Sermon Ideas For 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 Part 2
In this pericope, the apostle Paul's lofty declaration of the centrality of the gospel and proclamation of the same, has its origin in a defensive argument concerning his own identity and claim "...that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:14). Money and preachers were as ticklish a subject in Paul's day as it is in our own. What is at stake for Paul is at the very heart and core of Christian ministry, namely that the gospel message not be hampered, handicapped or hindered by human hangups! Before the preacher can mine the rich nuggets of truth contained in this passage from the epistle, s/he must first check her/his own motivational pulse in relationship to ministry. None of us can lay claim to total altruism in ministry. As one of my colleagues humorously says, "our motivations are as pure as the freshly driven slush!" The haunting and humbling question confronts all of us who are in ministry, namely, what is the fuel that propels the engine of our ministry? Is it personal prestige and gain, or is it the desire to proclaim in word and deed the liberating power of this good news? The answer to that question is determinative of our priorities and perspective as we engage in ministry.
In a world of bad news, the pastoral implications of this text is that people are in need of good news. At this point, the preacher stands in solidarity with all people. The good news of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, acceptance, healing and life eternal is an indicative that evokes this imperative for Paul, "For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel" (v. 16). While the proclaimer may be paid for proclaiming, the message which is proclaimed is "free." "The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 6:23b). The essence of this good news is incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth, who, in the Gospel text from Mk 1:29-39, is portrayed as one who was engaged in the ministry of healing. It is this reality that has given shape to the ministry of the church throughout the ages.
Communicating to and convincing people of the fact that they are the recipients of God's free gift of grace is the most difficult task of the preacher. A variety of barriers is erected so as to block out this liberating word.
First, we have been socialized to believe that "everything has a price", "there is no free lunch", "you get what you pay for". Beware of those who promise you something for nothing! The gift of the gospel is a counter cultural claim of radicality. As one person put it, "it is too good to be true, therefore, why wouldn't one be suspicious?"
Second, the message goes against human nature. We are accustomed to doing everything the old-fashioned way, we earn it! Who wants to feel beholden to another for such a priceless gift? Does not the giving of a gift imply indemnity and therefore control and power? Human nature automatically employs the hermeneutic of suspicion with regard to the gospel message of pure grace.
Finally, there is the voice within many which whispers that we are not worthy of such love. The quilt of our misdeeds may appear insurmountable in own eyes, thus precluding our appropriation of this good news. Perhaps even more ominous, the disgrace shame of our own unworthiness and unloveableness weighs upon us like the weight of the world itself. This message may perhaps be "for you," but it most certainly is not "for me."
The preacher needs to contend with the reality of resistance both in the hearer as well as in her/himself as proclaimer. One could hardly predict that such a priceless message of pure grace would encounter such resistance, yet it is there in all of us.
Having established the centrality of the gospel in ministry, Paul goes on in the remainder of the pericope to illustrate to what lengths he is willing to go in order to carry out the commission of proclamation with which he has been entrusted. While the message itself is unaltered, the manner in which it is framed of necessity requires alteration. Paul is cognizant of and sensitive to ethnic, cultural and social realities. The message is critically important, but the medium is also crucial.
The Jewish constituency will hear the message with one set of ears. The Gentiles (those outside the law) will hear the message with quite a different set of ears. The preacher needs to employ not only the gifts of sensitivity and awareness but must be able to be empathic and creative in framing the gospel message in such a way that it can be heard and understood. In order to achieve this goal, it is critically important to be acquainted with the constituency of a given congregation. Every congregation had its own culture and history. One cannot afford to ignore the idiomatic and idiosyncratic nature of the faith community one serves. The social sensitivities of Paul were related primarily to the ethnic concerns of Jews and Gentiles as well as those considered to be "weak" (v. 22). The pastoral principle employed by Paul is to know one's community, their stories, fears, concerns as well as their understanding of reality and the world in which they live.
Today's preacher needs to be sensitive to cultural diversity, ethnic plurality and lifestyle heterogeneity. This is not to suggest that the preacher is a chameleon with regard to the message and its implications but is creative with respect to the medium. The text is always proclaimed within a given context. It is only in this sense that pastorally one attempts to become all things to all people. The centrality of the message need not nor dare not be obfuscated by insistence on a given medium of expression. It is not only woe to those who do not preach the gospel, it is also woe to those whose rigidity precludes creativity. By insisting on a solitary medium of expression, one may exclude those hearers who hear with different ears and see with different eyes.
The pastoral implications of this text create a real challenge for the preacher. Let the message of God's grace and love in Jesus Christ be clearly articulated in all of its wondrous grandeur and glory. Let the preacher be prayerfully open to the prompting of the Spirit with respect to the medium selected so that all of God's people with their racial, ethnic, political, ideological and lifestyle pluralities may hear and appropriate God's "good news."
Robert H. Albers
Lutheran Northwestern Seminary