“Fathers and Mothers in the Faith”
2 Corinthians 6:1-13 – September 4, 2016
Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
I’ll be continuing my occasional series on 2 Corinthians this evening.
To refresh our memory a little bit, Paul has been dealing with several themes in this letter. One of his focuses so far has been to defend his ministry and apostleship to the Corinthians, who have lately been listening to other spiritual leaders instead of Paul – spiritual leaders who claim to have a superior apostleship to Paul’s. In light of this, Paul defends himself, and he critiques his rivals, labeling them peddlers of God’s word.
Within the context of his defense, Paul has also talked about suffering in the Christian life, and the comfort with which God comforts us, and he has repeatedly hit on the pattern of death and resurrection, rooted in the death and resurrection of Christ, that is so often reflected in the lives of Christ’s servants.
In the last portion of 2 Corinthians that we looked at, about a month ago, Paul spoke of the dual calling he has to love God and love those he ministers to, in this case the Corinthians. He spoke of his role as an ambassador for Christ.
In our text tonight, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Paul ties that role together with some of his earlier themes, and applies it to his relationship to the Corinthian church.
So with that in mind, please hear from our text, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian church:
1Working together with him, then [that is, Christ], we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says,
“In a favorable time I listened to you,
and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. 3 We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, 4 but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, 5 beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6 by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; 7 by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8 through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
11 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. 12 You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. 13 In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.
This is God’s Word.
At first glance there appears to be a lot going on in our text tonight. But the element that ties it together, I think, is the theme of Paul’s relationship to the Corinthians as their spiritual father.
That comes out at the very end of the text, in verse 13, where Paul says at the end of his appeal, “I speak as to children.” While it might sound at first like Paul means that condescendingly, that does not seem to be his intent. He is not here making a derogatory statement about the maturity of the Corinthians, but he rather seems to be saying “I speak as to MY children.” His primary point, in this passage, is not about whether the Corinthians are mature or not. His primary point is to emphasize that he is rightly their spiritual father in the faith, that he has affection for them as such, and that they should respond to him accordingly.
Paul, in our text, is explaining why he should rightly be considered the Corinthians’ father in the faith, and what the implications of that are.
Now at first glance that might seem to imply that this text will not have much to say to us. Here we have a personal dispute between a man and a church – and not only that, but a dispute between an apostle and a church, where the apostle is arguing for the genuine nature of his apostleship as well. It seems several steps removed from us.
And yet, I don’t think it is. There are of course elements of the text that do not apply to us directly – Paul’s apostleship being chief among them. But the case Paul makes here and throughout his letter does not only apply to apostles. His case is rooted in the nature of Christ and the gospel, and has a variety of implications.
And so, what emerges from our text is the meaning and the significance of fathers and mothers in the faith. That is what our text is dealing with – the significance of spiritual leaders in general, and of our fathers and mothers in the faith in particular. And not just officers or official leaders in our churches. Of course this text would include, and must include, officers and official leaders in our church. But its implications also go beyond that – to the variety of spiritual mentors, leaders, and servants in our congregation, and in our lives, among the people of God.
So as we consider what this text has to say to us about spiritual leaders, about our fathers and mothers in the faith, I want to ask five main questions. I want to ask:
1) Why do we need fathers and mothers in the faith?
2) What if we’ve been hurt or misused in the past by those who claimed to be our fathers or mothers in the faith?
3) How do we identify good fathers and mothers in the faith?
4) How should we respond to Christ-like fathers and mothers in the faith?
5) How can we become Christ-like fathers and mothers in the faith?
1) Why do we need them?
2) What if we’ve been hurt by those who claim to be them?
3) How do we identify them?
4) How should we respond to them?
5) And how can we become like them?
Let’s dive into those five …
So first: Why do we need fathers and mothers in the faith?
If that question seems unnecessary to you, that’s a good thing, but I think it also shows how counter-cultural your thinking is.
To most in our culture, this is an obvious and a more than fair question. For most in our culture, it is not at all self-evident that some people should instruct others in what to believe, how to worship, what to value, or how to live.
Our culture’s default perspective is a sort of spiritual individualism. And for most people it goes like this – they say: “When it comes to spiritual matters, every individual needs to find what is true for themselves.”
“When it comes to spiritual matters, every individual needs to find what is true for themselves.” In other words, you should not have other people telling you what to believe spiritually. You need to find what is spiritually true yourself.
So what do we say to that, when that objection comes up? Because if that objection is true, it would not only put the pastoral staff out of work, but it would also undermine the very point the Apostle Paul is making in our text.
Well, in response to this question, I think we can say three things.
First, having spiritual leaders is unavoidable.
Or to put it the other way around, true spiritual individualism is pretty much impossible.
I think it was Tim Keller whom I first heard point this out. And the point goes like this:
The spiritual individualist says: “Each person needs to discover spiritual truth for themselves, and not just accept what someone else tells them about spiritual reality.”
Here’s the problem with that statement: If that is something that you would say, then I’m willing to bet, that if you think about it, that spiritual truth claim that you just made – about how every person needs to discover spiritual truth for themselves, rather than learning it from others – I’m pretty sure you did not discover that spiritual truth yourself. In fact, I’m pretty sure you learned that idea from others.
Because that is a very Western, postmodern, individualistic way to view spirituality. In other words, it is a very popular spiritual outlook in our American culture, and I suspect that you were taught that view by others in our culture.
And so the statement becomes self-defeating. If someone tells us we should not let others tell us what spiritual truth is but we should discover it for ourselves, the first thing we should do is reject their statement, because they are themselves trying to tell us what is spiritually true!
And this isn’t just a verbal game – it is part of the nature of reality. We do not live in a vacuum. We cannot approach the questions of God, and spirituality, and the meaning of the cosmos in a bubble. We will always be learning from someone. It might be someone we know personally, it might be someone more abstracted from us, like an author, or a famous spiritual teacher, whose books we read or talks we listen to – but it is always coming from some other person – someone we functionally treat as our spiritual leader, no matter how independent we may think we are.
So, when asking why we need fathers and mothers in the faith, the first thing to see is that having some sort of spiritual leader is inevitable. It is not a question of whether we will follow a spiritual leader, but rather whom we will follow.
But we can say more on the question of why we need fathers and mothers in the faith, because …
Second, if we take spiritual matters seriously, then spiritual individualism –the rejection of spiritual leaders – is a terrible burden, not a helpful freedom.
If we take spiritual matters seriously, then spiritual individualism – the concern often expressed that each person needs to find spiritual truth for themselves – this is actually a terrible burden, and not a helpful freedom.
It reminds me of a scene in a novel I read this summer. The novel, by David Foster Wallace, is titled Infinite Jest. It’s not a book for everyone and it wrestles with some topics that require a fairly mature and discerning reader. But in it, one of the characters, Don Gately, is a former drug addict, a former alcoholic, and former criminal. He has since sought to turn his life around. He has gotten clean and gotten very involved in Alcoholics Anonymous and is trying hard to follow the program’s twelve steps.
One night he joins several men from his AA group in Boston to speak about their struggles and experiences at another AA group in Boston. And when he is called up to speak, the scene goes like this:
“Don G., up at the podium, revealed publicly about how he was ashamed that he still as yet had no real solid understanding of a Higher Power. It’s suggested in the 3rd of Boston AA’s 12 Steps that you turn your diseased will over to the direction and love of ‘God as you understand Him.’ It’s supposed to be one of AA’s major selling points that you get to choose your own God. You get to make up your own understanding of God or a Higher Power or Whom/Whatever. But Gately, at like ten months clean, at the […] podium in Braintree, opines that at this juncture he’s so totally clueless and lost he’s thinking that he’d maybe rather have the [older veterans of his AA group] just grab him by the lapels and just tell him what AA God to have an understanding of, and give him totally blunt and dogmatic orders about how to turn over his diseased will to whatever this Higher Power is. […] You might think it’d be easier if you Came In [to AA] with 0 in the way of denominational background or preconceptions, you might think it’d be sort of easier to sort of invent a Higher-Powerish God from scratch and then like erect an understanding, but Don Gately complains that this has not been his experience thus far.” (Infinite Jest, 442-443)
Now what do I think is helpful about that little description?
I think it’s helpful because it points out what a burden spiritual individualism is when we take spiritual reality seriously. If your life is kind of stable, and you have plenty of money, and you are able to live in the illusion that you are in control of your life, then spiritual individualism can seem kind of fun. Draw a few things you like from one spiritual thinker over here, dabble a bit in another religion over there – make your own designer-god. It can be like a noble-feeling hobby.
But in those moments where you need spiritual support, where you realize you need God’s help – those moments when spiritual matters cease to be a hobby and become deadly serious, as they were for Don Gately in his daily struggle to stay sober – then spiritual individualism is a terrible burden. Then what we need more than anything are mothers and fathers in the faith who can tell us who God is and how to relate to him.
We realize this with other areas of life. I have not known a parent who has consciously decided to let their children develop their own individual views of nutrition – parents who are determined not to impose their own personal views about vitamins, proteins, and sugars on their children. I’ve also never seen parents who are determined to let their children decide for themselves the best way to use an electrical outlet, or a lighter, or a firearm. Every parent I know plans to impose their own views about nutrition and safety onto their children.
But it’s not that hard to find parents who have decided not to impose their religious views on their children. But by doing that, they are of course admitting and stating that they think that religious views don’t really matter that much. They are less like decisions on personal health and safety, and more like choosing a favorite color. In other words, spiritual individualism already dogmatically assumes that God and spirituality are not that important.
But if they are important, if we do take them seriously, then we realize that, far from being a burden, fathers and mothers in the faith are a necessity. We need guides and teachers in this area of life, as we do every other area of great importance. We need to learn from those who have gone before us. To refuse instruction does not make us free, but it leaves us confused, like Don Gately, or like a child whose parents refuse to tell him how to eat well or be safe.
So, as we consider why we need fathers and mothers in the faith we see first that spiritual fathers and mothers are unavoidable. And we see secondly that if we take spiritual matters seriously, then spiritual individualism is a terrible burden, not a helpful freedom.
Third, we see that it is through fathers and mothers in the faith that God works in the Bible.
And we see that in our text. We see it in the relationship that verses one and two have with verses three through thirteen. In verses one and two Paul is talking about the Corinthians’ salvation – their relationship with God. In verses three through thirteen Paul is talking about his relationship with them – as an apostle, yes, but also as their spiritual father in the faith.
The Corinthians are in the middle of deciding who they will regard as their father in the faith – whether it will be Paul, or these new self-proclaimed superior apostles, who have more recently come to Corinth. And Paul is making it clear that who they take as their father in the faith will affect their relationship not only with other human beings, but also with God. Because God works through people. And if we reject God’s people, then in the Bible’s point of view, we are also rejecting God.
And so put together: Why do we need fathers and mothers in the faith? We see that spiritual fathers and mothers are first of all inevitable; second, that they are necessary if we take spiritual matters seriously; and third, that they are how the Bible says God normally works.
So that answers our first question.
Which leads us to our next question.
So okay, yes, we might say – maybe fathers and mothers in the faith are inevitable, but what if we’ve been hurt or misused in the past by those who claimed to be our father or mother in the faith? Then what?
And unfortunately that is a question a lot of people ask – because a lot of people in our culture have experienced the misuse of authority by their spiritual leaders in their personal story, somewhere in their past, whether it was their pastor, or their teacher, or even their parent. It may have been a self-serving manipulation on the one end – with a leader psychologically or verbally manipulating others for their own personal benefit – or it may have gone to further extremes to involve financial abuse, or verbal abuse, or even physical or sexual abuse. We do not have to look too far in the news to find examples of this. And chances are that we do not have to look too far among those we know personally to find someone who has experienced this themselves, from a parent, or a past leader, or at their former church. Maybe some of you have experienced that yourself.
If you have, it is understandable for you to respond by saying: “Look at what happened to me the last time I trusted a spiritual leader, why would I ever trust a spiritual leader again?”
And you might not expect it, but our text does have an answer for you.
First, it is important to understand that out text tonight, and the Bible as a whole, does not deny your experience but heartily affirms it. Avoiding abusive spiritual leaders is one of the main reasons Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians that we have read from tonight. Paul calls the false leaders in Corinth peddlers of God’s word. In other words, these leaders were trying to use their position of spiritual leadership for their own gain – to get something for themselves – to use their position and those who follow them in self-serving ways. And that is the dynamic at the root of all abuse from spiritual leadership: their power is used not for the benefit of their followers, but for their own personal benefit. It can come in a variety of forms – and some forms are far more heinous than others – but it is always the same dynamic.
It is what Paul is fighting against in this text, but it is a problem that comes up again and again in the Bible, and which God’s faithful leaders repeatedly identify, condemn, and try to abolish. The Bible is completely honest about the terrible effects of abusive spiritual leaders. It does not sugar coat it or down play it. It brings it out to the open, condemns it, and demands that it be made right. And so when rightly approached, far from being an easy tool for abusive leaders, the Bible actually contains the very principles, and vision, and tools that we need to confront such abuses of leadership.
So the Bible agrees that such abuse can happen, and it agrees that it can be devastating. But its answer is not to avoid all spiritual leadership. Its answer is to direct us away from such false spiritual leaders, and towards true and faithful fathers and mothers in the faith.
The Bible calls on God’s people to appoint the right kind of leaders. It calls on them to protect the flock from false leaders – from self-serving leaders. Now maybe you were not protected in the past. If that’s the case, I’m sorry. I have seen what kind of effects such abuses can have, and I am so sorry that those who should have protected you from it did not. And I am not alone in that response. Christ and the Biblical authors repeatedly mourn over such things.
But they don’t just mourn. They also offer hope of something different. They offer a portrait of what true fathers and mothers in the faith can be. And they encourage us towards such people. And that is the rest of what we will look at tonight.
Which leads us to our third question:
How do we identify good fathers and mothers in the faith?
We know we need fathers and mothers in the faith. We see the negative effects that bad fathers and mothers in the faith can have. So how then can we identify good fathers and mothers in the faith?
In verses four through ten Paul lays out four things for us to consider. Let’s take a look at those.
The first thing Paul directs us to consider in identifying good fathers and mothers in the faith is: Do they endure suffering well?
That’s actually the first thing he talks about. We see it in verses 4 and 5: “as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.”
Here Paul lists nine forms of suffering – but his point is not just the experience of the suffering, but the endurance in the suffering. He begins the list with the phrase “by great endurance in …” and that serves as a sort of heading for the list. Paul says one of the important criteria in identifying good fathers and mothers in the faith is whether they endure suffering faithfully.
Why is how someone endures suffering so important? Well, as Pastor Rayburn stated recently in a sermon on suffering, it often serves to reveal our spiritual state, and our true level of spiritual maturity.
Francis of Assisi, in his work titled “The Admonitions,” put it like this – he said: “A servant of God cannot know how much patience and humility he has within himself as long as he is content. When the time comes, however, when those who should make him content do the opposite, he has as much patience and humility as he has at that time and no more.” [The Admonitions, Chapter XIII: Patience]
When we are stressed or suffering, and when we react badly to something, we tend to explain our reaction to other people by saying something like: “I’m sorry, I’m just not myself right now.” But Francis reminds us here, and Paul reminds us in our text, that it is in those moments, stripped of our comforts, that we are often more ourselves than at any other time.
Of course, in this life, no one handles suffering perfectly. That’s not what Paul is describing. The question is more whether they endure it faithfully. Did they persevere? Did they remain faithful to Christ and his people? Did they continue to strive to live for God, however imperfectly, even in the midst of their suffering?
And it should be noted that Paul’s list is meant to amplify the reality of suffering in this life – not to minimize it. Paul isn’t saying these things he’s suffered are no big deal – if they weren’t a big deal, then the fact that he endured them would be pretty meaningless. It is because his sufferings in this world were so difficult, and so hard, that his endurance proves the genuine nature of his faithfulness.
So the first thing Paul tells us in identifying good fathers and mothers in the faith is to ask: Do they endure suffering faithfully? Not necessarily perfectly, but faithfully.
Second, to identify good fathers and mothers in the faith, Paul directs us to their character.
We see this in verses 6-8: Paul writes that he has commended himself “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.”
Paul tells us here what the character of a good father or mother in the faith is like. He gives us a few different groups of traits.
With the first four traits, at the beginning of verse 6, he tells us that good fathers and mothers in the faith will act with purity: that is, with sincerity and integrity. They will be characterized by knowledge of God and of his gospel. They will be patient, and kind, two things that commentator Paul Barnett point out are not only fruits of the Spirit, Galatians 2, but are also qualities of God himself, in Romans 2 [Barnett, 328 (referring to Gal 2:22 & Rom 2:4)].
In the last trait given, Paul says that they have and have used “the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.” This is likely a reference to the sword a soldier would hold in the right hand, and the shield he would hold in the left. [Barnett, 328] In other words, they are willing to fight for righteousness, whether they need to mount a spiritual defense or attack, against the forces of evil.
And in between those traits, Paul lists four more elements, which would seem to be at the heart of the character of a good father or mother in the faith – he lists: “the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God.” It is likely that here “the Holy Spirit” and “the power of God” refer to the same thing: It is God, by his power, and through His Spirit who is working these qualities in Paul. It is not something Paul has mustered up from within or generated himself. It is something God is doing in him and providing for him.
And within that acknowledgement, Paul lists what the ESV translates as “genuine love” and “truthful speech”. Commentator Paul Barnett translates those phrases “unhypocritical love” and the “word of truth” which may give us a bit more clarity as to what Paul is getting at.
Central to the traits described here is a love for others that is unhypocritical. It is not a self-serving love, or self-interest disguised as love. It is unhypocritical love. Genuine love. And along with that, they speak the “word of truth.” They bring with them God’s word of truth, and they are not afraid to apply it to others, or to themselves.
By God’s spirit, his faithful followers are characterized by unhypocritical love and a reliance on the Word of God. That is what is at the center of their character. [Barnett, 328-329]
From there, Paul goes on to show us that …
Third, to identify good fathers and mothers in the faith, we must consider their motivations.
We see this in the first half of verse eight. Paul lists the wide variety of reactions to his faithful service that he is willing to endure. He says he ministers: “through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise.”
Peddlers of God’s Word – self-serving spiritual leaders – do what is right so long as it also benefits them. They will do good things for others … so long as it is mutually beneficial for them as well; so long as it helps them, or their purposes, or their prestige, or their career. They will do the right thing when it leads to honor or praise.
But here Paul points out that the mark of a faithful spiritual leader, a true father or mother in the faith, is that they will do the right thing, that they will serve God and neighbor, that they will care for their spiritual children, whether for them it leads to honor or dishonor – whether for them it leads to slander or praise.
In other words, they do not just use their talents and do their works when it leads to honor and praise. But they are just as willing to serve and do what is right, when they know it will lead to dishonor and slander.
Fourth, and finally, to identify good fathers and mothers in the faith, Paul directs us to their pattern of life as a whole.
We see this in the second half of verse eight, through verse ten – Paul writes: “We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”
Here Paul lists a number of antitheses – a number of paradoxes. First, he states how he appears, and then he states what the divine reality is.
And if we were to sum all of these up, into one statement, we could say that Paul is explaining that his life is characterized by a pattern of death and resurrection. His life is characterized by the pattern of Christ. His way of life looks like Jesus. He has patterned his life after the life of Christ. And so it is marked by death and resurrection.
This idea of life patterned on death and resurrection, life patterned after Christ, comes up again and again in this letter, and here once again it is central.
Like Christ, there is an antithesis between what is seen, and the spiritual reality. What is seen looks mundane. What is seen looks unimpressive. But the spiritual reality is glorious – it is weighty. Paul did not look impressive to those who saw him. But he had a spiritual weight that most others lacked. And in that, he was like Christ.
But he also lived in a pattern of self-sacrifice that yielded new life – not only new life for himself, but especially new life for others. Like Christ, he became poor, that others might have spiritual riches. Like Christ, he poured out his life for the spiritual flourishing of others.
And that again is what we are to look for in Christ-like fathers and mothers in the faith: a life that follows the pattern of Christ. A life that may look mundane and unimpressive by worldly standards, but when evaluated spiritually, it is weighty and full of glory. A life that is characterized by self-sacrifice that leads to new life in those around them – in friends and family, in their neighbors and fellow church memebers.
And with that, we complete the picture Paul is making for us in this text. We complete his sketch of a faithful father or mother in the faith, as one who has endured hardship faithfully, who by God’s Spirit is characterized by unhypocritical love and a commitment to God’s word, who is willing to do what God calls them to whether it helps or hurts them personally, and whose life follows the death-and resurrection pattern of Christ.
Now of course no one does this perfectly. That is not Paul’s point. Paul is certainly not saying that he has done this perfectly! But he is saying he has done it faithfully.
So who are you able to identify as a Christ-like father or mother in the faith, in your life?
Who is it who resembles this description in your life? Who has faithfully played this role for you?
It could be someone in an official capacity or role. Or it could be a more organic relationship. Maybe you have benefited from them directly, or maybe you know them in a group setting. Maybe they are someone in your life, or maybe they are someone whose teaching or life you have benefited from from a distance. You may have few fathers or mothers in the faith, or you may have many. But who are some of them for you? If you have grown up in a home with vibrant Christian faith, then hopefully your biological mother and father would be numbered among your spiritual mothers and fathers as well.
Take a moment and ask who those people are and who those people have been for you. And remember, they might not look glorious to outward appearances. But spiritually, they are.
And once we have identified those people in our lives, that leads us to our fourth question …
How should we respond to our Christ-like fathers and mothers in the faith?
This is Paul’s focus in the last portion of our text, verses 11-13. He writes to them: “11 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open. 12 You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. 13 In return (I speak as to children) widen your hearts also.”
In response to his love, Paul calls on them merely to reciprocate his love.
This means first that we acknowledge what such people have done in our lives, and we give them thanks.
It has been such a lesson for me to see how we do that as a church here. So much better than many other churches. I have seen the spiritual fathers and mothers of this congregation recognized, honored, and thanked. And that has been great.
But how do each of us do that as individuals? How do you do that personally? Have you acknowledged your fathers and mothers in the faith? Have you expressed your gratitude to them? Have you opened your heart to them, as they opened theirs to you? And if not, what would it look like if you did?
But along with acknowledging them, we are also called to be diligent to resist the temptation to ignore our fathers and mothers in the faith, or to turn our backs on them. And that can be a real temptation. In fact that is exactly the problem that the Corinthians are having. They are turning their back on Paul, their spiritual father, and becoming fascinated instead with something new, something more exciting at that moment.
The Corinthians are sort of acting like spiritual teenagers. You know how teenagers suddenly decide that despite all the work and sacrifice their parents have made for them for the past 13-19 years, their parents don’t really care about them, but it’s their new friends – their new friends whose affection is thin and fleeting – it’s those friends whom the teenagers decide really care about them. Not their parents. There’s an obvious insanity to how many teenagers assess their parents and their friends. But we can do the same thing on a spiritual level, even if we are much older. We can ignore our spiritual elders, our spiritual parents, and turn to those who are more hip, or exciting, or interesting, or comfortable, at the moment.
It is an extreme form of that that the Corinthians have fallen into. Our text reminds us to refuse to follow them. It reminds us to acknowledge our spiritual parents. It reminds us to open our hearts to those who have sacrificially opened their hearts to us. It reminds us to not forget those who raised us in the faith the moment something new and interesting comes around.
So we see why we need fathers and mothers in the faith. We see why we need Christ-like spiritual leaders if we have been hurt by self-serving spiritual leaders in the past. We see how to identify them, and then how to respond to them.
But the implications of our text don’t stop there. Because, like biological parenting, the point is not for us to stay as children. The point is for us to grow to maturity and become adults, and maybe even parents ourselves. Which leads us to our last question:
How can we become Christ-like fathers and mothers in the faith?
Here I’ll be brief. Paul does not address this question directly in our text, but he gives us two directions to consider.
First, we become Christ-like fathers and mothers in the faith by imitating our own fathers and mothers in the faith. As children we learn how to do things well by imitating out biological father and mother, and the same is true spiritually. We imitate them.
And that was exactly what Paul encouraged the Corinthians to do in his first letter to them. He, as their spiritual father, wrote to them, his spiritual children, saying: “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.”
Identify those Christ-like fathers and mothers in the faith, appreciate them, honor them, learn from them, and also imitate them.
One significant spiritual father for me was my RUF pastor in college, in New York City. It has been over 11 years since I left New York City, but I still today find myself from time to time, when I’m in a situation where I don’t know what to do or say … or when I consider the first thing that comes to mind to do or say and it doesn’t seem very wise or very good … I still sometimes ask myself: “What would Vito do here?” “What would Vito say to this person in this situation?” And that’s not me checking out or abdicating my judgment – if I were abdicating my judgment I’d just say the first dumb thing that popped into my head. No – that form of imitation is exercising my judgment. It is turning, in my mind, to a godly father in the faith whom I trust, and imagining what he would do, and imitating that.
So we imitate them.
But we also seek God’s work in our hearts, and we realize that we cannot become Christ-like fathers or mothers in the faith on our own.
And this reality is at the heart of Paul’s description. We saw, in verses six and seven, that surrounding the heart of his description, is the power of God working in him by the Holy Spirit. We do not make ourselves in the image of Christ – God does.
So ask him to do that work in you. Pray for it. Seek it. Pray for it more often then you pray for worldly comforts or reliefs. Pray that God would make you into a Christ-like father or mother in the faith to those around you. Because it will not happen unless He is the one who brings it about.
Now – if you have heard this list of traits, and the task sounds daunting or impossible, and you see how far you fall short, then good. That is part of what we should see. That reaction should assure us a bit, actually.
It should assure us first, because if we believe we have fallen short, then we are at least doing better than Paul’s opponents were. They thought they were just doing great. Hopefully we know better. That is a step in the right direction.
And it should also assure us because the Scriptures agree with us that on our own it is daunting – on our own it is impossible. But God is powerful enough to make us – even us – more into the image of Christ.
Trust in his power. Trust in his grace. And ask him to make you in his image.
The Kingdom of God moves and grows from generation to generation, like a wave, moving through one generation to the next. We come into the kingdom, led and received by fathers and mothers in the faith. They help us to follow our Lord. They love us sacrificially and point us to Christ. They help us grow and resemble Him. And then soon the responsibility is on us to lead and receive new spiritual children ourselves. To sacrifice ourselves for them, point them to our Lord, and try to show his love in word and deed.
Let us take our place in that great process of God’s kingdom. Let us ask God to help us fill our role faithfully.
And in the meantime – take a moment this week to acknowledge and appreciate your fathers or mothers in the faith. To thank them for what they have done for you. To express how much it has meant. To open your heart to them, as they have already opened theirs to you.
This sermon draws on material from:
Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.
Sources for illustrations and examples:
Francis of Assisi. “The Admonitions” in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, Vol I: The Saint. Edited by Regis J. Armstrong, et al. New York: New City Press, 1999.
David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest. New York: Black Bay Books, 1996.