(Note: As Transitional Pastors, part of our role is to help the congregation think about their role in helping the next pastor’s ministry be a success. I preached a version of this message to help my church see themselves in the mirror of the Scriptures and to see how they can be part of the solution in that desired future.)
Now about our brother Apollos: I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers. He was quite unwilling to go now, but he will go when he has the opportunity. (1 Corinthians 16: 12)
Recently I came across a document that no one had noticed before. It is the only known written piece from Pastor Apollos of Corinth. I translated from the original Greek to the RSV--the Revised Stuart Version. I want to read you, at long last, this heretofore unknown letter from Pastor Apollos.
Since I went that far in research I decided to also carbon date it. It was written about two months before 1 Corinthians was completed.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
I pray this letter finds you well. I wish you grace and peace. The brothers came by on their journey back to you and asked me, yet again, to join them. I told them, “I just can’t. Not yet.”
But they pressed me to know why. So I told them I would send along a letter detailing what has happened from my perspective. Some of you will see it quite differently, I am sure. But, if I am to return, or if you are to get another pastor to lead you, these matters must be resolved.
I remember my introduction to Corinth through Priscilla and Aquila. ( I’m still amazed how that power couple’s names rhyme!). It was the very first year I had come to believe that Yeshua was the Messiah.
Those were amazing days! They saw me in the Synagogue that day I first began to speak in his name. The Scripture was read, the Rabbi made his points, and then others stood and commented on how the text applies today. I listened intently, because I had recently heard from a follower of Yeshua. He described an incredible man, a man who knew John the Baptist--the greatest man I had ever seen.
He had told me that this man was greater than John the Baptist. He fulfilled the Scriptures in so many ways that we had never foreseen. The fire had started to burn within me as he spoke: this was the truth. This man was God himself, come to us. This was our Messiah. We had it all wrong: He did not come to conquer but to serve.
And as that conviction grew in my heart, while I was sitting there in synagogue, I knew I had to speak. One guy and then another were droning on about obscure points when the whole focus of our faith, the Messiah, had come to us. And we had missed it!
I couldn’t help myself. I had to stand and speak. And when I did, I spoke like a man possessed. I brought out Joel. I talked about Isaiah. I said, “This was, and is our Messiah! We need to follow him. We need to be baptized with the baptism John called us to, to repent of our sins!”
Silence followed my words. But here and there, some nodded. I looked over and saw Aquila looking at me with shining eyes. He knew! Afterwards, it was Priscilla and Aquila who took me aside and told me about Jesus’ baptism, the baptism of being born again, the truth of new life. I soaked up everything those two told me for days and days.
They told me about you, too. They told me you were a lovely bunch, a wonderful band of brothers and sisters who shared in meals together, who loved one another unconditionally, and who followed Jesus with all their hearts. I guess I fell in love with you that day.
But it would be a few years before we met one another. I went to Achaia, about one hundred miles from you. I started a work there from scratch. Like Brother Paul, I began in the Synagogue and went from there. Those were exciting days. My first pastorate. The people were encouraged to see our church move from one home to several. I have such warm memories of that place!
But word kept coming to me of Corinth. Paul’s work there was profound and you were a solid, faithful church. When he left I almost knew you would invite me to come. In fact, Priscilla and Aquila came by with Paul on their journey and extended the invitation themselves for all of you. What a PNC that was! I entered full of hope, excited to expand on what I knew of Jesus and to see where the Lord would take our ministry.
At first, you seemed to feel the same way. At the regular, potluck worship services we shared, so many of you made sure I had a taste of your special casserole. I left those worship services stuffed to the gills! We sang together, we prayed together. I had learned oratory from Athens, and several of you really appreciated that. I still remember the first time someone said, “I have to tell you, Apollos: you are so much better than Paul!”
Oh, how I wish I had that moment back! But I was so glad to hear that I was received, and perhaps I was just too proud of the effort I had put into the messages. I was blind to the darkness behind those words.
What I know now is that, when a new pastor comes, people tend to compare. “Is he better than someone else? Is he smarter? Is he stronger?” It is natural. But there is a problem as well. The implication is that the new pastor is there to support your view of things, your side in some battle happening below the surface that I am not even aware of.
Some of you would have me over for dinner and, while I was there, you wanted me to agree with you on some matter. It might be spiritual. It might have to do with the Roman government. Usually it was both.
Pretty soon I saw that I was not so much the Word of the Lord to you. I was your tool, to use against others. And guess what? They had tools, too! If some of you liked my style of preaching, others of you liked your old pastor, Paul, much better. Some of you liked Peter who had traveled through with his wife some years ago. His stories were so vivid and he was such a big-hearted guy you couldn’t help but love him.
There is nothing wrong with appreciating these others. But, more and more, I began to wonder if “love” had anything to do with it. I’ll never forget preparing the space for worship and realizing that the same people showed up early, time after time. They took the larger portion of the feast, and sat at the same tables together. They didn’t stay for clean up, either.
And after I greeted this group, others came dragging in from a hard, long day of work. They took their small portion, or in some cases no portion at all! They looked for a seat and, if none was there, they stood in the back. And while the earlier group talked about spiritual gifts and their recent insights into Jesus, that group stood off, disregarded.
And what was worse--far worse!--was that I realized these first ons were those who had invited me into their homes and who now threw their arm around my shoulder and told me how great I was.
I guess that is when the trouble started. I started to speak about what it really means to love one another, much as Paul has in his letter to you (the brothers let me read it.) I must say, for all my supposed eloquence I don’t think I ever touched the beauty of his words about “the most excellent way.” Love, he said, is patient and kind. It does not boast. It is not rude. It does not insist upon its own way.
We needed to connect and care and think about how we can show Jesus’ love, not only to our world but to one another. We need to include others more. Perhaps their background is different. Perhaps they struggle with life in ways we don’t. But none of those things can be an excuse. I reminded them of Peter’s wonderful story about Jesus washing the Disciples feet. We have to serve like he did. We have to love like he did.
It was about that time that those invitations to have dinner at your homes started to dry up. And then, to my surprise, our leadership meetings became oddly contentious. I would suggest something and the elders would sit there, quiet. Finally, one would question my motivation:
“What is really behind this new plan to make sure even the last one at worship gets something to eat?” they would ask. “They know what time the service begins!”
“Why are we interested in these local Jesus songs that are nothing like the great melodies we are used to from the Synagogue?”
“So what if certain people always gather with the same folks. Birds of a feather, pastor. Besides, I just don’t have anything in common with them.”
“There is a lot of tension in the church, Pastor. What are you going to do about it?”
I tried. I tried to bring us together. But I couldn’t seem to beat your efforts to ostracize me, to paint me as some outsider who didn’t really understand how church worked there in Corinth. Pretty soon it circled around to the very thing you first praised me for: you criticized my preaching. It was never quite right somehow. It was too this or too that.
That is when I realized the error of my ways. Your quick compliments were meant to win me to your side, not honor God’s work in my life. Your praise of me was meant to redound to you, not to the Lord. And I was complicit in that, because I wanted that praise, too. Forgive me.
I have to tell you, being here in Athens is a nice change. Lots of great ideas here. Lots of interesting folks. I still hold forth about Jesus, and a little group is starting to form. I met some of the same folks Paul preached to before he came to you. We hope he can visit us as well.
But I miss you. I miss those wonderful times of fellowship we shared. I miss being able to share with you from God’s Word. I miss your soulful singing, your deep faith and hope and, yes, your love.
I don’t know exactly how this gets repaired. Our Brother Paul has a saying: “The Son of God was not ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’ but in him it has always been ‘Yes.’” Right now we are at that “yes and no” point. I would like to get back to yes.
I need you to search your hearts and ask yourselves, “Do we really want a pastor who will lead us as best he can, or do we just want someone who will agree with how we see things?” Ask yourself, “Am I willing to walk with this brother in Christ or will I cut him off if he disappoints me?”
Because the truth is, I will disappoint you. Don’t we all fail one another’s expectations? But you don’t cut off family because they disappoint you, do you? You wouldn’t stop speaking to your spouse if they disappointed you, would you? We are still family in the Lord.
If I should return to you I need your prayers, your gentle correction, and your belief that God is at work in my heart. I would need you to believe my intentions are not to raise up someone else over you but rather, to have us reflect God’s idea of the Church.
It may seem too difficult to repair what has been broken. But if you get another pastor, well, I still think these will be issues you need to face.
As I promised, I will come and visit you, perhaps in a month or two. My goal is to share with one another in the depths of our spirit and see if the Lord would have us make a new start. I hope we can prove that love can win over the darkness.
Because Brother Paul is right: faith and hope are what we live by. But love rides on with us through the years and on into eternity. Jesus told us to love one another, and so we must in all our imperfection.
God bless you all. My special greetings to Priscilla and Aquila.
My love to all of you in Christ Jesus.
Man, those guys wrote long letters, didn’t they?! But they didn’t have phones or cellphones, they couldn’t even text, the poor things! So it all had to be in a letter.
Now, let me tell you a secret: I didn’t really find that letter. I made it up. But the verse is interesting, isn’t it? And something like this set of circumstances had to stand behind that verse.
It would be a bummer if the future pastor of this church fell into a similar situation. I would encourage such a person to come on back to you because you are a wonderful church. But their wounds would be fresh and their trust would be low.
What a great time this is to make sure that time never comes. In these months, you can resolve to receive the new pastor as a wonderful person. They will be imperfect, they may be inexperienced. They will probably have some traits that surprise you.
You can either stand off at a distance or you can embrace and encourage this person. You can critique him or her or you can support them in personal conversations.
You can resolve, as a congregation and as individuals, that you will understand when your pastor is caught between their own sense of God’s charge and the seven last words of the church: “We’ve never done it that way before.”
In short, the challenge will not be in the new pastor, but in ourselves. Paul wrote about it earlier in this letter: “But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.” (1 Corinthians 11:31) Be discerning about your part in whatever challenges this church. And you be part of the solution.
Whoever the Lord would bring here, even if it was Apollos himself, let us decide that we, together, own the challenges and that he or she is also part of the family.