Sunday, February 4, 2018

Bursting the bubble

A Sermon preached on 4th February 2018, Epiphany V and Candlemas (transf.), at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 40: 21 – 31; 1 Corinthians 9: 16 – 23; Mark 1: 29 – 39

What is Paul talking about? “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no grounds for boasting.”  “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.” (1 Corinthians 9:17) He sounds more than a little confused about what he wants and why he is doing it. The point his is making is that he is not proclaiming the gospel out of a personal choice, nor because he will earn a reward. Paul is so convinced of the benefits of bringing people to God through Christ that he feels he has no choice, he feels impelled and compelled to bring people the good news. It is what he is supposed to do, it is what he is now made – or perhaps remade – to do. And this impacts not just what he does, but how he does it.

Paul is quick to emphasize his freedom, his God-given freedom to choose. But he has relinquished that freedom to serve, to be “a slave to all.” For Paul Christian freedom is not the freedom to do what we like, regardless of its effects on us and on others. That would be just another form of slavery, a slavery to our desires and addictions. Christian freedom is to be free for the service of God and God’s people. Jesus’ own voluntary self-lowering and self-emptying, Jesus’ own denial of his divinity, to join and be one of us is what guides Paul’s actions. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” (Philippians 2:6-11). 

For Paul, to be a slave to all, means becoming as a Jew to the Jews, to become one outside the law to those outside the law, to become as one weak to the weak. This can sound a bit off-putting, almost as if Paul is recommending that we change our behavior based on whomever we are with at the time. It sounds inauthentic, as if he is just trying to appease different groups. And that never works, at least not for long. If we go around promising different groups that they will all get what they want, all we will do is delay a conflict, and probably make it worse. It will come back to haunt us. Let me give you an example:

Last year was the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, named after the UK Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour. In 1917 he said that “His Majesty's government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Trying to deal with those two conflicting and completely contradictory promises: establishing a Jewish national home, without prejudicing the civil and religious rights of the Palestinians, is at the root of the ongoing conflict and struggles for justice in that region today. 

This is not what Paul means by being all things to all people. Paul wants to bring everyone to Christ. Whether Jew or Gentile, under the Law or outside the Law, under the gospel or outside the gospel, strong or weak, seeker of the things of Christ or seeker of the things of this world -- in order to connect with them and guide them to the fullness of life in Christ, he at least had to know them, seek to understand them, try to see the world through their eyes, attempt to see the ways that they see their own stories before telling them of a larger gospel story. 

Most important, he had to be in conversation with them. In the context of this part of his letter to the Corinthians, the problem at hand was eating habits and sharing meals. To be with the Jews, including those Christians who still adhered to Jewish practice, and to talk to them about Christ, he had to observe their practices and eat kosher food. To talk to the Gentiles, both seekers and new Christians, about Christ, he would need to join in their meals, regardless of what sort of food they ate. And to talk to those referred to as “the weak,” the new, fresh, still uncertain and insecure believers, those whose young faith might be imperiled by eating meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan god, he would simply do without. These were all secondary issues. Bringing the good news was the primary issue.

Our dividers today are not eating habits. They are political allegiances, nationality, race, religion, sexuality, to name but a few. But they too must be overcome if the words of our Gradual Hymn are to come true: “In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.”

If I don’t talk to people; how can I ever convince them? If I don’t listen, how will I ever know what they think? Becoming all things to all people is not about playing a role, or about agreeing with everyone, or about giving everyone whatever they want – hoping that they never find out that I’ve promised different things to different people. But it is about putting my personal opinions in second place, about agreeing to disagree on secondary matters, without compromising the core message.  “Woe betide those who trim the message so that they don’t have to trim themselves.” [1]  

We have to communicate outside of the bubbles that we all tend to live in: In the US the Fox News vs. MSNBC bubble, in the UK the Guardian vs. almost every other newspaper, the social media bubbles in which we only see and read what we want to see. How else can we communicate who we believe Jesus to be and what we believe Jesus teaches us to do to those who need the gospel? And that is not a matter of choice: “An obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:16) If we don’t meet this obligation, we also end up denying that fundamental truth that all people are made in God’s image and that we can find Christ in all persons. 

Paul would not have stayed in a bubble, he would have burst the bubble. Paul wants to win as many people as possible for what he calls the Law of Christ, the law of love. Paul loves all people regardless of their religious or social situation. Paul wants to reach all people for one purpose: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Cor. 9:23) Paul knows that the best way of sharing in the gospel’s blessings, is to share them with others. There is no other way of achieving our hymn’s hope of “one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth,” and no other way of saving others, this world, and ourselves. Later in his letter, Paul will ask the Corinthians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1) This appeal is equally valid today.

[1] NT Wright. Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians

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