Sermon #275 St. Martin’s #33 (Riverway) 7/24/22
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 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 I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
1st Corinthians 9:19-27
Our passage from 1st Corinthians 9 focuses on two aspects of the Christian life: freedom and discipline. I want to look at both of these things within the passage.
I think all of us have likely been shaped to lean towards one more than another, or throughout our faith journey, we’ve had to navigate the tough balance of the freedom that we have in Christ while also realizing there is the call to live a distinctive way as followers of Jesus.
So, looking at the first half of the passage (the reading can be found in your bulletin if you want to follow along), Paul says, “I’m free and belong to no one.” But out of his own free choice, he has become a slave not to some, not just to the Gentiles or Jews, but to EVERYONE—for the purpose of sharing the gospel.
He will do whatever it takes to get an audience with a group. We should note that most of those that Paul lists are factions within the Jewish and Christian communities, and may have made up different portions of the Corinthian church.
Paul says, “First and foremost I’m on team Jesus. All these other camps are only secondary to me. If I need to be like those under the law or those not under the law, fine, I’ll do it for a time, knowing that my identity is rooted in something deeper.”
He does not care what label people put on him, to the weak he’ll become weak. The purpose is the same: win them over. He has become all things to all people.
Now, you could make the case that Paul is being insensitive to the different factions. He’s not respecting the different cultures, or he is just using them. Is Paul being a chameleon and changing color whenever it’s convenient? One person simply cannot be all things to all people.
But the apostle believes that Jesus’ death and resurrection have transformed our relationship with God and our neighbor. We are no longer bound by the labels that we (or others) put on us.
God doesn’t whitewash our differences, rather our differences no longer separate us from one another or God. By the grace of our baptism, we are welcomed into God’s family which is made up of every nationality and culture on the earth.
Paul is simply claiming what is true for all of us. The dividing walls have come down, but for some reason, we still act like they're up.
We have so many self-imposed boundaries. We may think consciously or unconsciously, “I can’t go to that part of Houston. Or, I can’t talk to that kind of person, I know who they voted for, or I know where they stand on that issue.”
There is little debate that we are more isolated than ever. We live in an echo chamber of voices that only agree with us. Our politicians don’t collaborate and neither do we.
Paul throws all that to the wind. We are free he says, and it has all to do with Jesus. All things have come together in him—the dividing wall between us and God has come down, but so has the boundary that separates us from those we consider “the other.”
We are free. But what that means is that we are free to now be the people God called us to be. Free to cross the boundaries that our world tells us not to cross: to love the outsider, to listen to the stranger, and to pray for (and with) our enemy.
Freedom is not only a gift that God gives us, it is a gift that is to be lived out daily by a Christian. We cannot just sit with this heavenly freedom…we must act upon it.
The Corinthians loved the freedom of the gospel, but they had not calculated the cost. There is training involved. And what Paul seems to indicate here is that just because you’re a Christian doesn’t automatically guarantee the crown.
I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled with this part of the passage. In our baptismal service, the priest anoints the newly baptized with oil and says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”
It seems like a done deal—once you’ve gone through those waters you are a new creation and welcomed into the household of God. Paul even says that in Romans (6) and 2nd Corinthians (5:17).
This is part of why we don’t rebaptize people. Once you are sealed, even as a baby, we believe that’s it—you have been signed, sealed, and delivered to the Lord as his new creation.
We must remember that Paul is trying to be a pastor to the Corinthian church, and occasionally he gives them some tough love. This is where he uses the image of a runner and boxer to rouse them from their spiritual slumber. He says, “Just because you’re now in the race doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the prize; the prize being Jesus himself.”
Athletes, like runners and boxers, are purposeful in every aspect of their training. They watch their diet, stick to their routine, and repeat it over and over again to the point of monotony. They submit themselves to the long and arduous process in order to achieve their goal.
Paul is saying that there is a goal in the Christian faith. We are not like those who run aimlessly with no idea of where we’re headed. We are moving towards Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. Through this life, we are growing in Christ and bearing the fruits of his kingdom.
Paul is telling the Corinthians (and us) to not get comfortable with our newfound freedom. Faith matters. It takes time and dedication. It isn’t a take it or leave it situation, and there is training involved.
C.S. Lewis once said, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance, the only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”
Either this is something that is worth working towards, and even making sacrifices in how we live our life, or it isn’t. Either we lace up our shoes and get to running hard or get off the track.
What we mustn’t do, is think that getting the uniform means we’ve made it. Wearing the uniform comes with responsibility.
We’ve been going pretty deep, so I have a lighter example to wrap things up.
When we got our golden retriever, we trained her to sit, stay, and lie down, but then we stopped—we thought we had finished our job as dog parents. But walking her is miserable these days because she pulls. We were not patient or motivated to keep training her, and now I’m taking my life into my hands when we go for a walk.
All that to say, I don’t think God wants us to be like untrained golden retrievers. We have been given the tools to be a disciple, but prayer takes dedication, reading Scripture requires commitment, worship demands to be habitual, and serving involves vulnerability.
We are free and we are to be disciplined.
When we take Christian freedom to the extreme it is watered down to nothingness—we are like everyone else. When we take Christian discipline to the extreme, we get legalism, and we are right back to Paul’s discussion of being a slave to the law rather than a slave to Christ.
Thankfully for us, God can take an untrained golden retriever (and much, much worse) and transform us into athletes of his kingdom.