READ : 1 Corinthians 4:6-13
Every Christian is called to service in Christ’s name David Bast has selected ten vivid metaphors from First and Second Corinthians that describe ministers of Christ, and he explores them in this series. His message today: “We are the Scum of the Earth.” If you’re looking for a glamorous ego trip, don’t try serving Christ.
Among all the other troubles in the Corinthian church – and the place was alive with moral failure and doctrinal error – Paul had to deal with the problem of personal criticism. It is hard for us to imagine that there were those in the early church who had the audacity to pass judgment on the great apostle to the gentiles, but such was the case.
They said Paul was unimpressive and uninspiring, that he was no real apostle. They compared him unfavorably with Apollos who apparently demonstrated many of the impressive qualities of wisdom, eloquence and power that Paul lacked. Paul seemed to the Corinthians to be a pretty poor excuse for a Christian leader: physically unimposing, poor, supporting himself by manual labor (in a culture, by the way, that despised such work as fit only for slaves), and continually being knocked about by the authorities, as Paul was in city after city.
the Theology of the Cross Vs. The Theology of Glory
The reason the church in Corinth treated Paul with such disdain had to do with their theological views. Lest we think that theology is largely irrelevant to a church’s life and health, consider the way bad doctrine led the Corinthians into bad practice. There are a number of tensions that must be held together in a mature understanding of the Christian faith. There is, for example, the tension between being in the world but not of it. There’s the tension between the flesh and the spirit, that is, between our old sinful nature and the new life that comes with the new birth. And there is the tension between what theologians call “the already and the not yet,” a tension produced by the time gap between Christ’s first advent and his second one. Because Jesus Christ has already invaded our world on a mission to save, we already have life and hope and power through faith in him. But we do not yet experience these things in their fulness. We still fall sick, grow old, and die. We still sin, lacking the power to consistently resist temptation. We still wait for the full enjoyment of final victory that is to be revealed in the consummation of our blessed hope, the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is hard to keep the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” in balance in the Christian life. Too much emphasis on the not yet leads to a defeatist attitude and a joyless, powerless, fruitless Christian walk. But the Corinthians had fallen into the opposite error. They over-emphasized the already. The Christians in Corinth had come to adopt a triumphalist theology, one which taught that believers have already experienced total spiritual victory, up to and even including the final resurrection from the dead which they interpreted in a purely spiritual sense.
Now Paul responds to this Corinthian triumphalism with something approaching sarcasm. In an eloquent passage he speaks of the shame and weakness and suffering that are the lot of the true apostle here and now, and not of the true apostle only but also of all those who truly follow Jesus Christ.
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign – and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 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.
1 Corinthians 4:8-13, TNIV
The gospel offers what Luther called “a theology of the cross,” as opposed to the theology of glory that many Christians find irresistible. It is true that there is great glory in store for all who belong to Jesus Christ, that incalculable riches are ours. But our experience of this glory waits for our Lord’s glorious return. Meanwhile, the cross comes before the crown, and suffering with and for our Master is the common lot of all true believers. It should come as no surprise to the followers of a Messiah who was mocked, scourged and finally crucified by the powers that be that this world is not a friend to grace, and that total victory over sin and suffering is not to be ours until the end comes.
The Potato Peelings of the World
In their enthusiasm for spiritual power the Corinthians had forgotten this basic truth. The apostle Paul enumerates their mistakes here in 1 Corinthians 4. “You have all you want,” he writes, that is, you think you already have everything that God has to offer, that there’s nothing more that has to be waited for. Already you have become rich. You think you are rich, not in the sense that every Christian is – rich in grace and mercy – but you want to be rich in worldly terms, rich in power, wealth and pleasure. You have begun to reign: You think you can just claim victory over all adverse circumstances, and that there is no need to endure sufferings and setbacks here and now.
Well, Paul says, you’re wrong, and he goes on to describe himself in terms of the greatest contrast in order to give a picture of the true condition of the servant of Christ here and now in this world. What is the status of Christian ministers, those who proclaim an authentic theology of the cross?
Paul begins with an image drawn from the arena. In the Roman world, public entertainment included the gruesome spectacle of gladiator combats. Fights would be staged between men, between animals, and between men and animals. Usually there would be a carefully arranged, escalating level of violence and bloodshed, climaxing in death at the end of the show. So the opening fights might last only until first blood was drawn, but the last ones would go straight to the death. Or if no gladiators were to be killed in a given entertainment (after all, gladiators were valuable property), then the climax of the show might be the spectacle of feeding some condemned prisoners to the lions. These miserable wretches would be brought into the arena last of all, for all the crowd to jeer at.
That is who we are, says Paul. “God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe.” And then Paul follows with a whole list of descriptive words, alternating blows that hammer out his theology of the cross in contrast to the Corinthians theology of glory: you are wise, we are fools . . . you are strong, we are weak . . . you are honored, we are shamed . . . hungry, thirsty, ragged, abused, homeless.
This is an astonishing catalog, and all the more startling in a context like our society today, where so many celebrity ministers (at least in conservative, “Bible-believing” circles) are living lives of scandalous luxury and conspicuous consumption. And Paul isn’t finished yet. He has one more metaphor for Christian ministry: “We have become the scum of the earth,” he says, “the garbage of the world – right up to this moment.” As Eugene Peterson memorably puts it in his Message, we Christians are the “potato peelings from the culture’s kitchen.” To society’s elite Christ’s servants are like the garbage you scrape off your plate and wash down the disposal – unwanted, disgusting, something from which people of refinement and good taste avert their eyes and hold their noses. Could anything point more clearly to the life of poverty, suffering and shame that true Christians must endure? Could anything contrast more starkly with my own comfortable, respectable middle-class existence?
Who Needs It?
Now if this was what life was really like for the apostle Paul in his day and is now like for many Christians in many parts of the world in this day, I have one simple question: why would anyone in their right mind want to be a Christian? If this is how the apostles were treated, why would you want to be a Christian at all, let alone a minister of the gospel? Paul doesn’t seem to offer a very compelling case for embracing a life of service to Christ.
But there is just this one thing. You see, all along, Paul has been describing things from the world’s point of view. This is how the ungodly culture sees us, he says, this is how we are treated by the world.
But there is another point of view that must be taken into account. A bit earlier Paul had written this,
Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. (v. 5, NIV)
You see, human judgments really don’t matter in the end. Only God’s opinion matters. And we may be very sure that he has a radically different view of the value and worth of every person who is willing to join his Son in accepting the abuse and scorn of the world, enduring the cross and despising the shame, for the sake of the joy and the glory that is ahead.