A Sermon for Sunday: The Fourth Sunday of Advent | Revd Dr Robert Wilson

Therefore judge not before the time, until the Lord come; who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise from God.

In today’s epistle we hear St. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that they are not ultimately accountable before any earthly tribunal, but before the judgement seat of Christ. It is required of the ministers of Christ and the dispensers of the mysteries of God that they should be found faithful. But it is not to their own human judgement that they will ultimately stand or fall, but to him who will be the judge of men on the last day. They must not therefore pass final judgement on anyone before the time when the Lord will come and will then bring to light the hidden things of darkness and make manifest the counsels of the heart. Fallen and fallible human being cannot see into the hearts of other men. Only God, the Maker of all things and the Judge of all men, can do that. On the last day all will finally be revealed and the truth about both others and about ourselves will be disclosed.

But what was the context in which St. Paul made this solemn warning? St. Paul encountered more problems in the Church at Corinth than any other Church that he founded. The Corinthians were beset by factionalism and party spirit. There were those who said “I am of Cephas”, those who said, “I am of Apollos”, those who said, “I am of Paul”, and finally those who said “I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1).  Most probably those who said they were of Cephas (Peter) looked to the one on whose rock Jesus said that his Church would be built and who was acknowledged by St. Paul himself as the apostle to the Jews (Galatians 2). Those who said they were of Apollos were those who followed an Alexandrian Jew named Apollos who had become a Christian, and who was noted for his eloquence in expounding the Scriptures. They found Apollos more eloquent than Paul himself, whose letters they found weighty and strong, but his presence weak and his speech contemptible (2 Corinthians 10). Those who said that they were of Paul were those who claimed to prize Paul himself above all as the principal apostle to the Gentiles and the founder of their Church (It is one of the ironies of history that many of Paul’s greatest problems were caused by those who claimed to be his most ardent disciples). Finally, there were those who said they were of Christ. It is not clear whether this refers to an actual group who claimed superiority to all the others or is merely a rhetorical flourish by St. Paul himself to demonstrate the absurdity of the positions of the other three groups.

The problem with all the rival groups was that they privileged the status of a human teacher above the Gospel message itself. Their religion was a “glory to me”, “glory to my party/faction” religion rather than a glory to God religion. Paul himself may have planted, Apollos may have watered, but it is only God that made the seed grow (1 Corinthians 3). There was no basis for any pride in any human achievement or teacher. A religion that is based on allegiance to a particular human teacher, however great that teacher may be, is ultimately a cult and not a Church. The difference between a cult and a Church is that in a cult all the emphasis is on imitating a particular human teacher who is invested with an almost godlike status to control almost every aspect of the lives of their followers. Human individuality is crushed by a blind allegiance to the cult leader, ignoring the fact that the cult leader is only a fallible human being. By contrast, in a Church there is one Body, the Body of Christ, a single personal organism, but that body as many members (1 Corinthians 12). All of them are unique and individual and consequently not all have the same office. The Corinthian Church may have been founded by St. Paul, but they were not baptised in the name of Paul, but in the name of Christ. He alone was the source of their authority. St. Paul himself was only a messenger, an ambassador for Christ. The Corinthians needed to renounce their pride and factionalism and lack of love and focus on what really mattered, the message of the Gospel, of Christ crucified and risen, and of the one Body of Christ, of which they were members.

The problem of pride and factionalism and lack of love has beset the Church throughout history. In the age of the great Councils there were those who were led astray by saying, “I of Arius”, of “I of Nestorius”, or “I of Eutychus”, or “I of Donatus”. At the time of the Reformation there were those who were led astray by saying “I of Luther”, or “I of Calvin”, or “I of Zwingli” (it is ironic that these last three claimed above all to be disciples of St. Paul and yet they ignored what he had to say about party spirit and factionalism, and founded churches in their own name and dedicated to following their own personal ideas rather than the faith which St. Paul himself taught). In our own time there are those who have said “I of Francis”, or “I of Benedict”, or “I of Lefebvre” and have fallen into the same mistake which St. Paul repeatedly warned against, of elevating a particular human teacher into a cult like figure, and becoming preoccupied with following them rather than with following Christ. Even among those who have remained orthodox there has still always been the danger of factionalism. This can apply to those who are particularly devoted to the charism of a particular religious order, or a particular system of thought of philosophy. Those teachings may well be good and orthodox and true in themselves, and an enrichment to the life of the Church, the Body of Christ. But they must never fall into the mistake of thinking themselves to be complete and sufficient in themselves. The faithful are not baptised into their name, any more than they were baptised into the name of St. Paul, but rather in the name of Christ.

On the last day the work that they have done, and the work that we have done (or rather, not our work, but the work of Christ in us) will be judged. Then everything will be made clear and there will be no hiding place, or any ground for boasting. We are fallible human beings, who have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, for we cannot see into the hearts of others. We can see their actions, but we cannot judge their persons or their true motives. But we can rest assured that the Christ who comes to us in great humility at Christmas will be the same Christ who will come at the end of history to be our judge, when the sheep will be separated from the goats and the secrets of our hearts will finally be revealed.

We should take heed to the words with which Herbert Butterfield concluded his lectures on Christianity and History. “Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.”

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