1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God.
Servants and Stewards
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
This Sunday is Messenger Sunday. Liturgically, it is the pink candle Sunday in Advent, known officially as Gaudete or "Joy" Sunday, because the Introit begins "Rejoice in the Lord always", and Latin for "rejoice" is "gaudete". I called it Messenger Sunday because all of the assigned Scriptures address the idea of the Messenger. The Old Testament lesson, which I did not read today, is the prophecy of the Lord sending His messenger, and it has some marvelous judgment language in it, all about the refiner's fire and the fuller's soap, and so forth. In the Gospel, Jesus is speaking about John, and telling everyone that John was the fulfillment of that Old Testament prophecy - and how the lowliest child of heaven is greater than John, even though John is the greatest to arise from among the children of human race - Himself excepted, I would presume.
Our Epistle lesson is also about the messenger, but this time it is about the messenger that God sends to you, your pastor - and it speaks about judging, too. Our sermon theme, this morning, is "Servants and Stewards".
Let me read you my own loose translation of the text, which, I hope, is a little easier to follow than the standard reading: Let a man look upon us like this: as servants of Christ and caretakers of the mysteries of God, what is more, caretakers who are expected to be found faithful. Now, it is absolutely insignificant, in my opinion, that I should be evaluated by you, or by any human standard. I do not even evaluate myself. Mind you, I am conscious of nothing against myself, but that does not vindicate me; the One who evaluates me is the Lord. Therefore, don't you go judging things before the right time, that is, before the Lord comes, who also will shine light on the things hidden in the darkness, and will reveal intentions of the heart; and then, the commendation of each will come to him from God.
The first thing I would alert you to, is that there are parts of this passage which are easy to misunderstand. You need to be careful and focused when you read the Bible to make sure you don't miss a transition or a segue into a new topic. It is easy to miss a change in direction in this lesson, for example. The text begins by talking about the Apostles and teachers - which by extension would be about pastors. Near the end of these few short verses, however, the focus of the passage shifts to you, the ones who hear the message, and to your conduct, with the instruction not to judge. If you aren't paying attention, though, it could be mistakenly thought that St. Paul was telling the Corinthians not to judge him or his preaching. But that is not the message.
The message about judging is about judging, period. Therefore, don't you go judging things before the right time, that is, before the Lord comes, who also will shine light on the things hidden in the darkness, and will reveal intentions of the heart; and then, the commendation of each will come to him from God. Paul would never tell them not to judge doctrine. They are to be careful, listen only to the truth, reject the false and fractious, and test the spirits. He is not even telling them not to call sin a 'sin'. Of course, they are to judge sin as sinful, and correct and encourage one another. The kind of judging that Paul is opposing here is the sort that relies on human intuition, rumor, or personal preference.
Such judging is the sort of thing we do when we judge the motives of another person's heart. "You did that just to irritate me!" Or, "you intended to hurt me." Sometimes it seems that people behave in one way or another just to get our goat, but the truth be known, they probably were totally self-absorbed, and did not consider anyone else at all. Even though their conduct was obnoxious, it had no real evil intent behind it. Unpleasant behavior often may have had no awareness that it was - or could be - obnoxious behind it either. Declaring the intentions of another to be evil, unless they actually told you they had evil intentions, is the sort judging forbidden here. Even when their motives are clearly evil and have a wicked agenda, God would have us ignore that fact, and refuse to judge, and leave all judgement to Him.
Paul simply used the discussion of God as judge to launch off into a brief exhortation against usurping God's prerogatives, and presuming to judge another. He encourages us to wait, and let God reveal the truth and the hidden agendas and the secret motives of the heart - and then He will judge, and we won't need to, and His judgment will resolve the problem. Until then, Christian love demands that we bear up with the failings and weaknesses of others, and forgive one another, and put the best construction on everything.
Open and public sins we can point at and say, "That is sin!" We can condemn it and call for repentance from the perpetrator. False doctrine must be identified, and we must call it what it is, and avoid it. Behavior we don't appreciate, but about which there is no Biblical command, we cannot judge or condemn. We can chafe, and we can wish it were different, but we cannot judge what God has not judged. We need to be patient, long-suffering, and forgiving, and wait until the right time, the time when the Lord comes in judgment. Remember, He has said that He will exact revenge. That is not our business, but His. This is particularly true when dealing with the actions of the members of the family of God, fellow-believers, the Church.
The part of the text I want to focus on, is the part about the messengers - the servants and stewards. The pastor is to be the steward of the message. The message itself - the "mysteries of God" - are not his. He is only the manager, the steward, the caretaker of these things. He is responsible to God as a servant, because the mysteries he is to be dealing with are God's mysteries. The faithful pastor is not permitted to adjust the message to suit his circumstances or his audience, or do with the Sacraments whatever he pleases in order to please others or avoid criticism. He must speak what he is given to speak, and he must faithfully administer the Sacraments he is given to administer in accord with their institution.
The requirement which is chief and most important for the pastor is that he be found faithful. Your opinion of the man or the message is not the one that counts in the final analysis. His opinion of Himself is not even all that important. Only God's judgment is truly significant.
That doesn't mean that you cannot or should not judge his doctrine. You are responsible for yourself. You need to make sure that you do not sit and patiently listen to that which is not faithful. But the pastor is responsible to teach the truth, even when those listening don't want to hear it. He is not responsible to you, he is responsible for you. He is responsible to God. He is the steward of the treasures entrusted to him and the servant of the One who entrusted them, namely, God.
The Old Testament prophets - the faithful ones - were good examples of faithful caretakers of revelations. They often died as a consequence of being faithful, and saying what it was that God had given them to say rather than adjusting the message for the pleasure of their audience - or for personal survival. Paul himself gave us an example of the same spirit of faithfulness. He was stoned, beaten, arrested, tried, and finally executed for preaching Christ and the Gospel.
One could comprehend the world's reaction to Paul, and the others who faithfully served their stewardship of the mysteries of God, if they had been doing something violent or threatening or even insulting. But they weren't. They were preaching the Gospel. You might think that it was the Law part that people objected to, but it is not. You can tell people how evil they are all day long. They will often agree, and sometimes even find the experience pleasurable. It is the Gospel that fires them up.
Tell someone that their sins are forgiven. Explain the love of God for them, that He died in their place, for them, that He gives them forgiveness and eternal life and salvation, and they get angry. Go figure.
The natural tendency of man is to take the good news of the Gospel and twist it into something else. People change who God is - not His reality, of course, but in their beliefs about Him. They want a God who is less than the true God, easier to understand or easier to manipulate. They change how the gospel works - which means they end up with something that is no Gospel at all, according to St. Paul. Some want works, some want universalism, some want no limits on who enters heaven and some want heaven to be incredibly difficult to enter, except, of course, for them. I guess that is part of the human nature, which is sinful.
But the Gospel is what it is, just as God is who He is. You have to take God as He is for who He is, or leave Him behind. You must believe the Gospel, and receive forgiveness of sins and life as a gift, or forget about it. You need to acknowledge who you are, and that you deserve none of it, or you get what you deserve, and not what Jesus has purchased and won for you on the cross, and in the grave, and by rising again from the dead.
It is that Gospel, and the wonderful gifts of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, which are the mysteries of God. They are mysteries only because we could not know them unless they were revealed. That is why a caretaker must be faithful. Human reason will not figure it out or reason its way to the truth. It will always miss. Our sinful reasoning prefers the error to the truth even, many times, when we are told the truth. If we had to start from the position of knowing only the lie, we would be lost - so it is required in this case that the caretakers be found faithful.
"Stewards of the Mysteries of God" is the ordinary way to hear this described - pastors are stewards - and servants, but not of the congregation to which they are called - they are servants of God. Stewards and servants.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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