The First Presbyterian Church of Dexter
Text: I Corinthians 9:16-23
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 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 then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. 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, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessing.
The opening of this morning’s New Testament reading begins with Paul saying, “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” In our contemporary English use of “gospel,” we have distilled this beautiful word down to the narrow definition of “good news” or “glad tidings,” but we should be aware that the gospel is much more than good news or glad tidings. As Paul writes to the Corinthians he declares that the gospel is also an obligation, a commission, a responsibility, that has been laid on him, there is a call to action. The gospel is much more than good news… The gospel message is an ever unfolding legacy that chronicles the deeds of the women and men who have spent their lives proclaiming the good news of the saving grace that God offers to all people through Jesus Christ. And while mistakes may happen, that’s just part of what it means to live a life of faith.
What I love is that Paul says that, “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boastings…” Proclaiming the gospel by word or deed doesn’t make us any better than other people. It doesn’t put us on some higher moral pedestal, but instead does the opposite. It humbles us, it reminds us that without God nothing is possible. That is why this church and others like it have been able to be witnesses to the many works of God for a many year and many years to come. But it’s in our human nature to want to feel good, to feel as though we are superior to other people. And this is when we run into the problems that cause the legacy we leave behind to be a growing point for the church. Sometimes something has to happen in order for change to occur. There has a to be a catalyst that allows the Spirit of God to guide us as we discern what it means to do the work of God in our world today. But as we will soon discover, and like I previously said, sometimes things don’t work out the way they should.
I once heard a story about a man who had a brother who was born with an intellectual disability. At this time the services that we have today weren’t around, so the parents were given two choices… They could either put their child in a state run mental institution, or they could give their son to the nuns who ran a local orphanage/children’s center. The parents chose neither option, and instead decided to raise their son on their own. As their son grew you would think that the church would be a place that supported them, a place that would overflow with love for them and their children, but the church failed… Parents didn’t want their children going to youth group if “that person” was going to be there and everyone avoided him… It would be many years later, more like decades, that he would be welcomed into a community of faith that saw the essence of the gospel inside his heart. And instead of turning that light away, they embraced it, and grafted it into their telling of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Like I said before… The legacy of the gospel that we are called to share is not a perfect legacy, but a detailed account of our multiple attempts to be saved by grace and to try again and get back up when we failed those whom Jesus called us to love… There is grace, there is love, and I know I run the risk of sounding like a broken record, but this is good news! Good news that carries both hope and a call to respond to this gift we have been given. Because how can we not respond to a God who calls each of us by name.
It’s hard to get back up though when this legacy, this gospel message, is something that keeps changing over time, evolving to meet the needs of the people who are meant to hear it. For Paul this meant that the message of the gospel needed to take on a “Jewish” form, and to those who lived under the law the message of the gospel adapted itself so that the seed of faith might be planted in their hearts as well. I don’t know how Paul did it… I don’t know how he could keep up with the number of different ways the gospel was meant to be heard. Because the hard part for us is that we remember the way that the gospel came into our own lives… but that doesn’t mean that it is appropriate or fitting for someone else. It is up to the Holy Spirit to take our words and actions, but sometimes we try to do that work ourselves and we end up hurting the very people we sought to help.
We don’t really talk much about legacies in our world today… I can’t imagine that we spend much time pondering whether or not our words, deeds, or whatever else we have done will have a lasting impact on the people we leave behind. Maybe some of us do, but even in those circumstances we most often focus on our loved ones, our friends, and our close neighbors. When we lay awake at night pondering whether or not we have enough to get us through the next day, when we find ourselves worrying what the look our boss gave us the day before meant, when we struggle to find joy in a world that seems to stifle joy, it can feel like an impossible task to give any amount of time to work that God calls us to do. We’ve all been there, including myself, and if you haven’t, then maybe you can give me your secret on how you do it. And as we turn through the pages of the Bible, we find countless examples of individuals who also struggled with their faith and life.
Paul, one of the most well known figures of the New Testament, and the writer of our reading this morning, struggled with faith and the legacy that he would leave. Paul, who was once known as Saul, had committed vile acts of persecution against the early church. Paul was a prominent religious figure in his former religious community and had garnered a reputation as someone who mercilessly hunted down Christians or those who professed the name of Jesus Christ. I hope by now you’ve picked up on where I’m going with this example… The contribution made by Paul to the legacy we possess as Christians was not perfect. But God was there in the middle of all of it and provided a way for the Spirit to work in the lives of Paul and the women and men he would come in contact with. We might think we aren’t worthy of God’s time, but let’s be honest with ourselves and recognize that God is able to work with all things.
In our reading for this morning, Paul emphasizes the responsibility we have to care for one another over any status benefits that might come up. It it through the points and counterpoints that Paul is able to demonstrate how the gospel can be spread to people across time and space. It isn’t a numbers game. Paul isn’t basing his success off of how people people join the church or how many influential people attend… No Paul is more concerned about whether or not people for forming a deep and meaningful relationship with God. A relationship that is open, mutual, and allows for growth as we continue to mature as people who are created in the image of God. There may be pitfalls and there may be times when we feel as though we can’t get up, but that is why God sent Christ into the world… A savior who experienced our own trials, our own hurts, in order to liberate us from the bondage of sin and death.
In the midst of all our shortcomings, God is there… In the midst of all our blunders and trials God is there… In the midst of our victories and triumphs God is also there. Through thick and thin God is there to take on the joys and sorrows so that the Holy Spirit may find a way to guide us, nurture us, and speak to us as we carry the light of Jesus Christ wherever we go… In the words of Paul, all we do is for the sake of the gospel, all that we do is for the sake of a God who loves us and desires that all may know that there is a font of grace and compassion that stems from Jesus Christ. Our task, therefore is to take this message, this gospel, to everyone whom we meet, those who have already heard the familiar words, and to those who have never heard it before. All of this is a part of the legacy of faith in which we play a part.
The women and men who came before us have made giant footsteps… They have left us with magnificent legacies… Legacies that were not always perfect or filled with triumphant tales, but nevertheless they were legacies that still bore witness to the human resolve and the grace of God. Will we aspire to take up the mantle that they have left for us? Will we become servants of one another and of our communities and brethren around the world? For all that we do is for the sake of the gospel… So let us go forth and share these blessings, this legacy, this hope that is found in Christ Jesus.