The apostle Paul was confident in his call from God to be an apostle. We pastors, like Paul, are often confident of our call into ministry. The truth is, all of us—whether we’re clergy or laypeople—are also called by God and “set apart” for a mission. This sermon will explore the meaning of that call.
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
[To listen on the go, download an MP3 by right-clicking here.]
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
This past week my family and I went to the beach at Gulf Shores for Spring Break. One day my kids and I went on an adventure: first, Ian, Townshend, and Elisa and I went banana-boating, and then the two older kids and I went parasailing: they strapped the three of us in harnesses and attached us to a parachute canopy—the boat took off and away we flew. Four-hundred feet above the sea. We would have gone higher, but it would have cost more. But still, it was fun.
And while we were up there, flying above the Gulf Coast, I couldn’t help but wonder how secure we really were—how safe we really were. Like, what do any of us know about those two young men in the boat down below—men in whom we have literally entrusted our lives? How confident are we that they know what they’re doing? How responsible are they? There was a big cooler down on the boat. For all I know, it was filled with empty cans from the case of Bud Light that they had just polished off a few moments before we got on board! I don’t know! I did literally no research on them. I didn’t check any references. I signed some kind of insurance waiver that I didn’t actually read. It’s crazy when you think about it: our lives were in their hands. Our health, our safety—whether we lived or died—depended in part on how well these two men did their jobs—men whose names I didn’t know, whose reputations I knew nothing about.
What was the basis for my confidence? The more I thought about it, the less confident I began to feel!
Which bring us to the apostle Paul. He is always a very confident man—and this confidence sometimes rubs us modern readers the wrong way. “He’s so full of himself,” I’ve heard more than a few parishioners tell me over the years.
But I love Paul—in fact, I look forward to meeting him some day. While I agree completely that Paul is confident, I think this characterization that he’s full of himself is completely wrong: the point is, he’s not full of himself; he’s full of Jesus, and Jesus is the one and only basis for his confidence!
The first thing of which Paul is confident is his call: At the beginning of the letter he writes, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.”
I can relate to Paul’s words: When you’re in the process of becoming an ordained Methodist minister—which takes about eight years from start to finish—the United Methodist Church talks a lot about your “call.” They make you write about it; they make you go before boards and committees and answer questions about it. They want to make sure that you’re really called to be a pastor.
And that’s great… If you’re an ordained Methodist minister. But what about everyone else? Do you know that even if you’re not an ordained minister, you are called by God to do something, to be something? It’s true! You—like Paul, like me, like the Corinthian Christians to whom he’s writing, like every other person in history who has received Christ as Savior and Lord of their life—you are called by God… for a purpose. God has a plan for your life.
How do I know this? Well, it says so in today’s scripture. Paul says he’s writing his letter to God’s church in Corinth, “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” To those “sanctified” in Christ Jesus. Called to be saints. What does that mean? Usually, when Paul writes about sanctification—and usually when we pastors talk about sanctification—we mean that lifelong process of becoming holy, that process by which the Holy Spirit changes us within, makes us more and more like Christ, and less and less like our old, sinful selves. Paul usually means it that way, too. But not here.
If he meant it that way here, then to say that these Corinthian Christians are “sanctified”—in the past tense—would imply that they are already perfect and sinless.
We know Paul can’t mean it that way for two reasons: Because it’s clear from everything else that follows in this letter that these Corinthians are a bunch of badly messed up sinners. In fact, one problem in the church is that some of these Corinthians don’t even know that they’re still sinners. They believe that they’re “super-spiritual” already, that they’re already “practically perfect in every way,” and as a result they feel superior to others; they feel more righteous than others; and one of Paul’s main tasks in this letter is to convince them that they are, indeed, most assuredly not perfect. They’re still sinners. They haven’t been fully sanctified in that way.
But… Paul says in verses 8 and 9 that he’s confident that some day they will be… in the future.
So if Paul doesn’t mean “sanctified” in the sense of sinless perfection, how does he mean it? He means it in the sense of being “set apart” for a purpose—the way the Bible says that priests who served in the temple were set apart. The way pastors like me are “set apart” when we get ordained. All of us who are saved are “set apart”: that’s what the word “saint” means. To be a saint isn’t just for the super-spiritual among us; it’s for everyone. All of us Christians are saints; all of us Christians are a “set-apart” people! Which means we’re set apart for a purpose! Which means God has a plan four lives!
Which means, when you get saved, it’s not like you get to say, “Well, great, now that that’s over with, I can just sort of wait around until heaven.” No! While it’s true that the most important part of being saved is that you get heaven when you die, and you get to look forward to a future resurrected life with God on the other side of eternity, another important part of what it means to be saved is that you’re given something to do now—a new sense of purpose now, a new mission now, a new plan now.
Paul was called by the will of God to be an apostle. I’m called by the will of God to be a pastor. But you’re called by the will of God to be something, too… You’re called by the will of God to do something, too. Maybe it’s one thing, maybe it’s many things, but we’re all called!
I like the way pastor John Piper put it. He said that he believes that God wants all of his children to have the “same solid, strong, clear sense” of calling that Paul has in verse 1. He asked, “Can you put your name in verse 1, with the appropriate changes? [For example,] David, called by the will of God to be a financial planner for the glory of Jesus Christ! Dennis, called by the will of God to be an electrician for the glory of Jesus Christ! Judy, called by the will of God to be a teacher for the glory of Jesus Christ! Steve, called by the will of God to be a nurse for the glory of Jesus Christ! Noël, called by the will of God to be a stay-at-home mom for the glory of Jesus Christ!”
And some of you might be thinking, “Not so fast, Pastor Brent. I get that pastors and deacons and music ministers and youth ministers and church workers and missionaries are called by God, but me? What do I do that’s so special?”
I don’t know… But I’m thinking of a member of a previous church who managed a fast-food sandwich shop. She said that of course nearly anyone could do the work itself, but she said it was about so much more than the physical work of making sandwiches. She said, “I’ve got three minutes to make a difference in someone’s life”—three minutes is how long it takes to serve a customer from start to finish. But she has three minutes to make someone’s life a little better, three minutes to help someone who might be going through a tough time, three minutes to be a blessing to someone. What an opportunity to love and serve other people!
And not only that: what an opportunity to love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ! As Paul writes in Colossians 3, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving,” Paul says. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Think about that!
This means that for us Christians, every one of us, at every moment, is working for the Lord—so no matter where we are, no matter what we do, our whole aim in life is to please him and to bring him glory.
But in order for us to see things that way, we have to understand that God is involved in every aspect of our lives. God is working through every moment of our lives to accomplish his plan. We may not be able to see the plan, to see the purpose—to see how God is using our work for his glory—but we can be sure that if we’re being faithful to him he is using it for his glory.
Wherever you find yourself in your life right now, whatever you’re doing, I want you to say to yourself: “I’m here right now because God has called me to be here. God has a plan for me right here and right now. I am God’s man, or God’s woman, in this particular place. I’m on a mission. God has something for me to do. God has something for me to learn. God may not want me to stay here forever, but he wants me here right now, so I’m going to serve him in this place, at this time.”
But here’s the hard part: while we cooperate with God to work his plan, we leave the results up to God. We leave the results up to God. Which means we don’t worry about results.
Easier said than done, but that’s what Paul does. Paul is not a man who worries about results. We know this in part because of his words in verses 4 through 9. Why do I say that? Because he’s so filled with thankfulness and gratitude for the church at Corinth! This won’t be clear to us until we get into the letter, but this is a church that has mostly turned against Paul and his gospel. This is a church in which so many people are calling into question Paul’s authority, Paul’s competence, Paul’s leadership, Paul’s wisdom. This is a church that’s attacking Paul personally—and this after Paul had spent a year and a half starting the church, and living and working alongside the church.
If I were Paul, I would be tempted to throw a pity party. “Woe is me! Why don’t they listen to me? Why don’t they like me?” If I were Paul, I would be angry. I would be resentful. I would be hurt. Not Paul. Instead, he writes, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.” How can he be thankful when so many things are going wrong?
Because Paul doesn’t judge by outward appearances. He leaves the results up to God. We know this is true because of what we read about Paul in the Book of Acts and what he says about himself in his second letter to the Corinthians. Paul is a man who was beaten many times on many occasions. He was stoned and left for dead. He was imprisoned not just once but many times. He was shipwrecked. He was lost at sea. He was left hungry and thirsty without food. He was left cold and naked. His life was threatened many times by many different people. And we know he was given a mysterious “thorn in his flesh.” We don’t know what that was—probably some kind of physical ailment—which he described as a messenger from Satan sent to torture him.
The point is, any one of these bad things, I’m afraid, could have caused you or me to come unglued, to give up—at the very least, to question our calling. After all, if God has called me to do this, why is it so hard? If God has called me to do this, why have I suffered so much? If God has called me to do this, shouldn’t it be easier? And the biblical answer to each of these questions is clearly a resounding no.
We don’t judge the success or failure of our mission, our purpose, our plan, our calling by outward appearances. We do what God calls us to do, and leave the results up to God.
It’s baseball season, and there’s one slugger and former MVP who’s not playing right now. His name is Josh Hamilton. He’s on the disabled list with the Los Angeles Angels, recovering from shoulder surgery—after a couple of disappointing, injury-plagued seasons. To make matters worse, he admitted a couple of months ago to having another relapse into drugs and alcohol. Hamilton has been an outspoken Christian, giving Jesus full credit for enabling him to kick the habit after his addiction threatened his career many years ago. And it’s depressing and disappointing to see him continue to struggle and fail like this. And I’m tempted to judge him: What’s his problem? Why can’t he get his act together? Why doesn’t he trust in Jesus more?
Oh please! The biggest difference between a Christian like Hamilton and a Christian like me is that my sins are less less noticeable, better concealed—my failures are less public. It’s not that I don’t continue to struggle with sin; it’s not that I don’t continue to fail to trust Jesus the way I should; it’s just that hundreds of thousands of people aren’t watching me; I’m not being trailed by reporters who are happy to see me fail because it’s a juicy story!
No… I’m a lot like Josh Hamilton—except I don’t want anyone to know how much I’m like him. I’m a lot like these Corinthian Christians. Too often I can’t seem to get my act together. And I’m tempted to beat myself up about it… I’m tempted to hate myself… I’m tempted to be plagued with guilt.
But wait a minute… This is why Jesus came. Because we human beings can’t get our act together. Jesus had to do it for us! He lived the life of perfect obedience to the Father that we were unable to live for ourselves. He died the death that we deserved to die. He suffered the punishment we deserved to suffer. And now that God has gone to trouble of doing all that, guess what? He’s not going to give up on us now! This is Paul’s point in verses 8 and 9! God will sustain us to the end. We will be guiltless in the end! There’s no question in Paul’s mind that “he who began a good work in [sinners like these Corinthians, in sinners like Josh Hamilton, in sinners like me and you] he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Paul is sure of it—not because of anything he can do, but because of what God is doing. God is faithful.
So… There are three reasons for Paul’s confidence, and three reasons we can be confident: God has called each one of us, which means that God has a plan for our lives. God is in charge of the results of that plan. And finally, even when we fail, we know that God’s not finished with us yet!