February 7, 2021
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Our second reading today comes from 1 Corinthians. And… I think that’s all the set-up I’m going to give… so I invite you to continue to listen for God’s Word as it speaks.
READ 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
I want to start this morning back in our reading from Mark. Because… maybe it’s just me… but I see conflict in this part of the story Mark is telling. Jesus is just beginning his ministry. I think it’s a vulnerable time where just who Jesus is going to be… just what this ministry is going to become… it’s not set yet. Possibilities exist. I know that’s perhaps not how we’re used to seeing Jesus. We’re more used to seeing everything mapped out and only one path forward with no other possibilities. We don’t think about Jesus having choices. I would say that’s the Jesus in the gospel of John and the way the story is told there. But I see something different when I read Mark. In Mark there’s still a chance that all this may all go differently.
Jesus has been baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit. Then that Spirit led him into the wilderness where Jesus is tempted. Again… for me… I feel there has to be something real in those wilderness temptations. Jesus has to be truly tempted or else they really aren’t temptations are they? If there is no real temptation then this is just all play acting. If there is nothing real here… then this is just a hollow story. A good story… but a hollow story without consequence. Is a hollow story enough for Paul to literally put his life on the line… to go through all that he does to spread the gospel in his world? Is a hollow story enough for us to hang our own lives on… is there enough there so that when the challenges arise for us to choose the answers and principles of our faith… we have something of substance from which to work. If we can’t find enough realness in the gospel story… then why… why?
As he leaves the temptations of the wilderness behind him, Jesus calls his first disciples… who, in the story, must see enough of something of substance, because they leave their real lives behind. They leave behind the realness of boats and fish and the rewards of the labor of their own two hands. There is enough of something coming through this man that he is worth following… that he is worth leaving behind all this stuff of tangible real world value… and following.
Right before our reading today in Mark begins there has just been an amazing exorcism in the synagogue in Capernaum. The people are amazed at Jesus’ authority and immediately his fame begins to spread. His fame spreads. Again… maybe it’s just me… maybe it’s more a reflection on the times in which we live… but fame… fame is a bad thing. I know we’re supposed to crave it and desire it and fawn in its presence… but fame… fame is a trap. Fame is a ravenous monster that eats integrity and pushes for the compromise of principle after principle if you want to keep its company. So I hear this story and this is what fame looks like… people coming from throughout the whole city and gathering around the door… bringing the sick to be healed and the possessed to be set free. You may ask, “What’s wrong with that? That’s a good thing, right?” And yes… yes… by itself it is a good thing… a wonderful thing for those people. It’s exciting for those whom Jesus has called as disciples. They are amazed as well at what is happening. Jesus could stay right there at the house of Simon and Andrew and heal people and set people free from their demons for the rest of his public ministry. The disciples could put a basket at the door for people to drop coins into. Jesus fame could grow and spread and everything would be just fine. It would be good. And if Jesus had somehow given the power to Simon or Andrew or James or John… if this was the ministry they did for the rest of their lives… that would be wonderful and they could have become very famous.
But that’s not what Jesus was anointed to do. That’s not the good news he brings. That’s why fame is a trap for him… a trap brought to him by some very excited disciples who are still high from the events of the night before when they find him off praying by himself. Everyone is searching for you! Come on, let’s go back and give them what they want… and your fame will increase and it will be great!
Jesus walks out of the wilderness leaving those temptations behind. Jesus walks out of Capernaum leaving that temptation of fame behind. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. That’s the message in Mark… that’s the message Jesus has come to spread.
So when we get to Paul’s writing to the church in Corinth… especially after having heard this word from Mark’s gospel… I’m a bit wary of what Paul is saying. Or maybe it would be better for me to say that I’m a bit wary about what I might first perceive Paul as saying. Because Paul comes to these verses we’ve read today first making an argument about rights… specifically the rights of a working apostle. Paul’s been doing a bit of his rhetorical flourishing and argument building about how other apostles have exercised their right to be compensated for their work… that it has been their right to look to these communities for financial support while they go about spreading the message. Of course, Paul hasn’t claimed these rights… but he could if he wanted to. Rights can be like fame… or maybe again that’s my own point of view. Fame doesn’t have to be bad… but it doesn’t take much to become the all-consuming monster. Rights are important… but how small is the turn before an argument on rights becomes a diatribe about privilege or a mechanism for control. Rights can set people free. Rights can be used to forge the heaviest of chains to lay upon others. I think there is some of that thinking behind Paul’s rhetorical flourishes.
Maybe… maybe we’re back to the question of what is at the center of our faith. What happens when fame is at the center? When fame… so to speak… becomes the god we seek? What happens when rights are at the center? When rights become the spirit that shapes our understanding and subsequent actions in the world? Both may be used as tools in the service of God… but both can become tempting distractions that obscure our vision of God… or even become an idol that replaces God in our lives.
So when Paul speaks about making himself a slave to all… it’s easy to first get caught up in seeing this as something akin to a marketing strategy. A method whereby he connects with people on some superficial level… by appearing to understand and relate to people… so that he can hook them and bring them in. It’s a sales technique. Evangelism is all about sales. It’s about finding some point of commonality so that they… whoever they might be in the moment… will buy whatever it is that you’re selling. Hook ‘em before they know what’s happening. Become all things to all people… but not really. Am I supposed to come away from this with the understanding that numbers… numbers are what really matter? The more I can reach… the more I can bring in. The totals on my sales reports are at the center.
How easy it would be to go down that path and set up shop in Capernaum where people… lots and lots of people would come gather around my door. The numbers who came would be amazing… and I could serve them as they had need… fulfilling whatever need they brought with them. Telling them of new needs that they have that need to be filled. Here’s how to have the best marriage. Here’s how to raise the most awesome kids. Here’s how to manage your finances so that you will be rich and happy. Create a sort of spiritual planned obsolescence methodology. But would the gospel be served?
And that’s what pulls us back. The gospel. What is that message that shapes us… that informs us… that makes us put Capernaum in the rear-view mirror so that we can leave those temptations behind to proclaim it. What is this gospel that causes us to drop all this important stuff we think we’re carrying and leave it behind to follow? What is this gospel that is an obligation laid on us and woe to us if we do not proclaim it? What was it that Paul said? “For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission.” What is this calling that the gospel has laid upon our lives?
That’s the work of discipleship isn’t it? Because while the gospel may be one… the work of discipleship it inspires varies according to the Spirit. It’s not that the answer is singular and we then conform to that singular answer… the work of discipleship is an act of discernment of the call that the gospel has laid upon your life. So the evangelism of becoming all things to all people is less of a marketing strategy and becomes a reflection of how the one gospel meets us as we are… how the work we are given varies… how the call that is manifested isn’t cookie cutter and uniform but is a unique and authentic expression of what God at the center means for each of our lives. Evangelism becomes then the making of an opening so that one’s call can find just the right soil in which to grow.
That’s what Paul had been trying to tell this conflicted community all through this letter. If you think your right knowledge about meat sacrificed to idols is your work of discipleship… it’s time to leave that behind and move on. If you think it’s about the person who baptized you or your belief that you somehow possess a superior spiritual gift… it’s time to leave that behind and move on. If you think its fame or rights or whatever else… that that’s at the center… that that’s the main characteristic of your work of discipleship… it’s time to leave that behind and move on. None of those things are the gospel. None of those things are worth getting stuck on. All those are works of your own will and they are giving you the reward that you seek… but are not what God is actually giving to you through Christ. None of these are worthy of your calling as a disciple of Christ. There’s something more to be found… but you have to drop what you’re holding onto and follow.
There in Capernaum, Jesus did amazing and wonderful work. But that was not what his call was about. As strange as it may sound… it was too small… too small of a thing. As we approach the season of Lent… that may be the question for us all… is our response to God’s call been too small a thing to this point? What needs to be left behind so we can start this new leg of the journey of our faith? Amen.