Scum of the World
The Reverend Bryn MacPhail / October 5, 2003
For those of you who have looked at this morning’s sermon title, I suspect you must be wondering, ‘What in the world has got into Bryn? What kind of message is this? Scum of the world? Did he not remember that this is communion Sunday?’
I confess that I thought of changing this sermon title many times. I do not like it. I, particularly, do not like the word ‘scum’. My guess is that the Corinthians did not like the Greek equivalent to “scum” either. Yet, it is likely that this is precisely the reason why Paul chose to employ this word. By using such an ugly word, by employing such an unflattering metaphor, Paul wanted to ensure that his point was clearly heard.
As we have already noted from previous aspects of Paul’s letter, the Corinthians had a skewed understanding of God’s wisdom. That is, they had a skewed view of what it means to be a Christian. The philosophies of the day had an exalted status within Corinth, and so many of the Christians there believed that, since Christianity was superior to these philosophies, it should have a preeminent standing within the culture. And from that conviction it was a short step to their believing that they should have an exalted standing in society.
Paul concludes the first section of his letter, in chapter 4, in response to this attitude. It is difficult to miss Paul’s sarcastic tone as he derides the Corinthians for their self-conceit. We see this, very plainly, in verse 8, where Paul says, “you have already become rich, you have become kings without us”. Paul speaks with sarcastic astonishment that the Corinthians, although new in the faith, had already become mature and had left the apostles far behind them in this respect.
Paul then proceeds to contrast how the Corinthians view themselves in relation to the world with how he views himself and the other apostles in relation to the world. To highlight the contrast between these two perspectives I have organized Paul’s description of each into two lists.
Here is list one: filled, rich, kings, prudent, strong, and distinguished.
And list two: condemned, fools, weak, without honour, hungry, roughly treated, homeless, slandered, scum of the world, dregs of all things.
Now, with which list do we wish to identify? I don’t think Paul is suggesting that Christians act like fools, or that we act in an undignified manner. What I hear him saying is that if we attempt to live as Christ lived we are more likely to be condemned by the world than we are to be commended by the world.
Even our Lord’s teaching was regarded by many as foolishness; He was slandered; He was homeless; He was roughly treated and ultimately condemned to death as a criminal. Why then should we expect that our living like Christ would endear us to the world?
As I look at list one—how the Corinthians viewed themselves—what we can say is that we are those things in relation to Christ. In Christ, we are filled; in Christ, we are rich, prudent, and strong. However, in relation to this world, in terms of our appearance before this world, we will not be regarded as such. Paul warns that Christians should be ready to be slandered and roughly treated. As Jesus promised, “If (the world) persecuted Me, they will also persecute you”(Jn. 15:20).
I readily admit that what Paul is suggesting is difficult for us to digest, here in the Christian West. Our Lord’s promise of persecution is foreign, if not altogether strange, to our ears. And while we may desire to identify here with Paul, the great Christian leader, it is more likely that we find ourselves identifying with the Christians in Corinth—Christians who had a skewed view of what it means to follow Christ.
I can’t help but think that we have, to some degree, domesticated our Christianity. And, in this respect, I find myself to be guilty. Paul travels from city to city and is beaten up. I travel from house to house and am served tea and cookies. Paul talks about being hungry while I recover from the all-you-can-eat Mandarin buffet. Paul talks about being homeless, while I enjoy the comfort of a home, equipped with air-conditioning and cable TV. Paul talks of being slandered, while I am invited to prestigious affairs. Paul is regarded by others as “the scum of the world”, while our church bulletin identifies me as ‘The Reverend Bryn MacPhail’.
As I consider the contrast between my own life and Paul’s, I wonder how it came about that my Christianity has become so domesticated.
We come to the Lord’s Table this morning and, I must say, that communion at St. Giles Kingsway is done in the most dignified manner—and so it should be. Yet, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper with dignity, I pray that we do not domesticate this holy exercise. The bread we consume is intended to remind us of the body of Jesus Christ, nailed to a cross for you and I. The wine we drink is intended to remind us that the price of our forgiveness was the shedding of His blood. There is an ugliness to this exercise, which we must not soon forget. There is a gruesomeness to this exercise, which I hope is not entirely veiled by our polished silver and pressed tablecloths.
Paul returns the Corinthians, and he returns you and I, to a more balanced perspective of the Christian faith. Paul reminds us that our message, far from being popular, is likely to be regarded as foolishness. And, our behaviour, rather than engendering the admiration of the world, may very well engender contempt. Paul is reminding us that the road Christians are called to travel is a bumpy road; it is an immensely difficult road to travel. In other words, following Christ is no ‘walk in the park’.
The Corinthian Christians did not view life in this way. They imagined that their Christianity would be accompanied by worldly prosperity and would provide them with respectability in society. Paul’s message contradicted this view; Paul’s message is that Christians should be prepared to suffer, and Christians should understand that, in the eyes of some, they will be regarded as “the scum of the world, the dregs of all things”.
If it sounds like I am speaking in a foreign language this morning, it may very well be confirmation that we have indeed domesticated Christianity. It may very well be that our version Christianity has attempted to diminish the notions of sin, suffering, and judgment. And, if we find that we have domesticated our Christian faith, it is likely because a Christianity that talks about sin, suffering, and judgment is an uncomfortable Christianity—and to the world, it is an unacceptable Christianity.
I do not think Paul means to be morbid; I do not think Paul means to be unduly severe when he speaks to the Corinthians the way he does. In my estimation, Paul is helping us to appropriately shape our perspective of the Christian life, and he is helping us to recover a biblical view of suffering.
Following this trail, blazed by Paul, are a myriad of missionaries that understood the nature of Christian service. One of those missionaries, David Livingstone, made this stirring appeal to the students of Cambridge University in 1857, revealing that he had learned what Paul was attempting to teach the Corinthians:
I have never ceased to rejoice that God has appointed me to such an office. People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa . . . Away with the word . . . It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger, now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us.
David Livingstone had a biblical view of suffering. Do we have a biblical view of suffering?
Livingstone understood that sickness and persecution threatens our faith in God’s goodness and wisdom. Yet, Livingstone also understood that God, who is sovereign, governs our suffering for the purifying of our faith.
So often, when we suffer, whether by sickness or by persecution, we ask the question, ‘Why?’, and we ask that question with a surprised tone. Beloved, the Christian life promises no exemption from suffering. And since there is, for us, no exemption from suffering, may I suggest a more helpful question: ‘What can we expect from God in the midst of our suffering?’
I am fond of the answer we find in that great hymn, How Firm A Foundation:
When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace all-sufficient, shall be thy supply:
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
Friends, the bad news is that we will all walk through the valley of the shadow of death—and it may be that, like Paul, we are called to walk through the dark valley on many occasions. But let us hear afresh the good news, “Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.”
The bad news is that God sometimes calls us to walk through deep waters; the good news is He controls these waters and will prevent them from overwhelming us. The good news is that He promises to bless us in the midst of our troubles.
The bad news is that fiery trials lie ahead; the good news is that God’s sufficient grace will sustain us in those trials. The good news is that God is governing our trials in such a way that, in the midst of these trials, our character is being refined. As the Puritan, Thomas Watson, once said, ‘Fiery trials make golden Christians.’
In the eyes of society we may very well look like “the scum of the earth, and the dregs of all things”, but in the eyes of God we appear like a precious diamond. And the more our diamond is cut, the more we sparkle as Christ’s ambassador. In our suffering, I pray that we might still be able to say, ‘To God be the glory’. Amen.