What Is Paul Talking About? Part 4

During the Sundays of Epiphany, I chose to preach on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Since these readings can be difficult to understand (even for preachers), each week I asked the question, “What in the world is Paul talking about?” I am deeply indebted to the Concordia Commentary on 1 Corinthians written by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Lockwood.This sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 9:16-27.

Words of Focus: I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some.

I mentioned in my sermon a few weeks ago when I started this series on 1 Corinthians that I didn’t really want to preach on these readings. 1 Corinthians is an intimidating book. Paul covers a lot of issues that the Christian church was dealing with in Corinth. We are removed from the original context and culture of this letter by a couple of thousand years. It is easy to read through 1 Corinthians and be left scratching your head wondering, “What in the world is Paul talking about?”

Yet I have discovered that 1 Corinthians, while written to a different group of people at a different time, has a lot to say to the Church today. And I suppose I should not be surprised by that. After all, God’s Word is always relevant. It lasts forever. Mankind hasn’t changed much either. We are still, by nature, sinful and selfish. We still need to hear the message of Christ crucified.

And that is the message that comes through over and over again in 1 Corinthians. Paul is pleading with the Corinthians to resist the wisdom of the world and to seek unity with each other in the body of Christ. To achieve these purposes, Paul keeps going back to the message of the cross. He goes back to the Gospel. That’s why I believe that the theme verse for 1 Corinthians is found in chapter 1, verse 18. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 cor christ crucified

What have we learned in the past few weeks about the power of Christ crucified? Because of Christ crucified for us, we know that…

  1. How we treat our physical bodies matters because they are the temple of the Holy Spirit and have been bought at a price.
  2. How we live our daily lives matters whether we are married or single, buying or selling, mourning or rejoicing. In all things, the cross must remain central.
  3. How we treat our fellow members in the Church matters because we are all members of the same body united in Christ.
  4. Today we will learn that because of Christ crucified for us, how we treat unbelievers matters that by any means we may save some and share with them in the blessings of the Gospel.

Let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 9, our reading for today. Paul is continuing the discussion he started in chapter 8 on the freedom of the Christian. Because of Christ crucified, a Christian is indeed free regarding many matters of daily life including what we eat and drink, what we wear, how we spend our time, whether we marry or stay single, and so on. Yet Paul cautions Christians not to be selfish or prideful in our Christian freedom, but rather to use our freedom to love and serve others and put their interests before our own.

Martin Luther’s definition of Christian freedom which summarizes Paul’s teaching is helpful here.1. A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. 2. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

Well, which is it? It is both. A Christian is free from the condemnation and demands of the Law, yet a faith which is active in love will willingly submit to others and serve them according to the Law. The Gospel frees us from worrying about our performance in keeping the Law, knowing that Christ has performed everything perfectly for us already. The Gospel not only frees us from sin but also frees us for service.

And in the first part of 1 Corinthians 9, Paul presents himself as an example of a Christian who willingly gives up many of his rights and privileges in order to serve others. For example, Paul gives up his right to be paid for his work as an apostle and preacher. He gives up his right to take a wife. Important: why does Paul do this? It’s all for the sake of the Gospel- that others might be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. As he says in verse 12, “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”

Notice that Paul is not boasting here. Yes, he is using himself as an example, but not as an opportunity to promote himself, but rather to promote Christ. “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!” Paul has been given a task by the Lord Jesus himself to proclaim the gospel, and Paul is simply following both the desires of his Lord and the desires of his own heart. Paul’s passion to preach the gospel reminds me of the prophet Jeremiah in Jeremiah 20:9- “The word of the Lord became in my heart like a burning fire, shut up in my bones. I grow weary of trying to contain it, and I am not able.

For the sake of the gospel, Paul was willing to give up his own habits, preferences, and rights so that nothing would keep people from responding to his preaching of the Gospel. For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. By this humble approach, Paul aimed to win as many as possible for the Gospel.

Paul then gives 4 illustrations of how he adapted his mission strategy to win different groups. 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. 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. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. Paul was able to adapt to any culture and people in order to present the Gospel.

What might this look like today? Well, in order to reach the Spanish speaking people, you would become a Spanish speaking person and learn their culture. It was less than hundred years ago, when churches in the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod were debating whether or not to hold worship services in English rather than only in German in order to reach the growing majority of people who spoke English. To teach the Gospel to children, you proclaim the Gospel in a way that they can understand. The same with teenagers and the elderly.

Important: this does not mean that the Gospel itself must be adapted or changed or watered down in any way due to people’s religious or cultural tastes. God still saves people the same way, and he chose to do so through the preaching of a message that was foolish and weak.

Again, Paul’s flexibility in accommodating himself to all people was governed by that one overriding purpose. I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. Every aspect of his life is to be adapted to the needs of others so that they might come to faith in Christ.

The changeless Gospel also empowers you to sacrifice your own rights, tastes, interests, and preferences so that others might hear the message of Christ in all its power.

OK, apparently the only right we actually care about is the 2nd Amendment since that's the only picture I could find.

OK, apparently the only right we actually care about is the 2nd Amendment since that’s the only picture I could find.

Do you see how counter-cultural this is? The world around you is telling you to pursue your own interests, and rights, and desires above all else. Satisfy your cravings. Be the master of your own fate, the ruler of your own life. Here in the United States of America, we have many freedoms, and we are encouraged to use that freedom selfishly. “It’s my right!” we cry. “I am entitled to the pursuit of happiness above all else!” “I am free to do what I want! Don’t tread on me!” These are the anthems of American culture where individualism trumps all else. It is the wisdom of the world. And your sinful, selfish nature eats that message up.

But it is directly opposed to the wisdom of God found in Christ crucified which values weakness over strength, self-sacrifice over self-pleasure, giving up rights rather than demanding them.

Paul recognized this and that is why he stresses in verses 24-27 to run the race with your eye on the prize. 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. This running requires self-discipline. It requires killing your sinful nature daily through confession and repentance, dying and rising again to a new life in Christ crucified. To follow the crucified Messiah means that we must take up our own cross daily, die to self-interest, and serve Jesus. It requires, as it says in Hebrews 12, that you lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.

You see, Jesus himself became all things to all men. He did not seek his own rights and privileges. He did not have to leave his throne in heaven and humiliate himself as a human being. He did not have to accommodate himself to a sinful world which had rejected him. Yet he ate and drank with tax-collectors and sinners, accepted water from a Samaritan woman and engaged in conversation with her, and healed the daughter of a Gentile woman- all for the great purpose of seeking and saving the lost.

But Jesus went even further in becoming all things to all men. All mankind is sinful, so Jesus became sin. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. On the cross, Jesus became the worst of sinners. He became a liar to save the liars. He became a cheater to save the cheaters. He became a murderer to save the murderers. He became a gossip to save the gossips. He became a sex addict to save the sex addicts. He became every kind of sinner that you might receive his righteousness.

jesus became sin

Jesus was free to come down from the cross at any time. But he endured the cross, despising its shame, that you and I might receive the prize that is imperishable- forgiveness, life, and salvation. Jesus became all things to all men that the whole world, including you, might be saved. It’s all about Christ crucified, foolishness and weakness to the world, but those who are being saved, it is the very wisdom and power of God for salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Let us pray: Praise God, who Himself became human like us in order to save us! Strengthen us, O Lord, to serve others in all things, so that all people might come to know the power of Your death and resurrection. Amen.

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What Is Paul Talking About? Part 3

During the Sundays of Epiphany, I chose to preach on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Since these readings can be difficult to understand (even for preachers), each week I asked the question, “What in the world is Paul talking about?” I am deeply indebted to the Concordia Commentary on 1 Corinthians written by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Lockwood. This sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 8.

Words of Focus- “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” 1 Corinthians 8:1a

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we continue today with part 3 of a 4-part sermon series on 1 Corinthians, a letter that can cause some misunderstanding and confusion as to what in the world Paul is talking about, hence, the title of this series.

Let’s begin by reviewing the purpose of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church was a church divided over many issues. Remember that they were all recent converts to the faith. Christianity had not been around for very long at all. Therefore, these Christians were wrestling with their new faith and the implications that it had for their everyday lives. 1 Corinthians reveals to us a people trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he said that his followers should live “in the world, but not of the world.”

1 cor christ crucifiedThroughout this letter, Paul encourages the church to greater unity with each other and that unity was to be centered on the message of Christ crucified- foolishness to the world, but to those who are being saved, the very power of God. For Paul, the cross changes everything. It changes how we think, how we act, how we talk, how we live. Paul uses the message of the cross to navigate through the many issues that the Corinthian Church was dealing with.

We see the implications of the cross in our reading for today from 1 Corinthians 8. The issue that Paul is dealing with in this chapter, and really, chapters 9 and 10 as well, is eating. In Chapter 7, Paul addresses concerns and questions about marriage and the single life. Now he is switching to another concern that the church had most likely written to him about. They wanted to know if they should eat food that had been offered to idols.

Now concerning food offered to idols… What exactly is going on in Corinth?

In the city of Corinth, there were many temples in which pagan ceremonies and sacrifices would take place. Many of the Christians in Corinth would have most likely participated in these ceremonies before they converted. Outside many of these temples, there were large courtyards and eating areas. The ceremonies and sacrifices would not take place in these areas. However, the food that had been offered as a sacrifice to the idols was served for people to eat.

Many of the Corinthian Christians, while not participating in the ceremonies and sacrifices, would have still been invited to these courtyards by their pagan friends for meals and even birthday or wedding celebrations. And apparently, many of the Corinthian Christians regularly participated in the social events in the temple courtyards, which would include eating the food served, food which had originally served the purpose of idol worship. Some Christians thought this was fine. They knew, they had “knowledge,” that the idols were false gods and figured that meat was meat. Eating that meat would not harm them. Others did not share that view. They thought that eating the food sacrificed to idols implied worshiping that idol. They were unable to separate the food from idol worship, and so when they participated or saw other Christians participating, it would cause their faith in the true God to be weakened or even destroyed.

The church was seeking Paul’s advice. How do we live in the world but not of it in this situation?

life together knowledge loveRight away, in verse 1, Paul lays the foundation for his response. “Knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. In other words, even though some of you Christians have more knowledge than others, your knowledge is causing you to be prideful and selfish to the detriment of the church. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. Paul is differentiating between selfish pride and sacrificial love. Love, in all cases, trumps knowledge, as Paul will make clear later in 1 Corinthians 13: 1-2 “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

What we see going on here in 1 Corinthians 8 is a discussion about Christian freedom. Because of Christ crucified, a Christian is free from the condemnation of the Law. The Law can no longer condemn them. But are there limits to Christian freedom? We know we are not free to sin, but what about those things that the Law does not forbid or demand? We see this discussion take place in several of Paul’s other letters, especially concerning circumcision. Was a Gentile Christian required to still be circumcised? Paul ruled “No.” A Christian is free to remain uncircumcised.

So many of the Gentiles in Corinth, those who had knowledge, argued that they were also free to eat meat sacrificed to idols. So keeping in mind this phrase, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” let’s see what Paul had to say about this issue.

First, Paul affirms the “knowledge” of those who would eat the food sacrificed to idols. They argued that they could do so because they knew the idols were false gods. And Paul agrees with their knowledge. We know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

In other words, Paul does not have a problem with Christians eating food sacrificed to idols because those false gods do not exist and cannot exert and power. There is one God and one Lord. A Christian is indeed free to eat the idol-food on these grounds.

However, Paul continues, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. The “weaker” Christian is more easily offended by any participation in anything associated with paganism and idol worship. By eating the food, they would stumble in their faith and pick up their old pagan practices and beliefs.

Notice how Paul does not try to educate the weak so that they have all knowledge. “Come on! Quit being so weak, you big babies.” He knew that they were infants in the faith and needed to be treated as such. So he instead instructs all Christians, especially those who considered themselves wise or strong, to act in love, a love that builds up others in Christ.

agnus day knowledge lovePaul knows that “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Food or drink for those in Christ Jesus was a matter of no importance. But if a person’s faith was at stake, then Christians do not act according to freedom and knowledge, but rather, according to love. “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weakFor if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? Paul goes so far to say that a person who values his personal freedom more than his brother in Christ that he is sinning against him. He is being selfish and prideful. And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

Do you see how for Paul everything centers on unity in the faith, the body of Christ being built up? Paul then puts himself forward as an example. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. If Paul became aware that something as inconsequential as food was nevertheless ruining his brother, he would become a vegetarian for eternity. Why? “Because that’s my brother.” Without question, his brother’s eternal welfare is far more important than food.

Could you say the same? I already threw some of you off when I mentioned being a vegetarian. “Sorry, but if it comes down to my brother or sister in Christ or a bacon cheeseburger, I’m going with the cheeseburger.” But what can we learn from 1 Corinthians 8 since we obviously do not have the same issue regarding idol-food and pagan temples?

Well, I think we can go back to Paul’s foundational verse. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Rather than insisting on our own way out of selfish pride, perhaps a Christian’s first question before acting should not be “What am I going to get out of this?” but rather “How does this benefit my neighbor, especially my brother or sister in Christ?” Again, this is a radical change in thinking. This is foolishness to the world. Rather than seeking personal pleasure at all costs, a disciple of Jesus seeks the welfare of others at all costs, even if it means personal sacrifice on their part.

Martin Luther, writing on Christian freedom, put it this way. 1. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to all.” 2. “A Christian is a perfectly free dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Well which is it? It’s both. A Christian is not to take pride in their freedom or their knowledge and rub it in people’s face, but rather use that freedom and knowledge in love and service toward others.

Examples: A Christian is perfectly free to enjoy drinking alcohol; however, someone who works extensively with alcoholics would refrain from drinking in their presence, lest they cause their brother or sister to stumble. They would not throw their Christian freedom in their face. (I did make the point in my sermon that I would not apply the same principle to “teetotalers.” There is a huge difference between someone who wrongly interprets the Bible and an alcoholic.) You would not invite a gambling addict to accompany you to the casino.

This may sound just like common sense, so let me try this principle out. Just because you can do something, does not mean that you always should. And how do you determine whether you should or should not do something? Love for others is the guiding principle, not selfish satisfaction. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The Lord wants his church to be built up as a community, and that can only happen when its members display unselfish love for one another.

Such love will be patterned on the example of Christ who died for the weak. See here we are again, rounding back to Paul’s main theme: Christ crucified.

Paul doesn’t set out to prove his knowledge. “I decided to know nothing among you except Christ crucified,” he says. And “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” It is the Lord Jesus Christ who provides the perfect example of one who is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of others. In the sight of God, there is no one who is more superior to anyone else. There is no one righteous, not even one. We are all deserving of God’s wrath and eternal punishment. All of us, in our original state of sin, had no knowledge of God. But he knew us. And he loved us, even though we are unlovable. God shows his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Here’s the more amazing part: while we continue to sin and act selfishly and fight amongst ourselves, God still loves and forgives us through Jesus.

Rom-5-8 while still sinnersWe are all in the same boat, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all sinners saved by nothing else but the amazing grace of God poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit through the death of Jesus. It is that knowledge, the knowledge of God’s unconditional love for you and for all people, the knowledge of Christ crucified for you, which inspires your loving attitude toward others. It’s all about Christ crucified. If Jesus willingly sacrificed himself for the weakest brother, shouldn’t you be willing to forgo certain luxuries out of loving consideration for your brothers and sisters?

That is what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 8. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Let us pray: Lord God, once again we are challenged by your words for us today. We see that without your help and strength and your grace, we are nothing and can do nothing right. Send us Your Holy Spirit to encourage us and enable us to love sacrificially as you have loved us through Jesus. Keep us from selfish pride and build us up into a church known for its love. Amen.

What Is Paul Talking About? Part 2

During the Sundays of Epiphany, I chose to preach on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Since these readings can be difficult to understand (even for preachers), each week I asked the question, “What in the world is Paul talking about?” I am deeply indebted to the Concordia Commentary on 1 Corinthians written by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Lockwood. For this second sermon based on 1 Corinthians 7:29-35, I am also deeply indebted to Rev. Dr. David Schmitt and his “Homiletical Help” in the Concordia Journal, Fall 2014.

Words of Focus: This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Cor. 7:29-35)

This is part 2 in a 4-part series on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Perhaps you, like me, have read or listened to 1 Corinthians and afterwards asked yourself, “What is Paul talking about?” Maybe you thought that about the reading for today. But we will get to that in a minute.

First, I want to review a little bit out the purpose of 1 Corinthians. As with all the books of the New Testament, 1 Corinthians was written to a specific group of people about a specific issue that they were dealing with. Paul is writing first and foremost as a pastor. He started the church in Corinth, and you can tell that he loves the people there, whether he is admonishing them or encouraging them.

1 cor christ crucifiedMartin Luther sums up the purpose of this letter in his commentary: “In this epistle St. Paul encourages the Corinthians to be one in faith and love, and to see to it that they learn well the chief thing, namely, that Christ is our salvation, the thing over which all reason and wisdom stumbles.” Paul was promoting unity in the church, and that unity was to be centered on the message of Christ crucified.

The city of Corinth was known for its philosophers who would spout their wisdom in the marketplace and try to win people over to their ideas with their polished rhetoric and charm. Paul would have none of it. He resolved to know nothing and preach nothing except Christ crucified, even if it was seen as foolishness by the rest of the world. Therefore, I believe the theme verse of 1 Corinthians is in chapter 1, verse 18: “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” For Paul, it was all about the cross and being united to God and to each other through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Paul uses the central message of the cross to navigate and deal with the many issues that the Christians in Corinth were struggling with as they worked out their faith with fear and trembling. Chief among those issues was how to live in the world and not of the world. This is the same issue that we Christians have in our context and culture today, and so I believe that 1 Corinthians has a lot to say to the Church today once we figure out what in the world Paul is talking about.

cup skomskiAnd to help us out with that task today, we are going to turn to the world of contemporary art. At the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art at St. Louis University, there is an installation called Cup by Thomas Skomski. It’s basically a shelf extending out of the wall with a cup at the very end. The shelf is about the height of a countertop, making the cup perfectly within reach. Suspended there, this cup promises water for the weary. There is a problem however. The shelf is actually a wire cage, surrounding the cup. So, you have a cup perfectly positioned…but ultimately inaccessible.  Now before you start muttering about what passes for art these days, just take a moment to consider what the artist is trying to do.

What kind of conversations do you think take place in front of this exhibit? Perhaps some people just walk by thinking “What a waste of a good cup!” How many do you think try to even just get their fingers into the cage just to touch the cup. Maybe others try to search for some hidden escape hatch as if it is puzzle to solve. What does it mean to you? The search for the artist’s meaning and purpose in his art can often be like the question we ask about 1 Corinthians “What is Paul talking about?”

Consider again our text for today. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

What do Paul’ words mean to you? What kind of conversations do you think have taken place about this text? Is Paul giving permission for husbands to cheat on their wives here? If you have a wife, live as if you don’t have one. Sorry, honey, I’m off to the bar to hit on other women. It’s in the Bible! Does this mean that Christians shouldn’t be sad, or if they are they should at least try to cover it up with a smile and fake a positive attitude? Those who mourn should live as though they were not mourning. But wait, then Paul doesn’t seem to like rejoicing either. Or buying stuff. Or dealing with the world at all. Perhaps we are all supposed to live like monks or nuns in the wilderness, completely cut off from the rest of the world.

On top of that, this passage comes in the middle of a whole chapter on both the married life and the single life, all of which can be rather confusing. Paul advises those who are married to stay married and those who are single to stay single. Then in verses 32-35, Paul seems to have a rather negative view of marriage, but in other places, Paul speaks of marriage as a blessed estate, resembling the relationship between Christ and the Church. It’s enough to make your head spin. What in the world is Paul talking about?

cup skomskiLet’s turn back to the cup. In the artist’s own reflection on his work of art, he reveals what he is playing with. Desire and denial- you desire to take the cup and drink. Yet you are denied. But the author then pushes this experience deeper and reflects on how this applies to the Christian life.

All who would follow Jesus and drink from his cup are caught in the difficulties of discipleship. To follow Christ involves both denial and discovery. When you enter the discipleship and drink from the cup, you suddenly discover life in denial. Cup and cage are joined together. To be joined to Christ is to be brought into a different relationship with the things of this world. The joy of hanging out with friends is rich and rewarding but pales in comparison to the joy of an answered prayer. The sorrow of losing your job is painful and distressing but pales in comparison to the sorrow of your child walking away from the faith. To be a disciple is difficult because you are always living at the intersection of this world and the kingdom of God. Baptized into Christ Jesus, you experience life differently.

The apostle Paul knew the difficulties of discipleship. Blinded on the Damascus road, he was baptized and, when he opened his eyes, he suddenly saw things differently. He discovered grace and nothing was ever the same. The wisdom of the world was foolishness to him. The strength of the world was weakness. God, the Father, took that which was low and despised, the crucified Christ, and raised him to rule over all. That one act changed how Paul saw the world. The foolishness of a crucified God was Paul’s wisdom. The weakness of a dying Savior was Paul’s strength. Paul lived at the intersection of this world and God’s kingdom, and that is a difficult place to be.

This difficult discipleship is what lies at the heart of Paul’s words in our epistle today. Paul is writing to the Corinthians about marital relations. His words offer guidance to those who are married and to those who are single. You need to be careful, however, for Paul is not really writing about marriage or the single life. He is writing about your relationship with Christ.

Paul affirms the married life and Paul affirms the single life. Being married or single is not the issue. The question is “how is your relationship with the Lord?” You see, there are married couples who served the Lord, like Priscilla and Aquilla. And there are married couples who fell away from the Lord, like Ananias and Sapphira. There are single individuals who served the Lord, like Paul, and there are single individuals who fell away from the Lord. It is not a matter of being married or being single. Paul is not writing a law to “lay any restraint upon you” but rather seeking “to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

If you read this text to establish a law about being single or being married, you miss the larger picture. Paul wants to foster your relationship with Christ- whether you are single or married. Paul wants to know, “How does your life support your relationship with the Lord?”

Paul is echoing the words of Jesus. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Paul is talking about counting the cost as Jesus does in Luke 14. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’”

When the Spanish explorer Cortez disembarked his 500 men on the east coast of Mexico, he set fire to the ships that had brought them. His warriors, watching their means of return going up in flames, knew that they were committing everything, even their lives, to the cause of conquering a new world for Spain. So also with you and me. When Christ says, “Follow me”- when the call of the Spirit comes to set foot on the shores of discipleship- we are also called to burn our ships in the harbor, to set ourselves free from all worldly loves and loyalties that might come between us and our Christ.

in the world not of itDiscipleship is difficult. Our relationship with Christ changes our relations with this world. That is what Paul is saying when he advises that those who have wives live as though they had none and so on. We are to experience the things of this world but not in an all consuming way. This does not mean that we have to be detached from this world or remove ourselves from everyday life. But we should not let our lives become too preoccupied, too absorbed, or too engrossed in this world which is passing away. As Christians, the challenge is to not let good things- such as your marriage, your family, your job, your physical and emotional well-being- don’t let these good things turn into ultimate things and turn your attention away from what really matters- eternal things. Matthew 6:19-21 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Whether we are married or single, mourning or rejoicing, buying or selling…the most important thing is that we are in Christ. Since Christ is our life and Christ has given us life, we seek to live all of life in him.

What is Paul talking about? What Paul wants to foster among us today is a conversation about life in Christ and how our joys and sorrows, our buying and our selling, yes even our marriages and our singleness lead us closer to him. For Paul, again, it is all about Christ crucified. “When I came to you brothers,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

In the end, nothing else truly matters but faith in the one who denied himself for your sake and was crucified on the cross for your salvation. Nothing matters but Jesus- the one who counted the cost for your salvation, realized that it would require his life, and still picked up his cross to die for you. The Good News of the Gospel is that it does not cost you anything. Jesus already paid the price.

And yet living in this world and living in Christ crucified is a difficult challenge. Paul is assuring the Corinthian church and you that life in Christ is worth it. The troubles in this world are nothing compared to the glory that is to be revealed when Christ comes again. Life in Christ crucified for you transcends all other relationships. Life in Christ crucified for you provides hope and joy that surpasses any mourning or rejoicing experienced in this life. Life in Christ crucified for you lasts longer than the present form of this world which is passing away. It lasts forever. No matter your experiences in this life- joy, sorrow, buying, selling, marriage, the single life, etc- may you be found in Christ crucified for you- the very power of God for your salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Let us pray: Lord God, so often we become anxious about this life and distracted from our life in you. Help us to keep the message of Christ crucified central in our lives that no matter what we do, we would be secure in you and your love. Amen.

What Is Paul Talking About? Part 1

corinthian commentaryDuring the Sundays of Epiphany, I chose to preach on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Since these readings can be difficult to understand (even for preachers), each week I asked the question, “What in the world is Paul talking about?” I am deeply indebted to the Concordia Commentary on 1 Corinthians written by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Lockwood. This is the first sermon in the series based on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.

Grace and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

I have to confess. I did not originally want to preach on this text. In fact, for the following 3 weeks, our Epistle readings will be from 1 Corinthians, and I really wanted to avoid them. They are not easy passages to preach on. They deal with some difficult subjects. Then I thought, “Well, if I am intimidated by 1 Corinthians, then surely I am not alone. And it is kind of my job to help make God’s Word clear to you, and I’m sure I would benefit from preaching on 1 Corinthians, and maybe I’m just being a big baby about it. So without further ado or explanation, this is the beginning of a 4-part series on 1 Corinthians entitled “What is Paul Talking About?” This is a question I often ask when I am reading through 1 Corinthians, so I thought it was quite appropriate.

One reason why 1 Corinthians can be difficult to understand is because of the specific context in which it was written. As with all books of the New Testament, the author is writing to a specific group of people with a specific purpose in mind. We are not the original intended audience for 1 Corinthians. And yet, as I research more about the purpose of 1 Corinthians and the context of the people in Corinth, the more I realized that there are many similarities between the ancient city of Corinth and our setting today.

That’s also when I realized that I needed to preach on 1 Corinthians. In this letter to the Christian church in Corinth, Paul deals with the struggles of those Christians as they fought for their new identity in Christ. I believe 1 Corinthians is one of the best books of the Bible in helping Christians understand Jesus’ words that we are to live in the world but not of the world. What does that mean? How do you do that? 1 Corinthians helps us out.

city of corinthThe city of Corinth was an important and influential city in the Roman Empire with a strategic location in that it was a hub for travel either by land or by sea. It was a large city by ancient world standards, becoming the largest city in Roman Greece with a population of approximately 100,000 people. Corinth was an important center for Roman culture, but it had quite an unsavory reputation as a city with lax morality.

The city of Corinth had strong ties to the Greek goddess, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, specifically the erotic type of love. As such, Corinth was known to be a center for prostitution. The temple to Aphrodite would actually employ temple prostitutes as part of their religious ceremonies.

Corinth was also known for religious promiscuity, in other words, religious pluralism. Along with Aphrodite, there were many sanctuaries and statues dedicated to other gods. Many philosophical movements were well represented in Corinth as well, and we will be taking a closer look at some of those worldviews in the weeks ahead as they apply to each of the readings. Remember that Paul is addressing specific problems that the church was facing from the culture. In order to understand 1 Corinthians, we have to understand the culture.

1 cor christ crucifiedI believe Martin Luther sums up well Paul’s purpose in writing his 1st letter to the Corinthian church. He writes in his commentary: In this epistle St. Paul encourages the Corinthians to be one in faith and love, and to see to it that they learn well the chief thing, namely, that Christ is our salvation, the thing over which all reason and wisdom stumbles.” Paul was promoting unity in the church, and that unity was to be centered on the message of Christ crucified. Therefore, I believe the theme verse of 1 Corinthians is in chapter 1, verse 18: For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” For Paul, it was all about the cross and being united to God and to each other through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Alright- That’s enough of an introduction. We haven’t even gotten to today’s text, so let’s turn our attention to chapter six. Starting in chapter 5, Paul starts to address specific issues facing the Corinthian church. He deals with the sexual immorality of a man who is committing adultery with his father’s wife, most likely the man’s step-mother. In chapter 6, Paul begins by addressing the Christians who were suing each other in court, and he encourages them to seek unity with each other within the context of the church and not to use the court system.

Then we get to verse 12. “All things are lawful for me.” Paul is most likely quoting a saying that was being repeated by some in the Corinthian church who were taking their Christian freedom too far. They claimed that their relationship with Jesus was a matter of the spirit, whatever they were involved in physically would not really affect their life with Christ. This grew out of the Greek world’s philosophy of dualism: that spirit is good and important, and that the material or physical world is not good and is unimportant. In other words, the spirit is good. The body doesn’t matter. This led many people to feel that they can go ahead and indulge their body’s appetites without restraint, assuring themselves that it doesn’t really matter because “it’s what’s inside that counts.” Corinth was notorious for its “if it feels good, do it” approach to life.

feels goodDoes this sound familiar at all to you? I believe that is the prevailing worldview in our culture today. If it feels good, do it. Seek pleasure above all else. And I also see a separation of body and spirit in our world today, as if they are completely distinct. Many people describe themselves as “spiritual” and seek spiritual well-being, but their beliefs are not really connected at all to life in the body. Even phrases we sometimes use to soften death speak to this separation of soul and body and make the body unimportant. “That’s not really grandma. That’s just a shell.” As if our bodies are merely temporary housing for our soul or spirit, which is who we really are. And so, it doesn’t really matter what you do with your body because it doesn’t affect your soul or spirit.

There were some Christians who were justifying their practice of engaging in prostitution by appealing to this very argument and to Christian freedom. “All things are lawful for me.” And later on, Paul quotes them “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy both one and the other.” The intended meaning there is again, that it doesn’t matter what I do with my body. It is just going to be destroyed anyway.

Paul pulls back the reins on their definition of Christian freedom. Yes, a Christian is free from the curse and condemnation of the Law, but as he says in Romans 6, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” Freedom from the law does not equal freedom to break the Law. “All things are lawful” but not all things are helpful or beneficial for you. “All things are lawful” but I will not be enslaved by anything. In other words, Paul is telling them that now that they have been freed from sin by Jesus’ death and resurrection, they are willingly enslaving themselves to sin, in this case, sinning with their bodies.

Paul then goes on to show both how the body is important and how sexual immorality is wrong. And note here that is not just talking about prostitution, but any sexual activity outside the boundaries of marriage between man and woman.

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. The Biblical view of the body is that it is important and essential to who you are as a human being. You are not fundamentally just a soul possessing a body. You are fundamentally body and soul. That is how God created you- from the dust of the ground and with his life-giving breath. Your body is created by God and is to be honored. After all, the body is not just going to be destroyed. It is going to be resurrected on the Last Day. We will not live forever as disembodied souls. We will be raised to new life as body and soul just as Jesus himself rose from the dead in his body.

Not only that, Paul continues, do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? In your baptism, you were united to Jesus. He is the head of the body, the Church, and you are its members. Paul will pick up on this analogy later on in 1 Corinthians as well. It is one of his favorite analogies to describe the relationship we have with Christ and with each other. Since you are united to Christ and His Holy Spirit dwells in you, Paul reaches the logical conclusion to sexual immorality. Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! But that’s what you are doing! Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.

Paul calls sexual immorality an abuse of the body and of the sexual union which God created for our good. Not only that but it violates the very holiness and presence of God. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? Now that their bodies had become the Spirit’s residence, the Corinthians could not live for themselves.

temple amusement parkI like how one author sums up the competing viewpoints in this passage. It asks of you two question. Do you believe your body is a playground? Your body as a playground implies that our mission in life is to satisfy our own desires above all things. Or do you believe that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit- to be used for God’s good purposes? Your body as a temple implies that you are a child of God and should live accordingly.

We know where Paul stands. You are not your own. You were bought at a price. So glorify God in your body. I don’t know if there is another New Testament saying which brings together in compact form both the essence of the Gospel and its implications for Christian life.

For starters, there is the pure Gospel message. You were bought at a price. What was the cost? You were purchased not with gold or silver, but with the holy, precious blood of Jesus, and with his innocent suffering and death. God’s grace for you did not come cheaply! It cost God the Father his one and only Son. He gave up His body for you. Through his death, you have been redeemed and rescued from slavery to sin and Satan. This is not just Good News; it is the best news.

Therefore glorify God with your body. Paul says “body” here because he has been talking exclusively about the body. He could just as easily have said “Therefore glorify God with your life.” This is the response to the Gospel. This is not a conditional statement. God’s grace has already been given to you. You were already bought at a price. You are free. But Christian freedom does not mean indulging in sinful pleasures. You have died to sin and been raised to new life. You now belong to God that you may serve him in holiness and righteousness, as God originally intended for his creatures. The Gospel not only frees you from sin, but it also frees you for service.

There is an allegedly true story from Civil War days before America’s slaves were freed, about a northerner who went to a slave auction and purchased a young slave girl. As they walked away from the auction, the man turned to the girl and told her, “You’re free.”

With amazement she responded, “You mean, I’m free to do whatever I want?” “Yes,” he said. “And to say whatever I want to say?” “Yes, anything.” “And to be whatever I want to be?” “Yep.” “And even go wherever I want to go?” “Yes,” he answered with a smile. “You’re free to go wherever you’d like.”She looked at him intently and replied, “Then I will go with you.”

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let us pray: Lord God, thank you for paying the price for my redemption. Give me strength to resist temptations to sin. Help me to see my body as a temple of Your Holy Spirit and glorify You in all things. Amen.