A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
by Guest Preacher Mike Fargo (Trinity Covenant, Salem, OR)
Copyright © 2009
by Mike Fargo
Good morning. I bring greetings from Trinity Covenant Church in Salem. After all these years there are still many people at Trinity who remember and pray for you all here at Valley Covenant, and I am one of them.
When Pastor Steve asked me to preach, he gave me the option of staying with the epistle readings from the Lectionary, which is what I have chosen to do. So this morning we continue with Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. In preparation for today I read Pastor Steve’s sermon from last week on your web site. I must confess that I have seldom heard such a balanced, thoughtful, and helpful statement on how Christian freedom and love come together. You are so fortunate to have him in your pulpit.
Today the Lectionary takes us to chapter 9, which on a basic level is just a continuation of Paul’s thoughts in chapter 8 that you heard about last week. And yet on the surface you might not easily grasp this fact, for Paul seems to go off on a tangent, defending his apostolic right to make his living from preaching the gospel, and yet also defending why he has chosen not to claim this right. In fact it is not until chapter 10 that Paul finally returns to where he began in chapter 8 with these words:
Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial Everything is permissible, but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
Which is precisely where Pastor Steve ended his sermon last week. So why this long, tortuous detour in chapter 9 that seems to bounce from pillar to post? Why all this agonizing apologetic about how Paul has chosen to conduct his ministry? Well the answer is easy. In both of the Corinthian epistles we are listening in on a very intense, personal discussion between Paul and a group of believers he loves very much. Unfortunately, we are only allowed to hear half of the conversation—Paul’s half. It is, at times, a rather emotional half-conversation that we hear, and in the second epistle it even becomes a little maudlin and pathetic in places, as Paul himself admits. He feels he’s been unfairly attacked by many in the Corinthian church, and so throughout these letters he is both teaching and defending himself at the very same time, which makes it a little hard to track him in some places.
And what are the criticisms he is addressing in chapter 9? Two things become apparent. First, some accused Paul of being inconsistent—even hypocritical—in his behavior, It’s all well and good, they claimed, for Paul to talk as he did last week about being sensitive to the weaker brother or sister and so forth, but that doesn’t justify his playing the chameleon with every non-Christian he comes into contact with in the city. Why is it, they seem to be asking, that when he hangs
around the Jews in Corinth, Paul is suddenly a very kosher fellow. But when he is hanging with the Greeks, he is suddenly a complete epicurean! And how is it that one day he is debating philosophy with those intellectual types, and the very next day we might see him slumming with all these down-and-out people as if he was some kind of working class hero. What kind of game is this guy playing?
And if that were their only complaint, Paul could have quickly cleared things up. But this is not their only complaint. It’s not even their primary complaint. Underlying all the criticisms of Paul in the Corinthian epistles (and there are many), the big one, the one that haunted Paul everywhere he went, was this pervasive, chronic suggestion that he wasn’t a real apostle at all, or at least not a “Division I” kind of apostle.
Yes, he may have been an effective evangelist and church planter, and yes, he may have been a hard working guy whose intentions were good, but he obviously wasn’t one of the 12, and his reputation as a former persecutor of the church certainly doesn’t enhance his image, now does it? But more importantly, he doesn’t act like an apostle should act. He’s not very eloquent or charismatic or even presentable in his appearance. He didn’t travel within the apostolic band or carry any kind of apostolic authorization or letters of commendation.
Yes, yes—we recognize that Paul did found the church in Corinth, that is true. But isn’t it odd that different from the other apostles, he doesn’t require the Corinthian church to support him financially (which Jesus himself commanded the church to do). To put it bluntly, Paul is just an odd duck, and when you add to it all this flip-flop behavior of his, well he must be some kind of a uman~ pleaser,” always trying to ingratiate himself with everyone. He’s certainly not a very spiritual example, is he?
Now imagine people feeling this way about ~ Where do you even begin in defending yourself? There are so many assumptions here, so many random evidences that have been woven together into a simplistic conclusion. Paul was a complex person, just like the rest of us. And living as a Christian in a world like ours is not a simple thing. And so, even as he writes to them about how to live as Christians in a pagan world, he is also trying to defend himself against his accusers. Which explains why Paul’s words that open chapter 9 seem to come out of left field. Letme read them:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me.
And then Paul goes on for half a chapter trying to explain why a preacher of the gospel should receive his living from those he preaches to, and yet why Paul has
chosen not to do this. By doing this, he knows he has ruffled some feathers. Is he trying to make himself special or more spiritual or some kind of “super-apostle”? No, that is not his purpose, as he makes clear in our text today, beginning with verse 16:
Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my right in preaching it.
In other words, for reasons that Paul doesn’t make explicit here, it is very important for him not to receive support from the Corinthians. It’s not a question of whether he has the right to be paid. It’s not because he is some kind of superior minister or apostle. But neither is he doing this (as some Corinthians apparently assumed) so that he can boast in front of the church.
For Paul, there is absolutely no place for boasting in his ministry, since he is under the command of Christ to preach. Different from the other apostles, who were invited by Jesus to join in his ministry (and to their credit they responded), Paul was literally knocked to the ground by Jesus on the road to Damascus and told that he had been drafted into service. He is “under orders,” he is claiming, and can’t take credit for it. He didn’t join as a volunteer might. He was commanded and that was that. And yet even though there is no room for boasting, there is one small place where he can take some satisfaction—he calls it his reward—it’s that he has been able to conduct his ministry largely without charge, a desire that has brought nothing but criticism back on his head.
But that’s not all. What about all that flip-flop behavior of Paul’s? He takes up this criticism next, beginning with verse 19:
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (although I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as h win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Now when Pastor Steve preached from chapter 8 last week, the focus was on the “weaker brother,” the Christian whose conscience may be overly sensitive and not fully developed yet. Here Paul is focusing on those outside the
community of faith—Jews, Greeks, and the socially marginalized (whom he calls the “weak”)—all of whom Paul longs to bring to Christ. Now in saying this, Paul is not only modeling an important truth, but he is also trying to explain to his detractors why he behaves as he does.
First, Paul is claiming that he’s not a chameleon. We all know and dislike the kind of person who always assumes the values and behaviors of the crowd he happens to be with at the moment. Such a person will even imitate the mannerisms of whoever they are with, for they have no real sense of themselves or what they truly believe. They have no inner compass that helps them stand up against the pressure of the crowd.
From everything we know of St. Paul, this was not the kind of man he was. In his second Corinthian epistle you can feel him defending himself, from this very criticism when he explains why he had recently failed to visit the church in Corinth. In chapter 1 he writes:
When I planned this trip, did I do it lightly? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, “Yes, yes” and “No, no.” But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.”
No, Paul was not wishy-washy or a chameleon.
Second, by claiming to become “all things to all people,” could Paul instead be demonstrating a tendency toward manipulation? The church, like the world at large, has its share of people who know how to achieve their goals through a subtle manipulation of people and events. They are often motivated by good goals (such as evangelism or peace and justice), but they go about achieving these ends through flattery or controlling things or a generic “niceness” that always has a hidden agenda or a string attached.
Again, when I think of Paul, I see a man who was anything but manipulative. He was too “straight-up” to have a hidden agenda. I love how he describes himself in his second Corinthian epistle, when he writes:
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
No, Paul is not advocating manipulation.
Finally, could his efforts to keep the peace in the various churches have caused Paul to simply become a pragmatist in all his dealings with people—a “manpleaser” who had learned how to say the politically correct thing depending on
who his audience was? In short, had he become merely expedient? Again, when we reflect on what we know of Paul, nothing could be farther from the truth. In the opening to his Galatian epistle, after roundly chewing out the church for its departure from the truth of the gospel, he asks a searching question:
Am I now trying to win the approval of men or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ
No, Paul wasn’t a man-pleaser either.
What Paul is describing in today’s text is the opposfte of manipulation or pragmatism, or hypocrisy or simply wanting everyone to like him. Rather, he is telling us how to live so as to never get in the way of people seeing Christ This way of living applies to people in vocational ministry, as well as Christian workers in the marketplace. Unfortunately, there is a way to live as a Christian where my freedoms, my theology (however correct or orthodox it might be), my opinions and agendas become the all-important focus. When I encounter non-Christians, L do not worry about their perspectives or beliefs, for after all, I am the Christian and I am supposed to know the truth!
But even if we are not so arrogant as to behave quite like this, there is a way of building relationships with people that always has an ulterior motive, and regardless of whether we are conscious of it or not, our motives may ultimately about ourselves. Even when we are trying to help people by being nice and caring and oh-so-gracious, we may in fact be saying, “Look at me. When was the last time you met someone who treated you so well? Why, wouldn’t you like to be that kind of person? Well then, you should become a Christian just like me!”
This is not what Paul is describing. What he is describing is a shift in focus from myself altogether to a deeply sensitive awareness of who it is I am with. He is describing Christian love rather than a mere performance meant to impress people. When he says, “I have become all things to all people,” he is describing how Christ lived. And what exactly does that mean?
• It means showing empathy—the ability to enter into someone else’s space and actually experience their world without instantly trying to fix them.
• It means the ability to listen—to hear what is going on below the surface of the words people use without always trying to correct their thinking.
• It means sensitivity to other people’s values and beliefs, even when they are radically different from my own.
• It means possessing the kind of humility that recognizes the image of God that is still resident even in the most broken of humans.
To live like this allows people to see the incarnate Christ who lives in us. And the gpjy time people will see Christ in us is when we are not trying to manipulate them or play a role with them. Only when we enter into their lives as Paul describes here and simply love them without demanding a response, then—and only then—is there a chance they will see Christ in us and so be saved.
When Paul spent time with orthodox Jews, he showed respect for their beliefs and restricted his behavior accordingly so as not to offend them. And when he was with non-Jews, he shed his Jewish trappings and allowed himself to enter into their life (although not without regard for his own inner Christian compass). And when he was with the poor and the outcast, he could shed whatever social privileges and standing he may have had so as to not make them uncomfortable. He didn’t talk down to them as if he were superior, but as someone who knew only too well what it means to be broken and disregarded. All of this he did with no other motive than to love them with the love of Christ.
I have a sign that hangs on the door to my study at home. I first saw it over 20 years ago while I was on retreat at Mt. Angel Abbey. A nun had created the sign, which consisted of a circle made up of a single sentence that read: “Everyone you meet is fighting a very tough battle.” And then in the middle of the circle are two large words: “BE KIND.” If only we would see everyone we meet with those words in mind.
I mentioned at the start of this sermon that chapters 8, 9, andi 0, in spite of the wild array of issues that Paul addresses, are really all about a single theme. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the closing words of chapter 10 and the first verse of chapter 11. Let me close this sermon by reading them:
So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as / follow the example of Christ
May the Lord have mercy on us all this morning, and guide us into his truth.
Valley Covenant Church