves when we know that so many of us are faking it to make it. And it tends toward elitism and a disregard for those who are on the outside of what C.S. Lewis calls the “Inner Ring.” Lewis writes that “in many men’s lives… one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” In our quest to gain acceptance by the inner circle we will do whatever it takes to go along and get along, even divorcing ourselves from close friendships and making fun of other people in order to be part of the inner circle. As Lewis writes, “Of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is the most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”
In our epistle, the apostle Paul deals with a kind of inner ring in the church at Corinth. After Paul planted a congregation there, the Corinthian Christians fell into squabbles and schisms over all kinds of theological and practical matters of their life together, including the Lord’s Supper, the role of women in worship, sex and marriage, and even the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some of the Corinthians regarded themselves as superior to others in the congregation because of special “knowledge” they possessed—or spiritual gifts, such as prophecy and speaking in tongues. The church fractured into different factions, spurred on by the spiritual elitism that was tearing them apart as a faith community.
So Paul wrote his first epistle to the Corinthians in order to address these matters and appeal to the Gospel of Jesus and genuine love for neighbor. Unfortunately, his letter was not received well because of false teachers who intervened and made a wreck of the work Paul began. Calling themselves “super-apostles” and denying Paul’s apostolic authority, they stirred up the Corinthians to rebel against their spiritual father in the faith and doubt the Gospel Paul had preached to them—this despite the fact that Paul was the one who first brought the Gospel to Corinth and stayed there for a year-and-a-half (Acts 18). I know that sounds like a short time for a pastor in a new church plant, but keep in mind that Paul usually only stayed in one place for a few days or weeks. The only other place he stayed longer than Corinth was Ephesus (Acts 19). So Paul knew the Corinthians well and loved them dearly.
But the “super-apostles” told the Corinthians not to bother with Paul and his stuffy ideas. He was no good and of no account, so why bother with him? They made fun of Paul’s personality and appearance. “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10). In other words: Paul might seem larger than life on paper, but in person he’s a wimp and a poor preacher. So don’t worry about what he says! (For what it’s worth, there are old church traditions that Paul was a short man. In fact, his Greek nickname, Paulos, means “small” or “tiny.” He may have been a diminutive man.)
Yet no matter how unimpressive Paul may have seemed, he was God’s man—“an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” (2 Cor. 1:1). Apostle means “a fully-authorized ambassador.” When St. Paul spoke, he spoke with the full divine authority of God behind him. Paul worried for the Corinthians and their souls. Their rejection of his preaching and writing may have been personally painful, but it was spiritual disaster for them! For when the Corinthians and their so-called “super-apostles” despised Paul’s Word, it was not Paul they rejected, but Jesus Christ and God himself. They were in violation of the Third Commandment, which we understand to mean that “we should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it” (Martin Luther, Small Catechism). No matter how boring or foolish or inconvenient Paul’s words might be, they were the very Word of God.
So in order to save the Corinthians from the pit of hell, Paul found it necessary to impress upon the Corinthians the nature of his divine call. Yet he did this in a rather unorthodox way. Rather than presenting an impressive resume with a list of the churches he planted, or the miles he trekked on his missionary journeys, or how many people he converted to Christ, or even his impressive theological training with the best rabbis (cf. Phil. 3:4-6), Paul instead delivered a catalog of his suffering for the Gospel:
“We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;… through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:3-5, 8-10).
Rather than trying to flatter them or fluff up himself in order to gain admittance to the Inner Ring at Corinth, Paul pointed to his weakness. In order to present his credentials, he showed how much he suffered for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The proof of his apostleship was how much we was willing to suffer for the sake of Jesus, who suffered all for him. Pain—not prosperity—was the proof of his apostolic calling. And in the chapters that follow, Paul speaks again and again of his suffering and the cross of Christ. Paul boasted of his divine call, not because he was a pompous pastor, but because he believed so strongly in the Savior he proclaimed.
“Look at what is before your eyes. If anyone is confident that he is Christ’s, let him remind himself that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we. For even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be ashamed” (2 Cor. 10:7-8).
“Indeed, I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things” (2 Cor. 11:5-6).
“But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham. So am I? Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death” (2 Cor. 11:21b-23).
While Paul’s words may strike us as bold and brash, let us remember: for Paul, it never was about Paul. It was always about Jesus. “We preach Christ crucified…” (1 Cor. 1:23). “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
Ultimately, Paul didn’t care what the Corinthians thought about him—as long as they loved and believed in Jesus and believed they were loved and forgiven by him. For their salvation and ours has nothing to do with how smart or spiritual we are, or how many good works we do, or how many prophecies we can recite. Our standing before God is always and only based on what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. God loves us and receives us not because of who we are or what we’ve done or haven’t done. God loves us simply and solely because of who God is and what Jesus did for us on the cross. “‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:16-17). And God commends only those who humble themselves before the cross of Christ and receive his grace as a gift. Paul was merely the messenger; but Jesus is the message!
Just like Paul, it’s my job, as your pastor, to make sure I always bring you Jesus. I have heard the apocryphal legend about the pastor who had a hard time preaching the Gospel and only harped on the Law. So some anonymous parishioner taped a Bible verse to the pulpit one day. The preacher was startled when he stood up to preach and read, “Sir, we would see Jesus” (John 12:21, KJV), the same words the Greeks said to Philip on Palm Sunday. “Sir, we would see Jesus.”
Pastors, like most people, wish to be liked, but that temptation can motivate you in the wrong direction. If you command self-confidence, people may mistake it for arrogance. If you try to be humble, you may be perceived as weak. If you try to be open to the viewpoints of everyone, you may seem indecisive or like a people-pleaser. And if you lead the charge, you might seem impulsive or imperious. This impossible tightrope walk was just as real for Paul—and me—as any other servant of Jesus. But it’s not my job to entertain, impress, or flatter you. It’s my job to help you see Jesus, to hold up the cross and the empty tomb as the picture of God’s love for you. I preach Christ crucified, because that’s the only message that can save you. It’s his resumé that matters, not mine.
Our epistle lesson ends with Paul making an appeal for the Corinthians to “widen [their] hearts” to him. “Our heart is wide open,” he insists. We love you so much. So make room in your heart for our message too. Not because we’re such impressive preachers or teachers, but because we have an extremely impressive Savior who proved his love by dying on the cross for our sins. So even if you have a hard time opening your hearts to us, open them to Jesus. To him be the glory forever! Amen.