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.”
What have we learned in the past few weeks about the power of Christ crucified? Because of Christ crucified for us, we know that…
- How we treat our physical bodies matters because they are the temple of the Holy Spirit and have been bought at a price.
- 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.
- How we treat our fellow members in the Church matters because we are all members of the same body united in Christ.
- 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.
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 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.