|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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|"All Things to All People"
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
you see or hear advertising, whether in the printed word or on the
radio or on television, those folks who give testimony to the quality
of a product may fall into one of three categories.
They may genuinely believe in the product from first-hand experience with it. Or, they may have been asked to endorse the product by someone for whom they are doing a favor.
Or, they may simply be playing a role, and endorsing a product because they are getting paid for it.
Of course, there are also those who genuinely believe in a product, but still, they get paid for doing the commercials. And why not? Don’t they deserve to get paid for their work?
When the apostle Paul speaks of the rights of an apostle in the ninth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, he advances this same kind of argument. And when he speaks of “rights,” he is speaking of what an apostle deserves for his work.
In the eleventh verse he asks, “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?”
But where do WE fit into this scheme of things? How do WE advertise, testify, speak for Christianity?
At one level we may share our church, our religious experiences, our beliefs simply because they are important to us and we genuinely WANT to share them.
At another level, we may be reluctant to do this, but, because we think it is expected of us, or because someone asks us to do it, we do it to please them.
And at the third level, we’re sharing our faith only if there is something in it for us, some personal gain. It may be as if we are taking a bribe.
Well, whatever our motivations, Paul thinks that we are deserving of some reward. But in spite of that, he proclaims, in the twelfth verse, and speaking for himself, “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure everything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”
Then, in the fourteenth verse, he reiterates the rights of an apostle: “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”
Yet, in spite of this, in the fifteenth verse, he proclaims, “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that--no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting!”
Before we get too lost in Paul’s arguments, it might be appropriate to draw a parallel here to political campaigns and their financing. These things have become obscenely expensive.
And, unfortunately, all the contributions that go into a campaign fund seem to have tags on them. The politicians know what groups and corporations are funding them, and they feel that maybe they should be responsive to those groups and corporations.
But wouldn’t it be nice if politicians could say to those groups and corporations, “I am deserving of anything that you give me. But I do not need you and I do not want you. If I do not take your money, I can be free to think and speak as I choose.”
Paul continues, “If 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!”
And I think he’s telling us that he cannot brag about what he is doing, because he really has no choice in the matter--”an obligation is laid on me.” This is his calling. This is part of who he is. And if he does NOT do it, he is not fulfilling his responsibilities.
“Woe to me if I don’t.”
Now, let’s bring this close to home. I believe that each of us has at least one special gift--and maybe many special gifts. That gift is an obligation that is laid upon us. God expects us to use it, to make the most of it.
Others may admire that gift in us, but that is not cause for us to get big-headed and swollen with pride. Rather, it is part of our calling, and woe to us if we do not make the most of God’s gift to us.
For example, those of us who do a lot of public speaking, for whom it is easy, should not think that we are any big deal because of it. This should give us no ground for boasting. It is an obligation that is laid upon us. And woe to us if we do not fulfill that obligation.
And Paul tells us of his proclamation of the gospel, “For 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.”
And I think that Paul is telling us that he is captive to his call; he has not DECIDED to preach the gospel; he has no choice; he is “entrusted with a commission.”
He then asks, “What 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.”
He finds his reward in being able to make the gospel a gift. Now, for those who can see the world only in dollars and cents, only in terms of material gain, or in some kind of exchange of favors, this may seem ludicrous.
But for those with any spiritual values in their lives, this should make perfect sense.
Think to yourself of the term “rewarding experience.” What does it mean to you? Does it mean you made a lot of money? I’ll bet it doesn’t. Rather, I’ll bet it brings to mind relationships with other people.
And I will further bet that it brings to mind experiences in which you were giving of yourself to other people.
Paul goes on to say, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.”
Paul’s freedom means that he has choices. He can make choices. And one of the choices he makes is to be a slave--a servant--to others. Because by serving others, by offering them himself, they will be more receptive of his message of the gospel.
It’s no accident that clerks and salespeople, from fast-food restaurants to upscale boutiques, are likely to ask customers, “May I help you?” or “How may I help you?” or “Are you being helped?” We sell things, and ideas, and the gospel by helping others, by serving others.
Of course, in the secular world we are all familiar with the service industry. But in another sense EVERY industry is a service industry. No product that we purchase holds any value for us unless it serves us, serves a purpose. My car, my computer, the furniture in my house all SERVE me, and are servants to me. Their value is in their serving. Our value to others is in OUR serving.
Yet, somehow we have the idea that to give ourselves away--to enslave ourselves--is to diminish us. On the contrary, we expand our value immensely. The songs of the suffering servant in Isaiah were prophecies of Jesus and of his crucifixion.
Jesus was the ultimate suffering servant, and carried the greatest value of any human in history.
And then, Paul gets down to cases: “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 I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law.”
Now, Paul WAS a Jew, and Jews did consider themselves to be under the law, the law of Moses. But Paul is saying this to make a point, that point being that in order to respond to others, we need to identify with them, to empathize with them, to understand them.
A fancy word for all of this is “accommodation.” Which is to say we need to accept people as they are and where we find them.
Authorities on the contemporary church would argue that we need to develop the church around what is acceptable and workable for folks in the secular world. Our Bibles need to be more readable.
Which is why we have the Contemporary English Version and paraphrase translations. It is suggested that if the favorite music of a congregation is country and western, maybe our hymns should be like that also.
Another way in which the church has attempted to accommodate people where they find them is to innovate different times for regular worship services other than Sunday. This began with Saturday evening services; but churches are now offering even Thursday and Friday evening services on a regular basis.
Paul goes on to say that
“To 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.”
But Paul is not talking about “outlaws” in our contemporary understanding of the word. Rather, he is speaking of the Gentiles, of the non-Jews, of those who did not even know of the law of Moses.
In the previous verse, when he said that “I myself am not under the law,” he meant to say that he did not believe that salvation was to be found through obedience to the law of Moses, but rather through faith in Christ.
In this verse, when he says that “I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law,” he is reaffirming that.
But in a sense, Paul is performing, or attempting to perform, a balancing act. He is neither under the law, like the Jews, nor outside the law, like the Gentiles; yet, he proclaims that in order to win over the Jews and Gentiles, he will become as they are.
I say that this is a balancing act because, although we may wish to try to identify with others, it is an act that we can never fully pull off. Indeed, can Paul even identify with the disciples who traveled with Jesus, and who heard all his teachings? Paul never did so, and his letters are all written before the gospels were written.
Paul extends his argument:
“To 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.”
And at this point I think it is less important that we understand his methods than that we understand his goals. He begins with his sense of call, his need to proclaim the gospel, and he feels a need to reach people.
In order to do that, he has committed himself to using any means necessary, even if it means becoming all things to all people.
But Paul has an anchor. He has not taken on a chameleon-type personality just for the sake of winning believers.
“I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
For Paul the gospel is the starting point and the ending point. As indicated earlier, he feels compelled to preach the gospel. But he desires to do so in order to share in its blessings.
In a sense, the preaching of the gospel carries its own reward for Paul; but in another sense, the results of his preaching carry additional rewards.
Finally, there seems to be a fundamental principle here that undergirds Paul’s ministry. It is the gospel, the power of God, that encounters people, that engages people, where they are, where they live, in whatever their social situation may be. The gospel moves people, changes people, but it always does so from where they are.
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