1 Corinthians 9:16-23
16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
The other day I needed to run a few errands so I parked along the street downtown and ran into a store for what I would say was maybe five minutes. When I came out of the store there was the meter maid writing a ticket. So I went up to him and said, “Hey buddy, can’t you cut a fellow a break?” He didn’t say a word and just kept writing the ticket. So…I might have called him a few mean names. He then bent down, checked the tread on the car tires, and began writing a second ticket. So I really laid into him, talking about his mother, his wife, and his children. And he kept writing ticket after ticket.
This went on for about 20 minutes, which was fine with me. I was parked around the corner.
Obviously, that is not a true story. I hope that none of you would expect me to say anything bad about any person, even if they were writing me a ticket. I’m not perfect, so I’m probably not going to be saying things like “Well bless your soul!” while they write the ticket out, either.
I’m a firm believer that we as Christians are called to live a certain way, not because it will make God love us more or so we can receive God’s grace or even God’s blessings. We are called to live a certain way as a witness to the Kingdom of God. We live today as a part of a kingdom that is only partly known, but one day will be fully known; a fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer for God’s kingdom to come, his will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Today we are going to look at a lot of scripture that I believe supports this call to live differently from the rest of the world, particularly scriptures that we don’t normally associate with this call to distinctive living. And I hope to show you that we are called to serve one another because we follow a crucified savior who came not as a king, but as a servant.
Paul starts this passage off by saying that he is “compelled to preach” in the NIV. Which is a toning down of the language a bit compared to other translations where Paul says that he “has to preach.” He just has to do it.
Sometimes our daughter Hadley will say that she has to do something or have something. So we like to ask her, “Hadley, why do you have to have a lollipop?” Her response is usually, “I have to because I have to!”
Why does Paul have to preach? He has to because he has to!
When I read this I think of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. In this story we find Jesus and his disciples traveling from Judea to Galilee. And normally a Jewish person would take the long way around Samaria because the Jews and the Samaritans so despised one another that they were willing to walk however many extra miles just to avoid these folks, who happen to be their distant relatives. But in John 4:4 we read this, “Now [Jesus] had to go through Samaria.”
So the Son of the Living God “had” to go a certain route? He “had” to go through Samaria? Nobody else had to go through Samaria. So why did Jesus?
John isn’t saying that Jesus had to go through Samaria or else he would be struck with sickness, plagues, or even death. Jesus had to go through Samaria because he knew that a part of his mission on earth was to break down the dividing lines between the Jews, Samaritans, and other Gentiles and introduce them all to a new way of being in the church.
This seems to me to be one of the central acts of Jesus’ redeeming work. He is a wall-breaker-downer, a division remover. Now in Christ all are of one common background, grafted into the body of Christ, which is the church.
How many times does the apostle Paul says something like “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”? At least three times that I am aware of: Galatians 3:28 (above), Colossians 3:11, and Romans 10:12.
Now the astute listener may quickly raise an objection to Paul’s observation. Because there are still men and women, male and female people within the church.
Obviously what Paul is speaking of here is not gender or ethnicity. He is pointing out the equality that we all have in Christ Jesus. Before Jesus, the Jewish people drew a hard line of distinction between themselves and Gentiles. Even Gentiles who worshipped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were excluded from full participation in temple worship. Sure the Gentiles and the women were allowed to come to the temple for worship and participate in some acts of praise and worship, but there was literally a separate courtyard for Gentiles and women. Only Jewish men were permitted to go inside. Only Jewish men could fully worship God. Now in Jesus and through Jesus, these distinctions are removed and all can come to God.
This is the message that Paul “has to” preach to the people of Corinth. They too can come to God through Jesus, regardless of their ethnicity, previous religious affiliations, social status, or even their gender.
Paul then goes on to say some interesting and strange things. From verses 19-22: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.”
Paul, a free person, acts as a slave. Though he doesn’t self-identify as a Jew, he acts as a Jew. When he is around people who observe the Torah, Paul observes the Torah. When he isn’t, he doesn’t. And when he is around weak people, Paul acts even weaker so they feel strong. Why? Because this is in some way supposed to “win” others to Jesus.
On one level I want to call Paul a faker, a poser, someone who is less than completely honest. So he is keeping the law when he is with other Jewish people, but doesn’t mind eating some shellfish when around Gentiles? I think Paul was a little critical of Peter for doing something like this at one point as well.
But I think that what Paul is getting at here isn’t that he is giving in to social pressures. Last week we saw that Paul encouraged people to eat or not eat meat sacrificed to idols based upon whether or not it would cause others to stumble in their faith. I think that these are the weak people Paul is referring to here. He is saying, Indeed, we have freedom in Christ to do these things. Meat sacrificed to idols is still just meat. But we are trying to bring people to Christ, and that trumps any freedom we might have.
We have freedom in Christ. We don’t have to keep a bunch of rules or laws to make things right between us and God. But yet we have a lot of rules and laws, which I’ve said before that I think these rules and laws are meant to help us live life to the fullest. But there are others rules and laws that are meant to bring others to Jesus as well because we are called to live a life distinctively different from the world around us.
If you have spent very much time in the Mennonite Church, you have likely heard Romans 12:2 quoted at some point. Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Traditionally, Mennonites have interpreted this passage as a command to dress differently from “the world,” to wear cape dresses and coats without collars or even buttons. Some even forego electricity and automobiles. And without a doubt, if you are going to wear clothes without buttons and drive a horse and buggy, you will be different from the world. But I don’t think that this is what Paul meant. Our more conservative brothers and sisters in the faith seem stuck in another century, and it doesn’t have to be like that. The world is always changing, so how we are different from the world must change, too. And rather than defining exactly how this difference from the world is to look, Paul lays out some guiding principles on how to look different from the world.
In the NIV, Romans 12 is divided into three different sections (which are not original to the text): A Living Sacrifice, Humble Service in the Body of Christ, and Love in Action. The last section includes a command to give your enemy food if he is hungry and water if he is thirsty. Paul includes not once but twice a line about not judging people, but leaving that job up to God. And the chapter comes to a conclusion by saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” That’s what Paul means when he says to not be conformed to the ways of the world. He isn’t saying wear cape dresses and plain coats. He is saying living in such a way so the world around you knows that you are different.
Now a passage that I am sure everyone here loves. This is a portion of Ephesians 5 that extends into chapter 6. I’m not going to quote the entire passage because it is a bit lengthy. You’ll get the idea from this excerpt. This is a passage sometimes called the “Household Codes,” and they are repeated in a similar way in both the writings of Paul and Peter. Beginning in verse 21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
This means that when I want a sandwich, my wife needs to get it for me, no questions asked. Unless that question is “With or without mayo?” Women are obviously inferior to men because Paul is saying that they need to submit to men. It’s in the Bible. Try reading it some time. These are God’s words, not mine.
I want to tell you all today that what Paul is saying here is that if I want a sandwich, my wife should get me a sandwich. But it is also saying that if she wants a sandwich, I need to get her a sandwich. Furthermore, it means that if she doesn’t want to get me a sandwich, I should not even ask her to get me a sandwich.
The Household Codes are not trying to teach that women need to mindlessly do whatever men want them to do, as much as we men might want this to mean that. We often skip verse 21 where Paul writes to “Submit to one another…” This doesn’t mean that the woman has to do what the man wants her to do and it doesn’t mean that the man has to do what the woman want him to do. We don’t “have to” do anything. We are free agents who have freedom to do whatever we want (within reason) because of the grace of Jesus. If anything the Household Codes provide a radically egalitarian concept for the home life of Christians. In the 1st century, women were seen as property. They were put on earth to clean houses and make meals and babies. So even though Paul may sound pretty sexist to our 21st century ears, to say that husbands needed to submit to their wives was revolutionary.
I think that what Paul is doing in the Household Codes when he calls husbands and wives to submit to one another is exactly what he was talking about when he said in our passage for this morning that he became like a Jew to the Jews, like a Gentile to the Gentiles, and weak to the weak people. He is giving some practical advice on how to be like Jesus, how to be His disciples. And how to be different from the world.
In The Politics of Jesus, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder dedicates an entire chapter to understanding the Household Codes. His reason for doing so is to argue for a social ethic found in the New Testament and not just one adopted from the Hellenistic society around them. That won’t be my focus. And though I believe that Yoder makes some poor arguments in this section, I do believe that there is something to gain from his discussion.
Yoder makes note of the newly-found freedom that Christians had through the grace of Jesus Christ. The oppressive laws of Judaism and the restrictions of paganism were lifted. As Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians, all things are permit-able but not all things are beneficial. A woman does not have to serve her husband, and a servant doesn’t have to serve his master. Those who Christ made free are free indeed!
Yoder argues that what Paul is doing in the Household Codes, and I would argue also in our text today about becoming “all things to all people” is saying Now that you have freedom in Christ, submit to one another out of love for one another and love for Christ because that is what Christ did for us. And in so doing, you will be a witness to the world to the Kingdom of God.
Think about our Jesus for a minute. We worship a Jesus who is in all ways God. Jesus is God in human form. The Bible tells us that Jesus “humbled himself” when he became a man. That same Jesus, who the disciples learned to call “Lord and Master” further humbled himself on the night when he was to be handed over to the authorities, tried, and put to death. He took off his outer clothes, grabbed a basin and a pitcher, and washed the feet of his disciples. All of his disciples, the one that was about to betray him and the ones that would soon desert him. This was the job of a servant, a slave.
As followers of Jesus, we too are called to serve one another.
This idea of mutual submission, of becoming all things to all people, is about following Jesus. It is about serving people, even though you are not under any kind of law or requirement. As followers of Jesus Christ, freed by Jesus to be one new humanity, a new creation, we are to willingly, intentionally submit to one another. To serve one another. To be all things to all people. And in doing so, we are a witness to a different kind of kingdom, the Kingdom of God.
But this does not mean you allow others to sin when you submit to them. This does not mean that you submit to the drug dealer that wants you to hold his stash to keep it safe. It does not mean that you submit to an abusive spouse that wants to beat you. This is about willingly submitting to one another, becoming all things to all people as a way to bring people to know the love, the grace, and the kingdom of God brought about through Jesus the Christ.