************ Sermon on 2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on August 20, 2006
2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6
2 Corinthians 2:16b, 3:5b
"Who is Worthy?"
Installation of Elders and Deacons
Topic: ChurchThis is a humorous look at what church government often looks like.
Subtopic: Government of
Title: Five Apes in a Cage
Start with a cage containing five apes. In the cage, hang a banana on a string and put stairs under it. Before long, an ape will go to the stairs and start to climb toward the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the apes with cold water. After a while, another ape makes an attempt with the same result - all the apes are sprayed with cold water. This continues through several more attempts. Pretty soon, when another ape tries to climb the stairs, the other apes all try to prevent it.
Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one ape from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new ape sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his horror, all of the other apes attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.
Next, remove another of the original five apes and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.
Again, replace a third original ape with a new one. The new one makes it to the stairs and is attacked as well. Two of the four apes that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest ape.
After replacing the fourth and fifth original apes, all the apes originally sprayed with cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no ape ever again approaches the stairs.
Why not? Because that's the way they've always done it, and that's the way it's always been around here.
You men have been called by God to govern the church in Christ's name. On this installation Sunday, I want to tell you that those who are elders and deacons have been appointed by God and equipped by the Holy Spirit to do more than say, "That's the way we have always done it around here."
I Who is Equal to Such a Task?
A It is an honor to be an elder and a deacon (1 Tim 5:17). But that doesn't mean it is an easy calling. Listen, again, to how our installation form puts it:
Elders serve by governing the church in Christ's name. Elders are ... responsible for the spiritual well-being of God's people. They must provide true preaching and teaching, regular celebration of the sacraments, and faithful counsel and discipline ... And they must promote fellowship and hospitality among believers, ensure good order in the church, and stimulate witness to all people.
Deacons serve by showing mercy to the church and to all people ... In Christ's name the deacons relieve victims of injustice ... in word as well as deed they demonstrate the care of the Lord himself.
These tasks of elders and deacons call for believers who are Christlike, who are mature in the faith, and who exercise their offices with prayer, patience, and humility.
Over the years, I have heard the same response over and over again from those who are elders and deacons to this calling: "I can't do that." "I am not worthy." "I am inadequate."
I agree. I agree. Every one of our elders and deacons, and the minister standing in front of you this morning – we are all unworthy. None of us are worthy of the office entrusted to us by the Lord. None of us are adequate for the calling given us. We all stand before the Lord and His people as fallen, humbled, sinners. We don't presume to rely on our own strength or on our own wisdom or on our own power.
B In our text for this morning we see the exact same response from Paul. He says in our text, "And who is equal to such a task?" (2 Cor 2:16b). He says this in such a way that it is clear he does not consider himself worthy of the calling given to him.
Paul tells us he had gone from Ephesus to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ (2 Cor 2:12). That was his calling and that was his joy. Wherever he went he found hurting people – people sunk in despair, filled with darkness, their lives governed by superstition and fear. It was Paul's great joy to come to them with the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul told the hurting people that Jesus understands the hurts of men, that He is the deliverer from bondage, that He is the one Who has the power to touch and transform human lives. Paul longed to preach the gospel to all the world because it was such a tremendous thing to see the power of God in Christ setting people free.
So Paul came to the city of Troas with the message of Christ. And, he tells us, a great door was opened for him by the Lord; that is, people were hungry for the gospel (2 Cor 2:12). Hundreds of people gathered in the marketplaces and the public squares to hear the words of the apostle. A church was already there and the city was stirred as Paul came and preached.
In talking of this calling, Paul talks about "the aroma of Christ" and the "fragrance of the knowledge of him" (2 Cor 2:14,15). And, he speaks of a "triumphal procession" (2 Cor 2:14).
To understand what Paul is saying, we must know the picture Paul has in mind. The picture Paul has in mind is of a triumphal Roman parade. The march was gorgeous and magnificent. Members of the Roman senate and other high officials came first in the procession. After them there came a group that displayed the spoils taken from the conquered land – for example, the seven-branched candlestick and the golden table of show bread from the Temple in Jerusalem. Behind them were the bulls to be sacrificed to their gods. Next in the march we see captive princes, nobles, and generals – every one in chains. Behind them were musicians and they were followed by priests with censers from which came the smoke of pleasant aroma which filled the place. Behind the priests was the victorious general in his special chariot with special attire and along with him was his victorious army also in spectacular outfits. This was the picture in the mind of Paul.
Paul used this picture to represent the work of Christ. It is Jesus Who is the victorious commander. He is the conqueror. Through the centuries many have fought against Him. But He has conquered them all. Emperors and empires, cultures and religions, philosophies and world views, were not able to confine or contain Him. Religiously it was Judaism and politically it was Rome that persecuted Christianity most. But, it was Judaism that lost – not Christ or Christianity. Likewise, the Roman emperors Nero, Domitian, Decius, and Diocletian tried to exterminate Christ and Christianity. But where is Rome now? It is Christ Who is the conqueror.
It is Christ who fought the battle and gained the victory. But Paul sees himself in the triumphal procession. Praise God, we are also in that army. Paul says he and we are the aroma of Christ. In other words, through us and through Paul God spreads His fragrance everywhere.
Yet, as Paul tells us, he felt inadequate. His heart was troubled and his spirit was anxious. We know he was scared that all his labors in Corinth were about to fall apart because of a terrible problem that was eating at the life of the Corinthian church and threatening to destroy the work he had done. He was gripped by a sense of personal failure. It seemed that neither his letters nor his visits were able to work out the problem. So, he left Troas and went up into Macedonia, hoping to find Titus and some relief for his troubled mind.
Paul is called to preach the Gospel, to lift up the downtrodden, to give light to those in darkness, to be the aroma of Christ. But he is so distressed by what is going on in Corinth he feels unable to do this. No wonder he asks, "Who is equal to such a task?" (2 Cor 2:16b).
We also need to remember what people saw when they looked at Paul from a worldly point-of-view. It was said that in person he was unimpressive and his speaking amounted to nothing (2 Cor 10:10). He was never received with a parade by the Chamber of Commerce; rather, he was greeted with whips and beatings. No reporters followed him around, interviewing him on his crusades and rallies; rather, he was followed around by enemies of the cross. He was a man who spent most of his ministry in jail, who never made enough salary to buy a home of his own, who never built a church building, who never spoke on television, or even had a radio broadcast, who ran around so much that he had no permanent residence of his own, who frequently had to get another job to support himself. In the eyes of the world he was a loser. Yet, he was called to preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. "Who is equal to such a task?" (2 Cor 2:16b).
I know, like Paul, what it means to be called to preach and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ. And, like Paul, I have experienced times when my heart was so filled with anxiety and distress that I did not know whether I could even open my mouth. I understand what Paul felt like, and I know our elders and deacons and many in the congregation feel this way too. "Who is equal to such a task?" (2 Cor 2:16b). Along this line, listen to what Reinhold Niebuhr said:
I wonder if the strong sense of frustration which comes over me so frequently on Sunday evening and to which many other ministers have confessed is merely due to physical lassitude or whether it arises from the fact that every preacher is trying to do a bigger thing than he is equal to--and fails.
Paul is not equal to the task. Neither am I or any other preacher. Neither are the elders and deacons. Neither is anyone in the congregation. No mere human and no human resource is equal to this. There is no school you can graduate from that will give you this capability. There is no course you can take. No human leader can teach you how to function so that people are actually set free.
II Our Competence Comes From God
A "Who is equal to such a task?" (2 Cor 2:16b). No one! Well, then, how dare I stand before you this morning as your pastor? How dare the elders and deacons answer "I do" to the questions of ordination? How dare you, the congregation, pledge to receive the office-bearers as Christ's gift to the church?
If none of us are worthy how is it that the church manages to do her work and calling?
Paul answers this in the second part of our text. He repeats what he said before, though he uses different words. He says we are not competent in ourselves. Then he adds this: "our competence comes from God" (2 Cor 3:5b).
I want you to know that if I did not believe in this principle I would resign from the ministry at the elders' meeting tomorrow night. The only thing that enables me to keep going, in spite of my personal frustrations and weaknesses and sins, is that in Christ I am competent to be a minister of the gospel. Out of my weakness and your weakness – praise God – we see the strength and fragrance of Christ.
B Speaking of this, what do you smell like? What do I smell like? Most people would consider this question offensive. Yet most people care deeply about what others think of their particular odor.
Subtopic: The Aroma
Americans spend zillions of dollars every year on perfumes and cologne. Obsession costs $75 for 1/4 of an ounce and quality gentlemen's foo-foo sells for about $10 an ounce. But those products just fix you from the neck up. Deodorants, special soaps, body splashes and powders, breath mints and mouthwashes are also big ticket items for the socially conscious. If you need a good excuse to buy products that make you smell pleasant, here it is.
Now there is a new branch of scientific research called "odor engineering." So far the researchers have tried odor engineering only in the work place. According to the publication "Communication Briefings," one Japanese firm reports that air scented with lavender cut keypunching errors by 21 percent. Jasmine-scented air dropped errors by 33 percent and lemon in the air was even better - this cut errors by 54 percent. They determined that lavender reduces stress, jasmine relaxes and lemon stimulates. Odors do make a difference. Don't give your wife or secretary flowers - give her lemons!
This research gives new significance to the words of our Scripture reading:
(2 Cor 2:15-16) For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. (16) To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.The odor engineers have not done any research as to what happens when a true believer comes around and gives everybody a whiff of Christ. But Paul says this odor does make a difference. The believer, with the knowledge and life of Christ, emits (in a figurative way) the very smell of Christ's sweet sacrifice (cf Eph 5:2). We cannot buy it in a bottle. It does not ooze out of our pores. It comes out in our attitudes, actions and words. That sweet smell affects everybody around us. So it might not be a bad idea to ask yourself, "What do I really smell like?" If you know Christ your life smells good. And you will naturally make a difference in all those around you.
But notice – it is not of us, it is of Christ. It is not our smell; it is the aroma of Christ. We are not competent of ourselves; "our competence comes from God" (2 Cor 3:5b).
C In talking of competence Paul is talking of confidence. And just about everybody in the world wants to have confidence. There are all kinds of programs and approaches and courses out there that tell you how to become a self-sufficient, confident, capable, well-adjusted person who is more than able to handle life. But most of these programs and approaches work on the same principle. Confidence, we are told, has to come from yourself. You have to find in yourself the power to succeed.
Paul needed and wanted confidence too. There is nothing wrong with that. God knows we need to have a sense of ability. But the big question, the important question is, where does it come from? Paul's answer: "It doesn't come from me. It comes from God." Therefore, he takes no credit for anything.
Isn't this amazing? In spite of what the world says, those within the church have always recognized that Paul was an unusually competent person. He had marvelous gifts. His was the keenest of minds. He had a powerful personality. He had a zeal that was simply remarkable. He was well-read and well-studied and well-educated. Yet he says, "Not that we are competent in ourselves ... but our competence comes from God" (2 Cor 3:5).
What a difference the gospel has made in Paul. In the old covenant Paul was trying to do his best on behalf of God. In the new covenant God is doing His best through Paul.
We all need to learn the lesson that Paul obviously learned. Like Paul, we need to realize we are not equal to such a task as elder, deacon, pastor, or even believer. Like Paul, we need to realize we are not competent in ourselves. Like Paul, we need to realize our competence comes from God. It is God Who enables us to do what we cannot do on our own. It is God Who gives us wisdom. It is God Who gives us strength. It is God Who allows us to persevere. It is God Who makes us the aroma of Christ.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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