This morning's scripture is 1 Corinthians 9:16-23.
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The hymns are here:
This morning’s New Testament reading comes from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Because he traveled around a great deal to minister to churches all over the world, the apostle Paul wrote many letters to the churches he served. This particular letter was written to the church at a time the people were suffering from great disunity and were having trouble agreeing on just about anything. The Christian faith was still young and everyone was still trying to figure out exactly what it meant to be Christian and to live a Christian life.
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 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. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
Recently, we’ve been talking about calling and what it means that we are called as Christians and in this passage Paul frames this discussion around his own calling as an apostle. When we think of great preachers and prophets of the Bible, his is a name that frequently comes up. We have in the Bible these passionate letters that Paul wrote to various churches and in some places, we have record of his preaching. He was highly influential and I can only imagine he was a great preacher!
He may have been a bit long-winded. There is one story where he was preaching so long a man nodded off and fell out of the window he was sitting in. Please stop me if I preach so long you’re about to fall out a window.
But, there’s little doubt that Paul was an engaging and passionate proclaimer of the Gospel.
This is an easy passage to gloss over in that context. It almost sounds a bit like Paul boasting about his great preaching skills that he claims he has no right to boast about. If we glance back a chapter, however, we can see that Paul is not boasting about his preaching, but rather he is using it as an example of how we are to live out the Christian calling. This passage happens during a discussion about how Christians should interact with everyone around them.
Often we forget in the shuffle of life that we are all set aside. And nobody is “more set aside” than someone else. A calling isn’t just something for the elders or the deacons or those who are called away to overseas mission. Calling is part of our baptism. There is no person too young or too old or too smart or too . . . well. . . not so smart, nobody is too new at this or too busy or too important or too unimportant to have a Christian calling.
So now we bump up against the age old question, “What is the Christian calling, then.”
Paul says, “preach the gospel.” Preach it like the prophets of old who said, “Haven’t you heard?!” But preaching is hard! Sometimes even figuring out what to say in a sermon takes painful hours, let alone figuring out how to say it, then standing up in front of a room full of people who trust you – I hope you all trust me – and saying it! Could Paul possibly be saying that we’re all supposed to be preachers?
I don’t like the way that the NIV translates the word “preach” in this passage. The word that Paul uses here is broader than just “preach” like we understand preaching today. He wasn’t just directing the passage to preachers, he wasn’t just bragging about his own mad skills. He’s talking here about “proclamation.” I think that using the word “preach” here can actually stand in our way of understanding what Paul is really driving at here. “Proclamation” has more depth – it’s more versatile.
Paul didn’t just preach to people. He became like a Jew to the Jews, like a gentile to the gentiles, he was weak for the weak, not under the law for those who were not under the law. There’s something else going on here. Paul is telling the Church that it needs to start taking a look at things from a different perspective – from the perspective of someone else – someone different. He’s not saying that they have to agree, but they have to try to see it from another person’s place in the road. This, says Paul, is a part of proclamation. We can’t argue people into religion – but we can walk beside them and try to see what things look like from where they are standing.
The whole Church has this calling, which means we are all called both together and individually to something really important. Something that is so important, Paul tells us he’s compelled to do it. Paul is so moved by the gospel of Jesus – the good news that God loves us and forgives us – that he can’t do anything but proclaim that gospel to all people.
This is a difficult calling. It’s hard to walk with people from different places and times and neighborhoods and backgrounds than we are from. Especially if we don’t keep focus on why it matters to walk with them.
There is a lot of pressure to be trendy these days. To attract a certain group of people like “the ones with more money” or the “young families with kids” or whoever it seems like we’re missing. There is pressure on churches to have big numbers when it comes to attendance at church or Sunday School or VBS. It feels like as the numbers dwindle it’s more important now than ever to get new people in the pews. Churches who show growth in attendance or programs or bank accounts are seen as “successful” and churches who haven’t latched on to the latest marketing are seen as “old fashioned” or “dying.”
But Paul says that our motivation for preaching, for proclaiming shouldn’t be for bragging rights – it’s not about how many people have joined the church’s facebook group or how many “young adults” are on the “contemporary worship team.” It’s great to have a big gathering of Christians worshiping together and to have youth and life in our vacation bible schools. I’m not saying those are bad things, but those aren’t our reason for proclaiming the gospel.
If we’re proclaiming the gospel in order to get people in the doors, we are proclaiming at best a watered down semi-gospel and at worst a sad, warped gospel that isn’t really good news at all. We get so called “gospels” that look more like the self-help aisle at the book store than they do the story of the King of Kings becoming part of the human race as the ultimate act of pure love! We get health and wealth or name it and claim it gospels that simply fluff up the egos of the rich and discount the lives of the faithful poor.
I love reading stories of our Christian brothers and sisters from times gone by. One of my favorites to read about is Francis of Assisi. And my favorite story about Francis is this:
“And as he went on his way, with great fervor, St Francis lifted up his eyes, and saw on some trees by the wayside a great multitude of birds; and being much surprised, he said to his companions, "Wait for me here by the way, whilst I go and preach to my little sisters the birds"; and entering into the field, he began to preach to the birds which were on the ground, and suddenly all those also on the trees came round him, and all listened while St Francis preached to them, and did not fly away until he had given them his blessing.”
I feel pretty confident in saying that Francis didn’t preach to the birds because he was looking to fill a few pews. I’m pretty sure he didn’t preach to them because he felt they were in jeopardy of going to hell. He was just so full of the joy of the good news of Jesus Christ that he preached to a bunch of birds on the side of the road. He didn’t actively seek out birds to preach to. He just saw them and said, “Oo! Birds! Hang on guys. . . I’ll be right back.”
That’s what Paul is talking about here. He’s talking about seeing the people around you – for him it was the Jews, the gentiles, the weak , for us it might be the young or the old or those of another race or gender or social status or income level – seeing them and walking along side them. It’s not just seeing them but seeing as them. And he wants us to do this for the joy of the gospel. This will gain people, but not for the sake of bigger attendance or budgets – for the sheer joy of proclaiming the gospel that we are each called to proclaim.
No wonder Paul talked so much about freedom. Proclaiming gospel doesn’t feel like a freeing experience when we’re beholden to numbers and worried about results. Friends. . . we are redeemed! We are forgiven! God chose to save mankind and that choice cost God’s only Son, Jesus. That’s some serious love. That’s the sort of love that makes a person want to shout from the mountain tops or talk to birds! No wonder Paul felt compelled to proclaim the gospel!
Today, as we go out into the rest of our lives – into our worlds full of other people and places, walk side by side with those people. Live in the joy of the gospel and allow that joy of proclamation and of walking with people to take over. Preach to the birds! And when people ask what has you so wound up. . . You can, like Isaiah, ask, “Haven’t you heard!?”