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The Power to Serve

June 30, 2019, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (1 Corinthians 4:1-21) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 1 Corinthians
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: 1 Corinthians 哥林多前书

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Title: The Power to Serve
Date: 16th June 2019
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

Divisions. What makes us splinter into groups as a community? Whenever a new community is formed, whether it is a new class for a new term, or a new fellowship within a church, you can see that the community will quickly divide themselves into various groups. Some group together based on race, language and religion. Some group based on relationships from the past. When I had to go back to school for my graduate studies, I entered the class as a total stranger. I immediately observed that there were those who had already grouped together because they had met one another during orientation. I then joined a group that didn’t go for orientation, all just like me. After one semester, I then grouped with those I had met in previous classes. When one classmate knew that I’m a pastor and she saw me forming a group, she jokingly said, I see you are gathering your flock. I believe that is our innate tribalism mentality. As human beings, we have survived in the animal kingdom through strength in numbers. We don’t just have to survive against nature, we have to compete against one another in the human world. Tribe versus tribe; group versus group. This is how societies work.

I didn’t fully appreciate how ingrained in us this tribal mindset is until I watched the drama series, The Story of Palace YanXi. 【1】 It is a story about the political infighting between the concubines of the imperial harem. Such infighting was typical not only of imperial China, it was the same when I watched stories of the Roman world, or western monarchies, or even modern fictions like the House of Cards. In the Story of Palace YanXi, the entire palace from the concubines, to the maids, to the eunuchs, to the guards and doctors, was divided into either followers of the Queen or followers of the most powerful concubine. Everybody would swing their allegiance based on where the favour of the emperor rested. In one very telling scene, one character asked another, “you are already a royal consort, why do you still choose to become the lackey of this evil concubine?” The royal consort replied, “I need to do it in order to survive.”

You can think of such survival skills as a form of wisdom or knowledge. There are those who can enter a room and immediately spot the alpha-males. That street-smartness can come in handy whether you are in prison or in the board room meeting. You must know who to follow in order to survive. In politics, you need to identify the caucuses and factions across different political parties. You need that to gain support to push through your agenda. In school, youths are divided into the jocks and nerds, the prefects and those who party all night; that’s the standard social setting for every campus movie. In school, maybe you can still survive as a loner, but in life and work, that would be impossible. So from ancient days to modern society, such wisdom on how to navigate human dynamics is passed down. How to gain followers. How to make friends and influence people. How to form tribes.

Many years ago, I had to deal with a conflict during the youth camp. That was a girl who hated a bunch of other girls. After some brief investigations, I became quite perturbed. So, I asked the girl. These girls that you hate have done nothing to you, can you explain to me your hatred for them? She said that these were the popular girls in church. In school, she was bullied by the popular girls in class. She assumed that these girls in church were the same, and she developed antagonism towards them as part of her identity in order to survive. The popular girls were a tribe in her eyes. Therefore, instinctively, she was forming her own anti-popular-girls tribe. Tribe versus tribe; group versus group. This is how societies work. You need this to survive in the world. This is our wisdom.

There is just one problem with this picture. Paul said, “This wisdom or knowledge has no power.” ‘Huh? Pastor, you are not making sense. This is about power. When we form our tribes, we gain strength in influence and numbers. We can divide and conquer. Isn’t this power?’ Unfortunately, that’s human power. But Paul was talking about God’s power. Earlier in 1 Corinthians 2: 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. This power can only be fully understood with the Holy Spirit.

Human powers divide and conquer. God’s power can unite Jews and Gentiles. Human power can destroy all enemies. God’s power can bring life to the dead, whether it is your soul, your future, or even your dead relationships. We have already covered much of this last year: New Spirit, New Self and New People. God can create a whole new world with us. As Paul prayed in Ephesians 1: 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

Paul saw the vision as the hope of humanity. It was the same for Apollos and Timothy. They were “servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed.” And they were such faithful servants. For the sake of this good news, 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 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. In case you have failed to catch the dramatic emphasis of Paul, think of the most disgusting thing you can imagine. The snot, the spit or the bird-shit. That's Paul. The point is that Christianity can never be just about the success and glory. Because if that is so, then the lives of the early apostles would be the exact rebuttal. Christianity is about servanthood.

The Corinthian Church thought that by converting to Christianity they were on a new plane of life. They felt that they could do anything, they were like kings, and they were superior to the unconverted men around them. The kingdom of God had already come. They were victorious already. The spiritual gifts that they had were for them to show off how special they were. They could claim the promises of Jesus and live like they were already in heaven. There is some truth to all these. Certainly, we enter into God's eternal kingdom. Certainly, it is true that we are given new life. We are given the power of the Spirit. We feel liberated from the law and sin. We inherit the status of the child of God – it is an honored king-like status. However, the Corinthians missed out one key ingredient to all these. That is the Theology of the Cross.

John 13: It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

What did Jesus do when he knew he had all the power in the world? He served. He served with the love to go all the way. Paul understood this. You cannot have victory without sacrifice. You cannot have eternal life without righteous living. You cannot have the power without the heart to serve. And you cannot have the knowledge without the mission to love. This is the theology of the cross. As followers of Jesus, we cannot overtake the master. We are called to love and to serve. Jesus is the life that we imitate for he reveals to us the true way as a child of God. Paul stated clearly that it was also the life lived by Apollos and him. And he would continue to display this life through the physical model of Timothy living among them. Timothy would remind them of the patterns of life which Paul lived in Jesus Christ.

Paul stated it clearly. Let no one be inflated against another. Can a Christian claim to be superior to another Christian? No! Are we more righteous? No! Are we more gifted? Are we more important than another member or another ministry? No! Why? Because all that we have, we receive from God. Even our good works in ministry or good lives or good relationships are simply by the grace of God. And if all is by grace, let us live like we are in grace and live graciously. If all that we have we received, we cannot hoard them as if they belong to us. We use our gifts for the welfare of the community.

By holding on to the truth and proclaiming it, Paul had become a father to all who accepted the gospel coming from him. It is the father that must bite the bullet and discipline when it is time to do so. The Presbyterians do not follow the same system as the Catholic Fathers. But we can imagine our pastoral team and our church elders holding on to this fatherhood through their spiritual leadership. Just as Paul sent Timothy to the Corinthians to remind them of this life of Jesus that Paul was living, we have the same father figures amongst us to imitate this life of sacrifice and obedience to the truth. This is not just empty talk but true living.

Our leaders in Jubilee may serve in various zones and ministries, but we are leaders of the entire community, not only those who claim to be our followers. Our best defense against our innate tribalism is to trust in the power of the gospel, the theology of the cross. It has the power to transform stubborn minds, the power to move cold hearts, the power to rekindle shattered dreams, the power to burst inflated egos. We do not need popularity to determine who we are. Only God knows our true worth. And we serve knowing the future is in God’s hands.

There is something every one of us can do. You can wipe the feet of someone outside your comfort zone. Of course I meant that metaphorically. Each one of us walked into this place with dirty feet. They are dirty because we have travelled for a long time. We have our share of blisters and calluses from the tough times in life. We have the filth and mud that have gathered on the rainy days that haven’t washed away. We may be quite conscious of our own dirty feet. So this is something we have to do with sense and sensibilities. But I think the key is the posture and attitude. It is the posture and attitude of Paul, Apollos and Timothy. That example came from Jesus himself. 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin. What I mean is that you must be willing to serve anyone that steps into this place. The posture of willingness is like Jesus with the basin and towel. You are ready to serve. There are feet that need washing. When you are ready, this is spiritual power.


1 Corinthians 4 (Listen)

4:1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.

I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.

14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?