Sermon Ideas For 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 Part 3
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, says that Jesus Christ exists for community and is the "man for others." Bonhoeffer calls all Christians to see that service to God is ministering to the neighbor. Christian freedom, therefore, is about bondage to Christ who, in his double identity, represents our dual responsibilities to both humanity and God. Christian freedom, then, involves service, not for the sake of reward, but for its own sake. As Gustavo Gutierrez says in On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent,1 we as Christians are called to be good "for nothing." Eliot Deutsch in Creative Being: The Crafting of Person and World2 agrees. He says that the fully developed human being acts out of a "spiritual indifference" that allows an openness to experience and that insures community with others. This spiritual indifference gives a person a sense of confidence and self assurance that allows him or her to be sensitive to the needs of others. Far from being lack of care, this spiritual indifference is the deepest kind of care, for it loves the other not as an "it" but as a "thou," a fully worthy human being.
This is the kind of loving service that Paul calls Christians to in 1 Cor 9:16-23. Paul argues that he preaches the gospel not for reward but for its own sake. His work, then, calls for a surrender of the self, but it also calls for creativity, about which I will speak at the end. He must understand and acknowledge the worlds of persons whom he wants to convert in order to help them to see the relevance of the gospel for their own lives. Becoming, "a slave to all" (1 Cor 9:19) is accepting the weakness of Jesus Christ that is the basis of his power. In Christ's surrender to the will of his Father is the foundation of Christian service. In service, paradoxically, is also the foundation of individual human identity as we come more fully to understand ourselves in relationship to friend, lover, family, and community and as we come to articulate the meaning of those relationships in our stories.
Several novels show us characters who undertake service to God and to community. In Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird,3 Atticus Finch, faced with the kind of case that he hoped would never come his way, surrenders himself in order to teach his community a lesson about courage and human dignity. Appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man, who is accused of raping a white woman, Atticus must confront his whole community with a truth that it does not want to acknowledge: That its common narrative fails when confronted with its fears. Using the theme of the "grey ghost" and of the "mad dog," Lee, writing in 1960, makes a plea for community and gives us a model of service in Atticus Finch. Atticus, early in the novel, confronts and shoots a mad dog. The theme of the mad dog resurfaces at crucial points in the novel: When Atticus is faced with a lynch mob that has come to kill Tom Robinson and, later, when Robinson is convicted wrongly of the crime. The mad dog theme illustrates that human beings, faced with their fears, become irrational and destructive, acting in such a way to destroy the "other" that they cannot face. They must put away what they fear, and this behavior destroys both the individual and the community. Atticus, in agreeing to defend Tom and in the trial itself, forces the community, through the force of his character, to see the "grey ghosts" that it would rather ignore. Atticus' selfless service to Tom Robinson and to his community makes him an example to both and to his children who, in the course of the novel, come to understand the importance of acting on the side of truth and justice even, perhaps especially, when one realizes that one will be defeated. Investing moral energy in action, not in seeking rewards and outcomes, helps people to make baby steps toward acting lovingly and justly.
The theme of action is also important in Albert Camus' The Plague.4 In this novel, Camus uses the metaphor of bubonic plague to talk about the Holocaust. Several characters, at deep personal cost, undertake to fight the plague that rages through a city. Foremost among them are the narrator, Dr. Rieux, and Tarrou, a stranger who comes to the city and stays to fight the disease. Tarrou's ethic of service becomes the central moral focus of the novel. Tarrou comes to his ethic when he, as a child, watches a man being hanged for a criminal offense. Despite the fact that the man is found guilty, Tarrou cannot see him as "the criminal" but only as a frightened human being facing death. Tarrou's father is the prosecutor, and Tarrou's realization means that he turns away from his family and looks elsewhere for community. After being involved in numerous revolutionary movements, Tarrou realizes that they are all on the side of death. community of all those who are coming to the field as Ray plays catch with his father, and the game of baseball all are invested with holiness and power.
In Leap of Faith, in contrast, a con man preacher finds himself in service to God He tells Dr. Rieux that we must be either on the side of plague or on the side of human beings. If we choose to be on the side of humanity, we must fight plague wherever we find it, without regard to cost for the self. This choice is a difficult one, for it may take us away from all that we hold dear. Tarrou's friendship with Dr. Rieux and the other plague fighters illustrates, however, that community can be formed on the basis of service to others and on love. Service has a high price. Just as the apostles die for their devotion, Tarrou dies in the plague.
The narrator, Dr. Rieux, as he tries to come to terms with the plague and with the death of his friend, shows us, as Harper Lee did in To Kill A Mockingbird, that service is not heroic. It is what we are called to undertake in order to bring justice into the world and to continue the work that God began at creation. Courage is not measured in medals and statues, but, often, in loss. Undertaking service, however, brings self understanding and reconciliation with the order of creation. In Field of Dreams, Ray, called by a mysterious voice, risks his farm and his security in order to serve the one who calls him. Told "If you build it he will come," and urged to "Ease his pain" and to "Go the distance," Ray builds a baseball field on his farm. The sacred space of the field separates the house, the everyday life, from the corn, the holy place from which the baseball players' spirits come. The field, for the living, becomes a place in which various people, both living and dead, come to fulfill their deepest wishes. For example, a writer who has been made bitter by the rejection of his books, undertakes a pilgrimage to the field with Ray and there finds the story that makes him want to write again. Finding that story, he can die a meaningful death; thus, he, healed and laughing with joy, is called into the corn.
Ray, in undertaking the service without thought to himself, actually finds himself. His selfless actions create a self-transformative possibility. Ray is offered reconciliation with his dead father. All the messages, though Ray does not know it, are about creating a sacred space in which he can meet his father one more time. In their conversation, Ray's father John asks if the field is heaven saying that heaven is where dreams come true. Having said that the farm is not heaven but Iowa, Ray realizes that every place is heaven if human beings are willing to sacrifice in order to exist in harmony with the creation and the creator. The cornfield, the family, the extended despite himself. Traveling with a gospel show, the preacher uses technology and emotion to fleece the unsuspecting populations of small towns. Yet, in one such town, one that is suffering a drought, he becomes involved with a young woman and her crippled brother. In a spectacular moment, that combines the will of the young man to be healed and the desire of the preacher to act, for the first time in his life, for another person, the young man is healed. The preacher is transformed, refusing to carry on his tent show based on this miraculous event. Instead, he leaves behind the symbols of his former life, his clothes and a ring, and moves on to another life. In the act of service, God and human meet, and God's mercy literally rains on the town and on the human beings in it.
Martin Luther King says, in Strength to Love,5 that the Christian is a resident of two worlds: The sacred and the everyday. In undertaking service, in accepting one's vocation and calling, the Christian becomes a medium between these two worlds, bringing the holy power of God into everyday life. This requires a giving up of the self to the "other," both God and human, as the Christian finds his or her place in the order of creation, serving both God and the neighbor, as Bonhoeffer says, "the nearest thou at hand."
Finally, Paul calls us not only to service but also to creativity. Saying that he will be a Jew to Jews and that he will be outside the law to win those outside the law, Paul is not, like the preacher in Leap of Faith, a con man for Christ. He is saying that Christianity is not about prescriptions and rigidity, but is about free and creative action that is like the action of the Creator. In such acts of joy and love, the Christian recovers, celebrates, and understands both self and God.
Carolyn Jones Louisiana State University
1. Gustavo Gutierrzez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Maryknoll. N. Y.: Orbis Books, 1987). 2. Eliot Deutsch, Creative Being: The Crafting of Person and World (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992). 3. Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1960). 4. Albert Camus, The Plague, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage Books, 1972). 5. Martin Luther King, Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).