February 01, 2021
The Epiphany 5B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 1:29-39 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 40:21-31 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 147:1-11, 20c from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: OT Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 96 (Lord’s Day 35)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Usually we are far too casual about God’s kingdom. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” we say each time we intone the Lord’s Prayer, but when we finish our prayer and open our eyes, we do not see any such kingdom. It is difficult for us to conceive of a kingdom that is not also a definable place on the map–a realm with borders and with visible signs that this particular place is different from all other places.
Most of us know what such markers might be like. Cross the border into Canada and immediately lots of things look different: highway signs, street signs, traffic lights. Everything is in kilometers, some traffic lights have something called a “Delayed Green.” The lines painted on the roads may be a different color. In England the entire flow of traffic is reversed, which is why some of us very nearly get hit when crossing some London street because we instinctively look the wrong way to see if any cars are coming. (Winston Churchill nearly died in New York City once when he made this same mistake when crossing a street and looking the wrong way to check for traffic.) The first time I visited Europe, one of the first things that struck me were traffic signs I’d never seen before in my home country.
A kingdom or country or nation or realm would rather be like that, we think. Kingdoms are defined by their different customs, signage, currency, and habits. So it is perhaps no surprise that when even Christians pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, they quietly assume that this is something that will happen only, or at least mostly, in the future. When God’s kingdom comes, we’ll all know it because living inside the borders of that kingdom will be just as obvious as being in a different country even today. But although we do believe in the reality of the New Creation that is yet to come, it is nevertheless wrong to relegate God’s kingdom to any other place, dimension, or time than this place, this time.
As Dallas Willard has written, the kingdom is real and it is real NOW. Because a kingdom is that realm where the effective will of the king determines what happens. In a sense, we all have our own little kingdoms in life–those places where what we want happens. If we say it, it goes. Maybe this is in our households, maybe it happens at work in the department of which you are the manager. But wherever a person can say, “Well, that’s the way I want it and so that’s the way it is going to be,” then that is in a real sense a kingdom, a place where your influence rules and makes stuff happen.
That’s why the kingdom of God is real and that’s why we can see it, right now today. The kingdom is present wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom is present wherever Jesus nurtures certain behaviors and lifestyles that we call the Fruit of the Spirit. The kingdom is present wherever people pour water over the heads of babies or take bread and wine to their lips all simply because Jesus told us that this is the way we are to act in remembrance of him.
The kingdom is present wherever a believer somewhere refuses to go along with some scheme because she believes it is untruthful and that going along with it would make her less transparent to Jesus. Whenever and wherever a believer refuses to participate in sinful activities, whenever and wherever a kindly old woman brings light into a neighbor’s darkness by speaking a word of peace, whenever and wherever a man sits down to tutor a homeless child, and whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there–right there and right here and right now–the kingdom of God is present because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.
When the Son of God came to this earth, he announced the arrival of the kingdom. That kingdom is so real, and is such a viable alternative to all things evil and dark and wrong, that of course it only makes sense that the demons knew who Jesus was and fled before him. What’s more, if this same Jesus, who himself embodies the fullness of every kingdom virtue, could walk the streets of New York or Chicago this very day, don’t doubt for a second that he would even now cause any number of unclean spirits to come out of the woodwork.
Someone once suggested that the reason there were so many demons around Jesus all the time may be similar to the reason why when you go to the E.R. at the local hospital you find so many injured people. It would be rather foolish to see injured people at the E.R. but to then say, “Earlier today I was at the mall but I didn’t see any injured folks lying around there! How come so many cluster at the hospital?” The answer is so obvious as to make the question absurd. So also here: as the very incarnation of God’s kingdom, Jesus attracted and drew out and unmasked the forces that opposed him.
Once upon a time and far, far away Jesus did this, but it doesn’t have much to do with us, does it? Mostly the realm of the demonic is remote from our daily experiences.
So what do we make of Mark 1’s presentation of Jesus the exorcist? Is this demon business something that used to exist but is now just a throwback to a bygone era? If you go through an antique store with your grandpa, you’ll run across lots of outdated stuff. Maybe you’ll ask Grandpa, “What’s this thing?” and he’ll reply, “Well, long time ago we used this to make toast.” Is that what Mark 1 is like–a kind of theological antique, a relic from an age long gone?
If so, then a big gap opens up between our faith and our lives. So maybe what we need to do is take the Bible’s language seriously in the belief that on some level, this does describe a vital aspect of reality in also this day and age.
There are realities and spiritual forces at work in this world that are undeniably anti-God and anti-Christ. We err if we think that the demonic was only long ago and far away. We err if we limit the presence of the demonic to only caricature-like spectacles of The Exorcist variety. The devil is, among other things, an opportunist. When the Bible tells us that the devil prowls about like a lion, looking for whom he might devour, that may mean that this prowling will take many forms and it won’t necessarily be lion-like in every instance. The “devouring” may well take many forms, starting with whatever is expedient. If in a given culture what we might regard as “obvious” forms of demon-possession or demonic activity would be too easily spotted (and so probably resisted), then another form will be taken.
In the frightening film Devil’s Advocate actor Al Pacino is a very convincing demon in a designer suit. He’s also a lawyer and, lawyer jokes aside, the point of the film is that the law is as susceptible to demonic influence as anything. The devil will always survey the landscape to see where the cracks are, and they won’t always be the same from one society or place to the next.
In some ways, then, reading these texts about “Jesus the Exorcist” connects us with a world so remote from our own and from our typical experience that it may as well be a story about talking animals or aliens from outer space. In other words, we conclude that whatever necessitated Jesus’ being an exorcist back then no longer applies to us now. That was then. It is not now.
A good sermon on Mark 1:29-39 will surely make people a bit more thoughtful on such matters.
Mark 1:34 is the first clear instance in Mark of the motif known as “The Messianic Secret.” There was a slight hint of this in Mark 1:25 when Jesus tells the unclean spirit to “be quiet,” but this is the first instance where we are told that Jesus actively was preventing knowledge of his true identity from getting noised around too much. And it will come up again and again from here on out. Possible reasons for this secrecy have been bandied about for centuries. But it does seem that Jesus knew that for him to accomplish the work he came to do, he could not let people too quickly seize on him lest they turn him into what they wanted him to be as opposed to what he knew his Father would have him to be (and for that to happen, he’d have to trek all the way to the cross). Mark drives us as readers to the cross. And so there is a sense in which even for readers of this gospel that every instance of hearing Jesus silence those who know his true identity is a goad for us, too, to keep reading, to not impose on Jesus (even yet today) our own ideas on what he should be like, what he should say, what he should do. Our job is not to jump to conclusions or force prior agendas. Our job is to keep following, even though we know that the path down which we follow Jesus is going in the opposite direction of where we’d prefer to go.
In a cartoon I once saw there were two somewhat rough-looking characters emerging from a church after a worship service. As they walk down the church steps, the one man is saying to the other, “Well, the news wasn’t all bad–at least I ain’t made no graven images lately!” Among other things, this little cartoon may remind us that in church, we can be rather casual in tossing around language that you mostly don’t encounter the rest of the week. We even read whole stories from the Bible that are so different from anything we have ever experienced–or even anticipate experiencing–that there may be a quiet and subtle disconnect between what we say in church and the rest of our lives.
If the gospel is true, however, then any apparent gap between what we talk about in church and what goes on the rest of the week must be only apparent and so not a real gap. That is to say, if there is simply no such thing as “graven images” in life, then talking about such an unreal thing in church ushers people into a realm of fantasy, a fictional world that has no true connection to the actual world.
We need to ponder this sometimes when dealing with passages that treat the presence of demon and the demon-possessed as a run-of-the-mill reality in Jesus’ day. Is there ANY such thing still around today?
Author: Stan Mast
Sample sermon: “What Can You Reasonably Expect from God?” I once preached this sermon, focusing particularly on the beloved verse 31.
I received a phone call the other day from a modern-day daughter of Job, whom I will call Mary. At one time Mary had been a pastor’s wife with 2 young children and a nice home, but her husband was extremely abusive and she had to get out of the marriage. The church did not support her. Her husband continued to harass her. Her life has been hellacious for the last 20 years. Her now-adult children are a source of much heartache, her multiple health problems are bewildering and debilitating, her finances are a mess. She’s alone, sick, confused and penniless. And Mary is disappointed with God.
Through all of her suffering she has done what Isaiah 40:31 encourages God’s people to do; she has put her hope in the Lord. She believes all these wonderful things that Isaiah 40 says about God. He is the gentle shepherd who gathers his lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart. He is the mighty creator of the universe and the ruler of even the most powerful nations. He is the all-knowing director of all things, whose mind is beyond our comprehension. He is the incomparable God, utterly unlike all the false gods of the world.
Mary genuinely believes that God is real, that God is alive, and she has trusted God’s only Son as her Lord and Savior. Through all of her trouble, Mary has put her hope in the Lord, expecting that he would act for her, that he would answer her fervent prayers by keeping the promises he makes in his Word. But it hasn’t worked out the way she expected, and she is disappointed with God.
Perhaps you can empathize with Mary today. As we read our text in Isaiah 40, it is very clear that the ancient Israelites knew all about Mary’s kind of disappointment. In verse 27 we hear them voice their disappointment. “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God.” Their lives had been torn apart by the Babylonian captivity. In spite of the fact that they were God’s special covenant people, his little flock of beloved lambs, they had lost their land, their homes, their loved ones, their country, their temple, their place on the earth. They were sure that God had forsaken them.
Oh, they had the promises of God, the word of God that promised a return from that Exile. In fact, Isaiah 40 opens with those lovely words, “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God.” But they couldn’t believe those words. They were too disappointed with God. So, they said over and over again, “My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God.”
C.S. Lewis asked the key question for those who know how Israel and Mary felt. What can you reasonably expect from God? You may be familiar with his story. In his early life he was a confirmed agnostic, but then to his surprise he was converted and became one of the preeminent explainers and defenders of the Christian faith in the 20th century. His books have helped millions believe in the God of the Bible, the God who became human in Jesus Christ. Lewis was particularly eloquent about the problem of pain. If you’ve seen the movie “Shadowlands,” you can hear him say, “Pain is God’s megaphone.” Lewis was a true believer who assisted many sufferers like Mary through the shadowlands of life.
Then came his own valley of shadows, where he discovered disappointment with God first hand. Fairly late in life he fell in love with Joy Davidman. They were married only a short time when she became ill. Lewis called on God to heal her. He begged and pleaded. And she died. Lewis was shattered, overcome with grief. In his book, A Grief Observed, he talks about his disappointment with God. God is our refuge and our strength, he says, a very present help in trouble. But I prayed for this love of my life and God was not a very present help in trouble. In spite of all my prayers and my faith, she died. What, he asks, what can we reasonably expect from God when we’re in trouble?
That’s what our text explains in some of the most memorable poetry in the Bible. Years ago, I heard a sermon by Dr. John Claypool that gave me fresh insights into these familiar words: “they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not be faint.” These poetic words capture three ways we can expect God to help us.
Sometimes God simply rescues us. Quickly, perhaps instantaneously, he gets us out of the situation or miraculously changes the situation. We soar up out of the situation on wings like eagles and the trouble is gone, behind us.
There was an article a while back in my local paper about the resurgence of eagles in West Michigan, accompanied by a picture of a bald eagle diving into the water to snag a fish. An eagle can spot a fish from a mile away, dive at 100 miles per hour, and sink its talons into that fish before it knows what happened. That’s what God does sometimes when we put our hope in him and cry for help. He plunges into the situation and snatches us out of it. Unlike the bald eagle who devours the hapless fish, God dives into our hopelessness and we fly away on wings likes eagles. Everything is miraculously better, because God rescues us from the situation.
The story of the 10 lepers in Luke 17 is a perfect example. These 10 men had a terrible problem. Leprosy had ruined their lives and it couldn’t be cured. But then they met Jesus. Standing at the required distance from Jesus, they cried out to him. “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” Jesus said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And, says the story, “As they went, they were cleansed.” Just like that. They cried to Jesus and he rescued them by totally changing their situation in a miraculous way. The New Testament is full of stories like that. Many of us have experienced such dramatic, miraculous rescues. We can reasonably expect God to do that today. “We will soar on wings like eagles.”
But that’s not the only way God responds to our prayers for help, nor, in my experience, the most frequent. Sometimes God helps not by rescuing us from a situation, but by running along with us in the situation so that together we can repair it. His power works with ours so that we can run and not grow weary. We don’t think we can keep going. We don’t think the situation will ever change. And it doesn’t change quickly or dramatically. But because God collaborates with us, we have the strength to keep running until we repair the situation together. We don’t soar effortlessly on eagle’s wings; we work very hard ourselves. Because God gives us the strength, we can run and not grow weary. And eventually the situation ends.
Think of the way God fixed the great problem of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. God could have rescued them in one miraculous moment on eagle’s wings. Instead, he came to Moses and said, “You must lead my people out of bondage.” Moses said, “I’m not able. I’m too meek. I can’t speak.” And God said, “I will help you.” God did his miraculous part in the 10 plagues, but it was Moses who rallied the people and led them out of bondage. It took some time and it was very hard for Moses. He was intimidated and hesitant and he wanted to quit. But God was with Moses in all his power. And at the end of day, Israel was free, because God collaborated with Moses to repair the problem of Israel’s bondage. With God’s help and in God’s strength, Moses ran and did not grow weary and the situation was changed.
But there are other times when God’s help doesn’t change the situation at all. He doesn’t rescue us out of the situation and he doesn’t give us the strength to repair it ourselves. Instead, he simply gives us the strength to endure, so that we are personally renewed. The situation doesn’t change, but we do. We grow stronger. We don’t faint. We think we will, but we don’t. We just keep walking through the situation and we emerge on the other side of it a renewed person, because God gives us the strength to endure.
Now I have to tell you that I don’t like this nearly as much as the other ways God helps his people. I want things to change. I don’t want to change myself. I pretty much like me the way I am. But God often has other ideas. The apostle Paul discovered that with his thorn in the flesh. In II Cor. 12 Paul describes how he begged God to take away his physical affliction. “I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me,” he says. But God didn’t.
Instead, God gave him the grace to endure even with this physical affliction. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And through that affliction Paul became even more powerful as a servant of Jesus Christ. God had greater things in mind than changing Paul’s physical situation. God wanted to change the world and he needed a man who was filled with the power and grace of Jesus Christ to accomplish that. After much prayer and struggle, Paul finally understood God’s plan and he embraced it gladly. He says in vs. 10, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
I need to hear that—“for Christ’s sake.” I really want to be rescued quickly. I want to soar on wings like eagles. I’ll settle for God’s help in solving the problem. If I have to run for a while before the situation changes, I can deal with that, as long as the situation changes. But I don’t want to keep walking in the trouble, because that causes me pain. I don’t want pain. I want life easy. I, I, I, I. It’s all about me. But it’s not. It’s about Christ, Christ who loved me so much that he died for me, Christ who has bigger and better things in mind than my ease. So sometimes Christ gives us the grace to simply endure, to walk and not faint, so that we grow stronger in his service.
That’s how God helps those who hope in him—rescue from a situation by God’s miraculous intervention, the repair of a situation through God’s collaboration, or our personal renewal through the situation as God gives us strength to endure. That’s what you can reasonably expect from God. Of course, that often leaves us wondering which of the three it will be this time. And that can lead to disappointment with God for even the strongest believer.
That’s why I must come back to Paul’s phrase in II Cor. 12—“for Christ’s sake.” It’s not about us; it’s about Christ. That’s a sobering reality, but it reminds us of a greater saving reality. Christ was all about us. He lived and died and rose for our sake. That’s how we know what we can reasonably expect from God all the time. Whether it takes the form of rescue, repair, or renewal, we can expect God to keep doing what he has already done—save us to the uttermost for Christ’s sake. If we keep our eyes focused on the Son of God dying and rising and ruling for our sake, we will not be disappointed with God. “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they shall run and not grow weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
I hope that you will never go through the kind of loss that decimated the life of Jerry Sittser. In a head-on car crash, his mother and his wife and his little girl were instantly killed. In a thunderous collision, three beloved generations were wiped out. In an instant it was all over and done. There was no possibility of rescue, no chance of repair. All Sittser could do was despair or endure. Because God helped him, he not only endured; he even triumphed, transforming his loss into a powerful testimony of God’s grace. You can read about what God did in Jerry Sittser’s life in his marvelous book, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss. It’s a powerful reminder that even when God doesn’t rescue or repair, he still helps us with a grace that may be disguised as unbearable loss. And by that grace, we are renewed.
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
Author: Scott Hoezee
Psalm 147 is a favorite of the Revised Common Lectionary. It seems to crop up at least once in each liturgical year and this is now the second time it has occurred in the still-new Year B cycle. This was the psalm—albeit with a slightly different configuration of verses—just one month ago on January 3. Unfortunately I tend to write sermons starters on the whole psalm so the Lectionary’s slicing and dicing it slightly different this time compared to a month ago does not yield tons of new insights I have not already covered. So what follows is pretty much the same thing I wrote last month. Then again, if you preached on this psalm last month, you likely are not doing it again anyway but will go with one of the other three lections for this Sunday! In any event:
Two rather striking features to this psalm leap out at you. First, there is the singularly positive, sunny statements about how God has strengthened Jerusalem, given peace within Israel’s borders, and just generally provides a warm and safe environment for God’s people. The second striking feature is the celebration at the end of Psalm 147 of the laws and ordinances of God and how lucky Israel is to know them because no other nation does. In fact, Israel’s knowing God’s Law is WHY God treats Israel so well.
Why are these two things so striking? First, because the Book of Psalms was probably compiled and edited into its more-or-less final form sometime after the exile into Babylon. In other words, after the time when Jerusalem proved to be not so well fortified after all and when there was zero peace within Israel’s borders. And then second it’s striking also because it was Israel’s singular failure to observe God’s ordinances and statutes and laws that led God to punish them in the first place.
In short, Psalm 147 is celebrating an idealized portrait of God and Israel but as it turns out, this happy picture of security and obedience never really happened. Or at best it happened in fits and starts now and again in Israel’s history but was never a sustained reality for very long. Surely a song like this must have stuck in people’s throats after 587 BC. Even those who returned to Jerusalem years later under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah never came anywhere close to seeing Jerusalem restored to its old glory. And the people of Israel would remain in an occupied state from that time all the way up to the diaspora after Jerusalem’s second destruction in 70 AD.
What do we do with a poem like this given the historical and spiritual realities we know only too well?
As we entered 2021, we hoped it would ultimately be a much better year than 2020. And then in the United States January 6 happened and the sacking of the Capitol and the loss of life in a partisan-inspired attempt to overturn democracy and stop the electoral work of the Congress. And then the next Wednesday another traumatic impeachment happened. And then the next Wednesday an inauguration happened in a Washington D.C. that looked like a fortified city from the Middle Ages or something. The wreckage we see all around us may actually resemble Jerusalem after being sacked by the Babylonians.
We cannot see Psalm 147’s portrait of happy serenity—spiritually or otherwise—applied to our own lives just now. Even so, is there a way to view this poem as aspirational? Or can we view it as the reality we as Christians really do now have in Christ if only we have the eyes of faith to see it?
I suspect there is something to this. “In the world you will always have trouble” Jesus said to his disciples on the most troubling night of his own life. “But take heart: I have overcome the world.” In other words, Jesus assured his disciples that no matter what was roaring all around them in society at any given moment, within the citadel of Christ’s love and Easter resurrection power, there would be a chance for spiritual calm, for hope, even for joy.
That ought to provide us with no small measure of comfort no matter what our circumstances. What’s more, Christ revealed himself to be the end of the Law—not the “end” in the sense of its coming to an end but “end” in the sense of Jesus’ being the very purpose and culmination of all that the Law of God had all along been aiming at: the flourishing of God’s people in God’s creation. The Law was the Owner’s Manual for creation and by following it, people had a chance to experience the delight in this world that God intended (even as they—as part of that delightful living—are warned off from doing things that would be spiritually and physically perilous).
It is perhaps no coincidence that throughout Psalm 147—including in the first 11 verses that are technically not part of this lection—it is God’s mighty power in creation that the psalmist points to over and over as proof of God’s love and grandeur as well as his ability to do whatever he promises. Rain, snow, hail, winds, the care of animals: it’s all testament to God’s majesty. And THIS is the God who loves us, who loved Israel enough to give them the gift of the Torah, of the Law that would keep them safe while at the same time helping them to flourish.
It’s all part of one grand package of loving revelation to God’s people. And it has all culminated in Jesus Christ now. This is the Savior, the Lord and King of Creation, in whom we now dwell through baptism. Indeed, the New Testament reveals we have been made “a new creation” already. We lean into and participate already now in all the goodness that is yet to come in God’s kingdom.
Here is something else I wrote for Sunday, January 5, 2020, when the Year A Lectionary assigned Psalm 147 in that Lectionary cycle:
Who knows what the year 2020 will hold for whole nations much less for our individual lives or for our families. A new year is always a two-edged sword: on the one hand a new slate of 12 months holds out lots of promise even as there are big events—weddings, graduations, the birth of a child—we anticipate happening sometime in 2020. On the other hand, though, there are lots of possibilities for disappointment, for the unforeseen, for exceedingly tragic events that we may or may not dimly suspect to be possible on New Year’s Day.
At the end of it all, 2020 felt less like a two-edged sword than a single-edged one focused on cancelling all those big events we looked forward to as well as so much more that we lost collectively and individually.
So what can we say in this fraught time and in this fractured world? All that we can ever say with confidence as believers: In Christ we know we have been built up to be spiritually strong and already in Christ to be also victorious.
There is more than a little hope in all that. Thanks be to God!
Psalm 147 is an example of many biblical psalms and other passages that celebrate how active God is within his own creation. C.S. Lewis once noted that when it comes to God and creation, we are always fighting on two different fronts to keep things in perspective. On the one hand are those who remove God fully from creation. This is the Deist view—the universe is like a giant clock that God wound up long ago but has ever since God has just let it tick down on its own with little to no divine awareness of what is happening (much less any divine activity within that creation). On the other extreme are the pantheists—and the cousin school of thought of panentheism—that identity God so closely with the creation as to make the creation itself God (or part of God). Neither extreme will do, Lewis observed.
As Psalm 147 shows, God and creation are at once distinct AND YET God is intimately involved in it, taking delight in it, directing the rain and the snow, superintending the care of animals and of all creation. It’s a balancing act. For those who exile God from his own creation, we need to show how much delight God still takes in the cosmos on a rolling basis—God delights in your vegetable garden, for instance. For those who blur the lines between God and creation, we need to put some daylight between the two while at the same time keeping God passionately involved.
Like so much else in theology, orthodoxy tends to lie in the territory of both/and rather than that of either/or!
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Author: Doug Bratt
It’s perhaps somewhat ironic that in Epiphany’s season that focuses on light, the RCL appoints epistolary lessons whose mysteries leave at least some of its readers in the dark. It doesn’t help that the RCL often drops its proclaimers into the middle of chapters that discuss of complex issues.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is no exception. It, in fact, doesn’t just drop its readers into the middle of what translators have deemed a chapter. 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 also drops us right into the middle of what translators render as a paragraph.
The puzzling nature of this placement offers perhaps three paths for people to proclaim it. One involves catching up hearers on the argument into whose middle the RCL drops us and then moving into the appointed lesson. In that case proclaimers might want to deal extensively with verses 1-18, as well as the appointed verses.
A second path might involve seeking a unifying theme for the entire appointed Lesson. Graydon F. Snyder’s treatment of it suggests focusing on and exploring how Paul’s economic and cultural independence frees him to be all things to people of all cultures.
However, 1 Corinthians 9’s proclaimers might choose a third route that focuses on an idea that’s largely encapsulated in one part of the appointed Lesson. Of course, even the theme and that lesson have a theological and literary context that needs to be at least briefly named and described. But the Spirit may use focusing on one main textual point to allow a fairly full exploration of that idea.
That approach might follow the path laid out by Paul’s, “I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (19). Of course, its proclaimers want to make a couple of things clear. Paul considers himself, first all of all, a slave of no one but the Lord. He begins his letter to Philippi’s Christians by referring to himself as a “servant” of Christ. That word, however, can just as easily be translated as “slave.” Paul takes his orders not from any or all people, but from the living God in Jesus Christ.
What’s more, when Paul speaks of himself as others’ “slave,” he doesn’t mean that he’s somehow beholden to them in any sort of economic way. He, in fact, stresses his financial independence throughout 1 Corinthians 9. So when he refers to himself as a “slave,” it’s as though the apostle is saying he subjugates his own interests and control over his life to the peoples and cultures of those with whom he shares the gospel.
As Snyder notes, Paul feels free to preach the gospel because he doesn’t feel responsible to any particular group. What’s more, he recognizes that no culture or ethnic group can claim ultimate authority. So the apostle can, in one sense, be “all things to all people.”
Yet before 1 Corinthians 9’s proclaimers dig too far into it, they should explore with hearers the word we translate as “win.” In the Greek it’s kerdeo. It’s the kind of language that, when applied to the Christian faith, as my colleague Stan Mast notes, makes some people nervous. It may, after all, smack of superiority or subjugation.
Scholars tell us, however, that kerdeo has two slightly different shades of meaning. One is to “win over,” to convince someone of the rightness of one’s perspective. But the other meaning may speak more directly to this Sunday’s Lesson. It’s the idea of “gaining by investment.”
So when Paul speaks of “winning” Jews, slaves, Gentiles and the “weak,” he may be saying something like he’s culturally flexibly pouring himself into and investing in them. He’s doing that in order to convince them to follow him out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light that is God’s kingdom.
The first group of people in which the Jewish apostle invests himself is, not surprisingly, “the Jews” (20). “I became,” he says there, “like a Jew to win the Jews.” Of course, Paul, in a real sense, didn’t have to “become” like a Jew. He was what Snyder calls “a blue-blooded Jew.”
Paul believed that by perfectly obeying the law, Christ had eliminated the need to obey at least some of Torah. Yet when the apostle speaks of becoming like a Jew, he seems to suggest that he’s willing to observe elements of that law in order to win people over to their Messiah. While Christ had granted him much freedom in regards to faithfully responding to God’s grace, Paul often spoke in synagogues. Acts 21 also reports that he publicly underwent Jewish rites of purification.
When the apostle, secondly, speaks of becoming like those “under the law” (20b), he seems to be identifying with slaves. In fact, apparently many of Jesus’ earliest followers were slaves (or at least near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder). While Paul’s failure to argue for the abolition of slavery troubles at least some modern Christians, he identifies with slaves. He, after all, calls himself “a slave to everyone,” including a slave to Christ.
The people who don’t have the law (21) in whom the apostle says he, thirdly, invests seem to be the Gentiles. Paul didn’t just freely associate with them. He also didn’t expect them to conform either to Torah observance or change their customs to show him hospitality. The apostle sometimes acted like a Gentile in order to persuade them of the value of a faithful relationship with God in Jesus Christ. He used his Christian freedom to act like and, thus, identify with Jesus’ earliest Gentile followers.
Finally, “the weak” (22) whose weakness Paul shares echoes 1 Corinthians 8’s discussion of those who are weak in their faith. These seem to be Christians whose faith is battered by certain behaviors of their fellow Christians. By echoing chapter 8’s talk about avoiding being a stumbling block to the weak, Paul seems to suggest that he’s willing to carefully limit his own Christian freedom in order to protect the faith of those whom the exercise of that freedom might deeply harm.
Yet I’d suggest that Paul’s “slavery” required a kind of cultural and religious literacy that at least some of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers may not fully share. In order to faithfully be all things for all people, we need a strong sense of what others are like, including what interests, motivates and haunts them. 1 Corinthians 9’s proclaimers also invite our hearers to more fully enter into the lives of others, especially those from whom they differ.
This is, however, frankly, a radically counter-cultural idea. Perhaps especially North Americans live in thickly walled “siloes” that largely isolate us from people who are different from us. It’s not just that we tend to live near and work with people to whom we’re socio-economically similar. It’s also that many of us don’t have many relationships with people who don’t share things like our political views. It’s hard for American Republicans and Democrats, for example, to be all things to people on the other side of the “aisle” when we can hardly even talk to, much listen to each other.
This morning’s Epistolary Lesson invites us to invest ourselves in the lives of people with whom we disagree so that they may see in us the Way, the Truth and the Life. 1 Corinthians 9 invites us to shed the contempt we naturally feel for those who aren’t like us in order to dress ourselves in understanding of and empathy for them. Perhaps, then, it invites its proclaimers to read, for example, both The Christian Century and Christianity Today. It summons us to familiarize ourselves with the perspectives of both Fox News and CNN.
Yet we don’t do so for the reasons we sometimes offer for such “spying.” Gospel proclaimers don’t become culturally literate in order to learn how to bash those with whom we disagree, point to the multitude of the errors of their ways or further bolster the rightness of our cause. We learn others’ perspectives, especially on the things that divide us from them, so that we can better understand people whose perspectives those outlets shape. We do so in order that we can, for Jesus’ sake, be all things to all people for the sake of their eternal well-being.
In his wonderful book, Loving Your Enemies, Arthur Brooks helps identify what I’ve come to believe is one of at least the United States’ biggest problems. It isn’t, he says, that Americans are so politically deeply divided. It’s that we feel contempt for those on the other side of political issues.
His concluding chapter makes some suggestions for subverting our culture of contempt. One includes being far more selective in our choice and use of social media. “Obliterate your siloes by listening, reading and watching media on the ‘other side,’ he writes. “Get rid of your curated social media feeds. Unfollow public figures who foment contempt, even if you agree with them.”
After all, who knows? We might even find that we love if not like those “others” with whom we disagree but will, by God’s grace amazing grace, share space in the New Creation.