5th Sunday after The Epiphany

February 4, 2018


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)

Yesterday at Redeemer, Harlow, we had another Saturday Seminar – getting together for a longer Bible Study with
lots of food – unpacking a topic in a day. Yesterday the congregation asked for ‘the life and times of St Paul’ and
you can guess whether we finished it or not! (We didn’t!) But one thing became apparent as we listened to Paul
defend himself in Jerusalem and at Caesarea and as we read portions of his letters and that was he was committed
to, focused on, I am resisting the word ‘passionate’ because it is used for everything from justice to making the
perfect cappuccino (!) but maybe I can make an exception in this case and say that Paul was ‘passionate’ about
Jesus and the Gospel. And it wasn’t that having encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus – being blinded –
humbled – and then restored – that Paul was on ‘easy street’. Following Jesus took him into conflicts, hassles,
fights, beatings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, and execution. Sure we can get a sense that Paul is definite and
uncompromising – so conflict maybe is in his DNA a bit – but it wasn’t just the world who was giving him grief –
no, a lot of it – and this is why we have his letters in the New Testament came from his fellow followers of Jesus –
from Christian congregations some of which he established and pastored. The Corinthian congregation was
probably Paul’s most troublesome congregation.

Now we’ve heard our Second Reading this evening and undoubtedly heard many a sermon or Bible Study which
has called us to preach the gospel, present the gospel, live the gospel – do it free of charge – and in doing so share
in Gospel blessings and because it is easy to become slack we then discipline ourselves so that we are not

Two things emerge from this message. One is that it seems to say that presenting the gospel – evangelism – is the
highest calling of Christians. And the second is the sneaky suspicion that salvation is works righteousness after all
with the talking about rewards, running the racing, one winning the prize, and possible disqualification. This text is often used as a motivator to church mission.

However that interpretation – with some tweaks – really only applies to one person here this evening. Paul is an
apostle and a pastor writing to a former congregation who have their issues and who had an issue with their pastor
– which it emerges – was that he wouldn’t take money from them – a salary if you will. Paul was happy to receive
money and support from other congregations – Philippians are the most notable – but in Corinth he didn’t – in fact he refused. And if you read both letters – 1st and 2nd Corinthians – it would seem that he had deduced that the message the Corinthian congregation needed to hear and experience – these were people who lived in a city full of religions and temples – including temple prostitution – whereby you paid for your religious services and if you
paid, you had some claim on the religious service and the person providing it. I hold that Paul made the pastoral
decision not to take financial support from them even though he was entitled to – to point again and again to the
gospel – to God’s grace in Christ, to the foolishness of the cross implicit in his refusal to take funds (surely only a
fool refuses money?!).

In his sharing of the gospel Paul opens his heart and reveals that he is single minded about sharing Christ – that is
his call from Jesus himself – to be an apostle to the Gentiles. In essence Jesus served him and he now seeks to serve those around him by finding what is common between him and the person or group around him. Paul’s Jesus – our Jesus – became sin for us so that we might become God’s righteousness and that is the ultimate identification. Thus Paul finds what is common between him and those around him because his identity is no longer Jew, male, Pharisee, persecutor, sinner – he doesn’t deny his past or present but the only label that shapes him, that he claims is that he is ‘in Christ’ – that Jesus is his Lord – that he is a forgiven sinner and in faith a saint – and so he has no axe to grind about himself but seeks to relate to those around him – Jew to Jew, free from law to those who feel free from law, sinner to sinner, dying person to dying person – his apostolic ministry is all about bringing Christ to others.

So, as I said, this specifically might apply to one person in this chapel – someone who is in the trajectory of an
apostle, someone who is a pastor …

So what do the rest of you do?

As we always do – we apply the text in its context to ourselves – we seek to hear what God’s Word says to us
today. It tells congregations that pastors should preach the gospel and in doing so be faithful so as to receive the
blessings that come – ultimately heaven – but daily it might be the joy of seeing people come to Jesus or be
strengthened in their discipleship.

This text is about a pastor and congregation relationship which in our Lutheran terminology is about vocation –
following Jesus in the relationships in which we stand. Our text specifically speaks into that context. We can apply
it to our other vocational relationships by recognising the landscape – the relationships we are in – that husband and wives are to serve each other in Christ – so that the gospel is not so much preached but lived; parents serve their children in Christ while children learn to honour their parents in Christ. Christian employers or employees still have to get the business tasks done – their goal is not firstly preaching the Gospel – but the tasks are undertaken by the Christian employee / employer as if they are done for Christ and in service to the other person. Ruler or citizen? Again the first task is being a dutiful follower of Jesus in your vocation not preaching the Gospel – that can come second as it is shared and lived. Of course the Christian ruler or citizen can never – should never – forget Jesus in their vocation.

Applying this text outside of a congregation by an individual is not about turning oneself into a preacher but is
about following Jesus – freely – into our homes, our work, our society – and that is hard to do – as we seek to serve those around us. However Christians follow Jesus into their Monday to Saturday world because it is a better way to live than to keep Jesus confined to one Sunday hour per week. When Paul talks about rewards or prizes – being athletic – he is talking about the simple truth that life is better following Jesus than not following Jesus.

Marriages are better when spouse are faithful; countries and homes are peaceful when authority is honoured; people feel safer – they don’t lock their doors – if life and property are respected – and so on. Even the world understands this – and puts up rules after rules trying to achieve it. Christians come along following Jesus and such rules are unnecessary. Christians come along following Jesus who serves them by in turn serving those around them. It’s not easy. It’s easy to be lax or slack. The athletic training image is encouragement to struggle onwards in faith and service so that you and the people around you have better lives.

In baptism the prize was already given to us. Strictly speaking for Christian this race is only ours to lose. It might
happen when Christians stop running, when they go off the track, when they push Jesus away, when we turn Jesus
into our own image to excuse our own behaviour, when we don’t want to serve but rather we want to be served.
This is the struggle of the disciple – not to give up – but to behave as Jesus wants us to even when – especially
when – we don’t want to.

Why keep going? Because love gets us out of bed in the morning. And love gives us hope and strength for another
day. And love holds us. And the greatest of everything is love – and the greatest love of all is God’s love in Christ –
and that is the story of the Gospel. Jesus – his love, his life, his service to us – gives us our life and identity. That’s
what shapes what we do each day.

Bible References

  • 1 Corinthians 9:16 - 27