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Am I a Stumbling Block?

Sermon passage: (2 Corinthians 6:3-13) Spoken on: September 13, 2010
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 2 Corinthians

Tags: 2 Corinthians, 哥林多后书

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About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 6:3-13

When sharing the gospel with a non-Christian, I have one biggest fear and one biggest ally. The biggest fear is a Christian so bad, the non-Christian says “if being a Christian is to become like him, thanks, but no thanks”. The reverse is also true. My biggest ally would be a Christian so good, the non-Christian says “if being a Christian is to become like him, please, tell me more.” We would like the strength of our persuasion to be based on the merits of what we say, but very often, the result falls on the life experiences of the non-Christian with other Christians. One rotten egg can destroy the whole omelet. Similarly, a well measured spice can enhance all the flavors of an entire broth. I am sure that my experience of evangelism is not unique. Many have shared similar stories with me. The question is why. Why do the everyday lives of Christians play such a critical role in our spreading of the gospel?

This is because our Christian beliefs are not purely intellectual exercises. They are to be lived and demonstrated. As such, the message can never be separated from messenger. The inverse is also true. The messenger can never be separated from the message. Our lives are the living testimonies of the form of gospel that we believe. This is why Paul does not need letters of commendation to show the truth of the message he preached. This is what he said to the Corinthian Christians. “3: 2You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.” They are his messengers. They embody his message.

This union between the message and the messenger is precisely why Paul was attacked by some of the Corinthians. To them, his failures in life imply that his message was a weak one. A questionable messenger leads to a questionable message. Paul needed to respond to these opponents before they divided and destroyed his church again. Because of the interconnectedness between a messenger and his message, there are two ways of defense. The first way is to defend the message. If the message is shown to be good and true, then it adds credibility to the messenger by association. This was largely covered in last week's sermon. Paul’s message is about the reconciliation with God in Christ. It is precious and transformational to those who come to realize that they are now a new creation. Because of the power of this message, we do not doubt the motives of the messenger. Paul had to do what he had to do. His motives were pure and good. In defending the message, we have rescued the messenger.

Today we shall do it the other way, which is to defend the messenger himself. If we demonstrate successfully that Paul is a trustworthy witness, then the acceptance of his message would be similarly strengthened. Over the past few sermons, we have used this method in a few ways. His accusers brought attention to all the suffering that Paul had to face. Our defense is that suffering is not a weakness, because suffering manifests the God of comfort. His accusers questioned why Paul repeatedly changed his plans. Our defense is that his plans may have changed but his heart remains unchanged. Every decision Paul made was done out of love for the Corinthians. His accusers highlighted that Paul was weak like jars of clay. We however revealed the treasures in the jars of clay. In each and every step, we have shown Paul the messenger to be worthy and reliable.

In today’s passage, we continue to add to this defense. Paul claims that he is not a stumbling block. But how can this be? Some of the church members were turned off by the hardships he had to face. Some were frightened by the persecutions faced by Paul. Some were misled by the scandals and slanders about Paul. Still others were confused by the many ambiguous reports about Paul. All these arose because of the missionary path that Paul had chosen for himself. How could he claim not to be a stumbling block for others? Isn’t the message now in trouble precisely because Paul the messenger is an easy target for his opponents?

The answer can be summed up in one word: Endurance. Paul wrote, “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance”. Paul’s conclusion is that all of his life’s experiences can be turned into commendations for himself. All of it? Yes. Even the negative ones? Yes. The key to this is endurance. Endurance is the redeeming quality that turns a person in suffering into one to be admired and respected. Think about it. Bad situations and circumstances are no cause for joy. Yet, when we see someone going through difficult times with grit and determination, we often count it as a positive testimony. This is even more so for servants. A person may endure for the sake of his own future or betterment. But the servant who endures for his master’s will is given even higher honor. This is because his sacrifice does not benefit himself. He is enduring purely for his master and the people that he benefits. This is why endurance is the way through which Paul is commending himself.

Paul elaborates on his endurance in three ways. Firstly, endurance means the ability to overcome difficulties. Paul listed out all the different situations which he has to endure. “In troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger.” This list is by no means exhaustive. You see, Paul has missed out the long and boring pastoral meetings he has to endure. (No, that’s mine ) Admittedly, these are all situations most people would avoid. Yet, Paul had overcome all these for his ministry. His opponents would say, “Yes it is precisely these situations that show that Paul’s ministry is bad. If his ministry is good, he would have been successful and luxurious.” Yes, there is no denial that these situations are bad. But which is more commendable? Is it to have a smooth sailing life, or to have the ability to overcome all difficulties? I believe the latter is the answer. There is no shame in facing difficulties in life, especially when these difficulties are accepted voluntarily for a higher goal. The only shame is if these things cause you to give up. And that is the beauty of endurance. As long as you can withstand the difficulties, you will be regarded as more honorable than before.

It is commendable to be able to endure all difficulties. But the greater commendation for Paul is in the manner in which these difficulties are overcome. This is the second part of the elaboration of his endurance. Paul’s endurance is positive and spiritual in nature. He listed out the manner in which he endured. “In purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.” Again, this list is not exhaustive. But we can see one important element from this second list: none of them is negative. Let me emphasize this importance difference. Paul’s endurance was not achieved through grumblings and grievances. Some can endure quite well in this way, but it is not the same. That would be a negative form of endurance. Paul’s endurance is not being passive aggressive. It’s not “I’ll endure, but I’ll complain all the time.” Instead, Paul’s endurance is done with God’s strength. Paul’s endurance is more than just personal will power. It is spiritual in nature. Paul’s endurance is not just being numb and going through the motions. Being a zombie was how I “endured” my army days. In this case, Paul faced his difficult situations directly with spiritual values. This is why his seemingly bad situations could all turn into good testimonies that glorify God’s name.

One such example can be found in Acts chapter 16. Paul was beaten and imprisoned in Philippi as the crowd rioted against them. We can assume he also suffered a sleepless night and hunger. Yet “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” This worship must have come from hearts of purity, understanding and patience. God’s power then caused an earthquake such that “all the prison doors flew open and everybody’s chains came loose.” When the jailer wanted to commit suicide, Paul witnessed to him. From the jailer’s subsequent conversion, we can infer that Paul was indeed armed with truthful speech and weapons of righteousness on both hands. Was it a bad situation? Yes. But Paul’s endurance, blessed with divine strength, turned it into a story of great encouragement for all.

The first point about endurance is that it is the ability to overcome great difficulties. The second point is that Paul’s endurance was achieved in a positive spiritual manner. Last but not least, Paul elaborates that he goes “through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report”. This final point is that endurance means being tested over time. In ministry, we meet many people and we encounter all sorts of situations. Not everybody interprets an event or an encounter the same way. Some can be superficial in perception. Some can be overly optimistic. Some just go along with the crowd. Some are always have contrary views. Glory and dishonor, bad report and good report, these are really just part and parcel of a pastor’s life. For every nice thing a person has to say about you, you can find another person with a bad opinion. But there is a Chinese saying, “Distance tests the endurance of a horse; time reveals a man's character (路遥知马力,日久见人心).” Endurance allows us to survive the test of time. And eventually, time will reveal who we really are.

This is why Paul says (let me use NRSV because NIV is really lousy here), “We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” In each of these seven cases, there is a first part where Paul is misunderstood because of a false superficial impression. But to those who come to know Paul more deeply, they will come to the second part, which is Paul’s true self. But how does one get to the stage of a deeper understanding? The key is endurance. Unless you endure and keep on going, how would anybody know that this is the real you? With endurance, you buy time. And time is the essential ingredient for a relationship to go deeper.

However, time by itself is not enough for a relationship to grow. You also need openness and authenticity. And this is why Paul invited the Corinthians, and especially his opponents, to open wide their hearts to him. We have seen that Paul himself began the first step. He widened his own heart. He poured out his emotions. He revealed the full extent of all his sufferings, even though he knew these were the things his opponents would use against him. But he had no choice. If he wants to be known in a deeper way, he has to open his own heart. Then with the time offered through endurance, even his opponents will know him. They will come to know that he is no stumbling block. As a messenger, he has endured and proven himself true. As a worthy messenger, his message is therefore also worthy and true. The message is inseparable from the messenger. Once again Paul has defended himself well. This is what we can learn from the passage today.

The question on our minds is perhaps this: “Am I a stumbling block?” Like it or not, we are the only bible some people will ever read. Are we the messenger tarnishing the message? It’s good that we are aware of the influence we have over the marketability of the message. But perhaps we cannot handle the heavy responsibility. As a pastor of the church, I also experience immense pressure on how I’m perceived. Whether I like it or not, there is bound to be attention on me as one of the leaders of the church. On a good day, my words may strengthen a person’s faith. But there will be times when an unthinking deed may turn a person away from the church. “Am I a stumbling block?”

Today, I think I can answer the question confidently with a “No!” And I hope it is the same for you too. The key to this is endurance. There will be many moments in ministry where things are not so rosy. I testify with an open heart that I have quarreled with a few, disappointed some, judged by many and critiqued by all. But I believe I can continue to commend myself as a worthy servant of God as long as I never give up. As long as I rely on God to overcome my difficulties, as long as I keep on moving forward positively, as long as I have faith in the merciful grace of time, I will be truly known. If your heart is pure and good, and you genuinely seek the kingdom of God and all its righteousness, then there will surely come a day where the messenger is vindicated by his endurance. You are an ally to the spreading of the message. In Paul, we trust. In you, we also trust.