February 8, 2015 - 1 Corinthians 9.16-23

“All Things to All People”

1 Corinthians 9.16-23

February 8, 2015

 

16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

19For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

 

Just as Saint Paul said that his authority rested upon the call and commissioning of Christ, so each of us ought to live our lives as those under orders. We live not for ourselves but rather for the sake of Christ and the work that Christ wants done in the world.

We don’t know precisely why the apostle Paul feels threatened by fellow Christians at the First Church of Corinth. However, we do know that someone has challenged Paul’s authority.

“What gives you the right to tell us how to conduct our church?” someone in Corinth appears to have asked Paul. The church is having a crisis of authority. Paul had founded the church in Corinth. Now Christians in Corinth seem to have forgotten all that. “Who gave you the right to tell us what to do?” they must have asked.

In today’s scripture from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle defends himself.

At first Paul reminds them that he is a true apostle. He reminds them also that they wouldn’t be a church without him. And yet Paul says that none of that gets to the heart of the matter. “But I have made no use of any of these rights,” says Paul (1 Cor 9:15).

Paul’s authority rests upon his external authorization. Paul says that he does what he does and says what he says because an obligation is laid on him, and woe to him if he does not preach the gospel. He does this, “not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission” (v. 17).

Paul tells the Corinthians, in effect, that he does not work for them. He has been sent, commissioned (the word apostle means “one who is sent”), ordered to preach the gospel to them. Paul’s words are not linked to congregational approval, a winning personality, or to his superior theological training. When it comes down to it, Paul’s authorization has come from God. He is not writing to the Corinthians because this gives him personal pleasure – “an obligation is laid on me.”

Elsewhere Paul calls himself a “slave” of Christ. He is one whose neck is in a yoke; a burden has been placed upon his back.

I expect that this way of thinking sounds quite foreign to us. We live in a world that teaches us that our lives are self-created through our astute, free, deliberate choices. “I choose, therefore I am.” Freedom of choice is our highest virtue – the reason why we have cable TV with 200 channels and supermarkets with 100 varieties of lemons. The good life is the life that we fabricate through our choices.
     “How did you choose to marry your wife?” I ask.
     And you reply, “Well, I asked a dozen other women and they said ‘no.’ This was the only woman who gave me half a chance. So I just sort of married her.”
     What kind of marriage is that? The most important steps in life are those which we have feely chosen, or so a capitalist, consumer economy tells us.
     But what if the life you are living is not your own? What if while you are busy making your choices, God is also making choices? What if it’s not up to you to decide what to do with your life but rather the direction of your life is up to the God who created you?

Paul, how did you decide to follow Christ? How did you choose to be a Christian? Did you always have a deep desire to travel to far-away places like Corinth? Were you really good at public speaking? Did you have an inclination to think theologically?

And Paul replies that he was just minding his own business, proceeding down the Damascus Road, when Jesus chose him!

 

I think most of you know that I was held hostage in Maryland by the United Methodist Church for 3 years.  One of the reasons I became connected with the UMC was my appreciation for the theology of John Wesley.  John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, although he was not the beneficiary of the historical-critical method of biblical interpretation, took scripture very seriously. Wesley tended to ask not about historical precedents, contexts, and other factors that might lie behind the text, those questions that we have been taught to ask. Rather, Wesley kept his focus on the world in front of the text. He allowed the biblical text to question him, rather than posing historical-critical questions about the text.

It is as if Wesley assumed not only that the Bible is God’s word, but that the Bible was God’s word for him. Wesley asked himself not, “How ought this biblical text be changed in order for this text to be relevant for my life?” Rather, Wesley asked, “How would my life need to change in order to be faithful to this text?”

Every text was an invitation to transformation because, for Wesley, it was the authority of the biblical text, not the authority of his own cultural situation, his personal limitations, his skeptical questions that had the greatest authority in biblical interpretation. He assumed no authority over the biblical text. Rather, he assumed that the biblical text had authority over him!

 

Paul tells the squabbling Corinthians, “I’m not here by my own power. I didn’t really want to come to Corinth in the first place. I am under obligation. I have a commission and that’s why I am attempting to serve Christ by serving you.”

I know that you think you are here this morning because you chose to be here. You are a person of good habits and you came out of habit. You were searching for a bit of a boost in your life and thought that you might get it here.

But what if you are here this morning because God put you here? What if the work that you are doing you are not doing for yourself? What if the life you are living is not your own?

You can think of other biblical personalities – Abraham and Sarah, Matthew, dozens of people who didn’t really want to work with God, but God was determined to work through them. And that’s Paul’s defense of his ministry. “I’m not here because I just love Corinth. I’m here under orders, commissioned, forced against my will.”

 

Often we forget that God desires – and even designed – us to be his tools.  “I’ve prayed to God to come to me in my time of need,” confessed a man who was in the grip of a serious illness. “But God continues to refuse me. I just feel that God has forsaken me; forgotten me just when I need him.”

The person from the church, holding his hand, sitting at the bedside, responded, “George, did it ever occur that maybe God is answering your prayer? Did you ever think that maybe God sent me?”

 

Will Willimon recounts his experience in Sunday School:

“When I was in high school I had my very first male Sunday school teacher. All of our Sunday school teachers up to that point had been women. And that was fine, but it was exciting for an adolescent male like me to have a male Sunday school teacher. And what a teacher he turned out to be!

He was a business person. He shared with us that he was not the very best of Christians. He asked our help because he wasn’t all that well-versed in scripture. Most of his Sunday school lessons involved his sharing with us from his own experiences in business. He would sometimes tell us about a tough business decision that he had to make on Monday morning, laying out the dilemma and then asking us to help him figure out what, as a Christian, he ought to do.

That class was just wonderful! We had never been talked to like adults. We had never been around an adult who was so honest about his limitations and so eager to hear what we had to say.

Well, as providence would have it, years later I was invited back to my home church. After I preached an older man came up to me. It was my Sunday school teacher! Now I would have the opportunity to thank him for what he did for my faith journey in that class.
     “I’ll always remember your Sunday school class,” I told him.
     “Yea, I’ll never be able to forget that either,” was his reply.
     “What do you mean by that?” I asked.
     “I hated those two years. I told the preacher that I had zero skills in teaching kids, that I wasn’t that good with the Bible. But he forced me to do it. Said I owed him a favor. And you kids! All you wanted to do with to giggle and hold hands and it was … awful.”[1]

 

That exchange taught me something important: sometimes the best things we do for God are the things that we don’t want to do. Sometimes God asks us to do things that are indeed pleasant to us. But sometimes we work for God, not from what we want, but because we believe this is what God wants.

Paul says he is “under a commission.” The word commission means “sent.” Every one of us here this morning, by virtue of our baptism, is commissioned. We are not here on our own. We are here under orders.

 

[1] Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, February 8, 2015.

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