1 Corinthians 9:16-27
Living the Gospel
16 For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. 18 What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To 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 not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those
outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
(1 Corinthians 9:16-27 ESV)
We are all pretty familiar in the congregations of how things should be – should run – the organisational structure – what pastors are supposed to do – what congregations do. The ELCE restructure is revealing that while all ELCE congregations might look alike – and all Lutheran pastors appear to be theological clones – there are differences in views and ways of doing things because of the different interpretations of Scripture and the different contexts people have. So a question that is arising in our restructure is how does a Lutheran pastor relate to his congregation and to the ELCE? Is it a matter of one or the other or both / and and if both / and, which one comes first – the congregation or the Synod? We tend to think there is a ‘right way’ for most structures and practices when in truth such things are more ‘my way’ – and other ways can and do exist.
Last week we heard the Apostle Paul reply to the Corinthian concern about eating food offered to idols. And he presented some principles by which to follow Jesus in each situation – flee idolatry – know that there is no other God but the Triune God and how he relates to you in Jesus – and then in your freedom, do what is best to promote living – an abundant life with Jesus and his grace – a life that blesses and does not harm people’s consciences.
This week we are still in Paul’s answer and he mentions his freedom in another way – that of not being a financial burden on the congregation there – even as the congregation had the obligation to support him. And this, it seemed, caused tension because the congregation would be willing to support Paul and yet Paul goes out of his way to say ‘No’. Yes, the Church does support its workers – and even their wife – as they should and Paul makes mention many times that he and Barnabas could do the same – they have the right to such support – but they have said no – refused to take funds – and this seems to have become an issue. (The relationship – fractious as it is at times – is more evident, I think, in 2nd Corinthians.) And possibly the best reason for Paul’s approach seems to be that the congregation had a tendency for division – into groups – rich and poor – following certain teachers with a ‘mine is better than yours’ attitude – thinking that they determined what behaviour was appropriate for a disciple – and they thought more highly of themselves than was healthy and with their assets and their attitude, he who pays the piper … ‘calls the tune’. And this is what Paul is reacting against and so like the prophets before him, he is a living example of a message – of freedom – the Gospel is free, the sacraments are free, God’s love is free – you can’t purchase it or control it – yes, you can give thanks for it but that’s a different issue. Paul gladly accepts support from the Philippians but he doesn’t here because he has the freedom to do what is best to promote Jesus and share the Gospel – with this specific congregation – the one in Corinth.
He isn’t ambivalent about the Gospel itself – the living Jesus and the presence of God’s love compels him – it is a necessity for him – as breathing is for us to be alive – and this can’t be bought by them. Paul is free from them but he chooses to then serve them in ways that relate to them – he knows how the Jews tick and so he walks along side them as a Jewish person who has met the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus who is that and more, Immanuel – God with us. To the Gentile, he can relate to them as outside the law because he has the love and freedom of God in Christ and can relate to those who feel that the gods of this world are capricious puppet masters either ignoring us or pulling our strings – and Paul can say, ‘I know! – but Jesus doesn’t do that, for he is the crucified God, who is alive and seeks to serve us’. Such a message would blow people’s minds! And to the weak, Paul walks along side as one with his own weakness – his struggles – not to dump on them his burdens – but to share that the Jesus he knows calls people to him and offers them rest and his yoke is easy and his burden is light because Jesus is gentle and humble himself and has rescued us all on the cross.
This is a strange missionary – follower of Jesus – apostle who seems to go out of his way to listen and work out people and walk along side people and speak to where they are at and introduce Jesus – rather than ignoring their situation and simply shouting Jesus at them.
And to make sure that he isn’t just plasticine, spineless, always just ‘going with the flow’ he says to the Corinthians that his discipleship is disciplined – not laissez faire – but that he is like an athlete in training. The image of the race doesn’t work if you push it because everyone in Christ wins the prize that Jesus has won on the cross – not just one person – but Paul recognises that there is a temptation, a struggle, to finish the race! And so he uses the athletic imagery to say that discipleship is akin to training because the training itself brings him close to Jesus – through words, water, bread and wine – and just as physical training can give us an endorphin high – so spiritual training – word and prayer – can draw us closer to Jesus where sometimes we can feel close to him and other times not – don’t forget that our sinful self is an enemy within – but through faith we know that Jesus doesn’t change and is always with us. Often this spiritual discipline can seem useless to us but over time those around us can see how we are changing.
Paul will go on to tell the Corinthians not to take God’s grace for granted in 1 Corinthians 10 – and you can read the chapter – indeed the rest of the letter yourself. And we can take home from these chapters last week and this week the reality that Christianity is fulltime – from God – he is faithful and consistent in his care for
us – it is us who can struggle with following Jesus in the world, in the Church, and within ourselves. We all have patterns of living very much entrenched – what we think and say in certain situations, how we clean our teeth, our morning routines, our work routines – and yes, the pandemic might have disrupted many of them – but we adapt and form new routines. On Sunday we encounter the routine of the liturgy through which Jesus forms and guides us, helps us grow, cleans us, and feeds and blesses us. It is the Monday to Saturday living that is often spiritually unstructured or has few patterns or rituals and perhaps the image of athletic training, the spiritual gym, or even the apprentice learning the trade – of finding time for reading Scripture, meditating and listening to that Word – to Jesus – and being guided by that time and insight – which leads to prayer and action will enrich our lives – and be a blessing to those around you. Start small if you begin – it is better to read the Bible 5 minutes per day than for 35 minutes once per week – and be ready for resistance and stumbling – this is not a neutral event but a drawing close to the God who saves a world that didn’t want to be saved – but needed it nonetheless.
This is who Jesus is and what the Gospel is about – grace from God and freedom for us – not to do as we wish but remembering that relationships govern behaviour and Jesus has died and risen again and made us his disciples in baptism – that’s his way of giving us life – and we now have the freedom to live and we choose to serve.
- 1 Corinthians 9:16 - 27