Sermon Briefs: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Wayne A. Shireman's sermon entitled The Perimeters of Witness1 begins by noting that in the Diocese of Dornakal in Indai it is a part of the service of baptism for every convert to place their hand upon their head and solemnly say, "Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel." The newly baptized person is using Paul's words to remember the necessity of witnessing to the love which God shows to us in Jesus Christ. The focus of this sermon is on witnessing; the understalying message is love.
Shireman gives an example of witnessing which many have probably experienced. A friend of his was approached by a person handing out tracts on the street. The friend took the printed tract, looked at it, and turned to ask about it. But, the person who had handed it to him was already a half block down the street handing another tract to another person. With that illustration of what not to do, Shireman says that there are three perimeters of witness: A message, a concern, and a medium.
The message is that "God so loved the world, that God gave the only Son..." This is the word that we have to share with others. This love is multifaceted, for there is God's love for the world, our love for God, our love for ourselves, and love for others.
The concern for others is our care for them. Shireman shares the story of Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived the Nazi concentration camps. Frankl wrote about those men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They showed their concern and care for others in the midst of pain and suffering. (As a contrast, the one passing out tracts showed no concern for the other.)
The medium of our witness is the message itself. That is, the way we say it is the message. Henry Stanley went to Africa to search for David Livingstone, the missionary whom he had read about. Stanley found the missionary and observed him at work. Stanley wrote: "I went to Africa as prejudiced as the biggest infidel in London, but there came to me out there a long time of reflection. Watching Livingstone's piety, his gentleness, his zeal, his earnestness, and how quietly he did his duty, I was converted by him, though he had not tried to do it."2
Shireman concludes by assuring the listeners that they do not need to be great or famous. Remembering 1 Cor 13, he says that any one filled with the love of Jesus Christ can be a witness to him.
Two other sermons lifted up the freedom aspect of the Corinthian passage. Dennis Anderson preached Bound to Be Free/Free to Be Bound on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.3 He focused on the secret of freedom and purpose in life.
Anderson opens the sermon by recounting a usual morning of waking up: Wanting to stay in bed a little longer, thinking about the "chores" for the day, beginning to translate those mere chores into responsibilities and tasks. He understands that not only is our purpose in life to work, but that we become our work. When we become our job we become imprisoned.
Paul claims, "I am free." Anderson expounds that freedom comes in a variety of packages. There is freedom from tyranny, freedom from opinion of others, from demons and evil spirits (Mk 1:29-39), freedom from negative, destructive thought patterns. There is also the freedom to do our own will, which becomes the freedom to fall into bad habits. We then become enslaved to our own will.
Paul's freedom is different. Although he is free, he is a slave to all, that he "might win the more." Anderson understands that Paul's freedom is a tool to achieve God's will. Paul was not free to do as he pleased; he was free to fulfill the commission entrusted to him.
Anderson illustrates this freedom to be bound to a commission with the parable of a violin string. A violin string unattached to the violin is free to move in any direction. If one end is twisted, it responds. It is free, but it is not free to make music. The violin string must be fixed to a violin. Once the violinist binds the string to the violin, the string is then bound to be free to sing.
Frederick Denison Maurice preached The Honour and Degradation of an Official4 on July 24, 1859. Maurice describes officials as those who go through their work today as they went through it yesterday and will go through it again tomorrow. They are people with a dry sense of duty. However, in calling others mere officials, we disparage ourselves. In seeking not to be like them, in abandoning that which imprisons (i.e., being an official), we become shackled to a different rut. A first twist in this sermon is when Maurice notes that preachers, too, are trapped into being mere creatures of routine.
Paul calls for devotion to duty and addresses himself first. He does not lay down a rule for others which he does not apply to himself. Paul's official duty is to be a steward of Another's treasure. (Here is another twist in the sermon—that Paul is an official, the very position being scrutinized.) He has a duty to be performed as steward. His duty is to be in sympathy with the gospel he preaches. His reward will be fellowship with God. Paul believes that the drudgery of being an official is changed into the joy of God's love.
This sermon is finally a sermon to comfort and encourage preachers. Maurice says, "It is a comfort, an infinite comfort, to think that no divine word which goes out of our lips is dependent for its truth, or even for its success, upon the purity of the lips, upon the right will or the heart of the speaker. It is a comfort beyond all comfort to believe that the Will, the Heart, from which the good news has first proceeded, are without variableness or the least shadow of turning. It is a comfort, in this sense, to feel that we are officials, open to the same charges, and just charges, of coldness and deadness as all others who bear that name."5 Maurice concludes, "Obedience and Freedom meet and embrace each other when we believe that He asks us to yield upon our wills as sacrifices to His Who has first made the great sacrifice for us, Who in that sacrifice has united us to Himself. Then no office can be looked upon as anything less than a calling: In the highest and in the lowest Christ's own voice is saying, `Follow me.'"6
As officials and stewards of God's word of freedom, let us be encouraged by Paul and by Maurice to be preachers of the Word.
Becky Balestri Omaha, NE
1. Wayne A. Shireman, "The Perimeters of Witness," Pulpit Digest, 56, No. 420 (July-August 1976), pp. 51-54. 2. Ibid., p. 53. 3. Dennis A. Anderson, "Bound to Be Free/Free to Be Bound," Augsburg Sermons: Epistles, Series B (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1978), pp. 58-61. 4. Frederick Denison Maurice, "The Honour and Degradation of An Official," Sermons Preached in Lincoln's Inn Chapel (London: Macmillan & Co., 1892), VI, pp. 176-187. 5. Ibid., p. 185. 6. Ibid., pp. 186-187