Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

I Corinthians 4:8-16

     8 Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. 10 We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.

     14 I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. 15 Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16 Therefore I urge you to imitate me.

There’s a strain of preaching and teaching in the modern church called “the prosperity gospel.” The central idea of this school of theology is that God wants you to be prosperous in a material sense, and if you’re faithful, you’ll be blessed in the things of the world.

The problem with the prosperity gospel is that starting with Jesus himself, the foundational writings of Christian tradition have made it plain that becoming a disciple is not a prescription for material wealth and popularity and power and influence and all the other things the world considers so essential for “a good life.” It’s really hard to find anything in the New Testament that says faithful disciples will enjoy material prosperity.

Actually, both Jesus and his original apostles warned that there is a cost in this world to committing yourself to discipleship. Passages like the Beatitudes in the fifth chapter of Matthew clearly express the idea that faithful discipleship can’t be expected to result in material blessings in this world. And Jesus also warned in the Sermon on the Mount that “You can’t serve both God and money.”

And the letters of Paul certainly don’t minimize the cost of discipleship. In First Corinthians, for instance, instead of telling his readers about the benefits of following Jesus, Paul describes the challenges they might have to endure. Paul says that he and the other leaders of the church are treated like criminals being led to the arena to be fed to wild animals. He says they are hungry and thirsty, in rags, brutally treated and homeless, treated like “the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world.”

But then, having said all that, Paul says, “Therefore I urge you to imitate me.”

Anyone with any experience in recruiting people to a cause would want to call Paul aside and say, “Excuse me, but you might  want to rethink this recruiting campaign.”

To make sense out of today’s passage, we should probably remind ourselves that Paul was writing to a church in the city of Corinth that was split by factional fighting. People were squabbling over power and influence within the church. And this passage is addressed particularly to the leaders of these squabbling factions. Paul is mocking them for acting like worldly political rulers in the church.

Paul has no use for their craving for power, their self-importance or their squabbling over status. In this passage, he points out that the true spiritual leaders of the church – the ones who had been called and trained by Jesus himself and the others who were following in their footsteps – those leaders weren’t living like kings or squabbling over power. Instead, they were living a life of hard work and material hardship.

The fact is that what Paul is saying here is right in line with Jesus’ own warning that life would not be easy for those who followed him. You might remember that on one occasion, he told a man who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (That’s in Matthew 8:20) Jesus’ point was clear: discipleship is not meant to be a path to earthly power, prestige and wealth. And in today’s reading, Paul is making a similar argument to the squabbling leaders of the church at Corinth.

A part of our human nature is the search for status. We might not use the term “power,” because it has negative connotations, but we want to be people of influence. If we can’t be at the top of the heap, at least we don’t want to be at the bottom.

But Jesus called his followers to turn aside from that aspect of our human nature. Instead, we’re called to accept an identity as servants of others, rather than trying to be bigshots. From the world’s perspective, it’s crazy to serve your way to the bottom instead of climbing your way to the top. That probably explains why Paul described himself and the other leaders of the church as “fools for Christ” – because the way of following Jesus seems like foolishness to the world outside the church.

That craving for power and status causes a lot of trouble in the world. The news is full of examples. Sadly, that same craving also causes a lot of trouble in the church. The same kind of factionalism Paul talks about in this letter still goes on in churches, governing bodies and denominations. People may express their disagreements in “churchy-sounding” theological language, but too often they’re driven by old-fashioned desire for power and status and a craving to get their own way.

Those of us who genuinely want to follow Jesus, it seems to me, should be praying that God would heal us of that sinful lust for power and status, and replace it with the humble spirit of servanthood that characterized the leaders of the early church – and more importantly, that characterized Jesus himself, who is to be the model for everything we say and do.

Let’s pray. Lord, you know how deeply ingrained the craving for power and status and wealth is in our human nature. Protect us from being conformed to that world’s ways, and instead let us be transformed by the renewing of our minds into people with a craving to serve others as you served in Jesus, even kneeling to wash the feet of others. Amen.