I got some advice from a former colleague when I was worrying about what would happen after I left my pastorate of 34 years. He said, “Bob, it was Christ’s church when you got there, and it will be Christ’s church after you leave”—which was to remind me that ministry always builds on the work of others. As Paul told the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth.” He is writing a much divided congregation. He describes the disunity but the actual issue that confronts them is their false understanding of what the church is, and what the ministry is. Paul gets a little sarcastic toward these followers of different leaders: “Has Christ been divided?” He asks them. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
You see the problem? Have you ever known people who join a minister rather than a congregation? It happens! People join a minister because the minister is a spellbinding preacher or a compassionate pastor or an attractive personality. The problem is that when the minister in time shows the inevitable feet of clay they become disenchanted. Or when the minister moves on or retires their ties to the church are flimsy, because they have joined the leader and not the church. That is what has happened in Corinth. Some have joined Apollos, a teacher who came after Paul in Corinth. Some have joined Peter. Some even regard Christ as their leader, as if he were just another human leader.
Some Corinthians even have come to believe that the minister performing their baptism bestows more or less power depending how wise and spiritual he is. It is like someone here in Bethany saying “I was baptized by Bob and not by Tom, so my baptism is better (or worse).” Or even more absurdly, somehow by baptism they would say, “I belong to Bob.” So Paul asks sarcastically, “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” No, Paul founded the church in Corinth by preaching the simple good news of God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ, the message of the cross, the message of the forgiveness of sins. Paul’s message was not Paul himself, nor was it Paul’s wisdom or Paul’s rhetorical eloquence. His message was Jesus Christ and him crucified.
When I was doing my doctoral work many years ago, I came across Matthias Grünwald’s painting of the crucifixion. A reproduction of this masterpiece hung over Karl Barth’s desk as he wrote his Church Dogmatics. In the painting John the Baptist points at the crucified Christ. Now this is not realism or historical accuracy, as we know that John had lost his head long before Good Friday. But Grünwald is trying to convey a deeper truth than the facts. He is depicting John as the witness to Jesus Christ. Grünwald shows John as the representative Christian, the one who always points beyond himself or herself to Christ. And the Christ he points to is Christ crucified. For whatever else we might say about Jesus Christ, the one thing we must say is that he was crucified for us, and was raised on the third day as a divine vindication of the power of his weakness. Christ’s atoning death does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, freeing us from sin and death. To be a witness to the crucified Christ is to insist that God’s love is stronger than human hate, and God’s grace is greater than human sin. That truth remains a scandal now as it was then, because it challenges the wisdom of this age as to what constitutes real power and authority. In God’s economy power is made perfect in weakness, and for all our accomplishments, in the end we have nothing to offer to God but our sins. These are not the values of our society. And neither is it the wisdom of the age, but it is the message of the gospel, the message that a minister of the Word of God is called to deliver.
But the truth about the church is that we can have the most beautiful building, and the biggest endowment, and the most eloquent preacher with a string of degrees after his name, and we can be so friendly we will melt the snow right off the roof, but if the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified, the message that God loves and forgives us, isn’t preached and heard and lived it all counts for nothing. I hope and trust this has been my legacy to you. I have sought faithfully to point to Him and have called you to do the same. This is our reason for being and the hope of the world. To Him “be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever!”Amen.
~ Dr. Bob