Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Upside-Down Life

"The Upside-Down Life" (1 Corinthians 4:1-5, 16-17), a sermon preached by Arden Autry at First United Methodist Church, Tulsa, OK, February 5, 2012

I catch myself sometimes imitating my dad.  I notice that I’m laughing, frowning, or gesturing like he does.  My “ways” are a lot like his, probably more than I notice.  It’s natural because I learned how to speak and act by watching and listening to him as I grew up.  What I imitated became part of me.  My laughs, frowns, and gestures are genuinely mine, even though I learned them by imitating my dad.
A lot of things we do and say—and even think—we learned by imitation—from parents, perhaps from childhood peers, or peers of the workplace.  We may not have chosen these influences consciously, but we were shaped by the process of imitation until certain expressions and attitudes were internalized.  What we imitate long enough, we internalize.  We become what we imitate.
In 1 Cor. 4:16, the Apostle Paul says, “I urge you to imitate me.”  He doesn’t mean imitating his gestures or his facial expressions.  He means imitating his values and priorities, his upside-down way of living not for himself, for his comfort or career advancement, but rather for Christ and his kingdom. 
Let’s look at the context of 1 Cor. 4:16, where Paul says, “Imitate me.”  Notice “therefore” at the beginning of the verse.  It points back to the previous verses as the basis for what Paul says in verse 16.  The most immediate connection is with verses 14-15. 
Paul addresses the Corinthians as “my dear children” (vs. 14).  Speaking figuratively, he says that “in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (vs. 15, NIV).  Paul brought the gospel to their city; he led them to faith in Christ.  In that sense, Paul is their spiritual father.  They should imitate him, as “dear children” would imitate a respected parent. 
If you look just at the previous paragraph in 1 Cor. 4 you might not want to imitate Paul.  Look how he describes some of his experience.  In verses 11-13, he says that he has been “hungry and thirsty . . . in rags [not adequately dressed] . . . brutally treated [beaten] . . . homeless.”  He goes on to say he has been “cursed . . . persecuted . . . [and] slandered.”  In the eyes of some people, at least, Paul is regarded as “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”
That doesn’t sound very attractive, does it?  Of course not everyone abused him.  Many were grateful for his ministry.  But he was often treated quite harshly.  But look how he treated people:  “we bless . . . we endure . . . we answer kindly” (vss. 12-13).  “We answer kindly” (NIV) could be translated “we speak words of encouragement.”  What a response to slander!  Some people speak ill of Paul, not just pagan or religious opponents, but even some Christians.  But Paul looks for ways to speak encouragement, positive, kind words to promote better attitudes and more up-lifting ways of speaking and acting. 
Paul would certainly encourage us to imitate him in blessing, enduring, and speaking kindly, but the real foundation for his lifestyle is found in an earlier paragraph. Let’s look at the first five verses of chapter 4. 
Look at verse one. “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.”  How does Paul want others to see him? How does Paul see himself?   As a servant of Christ (vs. 1).  That means Paul serves Christ’s purposes, rather than his own.  Paul wants to be Christ-serving rather than self-serving. 
Paul says he has been “entrusted with the secret things of God” (vs. 1, NIV).  For “entrusted” other translations use the word “steward,” which means someone entrusted with responsibility for resources that belong to someone else; someone who’s been given responsibility for another person’s project.  Paul is a steward, responsible to God for what Paul does with his life and all the gifts God has given him.  And the project is spreading the gospel of salvation, the good news that there is a Savior for all humanity and his name is Jesus.  That project is God’s agenda.  And the resources for this project—including Paul’s very life—belong to God. 
Paul’s self-description as a servant of Christ means he is not commander of his own life; he is not the captain of the ship; he’s the crew.  He is answerable to God, the owner of the ship.  He serves Christ, the captain of the ship. The business of Paul’s life is not his own business; it’s God’s business. 
Being entrusted with “the secret things of God,” means he is responsible to God for the truth God has revealed.   What Paul does with God’s truth is (first of all) how he responds to it in his own life.  Second, it is how he shares that truth with other people, by what he says and by how he lives.  If Paul speaks truthfully but lives falsely, he will not be a good steward; that would mean a violation of trust, a dereliction of duty. 
This is certainly an important way to imitate Paul, by acknowledging Christ’s ownership of our lives and realizing that we are responsible to God for how we believe and obey his word.  And we are accountable to God for how we allow his agenda to shape our lives so that our lifestyle testifies to the truth and authority of God’s word.  So that our daily lives bear witness—in word but especially in deeds—to the goodness, the grace, and the generosity of God.
Let’s look at verse 2. “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”  As a steward, entrusted with God’s resources and God-given opportunities, Paul seeks to be faithful (vs. 2).  In the end, this is all that matters for stewardship:  Have I been faithful with the resources and opportunities God has given me?  This attitude, this value of putting faithfulness to God above everything else—this is the key to Paul’s whole life.  This is why Paul’s way of living would be regarded by most people as upside-down, but this is why God regards Paul’s life as right-side up.
If you let faithfulness to God be the mainspring of your life, you will be different from the majority of people, especially in our culture.  Our culture does not encourage faithfulness to God; our culture encourages us to seek personal fulfillment. Our culture tries to teach us that fulfillment trumps all other values, including faithfulness to God and faithfulness to others to whom we should be committed:  others who depend on our promises; others whose welfare depends on our reliability.  Much of the heartache that humans inflict on one another and on themselves can be traced to regrettable choices to put personal fulfillment ahead of faithfulness.
Faithfulness or fulfillment?  What shall be the supreme, governing value of our lives?  In itself fulfillment is a good thing, when it is the fruit of faithfulness.  But our culture teaches us to want personal fulfillment above all else.  Constant advertising and media attention devoted to celebrities stoke the fires that burn within us: we desire to be admired, we desire to be desired, we desire to get and enjoy things that promise contentment but can never deliver.  Even when we experience some fulfillment, we find it doesn’t last and we feel empty again.  But we don’t drop the pursuit; we just ramp up the effort to find fulfillment, sometimes at the expense of sacrificing faithfulness. 
The contest between faithfulness and fulfillment is at the heart of some ‘hot-button’ issues, such as same-sex marriage and unrestricted abortion.  But it’s also at the heart of every person’s battle to decide which values to live by, which goals to pursue, and what to sacrifice for the sake of a greater good.  It’s at the heart of how I run my business or pursue my career.  It’s at the heart of how I decide priorities of family and finances. 
What will I put first?  Faithfulness to God; faithfulness to others that God has put in my life—my spouse; my family; fellow members of my family in Christ?  Will I seek to be all I’m called to be in Christ, for my benefit but also for the blessing of others?  Or will these relationships take second place so that I can pursue personal fulfillment?  These choices confront us on a daily basis.  The stark truth—often discovered only with painful experience—is that sacrificing faithfulness in pursuit of fulfillment will leave you empty-handed.  The path of faithfulness is the only one that leads to lasting fulfillment.
Unfortunately our default setting—if we don’t screen the values pushed by our culture, especially by advertising and the media in general—our default setting is to opt for self-fulfillment.  That’s one reason we need to pray, every day, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”  Unless we regularly listen and respond to God’s will, we will naturally enough do our will as it is regularly done on earth, functioning with the default setting on personal fulfillment rather than faithfulness to God’s kingdom.
Notice how Paul’s priority of faithfulness to God gives him courage to deal with other people.  In verse three, Paul boldly says, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court” (vs. 3, NIV).   This he says to a church caught up in silly comparisons about which preacher is the best—Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. In other words, Paul says, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re impressed by me or not!” 
But look at verses 4 and 5. There will be an evaluation of Paul’s life and ministry, the effect his life has had on others, but it won’t be by a vote of the Corinthians: “It is the Lord who judges me” (vs. 4).  Unlike humans, who have to judge by what we observe outwardly, the Lord knows “what is hidden in darkness.”  He knows the true “motives of men’s hearts” (vs. 5, NIV).

Paul has a clear conscience, but he knows the ultimate Judge, God, is the only one whose judgment finally matters (vss. 3-4).  Paul’s view of himself, his positive self-regard or self-image, won’t count in the end. 
It’s good to have a clear conscience.  A troubled conscience will thwart your life in countless ways.  If you carry around a guilty conscience, you won’t even see the good you could do for others because you’ll be pre-occupied with yourself.  It’s good to have a clear conscience, but it’s not the final accountability. 
It’s good to have a good reputation with others.  A reputation for honesty, competence, and reliability will get you more opportunities to do well and to do good.  But having the best reputation among your peers is not the final accountability.
Finally and inescapably we are accountable to God, as Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”  And in our text this morning, in 1 Cor. 4:5, Paul reminds us of that time when “each will receive his praise from God.” 
It’s nice to have the praise of people who are pleased with something you did.  I enjoy it when people tell me they liked my lecture or sermon or song.  But the praise of people will count for nothing when we stand before God.  Then God’s praise, his pleasure, his approval, his commendation, will be all that matters.
Let’s summarize what we’ve seen in this chapter.  What does it mean to “imitate” Paul?  This chapter highlights Paul’s selfless concern for the spiritual well-being of others, his concern for God’s judgment alone, his lack of concern for human popularity (vss. 1-5), and his willingness even to be mistreated for sake of the gospel (vss.11-13).  To imitate Paul means putting God’s blessing for others ahead of concern for my reputation, my career potential, or how I compare with other ministers or other Christians.  To put it in a single word, Paul values faithfulness to Jesus above everything else.  To imitate Paul, my top priority must be faithfulness to Christ.
In several of his letters Paul encourages Christians to imitate him.  One passage, 1 Corinthians 11:1, is particularly important. In 1 Cor. 11:1, Paul says, according to the NIV: Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  A more literal translation, the New American Standard, puts it this way:  Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”  Paul could safely encourage us to imitate him only to the extent that he imitated Christ.  That’s implicit in every passage where Paul encourages us to imitate him.  Imitate someone who imitates Christ.  That’s good advice for everyone.
The word “imitation” can sound superficial, but think about it: almost everything we know how to do, we learned first by imitation, including learning to speak.  Much of this imitation is not consciously chosen (like accents or prejudice).  But Paul urges a conscious choice to imitate a good example.  Indeed, if we do not consciously, deliberately choose to imitate good examples, we are likely to imitate bad examples, which are abundant in the world.
Be careful what you imitate, because what you imitate continually you will internalize eventually.  When we choose to imitate Christ and mature Christians, the Holy Spirit works to make these qualities our own, as fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).  But you’re less likely to exhibit these qualities unconsciously if you do not consciously choose them, from observing them in others, or in God, and deciding to imitate them.
Imitating Christ, imitating Paul or other good Christian examples will be an ‘upside-down’ way of life because it’s opposite in many ways to the life-style and priorities the world promotes.  But it really boils down to this question:  What values and priorities define your life?  What is your life about?
If you pay attention to mass-media advertising, you’ll think your life is defined by consumption, by having the latest, the shiniest, the fastest, the sexiest, whatever it takes to affirm yourself as being of value.  And there’s no better day of the year to be aware of this than Super Bowl Sunday, where advertisements get special attention.  Notice what they’re offering you, and ask whether this product can really deliver on the ad’s promise, or whether this is just a way to get you to spend money pursuing self-fulfillment through consumption.
It’s almost un-American to criticize consumption.  After all, our economy depends on people spending, not on people saving. But that’s not my point just now.  My point is that you’re called to something better, something higher, something more lasting, and something ultimately more fulfilling. 
Paul began this book by reminding us that we’re “called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2).  We call on Jesus as Lord because he called us first.  And he didn’t call us to be consumers, spending our money and our lives pursuing more and more stuff.  He called us to be holy, sanctified by our worship of him, and devoted to his purposes in the world.  His purpose is to bless and heal the world through right relationships with God and one another.  We’re called to be part of that healing.
Another way to say it: You’re not called to be a bucket.  You’re called to be a pipeline.
If your purpose in life is to acquire, collect, and consume, then your life is like a bucket.  The question is how much you can hold; what will it take to fill you up, since you seem to leak?  And what will you have when the bucket bursts?  But if living like a bucket has not satisfied you, maybe you should try living like a pipeline.
You can be a pipeline, a means of conveying blessing from God to people around you.  You can let God pour out abundant blessings for you to share with others.  I’m not talking simply about money.  I’m talking about time, faith, hope, and love.  People around you are desperate for these.  Let God use you as a pipeline for blessing others, and there is no way you can avoid being touched by his blessings, too.
Of course a certain amount of consuming and collecting is necessary and prudent.  You and your family need food, shelter, clothing, transportation, etc.  Consumption, however, is not your calling.  Your calling is to make a long-term difference for good in the lives of other people, knowing that God Almighty is looking after your eternal good.
This is the calling for which we are accountable.  This is the stewardship with which we’re entrusted.  The point of your life is not how much you collect or consume; the point of your life is how much you bless others in Jesus’ name for the sake of the kingdom of God.  The point of your life, in other words, is how much you imitate God, your heavenly Father, in his grace, love, and generosity.
Faithful imitation of your heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit—that’s your calling, and that’s your path to lasting fulfillment.


  1. Arden, this sums up my 2 plus years in Bible school earning my Bachelors in Theology. Well Done!!! The only thing we add to your teaching at my church and Bible school is the urgency and commission to go into all the world to preach the gospel! As my pastor says, "The great commission is not the great suggestion." Not everyone is called to be an evangelist, but we are all called to evangelize as a lifestyle. We like to say, "evangelism is not a program, it's a passion." I have personally led over 3,000 people to the Lord one-on-one. About half of the people I encountered at the grocery store or the park or the gas station or in my neighborhood. In the course of a day someone will most likely hear about Jesus and be given the opportunity to pray and ask Him to be their Lord and savior. The other half are people I evangelized in the inner city. I go out on Saturday morning almost every week with a team. We are in 28 communities in the Tampa area. We bus them in for church, feed them, come to their communities weekly and lead Bible studies, etc. It is the most rewarding, fulfilling and exciting life I could ever imagine having.

    I remember my early years at First Church with great fondness. Sitting under your teaching was an essential part of my training. Thank you and God bless you and June.
    Mary Fields, maryf316@gmail.com

    1. Hi, Mary. How good to hear from you! And how good to hear some of what you and your church are up to. Praise God! Sounds like you are walking in the Spirit day by day. You would have to, to be doing all that. Thanks for your encouraging words, as always.