A sermon preached at St Georges Windsor Third Sunday of Advent
1 Corinthians 4. 1-5 Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. 2Moreover, it is required of stewards that they should be found trustworthy. 3But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. 4I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. 5Therefore do not pronounce judgement 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 commendation from God.
Many of us here consider it our inalienable right to judge others, to be the arbiters of commendation and degradation—especially when we can find a chance to approve ourselves and reprehend our neighbours.
In this passage full of judicial language, Paul speaks positively abut God’s judgment and warns those who would judge others within the Christian community. Behind Paul’s comments lies a strong concern for unity. Paul emphasizes that Christian ministry and corporate existence must reflect a unity formed by the gospel. This first letter to the Corinthians tries to mend divisions and call Christians back to a proper understanding of their place in God’s scheme. The Corinthian church was beset by petty rivalries and widening divisions, and one of the ways in which disunity manifested itself was through the distinctions that the Corinthians were drawing among themselves. Some in Corinth were dismissive toward Paul and all too eager to make judgments of their worth relative to him. In response, Paul defends himself from their attacks and also attempts to reorient the Corinthians’ views of themselves. Paul expresses confidence in his own fidelity to God as a labourer for the sake of the gospel. Such confidence leaves him relatively impervious to the Corinthians’ personal attacks, but it does not allow him to presume God’s prerogative to judge him. Paul accepts only God’s judgment.
What then of us? We all have critics. All of us have people around us who tell us whether we dress right, talk right, think right, or do right. Critics can make us feel guilty, or ashamed, or just plain incompetent—if we let them. What might our attitude to criticism be? How might we exercise Christian judgement?
My sermon proceeds on one assumption: it is this – we make a mistake in ignoring our critics. There is energy and often truth in what they share. In listening there is opportunity.
You will notice that Paul had three kinds of critics: first, other people, second, himself, and, third, the Lord. Three critics. We have the very same ones: other people, our own selves, and the Lord. I want to look at each of them in turn and ask three questions.
Let’s first talk about our human critics: Our friends. People who go to our church. Our mothers. Our colleagues. Even our own children. They can and do criticize us for just about everything. When we let our critics become our judges, the danger is that we can let them decide whether we are good enough or beautiful enough to be loved and accepted. This is where we should learn to exercise our own criticism with caution and care. It has the power to be destructive.
As I reflect on this potential I recollect a woman once who had just about everything you might want, attractive, well educated, and wealthy, and on top of that she was a very good, generous human being.
But with all her fine qualities, she was miserable. Deeply anxious and depressed. How did she get in that terribly sad state of mind? She got into that sad state of mind by letting her critics become her judges. She had lived her whole life to win their approval. She lived in fear that if she did not measure up to their judgments, she would not be good enough for anyone, especially God, to love her.
So my first question is: how can we learn and grow from the criticisms of others?
Our second critic is our own self. God has made us with the ability to examine our own lives, to take stock of ourselves and be our own critics. The only way we will ever deepen our spiritual lives is by being critical of ourselves. This safeguards against complacency.
The apostle Paul was his own toughest critic. He took the measure of his own life and criticized himself very honestly. He said: “I find that I often do the very things that—in my deepest spirit—I do not really want to do. And I often fail to do the very things that, deep in my spirit, I really want to do.” Yes, the apostle was his own toughest critic. And he urged us to examine ourselves and be critical of what we see in ourselves.
We are simply not competent to judge ourselves. When we take stock of ourselves, we tend to see what we want to see. When we are feeling good about ourselves we want to see only the good things about ourselves and others. When we get down on ourselves we actually look for bad things in ourselves. How we see ourselves is always blurred by the mood we are in. The Bible says that all our hearts are deceitful, and they never deceive us so badly as when we are trying to examine our own selves.
I worry about people who, when they look inside themselves, always come up feeling smug, and thoroughly pleased with themselves. I also worry about people who look inside themselves and come up feeling as if their souls were cesspools. Neither of them has seen themselves for what they really are. Honesty, humility and care are needed.
My second question is this; can a careful examination of self help us to grow?
Which leaves just one more critic: The Lord himself? The apostle not only refused to let his human critics be his judges, he would not let himself be his own judge. He had a judge and told his critics who his judge was. He said: “My judge is the Lord.”
Think for a moment. God is qualified to be our judge because he knows us right down to the core, knows everything there is to know about us, good, bad, and indifferent.
How can we live with the one critic who really has the competence to be our judge? We should know that when we open ourselves up to God’s judgement we know that when God judges us, he also loves us, forgives us, and accepts us. Nothing we have ever done or ever will do can persuade God to reject us. We are always in the process of becoming
My third and final question is this : How can we open ourselves up to the possibility of conversion and grace.
Being a Christian is a process of being refined, sometimes painfully refined, to become more like Christ. What matters is what is going on now, and whether at a deep level we can dare to let God’s Holy Spirit purge away the poison of sin and, through his love, fashion within us more of the beauty and wholeness of Christ.