1 Corinthians 9:16-27
These past few weeks our congregation has focused on the life and ministry of St. Paul. Paul was first and foremost a preacher of the Gospel. He preached the same Good News of salvation that Jesus preached.
That Good News was on full display in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:29-39). Here we see Jesus travelling around to the towns of his region and helping people in many ways. Good News abounds! But we also hear him make clear that his main purpose – and therefore his main help- is to preach the Gospel. “That is why I came,” he says to his disciples.
The 1 Corinthians 9 text which is the basis for this morning’s sermon contains a number of comments from Paul about his own preaching. The question that immediately arises for us as we consider his words is: “Was Paul defending himself as a preacher here, or is he holding himself up as an example for us?”
At first glance, this text seems to be all about Paul’s need to defend himself. The verses right before our text certainly contain words to that effect, and just about every sentence in our text today contains the word “I.” Indeed, we know that Paul was often questioned and criticized. If Paul wrote these words to explain himself we could certainly understand why.
And yet, toward the end of our text, Paul uses the word “you” – showing that his focus is not simply on himself but on his hearers also. And even more convincing is the sentence Paul uses a chapter and a half later—a sentence meant to conclude this section on food and idols first started in chapter 8. There he says: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
So, Paul is telling us of his own issues and struggles in order to prepare us to be people in mission, as he was, and as Christ was. We are to imitate Paul and Christ by helping others, especially by preaching the Good News. Preaching will open us up to questioning and criticism, but we need not be afraid. Paul’s words offer us great help as we think about our task.
Paul begins by distinguishing between those who preach of their “own will” and those who, like he, preach with a “necessity laid upon me.” Some, like Paul, are specifically called to the preaching task. These are set apart as ministers of the Gospel and entrusted with the public proclamation of God’s Word. The church traditionally gives a stole to its ministers as a sign of the necessity which is laid upon the minister.
These ministers, however, also have as their task the “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4),” done so that all may see themselves as people in mission. As a result, we can all share the life-changing good news of God’s love for all people in Christ Jesus. And we should. It’s simply a matter of will. Therefore we pray: “O Lord, open my lips.” And we ask God to help us overcome our fears, perhaps remembering that line from the hymn: “If you cannot speak like angels, if you cannot preach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, you can say he died for all.”
As we think about our task of proclaiming the gospel, we also see more advice from Paul in this text. As Paul has learned, we are to preach with freedom, but also as a slave. He says it this way in verse 19: “Though I am free I make myself a slave to win as many as possible.”
Paul knows he is free because Christ Jesus has died on the cross to pay the price of his sin. Paul is free from the penalty of sin, as are all who believe this message. This freedom is the good news, the gospel, which we proclaim. The gospel tells us we are no longer in bondage to sin, and we no longer need to despair of our sinfulness.
That being said, Paul also knows that being an imitator of Christ means imitating one who came not to be served but to serve. Having been freed from our sin we respond in loving service, just like Peter’s mother-in-law did when Jesus healed her, as recorded in today’s Gospel. Despite his freedom, or actually because of it, Paul makes himself like a slave, serving others in everything he does. He puts aside his desires in order to have time to help. He makes the help and service of others his goal.
Martin Luther was deeply affected by these particular words of Paul. As it started to become clear to him that he was becoming an important voice of reform in the whole church, Luther felt a need not only to defend himself from his critics but to lead the voices of others in proclaiming the free gift of grace in the gospel.
In the year 1521 Luther reached out to the Pope with a letter of goodwill and included with it a treatise he called The Freedom of a Christian. The thesis of that work comes straight from v. 19 of our text. It reads: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Through these paradoxical words Luther attempted to show how an understanding of freedom in the Gospel does not undermine authority, but rather frees one to serve willingly and joyfully. We’re not sure if the pope ever read that treatise, but many others did and were greatly moved by it.
As Paul goes on in his text, he then explains further just how much of a slave he is willing to be. He is so dedicated to his mission and so mindful of others that he is willing to become a Jew to the Jews, as one under the Law to those under the Law, as one outside the Law to those outside the Law, and weak to those who are weak. In other words, as Paul explains, he is willing to become “all things to all people in order to save some.”
Paul shares here the principle of meeting people where they are. Specifically, he is aware of where people are in their relationship to the Law. Some are still following the Law as an observant Jew. Others have begun to follow Christ but still observe the Jewish Law. Others know of their freedom from that Law. Others know of their freedom but struggle with it. Paul is sensitive to all of them.
And not only is Paul sensitive to the needs of others, but he is willing to sacrifice his freedom for the sake of bringing them to faith. Paul has in mind more than just the tailoring of his sermons to the ears of his hearers. He also has in mind the actions of one’s life, which can be thought of as preaching without words. That is why Paul said in last week’s text about the eating of foods: “If food makes my brother stumble I will never eat meat again, lest I make my brother stumble.” Sometimes these kinds of sermons are the most powerful of all.
Finally, Paul urges us in this text to preach with great discipline. He uses a metaphor which would have been very dear to the Corinthian people, whose athletic games where second only to those of Athens in importance. Paul talks about the physical training needed to win an athletic competition, such as a running race or a boxing match. Just as winning athletes need to train with discipline, so also preachers of the Gospel need to do so as well. We train ourselves by hearing the word of God. We train ourselves by living according to God’s Laws.
This is the section where Paul specifically turns his attention to you, the hearer. We’re all open to consider good examples and helpful bits of advice. But the hard work of training is where many of us fall flat. Paul speaks directly to us so that he might encourage us in this effort. We are to run hard so that we might win the prize.
Which brings us to one last point to consider in this text. This prize which Paul mentions, what is it? Earlier he spoke of receiving a reward, and throughout the text he makes much mention of winning. He tells us that the prize is imperishable, unlike a wreath, which was the coveted reward of an athlete in his day. All this being considered, what, then is the prize?
Our Christian minds think right away of heaven – the final reward given to those who live in faith. And that could indeed be what Paul is talking about here. However, considering the subject of this text, I wonder if it might be something else.
When a sinner is brought to repentance or a lost soul is brought to faith, isn’t this a prize for all of us? When a self-centered person becomes committed to serving others or when a former skeptic is added to the family of believers, isn’t this a reward that will be greatly enjoyed by all? Throughout his letters Paul shows a great love and concern for people. I think maybe the prospect of more people together in the church was the real prize that Paul had in mind here.
So often we become weary in reaching out to those who are outside the church. But Paul reminds us that this is our mission. And he encourages us. He reminds us of what a blessed prize it is when a stranger becomes a brother and when a rival becomes a teammate.
Certainly it is the Holy Spirit which turns the hearts of people to faith. But our mission is to prepare the way and welcome those who are turned. May God then give us the will and the spirit to reach out to those who do not yet know that God loves them in Jesus Christ. And may God use us for the bringing of many into the Kingdom. In the name of Jesus, amen.