Monday, February 09, 2015

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:16-27, for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, "Free from all, servant of all"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s reading, Paul talks about the privilege and reward of preaching the gospel—the good news of Jesus Christ crucified for our sins and forgiveness. It was his unique joy to preach to the Corinthians free of charge. Like other servants of the gospel, he knew he deserved to earn a living by it. But among the Corinthians, he chose not to accept any payment, but worked for the sheer joy and reward of serving Jesus Christ. You can only understand this joy if you grasp the marvelous mystery of what Jesus has done for you. Working for a big paycheck we can understand. Working at an easy and rewarding job, we can understand easy enough. But facing constant rejection, persecution, beatings, and failure, and still finding the work so joyful that you would do it for free—that’s not so easy to understand. But the way that Paul carried out his ministry, and the joy and willingness with which he did it, all are for what Jesus did for us.
Paul describes his missionary work through a mystery or a paradox: he says “though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” His work in serving all was really an echo of what Christ first did for us. “I am free from all”, he says. The good news of Jesus is tied up with slavery and freedom. Our slavery was to sin and death. Our disobedience and rebellion against God means that by nature we were objects of God’s wrath and displeasure. Our rebellion against Him made us His enemies, with no prospect of winning the fight—only of ending up losers. Sin always collects its final payment in death, and the law of God holds the condemning record of how we have broken the commandments.
But Paul says “I am free from all.” That is because Jesus Christ came at the right time, when God planned, and He was “born under the law to redeem those under the law.” God’s own Son set aside His glory and became like us, ruled by God’s law and commandments, to secure the way for our freedom. We have no other alternative. There is no “success rate” at all, apart from Jesus, in obeying the commandments and steering clear of the penalties for breaking them. But when Jesus obeyed God’s Law for us, to redeem us, to buy us out of our slavery, He opened the way to freedom and life in Him. “I am free from all”. Say it! “I am free from all!” I am free from the power of sin, death, and the devil. I am free from the impossible demands of the law that would be my death sentence—if it were not that Jesus took that death sentence for me. I am free in Christ Jesus!
But Paul goes on to say how he uses his freedom: “I have made myself a servant of all, that I might win more of them.” Paul could have walked away from that “prison” and never looked back—but instead he devoted himself to a new service—to be a slave of those who were still imprisoned, that he might see more of them set free by the power of the good news of Jesus Christ. He became captive to their need, so that he could serve them by the gospel, and share with them in its blessings.
How do we want to use the freedom that we have been given in Christ Jesus? The highest calling from God is to tell others the good news about Jesus, to serve among the prisoners, and tell them the message that frees. To be a servant of all. To do this, Paul made himself highly adaptable to the people he met. Note this, however, and this is very important—he was adaptable and flexible—but the message didn’t change! The message of the good news of Jesus Christ is not open to compromise or alteration to fit the needs of others. It is God’s own message, and Paul warned in the strongest terms against tampering with the message. But what kind of flexibility did Paul employ in witnessing to Jews and Gentiles, those who had the law and commandments of God, and those who were not raised with them, or among those who were “weak” in some sense? How did Paul adapt to them, and what does it mean that he says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some”?
As a Jew, or one under the law, Paul could freely associate with Jews, eating their kosher foods, observing their ritual purifications for worship, and abiding by all the laws he knew from childhood. He understood the implication of the Gospel that Jesus had fulfilled all these things and that they were no longer binding on him. And as long as no one was forcing him to do it, he could freely live like this at no harm, if it gave him the opportunity to talk about Jesus with the Jews. On the other hand, to live like the Gentiles, those who had never received the Law of Moses, he was likewise free to eat non-kosher foods, to associate with them in their homes, and meet them at their level, in ways that an observant Jew might find repugnant. The implication of the gospel was that these barriers between peoples based on Old Testament laws, were now removed in Christ Jesus. Jesus too freely associated with tax collectors, prostitutes, drunkards, and other sinners, not involving Himself in their sins, but talking with them and teaching them. Others tried in vain to make Him guilty by association. Both Paul and Jesus were making contact with these people so that by the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus, they might be set free from their slavery, their imprisonment to whatever sins held them captive.
How can we become all things to all people today? Some Christians have distorted this statement to ridiculous effect today. They have tried to make it mean that we should take an “anything goes” approach to evangelism. Every one of the following examples I’m about to give are real—and it would be a lot funnier if they weren’t true. Instead of Christians meeting people in their circumstances, or walking in somebody else’s shoes, it has become a disguise for bringing worldliness into the church. For example, churches have done “clown masses” where the entire service is done in clown costume and mime—with no spoken Word of God. Men’s groups have tried to incorporate “ultimate fighting” contests into their outreach, with tragic results. Preachers have used sensual material and props for sermon series on sexuality; they have preached on the spiritual themes of Super Bowl commercials instead of God’s Holy Word; churches doing the Holy Ghost “hokie pokie” for worship; having dancing Star Wars storm troopers entertain the people during the music on Easter morning; a pastor setting himself on fire as a stunt in church….etc.
I did not make up any of these examples, and they are all being done by various “Christian” churches in the name of doing all things for all people and attempting to be “relevant”. The church is not a circus for drawing people into an entertaining spectacle, and by chasing after relevancy, they have only proven their irrelevancy. Church is a holy gathering of Christ’s people to hear God’s Word, receive His gifts, and give Him praise. Paul carefully qualified his statements about being all things to all people. When he’s becoming like those without the law, for example, he explains that he’s never actually without God’s law or the law of Christ. He doesn’t allow himself to become a sinner so that he can become “like” someone struggling with that sin. Rather, he walks in their shoes and comes alongside them, without sin, in the same Christ-like way as Jesus, who worked to reach the outcasts and forgotten.
Secondly Paul qualifies by saying that he does everything “for the sake of” or “on account of the Gospel.” The Good News of Jesus is the overriding authority that rules his ministry. That Word is always the total goal, and is not open to compromise or alteration. It’s a universal message that is for all times and all peoples, every bit as true today. Thirdly, his example is that an athlete exercises self-control in all things, putting his body in submission. The spiritual lesson of this being that Paul doesn’t want to disqualify himself from the prize.
The kind of evangelism Paul is talking about is almost certainly not going to happen within these building walls, on Sunday morning, where hopefully almost all of you are already Christian. But it will happen, if you are open to God’s leading and calling, in your daily life and encounters. It may happen as a caring Christian walks alongside a pair of frightened young teens who have ignored God’s design for sexuality, and gotten pregnant. It may happen as that Christian guides and leads her to making the wise and responsible choices to find a way to care for the child that is conceived, to walk life in a better way, and find God’s forgiveness. It may happen as you come alongside a drug addict or a homeless person, who is angry at God or at society, or who may have a load of baggage that enslaves them. And you take the time to listen, to understand, to help them to discover the true and Living God who loves them, and cares for them. It may happen in spending time with your own family members who don’t believe in God, and gently opening a deeper conversation than one about sports or the weather, but asking about God and their faith. Helping them to explore the reasons why they aren’t listening to God’s Word. Helping them to see how God’s Word provides answers to their worries and problems, and leads us to the only solution worth following—Jesus Christ who frees us from all the burdens of sin and guilt and failure.
Being all things to all people might mean we have to set aside our own “status, rights, or privileges.” It will involve setting aside our self-interest and sometimes it will just involve setting aside the busy-ness and dictates of our schedule to take the time to care for someone and listen to them, and speak Christ’s Words as the Holy Spirit leads us and gives them. And by setting aside our self-interest and our “rights” we are doing nothing more than what Christ did perfectly and freely for us. Without thought of the cost or charge to Himself, without concern for how it might result in cruel treatment, mockery, contempt, and even death on the cross, Jesus willingly set it aside for the joy of setting us free by His life, death, and resurrection. We are a community that has been set free by Jesus Christ. We share in and celebrate that joy each week. We share in the blessings of that gospel. May we continue to find those who need that same joy and freedom, and may God send them our way in our daily lives, so we can serve them with the love of Jesus.
And as Paul realized, there is great reward in doing this freely and willingly, while doing it unwillingly or by compulsion was just doing his duty as a preacher. But to understand the joy and the freedom that motivated him, we have to return again and again to Jesus Christ, who beyond all others, was free to all, yet used His freedom to become a servant to all. God has given you a marvelous freedom in Christ Jesus. Stand firm and live in that freedom, not as an opportunity for your flesh, but as an opportunity to serve your neighbor in love. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In 1 Corinthians 9:16-27, Paul reflects on the office of “preacher” and the necessity or duty that is laid on him to preach the good news of Jesus. What is the reward for him doing his duty willingly? Why is telling people the good news about Jesus rewarding in itself?
  2. In verse 19 Paul says something that seems contradictory. That he is free from all, but makes himself servant of all. In what way is the Christian free? Galatians 5:1-6, 13-14. In what way is the Christian obligated or bound to a duty or responsibility? Romans 7:25-8:11; 14:7-8. Martin Luther summarized this “paradox” in the booklet “The Freedom of the Christian”, where he wrote that a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none, while at the same time a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to everyone.
  3. As Paul describes his submission to others as their servant, He describes a very Christ-like activity. How did Jesus “become as one under the law to redeem those under the law?” Galatians 4:4-6; Philippians 2:5-11.
  4. When Paul speaks of reaching those outside the law, (v. 21) how does he clarify that in doing so he does not permit himself to sin or disobey God’s law? Who are people with whom we must share the gospel, whose circumstances or way of life might present a temptation or challenge to us? How do we avoid falling into the same sins ourselves? Galatians 6:1-2. For one thing, we should keep ourselves out of compromising situations, and another lesson learned from Joseph in the Old Testament is to run from temptation!
  5. How does “becoming all things to all people” get misused or distorted today? What boundaries did Paul clarify for this? (v. 21). What was his guiding principle in v. 23?
  6. The metaphor of a race or a boxer training for a fight is a powerful description of what Christian life is like. What does every athlete need to succeed? V. 24; 27. What is the prize we are seeking? Who won the race before us and holds the prize? Hebrews 12:1-2

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