Epiphany + 5b 8-2-15 1 Cor 9.16-23
Some people are important? Think they’re more important?
We Australians admire great people with the common touch—people who don’t let themselves get stuck up on a pedestal. I admire great musicians and artists who’ll stand around with people and chat about ordinary things. I admire the way Pope Francis refuses to live in the palace; the way he sneaks out at night disguised as a simple priest, taking food to Rome’s homeless. We all know that’s what Jesus would want him to do. And it’s great to see him do it, because it shows everyone that he’s a true follower of Jesus, God’s son, who came and lived among us quite simply.
Paul is arguing the case for just this sort of behaviour in our reading from 1st Cor today. He’s just finished telling the Corinthians what the rights of a preacher are—enough to live on so that they can continue with their mission—and he’s entitled to that. cf Mt 10.10b for labourers deserve their food But in today’s reading, instead of claiming his rights as a preacher to their support, he says he won’t take anything; he’ll preach on free of charge.
Let’s think about that for a moment. We’re a church that pays its ministers a stipend—enough to support our preachers and their families—so the preacher is set free from those concerns; free to do the pastoral, teaching and evangelistic work of a minister. If I took Paul’s example literally, I’d refuse the stipend and the rectory, I’d take a labouring job on the side to support my family, rent a place to live in, and turn up here each day to do the ministry God has called me to do. Paul did that in Corinth. What do you think the Corinthian church might have made of him doing this?
I’d imagine it made them uncomfortable. I’ve said before that Paul is replying to a letter from the Corinthian Church. He’s answering questions they’ve asked him about all sorts of things. And from the sort of questions he’s answering, you can tell it’s the more powerful, rich people in the church who wrote to him.
Remember last week, they were asking him about eating meat sacrificed to idols. (Only rich people ate meat) Evidently they asked about eating meat in the temple where all the idols were. So they’re talking about high-society feasts; not an impromptu dinner of scraps with the neighbours. Dinner at the casino might be a fairer comparison—and ignoring the hungry street people you pass to get there.
Today’s passage builds on Paul’s memorable answer to their question about eating meat—if it might possibly cause a weaker Christian to lose their faith, I’ll never eat meat again. Paul will give up all his rights if it will help people hear the gospel. So how is he trying to influence the people he’s writing to? What does he want to teach them?
This passage is about leadership in the Christian community—how a mature Christian is meant to behave. How a mature Christian shows authentic Christian leadership to younger Christians. It’s also about the way Christian leaders behave in the wider world. How a mature Christian should behave in public—where non-churchgoers know they’re Christian.
At one level, the answer’s quite simple; do what Jesus would do. Adopt a lifestyle of poverty and weakness. This is what Paul does in his time among the Corinthians.
Paul identifies himself with the weak so thoroughly that he renounces privilege and honour. Like the poor he supports himself by manual labour and refuses to eat meat—which the poor would never have been able to afford. … But for people like us, particularly, this is a hard message. We’re materially pretty comfortable; we wield quite a lot of power in our society; we can mostly say what we think and get what we want. We’re quite like the rich Corinthians who wrote that letter to Paul. So we can assume that what Paul is trying to teach the Corinthian Church will also apply to us.
It’s a hard word; really hard in our kind of society. We have a lot, and the more you have, the harder it is to give it away. Paul’s asking the Church to be better than that. He’s asking us to put relationships with people higher than anything else in our lives —friends and strangers alike; and he lists a whole lot of strangers in today’s passage. We might say, Is that all? Of course relationships are more important than anything else! But are they?
The times we really see that priority become highly visible in our Australian community are times of crisis: a bushfire or a flood; a major disaster. It’s only then that we really see people’s real compassion; when people turn out their pockets and hand over whatever they can. That’s when we glimpse our true selves—the good, generous, compassionate people we really are.
Paul urges the rich Corinthians to look Jesus in the eye—really look at Jesus; the Jesus who gave up everything for them—and remodel their lives on his pattern. To be good, generous and compassionate all the time. Paul teaches it by example. Don’t do something just because you have to do it; love the people you do it for. And don’t do it for the money; do it for the love of anyone it might serve. Let go of your power and rights: share them with the poor and the weak and grow together with these little ones for whom Christ also died. And don’t wait for a crisis either; do it all the time. Be a shining light; the Spirit of Christ visible in the world.
Paul tells us that gospel freedom is the right of individuals not to do as we choose, but rather to relinquish our rights for the sake of others. True Christian freedom expresses itself in service, in weakness, and in suffering—not for its own sake, but to win others for Christ.
If we can do this, then in God’s strength, the Church will realize its calling to be a sign of hope and a witness to God’s love for the world. Amen