At first sight 1 Corinthians 16 looks like a permanent record of Paul’s travel itinerary. That would be of some historical interest. But it’s so much more than that. In his words, Paul reveals how his decisions about what to do and where to go were shaped by the eternal Kingdom of God.
5After I go through Macedonia, I will come to you—for I will be going through Macedonia. 6Perhaps I will stay with you awhile, or even spend the winter, so that you can help me on my journey, wherever I go. 7I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. 8But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, 9because a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.
Paul was very keen to see the Corinthians. They had so many issues. He was desperate to get to them, spend some time with them and sort them out. But something else trumped that legitimate godly desire. He made something else a priority. He said no to a good thing in order to do a better thing. And the better thing was staying put. He knew that he couldn’t move on from Ephesus whilst there was work to do. God had opened up a wonderful opportunity and he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth! But staying put would be costly. He was being opposed. And so it would involve some personal sacrifice to remain where he was and work hard for the gospel. But he considered that a cost worth bearing for the sake of the gospel work in Ephesus.
That’s what the godly apostle did.
But what about us?
If we’re a follower of Jesus Christ then we all have Christian work to do. It comes with the territory. We’re all involved in building the family business with the varied gifts that God has given to us. We all have Christian ministries. But are we willing to let the reality of the future eternal Kingdom of God shape our decisions? Is personal preference, long cherished dreams or middle class sin the driving force. I’m just asking.
What might this mean for us?
Many people in inner city suburbs like Balham decide that it’s inevitable that they’ll move on at some stage. Of course, very few people stay in the same place for all of their adult life. I get that. But I’m talking about the phenomenon of so-called ‘middle class white flight’. It’s worth asking why moving has become the non-negotiable expectation? For the most part the trajectory is move to Balham, settle in church, flat share, meet partner, marriage, kids and then move to the suburbs or the regions. It’s the pattern of things, in general. Out where there’s space we’ll get more for our money. This might mean an extra bedroom, a garden, room and a garage. A garage – think of all the things that I could store there! It’s an attractive plan and please don’t be naïve and think that somehow I’m immune to the temptation of moving out of London. But what’s driving that decision? Is it the eternal Kingdom of God? Sure we can get involved in a church once we’re there. But let’s not pretend that this is the reason that we’re going. Finding a church is incidental to the motive for going. Central is usually some other driving reason.
We must examine our motives for continuing on our trajectory out of London. And because our hearts are deceitful, we must allow others to ask what’s driving our decision to leave. It could well be that leaving is the right thing to do. There’ll be good reasons for some to leave the gospel work here so that we can be involved in another one somewhere else. We’ve just lost one family to Madagascar. They had a great reason to leave. But it needn’t only be missionary work that takes us away from building the gospel work in Balham. It may be elderly parents who need our support, it may be marriage or it may be that work is simply unavailable in London. But God is building his church here and we need workers to help him build it. We need people to stay and contribute what they can. If everyone goes, the construction works stops. Or it slows. It’s like the house at the end of our road. It used to be a work in progress but now it’s boarded up. The work there has ground to a halt. If all our church construction workers leave, they’ll be no one left to build the church.
This is a sensitive issue. Though it’s worth asking why we’re so sensitve about it. Might it be that someone is threatening to take away our oh so precisou middle class idol? We tend to respond disproportionately strongly if something we value is being denied to us. If you find yourself strangely irritated by this blog post might I suggest soemthing? Could it be that, like me, the kingdom concerns modelled by the apostle Paul are more peripheral than central than God would like them to be?
My intention is not to stir up trouble but to stimulate us to godly kingdom living. It just seems an obvious implication of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. For some of us it will be the right decision to leave. But we must never think that it’s inevitable. The work of the gospel must be the driving motive for our decisions.