Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 4, 2018
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 Commentary
It is not too difficult to take Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9 and interpret them in a quite uncharitable way. Because on the face of it, one could allege that Paul here presents himself as human Jell-O, as a chameleon, as a glad-hander who will say or do anything to ingratiate himself to whomever he is speaking.
We all know people like this. And we mostly don’t care for them. They seem to lack integrity. They are unctuous, flattering suck-ups who seem to lack a spine or a definitive position on most any issue you could name. “Are you a man or a mouse?” my wife has sometimes asked me when I hesitated to speak my mind or to cross swords with someone who was disagreeing with me. It is not a nice question to face.
Yet here Paul seems to leave himself open to such dark conclusions about his character by saying over and over that he blends right in with whatever group of people he is among at any given moment. A Jewish audience? Paul is a Jew. A Gentile audience? Paul is a Gentile. People hung up with the law? Paul adapts and speaks to them accordingly. Is he with people who object to things that are not really objectionable but they object anyway because they are less mature in their faith? Paul plays along. And on and on.
What is going on here? And how can we interpret these words in ways that don’t cast Paul into the bad light of a spineless wimp?
Well, if there is one thing we know about Paul it is that the message of Jesus has to be right and rightly preached. If the content of the message is clear, if it is all Jesus and all grace and all about the paradoxical power of the cross, then not much else is going to distract or upset Paul. You can see this in Philippians 1 when Paul admits that there were some fellow preachers with him and around him while he was in prison who were preaching out of some of the worst motivations imaginable. Yet Paul said he rejoiced. They might be invidious, proud, arrogant people who were trying to out-preach Paul out of all kinds of less-than-savory ego issues but if the Gospel MESSAGE rang true then (in Paul’s own words) “What does it matter?”
Of course, to see Paul’s purple-faced reaction of fury to what happens when the message is messed up, see Galatians 1 and 2. If you try to subtract some power from the cross of Christ—and most especially if you do that by propping up human accomplishments as though our feeble efforts could chip in to God’s great salvation—then it was game over and Paul could do nothing but lash out. But get the Gospel message right, and Paul could let all kinds of stuff slide.
So also in 1 Corinthians 9: Paul makes clear that he just has to preach. It’s not a choice for him really. Once he met Jesus in that blinding flash on the Damascus Road, the Gospel got down so deep into Paul’s bones and heart and psyche and soul and body that trying to make Paul NOT preach was like thinking you could hold back a 10-foot wave on the ocean by putting your hands out in front of you. Good luck with that.
Paul just had to preach because he loved Jesus that much. What’s more, because he knew that Jesus deserved the love of every last man, woman, child, infant, and critter on the planet, he was determined to do all he could to widen the circle of praise for Jesus and for his sacrifice and for his love and his grace. Just look at passages like Colossians 1:15-23 and watch the verbal gush and whirlwind Paul was capable of when he really got rolling in talking about Jesus. This was the animating center of Paul’s existence.
That is why in 1 Corinthians 9 Paul says that so long as the message rang true, he was perfectly willing to be flexible in excelsis in finding doorways through which to get that message across to any given group of people. Paul was not being wishy-washy or mealy-mouthed. He did not lack integrity, spine, or character. He just let the Spirit turn him into a master communicator who was skilled at finding just the right spiritual, personal, and rhetorical angles to get the message of Jesus and his love across to people. And if there was some other stuff about the law or about being a bit weak in one’s faith or about most anything else you could think about, well, that all could be dealt with in love down the road. The main thing was to get the Gospel across first, get people to fall in love with it the way Paul had, and then go from there.
Most preachers today—and most people to whom we preach today—do not travel as widely or in as many varied circles as Paul did. Mostly we are in one place for a longer time, though even there we all know that as important as it is to exegete Scripture correctly as pastors, we need to exegete context too. More than was true a generation or two ago, context even within denominations is no longer uniform coast to coast, congregation to congregation. We, too, need to discern with the Spirit’s help what is the best way to preach the Gospel to THESE people as opposed to folks in some other locale.
But probably the biggest take-away we should want for our people if we preach on 1 Corinthians 9 is the clarion challenge to wonder: Am I as on fire about the Gospel as Paul was? Does my own love for Jesus animate me the way it did Paul? Could I also say of myself that the love of Christ is so deep in my bones that there is just no preventing me from talking about Jesus whenever I can to whomever will listen? And am I willing to let lots of other stuff slide in order to make that happen?
Paul is jumping up and down for Jesus with joy and exuberance in 1 Corinthians 9. Do we?
There is something about the contagious enthusiasm for Jesus in this poem—and the effect a child’s enthusiasm has on the parents by the poem’s conclusion—that gets at Paul’s enthusiasm in 1 Corinthians 9. And anyway, it’s a fun poem!
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