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TEXT: I Corinthians 16:1-12
SUBJECT: The Communion of Saints
What is the Communion of Saints? For two thousand years, the people of God have been standing up in our churches saying we--
Believe in the Communion of Saints.
But I wonder if we know what we're saying. The words 'communion' or 'fellowship' mean 'a shared life'. The Church is the Body of Christ--Paul says--and, like a human body, every part is connected to every other part. Some parts are more closely connected than others--the finger to the hand, for example--but no part is unconnected to any other. The next time you stub your toe really hard, ask yourself: 'What hurts'? If your toe stubbing is at all like mine, your answer will be 'everything'. The whole body shares in the pain of its every part. And its every pleasure.
This is what communion or fellowship is. Each member of the church remains himself, but, at the same time, he takes part in a Life bigger than his own. What kind of Life is it? It is a life lived Heaven and on earth at the same time.
By faith, all Christians are united to Jesus, and this means we are--right now--Seated with Christ in the Heavenly Places. Paul was a literate man, and had he wanted to use the future tense, he would have. He would have said, 'We will be seated with Christ'. But he doesn't say, 'We will be': he says, 'We are'. In a mysterious way, therefore, the believer in Christ shares in the Heavenly Life of the Enthroned Lord. What that looks like, we can only find hints of in the Bible (start with Revelation).
The Life we share with Christ, we also share with fellow believers. The Bible nowhere says 'the Christian is married to Christ'. It says, 'The Church is the bride of Christ'. Jesus is not a super-rich polygamist, supporting millions and millions of wives! He is faithful to one Bride, and that's the church. The Church is universal, and all members are connected to Christ and to each other. But the universal church becomes concrete in the local church.
This is where things get tricky. Sharing Life with a brother in Australia is a lot easier than sharing Life with a brother sitting next to me in the pew. The brother in Australia has never done me wrong; he never disagrees with me; he never talks too much; he never ignores me; he never snubs me; he's never too busy for me; and best of all, he never borrows money and 'forgets' to repay it!
The brother sitting next to me, however, is liable to do all these things, and worse. What the man said about people in general goes double for the church--
I love the human race;
it's the people I can't stand!
But this is what the Lord has called us to do--'to stand the people of God', and more than 'to stand them', He has called us to love them, and something even harder than that, He has called us to live with them. The Early Church revered the Pillar Saints, men who sat on pillars out in the desert to purify their souls. If the Church had been better versed in the Bible, they would have told the stupid fools to come down and purify their souls in the church! Jesus didn't leave Zacahaeus up a tree to meditate on Divine Mysteries; He called him to dinner, where some people are going to eat too much; others are going to pick at their food, and some might be so gauche as to eat their salad with a dessert fork! But Jesus loved them all, and by the time coffee was served, so did Zacahaeus!
This is what it means to believe in--and to practice--the Communion of Saints. This is what we have in today's text, I Corinthians 16:1-12.
At first glance, it seems to be a tack on to the Epistle. Paul needed to say these things, but hadn't been able to work them earlier, so he tacks them on at the end. There is some truth to this. These are miscellaneous things and what's wrong with cramming them in to the last few inches of his letter? Paper was expensive in those days, and the mail moved slowly and didn't always get there. In any event, the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write these things, and He put them in the Bible for our good.
There's no direct teaching here; Paul tells the Corinthians to do a couple or three things, but the orders are for them, not for us. Paul's not wintering with us any time soon! He's not sending Timothy to Fremont! Or promising Apollos will come by the first chance he gets! And he's not commanding us to take up a collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Yet all these local and time sensitive things speak God's Word to us, as well as to them.
How? By showing us what the Communion of Saints looks like. Nobody hated expository fiction more than the great Hemingway. His characters didn't give speeches; his narrators did not explain things. When a young writer asked him how to say something, Hemingway, replied--
Don't say it; show it!
This is what the first half of our chapter is doing: not explaining the doctrine of fellowship, but showing us what it looks like, in a real place at a real time.
The first item of business is the collection, vv.1-4--
Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also: on the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there may be no collections when I come. And, when I come, whomever you approve by your letters I will send to bear your gift to Jerusalem. But if it is fitting that I go also, they will go with me.
Like all churches, the Corinthian church had expenses. We don't know what their priorities, but from looking at the rest of the New Testament, we can assume they paid their teaching pastors, took care of their widows, and supported missionaries. How they took up an offering for these ordinary expenses, we can't say.
Because the offering Paul refers to here is not ordinary. It is a special offering for the Christians in Jerusalem. Why did they need it? Part of the need, I'm sure, had to do with persecution. In the First Century, the church's worst enemy, was not Paganism, but Judaism. When Jews took Jesus as their Messiah, they lost their jobs, their families, and their place in society. This made living very hard for the first churches.
To make things worse, Judea, at the time, was suffering a severe famine, and, cut off from their families and neighbors, the Christians were in danger of starving.
Paul was not 'okay' with this. The Gentile churches had to relieve their Jewish brethren, and some of them were doing it. The Macedonians, for example, were dirt poor themselves, but their love for the brotherhood caused them to overflow with generosity (cf. II Corinthians 8).
This was a humanitarian effort, but it was also more than that. The Gentile churches had to know they were connected to the churches in Judea; and the other way around: the Jewish Christians, who once believed they had an exclusive claim on Salvation, had to know they didn't, that the Israel of God is all who repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ.
The Corinthians weren't rich people, and had Paul sprung the news on them suddenly, demanding a big offering, they couldn't have given him one--even if they wanted to. So he doesn't do that. What he tells them to do is bring an offering every Sunday; he doesn't specify how much they ought to bring, or what percentage of their income they ought to donate. What he's a stickler about is consistency, discipline. Every week they can do without a thing or two, and the money that would have been spent on that 'thing or two' should now be given to relieve the needs of the saints in Judea.
Paul was very wise to put it this way. For more than fifty years, my father was the treasurer of his church. If there's one thing he hated (and passed along to me), it was fund raising, high pressure meetings designed to get people to give big offerings. My objection to them is aesthetic: they're tacky. But Dad was more practical than I: He hated them because...they don't work!
Like other aspects of discipleship, fits of generous giving raise far less money than modest, but consistent, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year giving.
Paul wants no part of a vulgar fund raising service; he wants the money ready when he gets there, and he knows it will be when people give every week.
Helping the saints doesn't end when the funds are raised. Paul wants trusted members of the church to deliver the money themselves. He wants them personally involved, both in the suffering of God's People, and also in their relief. This will bring the churches closer together and clear the rubble from the middle walls of partition Jesus knocked down when He rose from the dead!
He trusts the church to select wise and honest men to carry the funds. If it's convenient, he'll go with them, but if it's not, they can go on their own.
This is what the Communion of Saints looks like: Like weeping with those who weep, and moving to relieve their distress; it looks like teamwork; it looks like mutual trust.
Next we have Paul's travel plans, vv.5-8--
Now I will come to you when I pass through Macedonia (for I am passing through Macedonia). But it may be that I remain, or even spend the winter with you, that you may send me on my journey wherever I go. For I do not wish to see you now on the way; but I hope to stay a while, if the Lord permits. But I will tarry in Ephesus until Pentecost.
Paul is in Ephesus at the moment, but when he gets the chance, he's going to revisit his friends in Corinth. He's not sure when, but it will be some time after Pentecost, which is fifty days after Easter. Apparently, he hopes to come in the Fall and stay through the Winter.
This would be rather dull news, unless you remember how tense things are between Paul and the Corinthians. Most of the people don't respect him and wonder if his ministry is from the Lord at all! If you read II Corinthians, you find things are getting more tense and unpleasant by the minute.
Yet he still wants to see them! He still loves them and wants to do them good. He spells this out in II Corinthians 12:15--
And I will very gladly spend and be spent for your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved.
Being a realistic man, he knows being there won't be all rainbows and lollipops, but he also believes in the Holy Spirit and His power to change His people from what we are to what we ought to be! Near the end of v.6, he says--
You will send me on my way.
This doesn't mean 'good riddance'. It means they'll cover his travel expenses. They have forgotten how much they love him; but when they see him again, they'll remember. This has nothing to do with Paul's charming personality! It has to do with sanctification! The Lord will change them.
This is what the Communion of Saints looks like. It's not cutting brethren off when they've wronged you; it's not allowing awkwardness to become alienation. Like a good marriage, it's sticking together through the ups and downs of life.
The Christians I most respect are the ones who stay in their flawed, messed up, imperfect churches for years and years and years. It is much easier to dream about the perfect church than to live in a real one.
AN IMPLIED PRAYER REQUEST
V.9 is an implied prayer request--
For a great and effective door is opened to me and there are many adversaries.
Cities are opening up to Paul's message, sinners are being saved, and churches founded. But not everyone is so happy to see him. Everywhere Paul goes, unbelieving Jews are hounding him, stirring up Pagan prejudices, and sicking the law on him.
Paul is a brilliant and brave and determined man, but he's not up to the work God is giving him. He's not sufficient for these things! And, without exactly saying it, he wants the Corinthians to pray for him and the success of his mission.
This is a very big part of the Communion of Saints: praying for each other, not just saying we will, but doing it! Have you been praying for your church? Have you been praying for your pastors? For you deacon? For the brother sitting next to you or the sister with the babies in the nursery? Are we praying for each other's health? For each other's jobs? For each other's families? That each of us would have chances to speak up for Christ and that the ones we speak to will listen?
This is one reason to attend the prayer meeting. No, it's not very sexy, but it's important, and it's a way of strengthing the ties of fellowship and mutual help.
Finally, in vv. 10-12, we see Paul the team player--
Now if Timothy comes, see that he may be with you without fear; for he does the work of the Lord; as I also do. Therefore, let no one despise him. But send him on his journey in peace, that he may come to me; for I am waiting for him with the brethren.
Now, concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to come to you with the brethren, but he was quite unwilling to come at this time; however, he will come when he has a convenient time'.
Paul is the leader of the Gentile Church, but he doesn't think of himself in this way or demand that others give him his due Timothy is not the man Paul is; he doesn't have the Apostle's great courage and take-charge attitude. But he is a servant of the Lord, and if he comes, Paul wants them to respect him and value his work.
This goes for Apollos as well. Now, he was one of Paul's rivals in Corinth. He hadn't made himself one, but that's what they did to him: set him up against Paul. Paul is not offended! Apollos is also a servant of Christ, and Paul urgently wants him to help the Corinthians too.
Unlike so many pastors, Paul is not eaten up by envy, about where he is on the list. He doesn't care, because the church doesn't exist for the good of the pastor, but the pastor exists for the good of the church! Nobody hires a shepherd and then buys sheep to give him something to do. They bring on a shepherd because they already have the sheep and they want them taken care of!
Adultery and embezzlement are the ministerial faults that make the newspapers. While they may be the most scandalous, they are not the most common or worst faults in my line of work. The sins that hurt us and our churches most are envy and selfish ambition, the very things Paul names in Philippians 2:3.
You're never going to have the communion of saints until pastors humble themselves and love and respect each other. We're never going to do this until our people pray for us and watch over us with a careful but loving eye.
God calls us to unity, to cooperation, and to mutual love and respect. He wants us to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
But you notice what He doesn't tell us to do? He doesn't tell us to create the unity of the church or to invent the communion of saints. He has done that Himself! Jesus went to the cross to make the Church One and the Holy Spirit has brought His wishes to pass.
Our responsibility, therefore, is to keep the unity the Lord has given us. This takes humility and patience and kindness. But what it mostly takes is the Gospel. Only by believing and living by the Gospel will we have the Communion of Saints. God open that Gospel up to us. For Christ's sake. Amen.
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