1 Corinthians 9:16-23
We Americans are firm believers in our rights. The Declaration of Independence says that we are endowed by our Creator with “certain unalienable rights.” That may be true.
But let me ask you a question: If God had a task for you that entailed giving up one or all of your rights, your freedom to do what you wanted to do, what would you do?
This is not an abstract question. It’s the question that every Christian, especially we American Christians where we have what I call "a glut of options," must face every day.
Are we willing to renounce our rights in order to be servants of Jesus Christ alone? Are we willing to to live lives designed by God and not by us?
In his book, You Were Made for More, Pastor Jim Cymbala tells the true story of Mark Hill, an architect who graduated from an Ivy League school, Cornell, and later went to work for the great architect, I. M. Pei.
But in the midst of a career that provided him with a high six-figure income, Mark began attending the church of which Cymbala is senior pastor, the Brooklyn Tabernacle. It was then that God grabbed hold of Mark and gave him his life mission.
When a call went out for volunteers to teach Sunday School, he decided to teach elementary-age Children’s Church. “I loved it!” he later remembered. “I had such a feeling of being in God’s will. And the kids responded energetically.”
One thing led to another and today, Mark Hill works full time, alongside his wife, with youth programs at the church. Being a church youth worker has meant giving up on the income that his hard work, education, and experience would have otherwise given him every right to expect. But he’s renounced those rights in order to voluntarily perform the mission Christ has given to him.
Of course, you don’t have to give up your day job in order to fulfill the mission Jesus Christ has for you.
Take the apostle Paul, for example. Paul traveled thousands of miles to share the gospel of Jesus Christ: the good news that we human beings, born slaves to sin and bound for death and hell, can be saved from sin, death, and futility when we respond to the gracious love of God by turning from sin and believing in Jesus, Who shared death with us and wants to share His resurrection with all who trust in Him.
Paul wrote most of the books in our New Testament. He started churches, counseled new Christians, developed leaders. He was an apostle, a word meaning sent one, sent by Christ Himself to take the Good News of Jesus into far and often hostile places.
For his efforts, Paul suffered beatings, imprisonments, stoning, shipwrecks, and false accusations. But, in spite of all he gave to the mission entrusted to him by Christ and all that he endured to fulfill it, "apostle-ing" wasn’t even Paul’s day job.
He was a tentmaker.
As Paul saw it, his profession made it possible for him to do his real job, the same job you and I have as baptized believers in Jesus Christ: Changing the world by sharing Christ with others.
Martin Luther once said that there are two conversions that must happen in the life of every Christian. First, there must be the conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. Second, there must be a conversion of our pocketbooks. It takes time for new Christians to realize that, in grateful response for all that God has given to us, how we give and spend our money (along with how we spend our lives) should put God first. Paul understood that this second conversion may take longer even than the first.
So, although he had every right to expect a pay package that would allow him to do his work without worrying about how to fill his belly or pay his bills, Paul didn’t demand this of the new Christians who made up the new congregations he started. Paul said that, while he would never brag, if he wanted to, he could brag that he had shared the Gospel with those converted to Christ by his preaching and teaching, without asking for a penny.
In the verse that comes just before our second lesson, Paul says to the people of one of the churches he founded, in the Greek city of Corinth: “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in this case. Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting.”
But take a look at what he says next, in our second lesson, printed on the Celebrate insert: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” Then, slip down to verse 18, where he writes: “What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”
God, Paul is saying, has given me a responsibility to share the Gospel, free of charge, with others. When I do that, I’m only doing my job and shame on me if I don’t do it, whether I get paid for it or not.
Christ had set Paul free of sin and death. So, he chose to use his freedom to make himself a servant of Christ alone.
In connection with Paul's sentiments, speaking personally, I know that I've always seen what's referred to as my "pay package" as an allowance. God has called me to be a pastor and whether God intended me to do it full time in a congregation like Saint Matthew or, for no pay, with a church that couldn't afford a pastor while I worked another job, I would feel bound to take up the mission Christ has given to me. And shame on me if I don't do just that, "pay package" or not! After Christ has set me free, why would turn around and enslave myself to a "pay package"? There is nothing more disgraceful than "pastors for hire," who seem to always be angling for more money!
In his essay, On Christian Liberty, Martin Luther wrote:
A Christian…is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian…is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.This is exactly what Paul is talking about when he writes what he does in the last five verses of our second lesson. They’re worth reading. Take a look at them with me:
For though I am free with respect to all [that is, I have no obligations to nobody but to Christ Who, alone, has freed me from the power of sin, death, and futility], I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. [I have voluntarily made myself the servant of everyone so that I can introduce them to Jesus Christ.] To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. [This doesn’t mean that Paul got along to get along. He wasn't playing the game of political correctness, telling the cultures in which he served what they wanted to hear, as both liberal and conservative churches do for their preferred constituencies in North America in 2012. It means, rather, that he lived alongside Jews, Gentiles, and the weakest of the world in order to credibly share Christ with them. He disavowed whatever rights he had as a Jewish scholar or a Roman citizen or a noted intellect or a free male in order to win a hearing for Jesus Christ.] I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”In setting aside whatever rights or glory the societies of his world might have had to offer, Paul, like his Savior and our Savior Jesus, chose to use his Christian freedom to serve God and others.
He renounced his rights to pursue the mission Christ had for him.
So, what has this all got to do with you and me?
Everyone, it seems, wants the world to recognize their rights.
Everyone seems to want what they see as belonging to them: attention, comfort, respect, money.
Selfishness, self-absorption, demanding our rights, and carving out what some people call “me time,” are common themes of the day.
People think that by diving deeper into themselves, they’ll find peace.
But that’s a lie!
Life, joy, purpose, and peace: These things only belong to those who recognize that none of them are our rights. They are gifts from the God we meet in Jesus Christ.
And it is only those who renounce the idea that they’re entitled to anything and instead, recognize that every good and perfect gift comes from the God we know in Jesus Christ alone, who experience life, joy, purpose, and peace.
Whether you’re a plumber or a preacher, a teacher or a doctor, a farmer, a student, a repairperson, a nurse, a retiree, or a millionaire, if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you have the same privilege and the same mission.
The privilege is knowing that because of Christ and your faith in Christ, nothing can separate you from the love of God. You belong to God for all eternity and nothing—not disease nor death, not unemployment nor the unkindness of other people—can separate you from God's love. You can live your life with complete boldness, knowing that you are in the palm of God’s hand always.
The mission is to share the liberating good news of new life through faith in Jesus Christ with everyone you meet, even organizing your life so that you can meet more people and share Christ with them.
A woman, writing in Decision magazine years ago, told about sensing that God wanted her to take her family overseas so that she could be a missionary.
She excitedly told her husband about this “call.” He wasn’t sure his wife had been called to go overseas at all. He suggested that she test this call first.
Why not try reaching others with the Good News of Jesus in their neighborhood, something she had never previously attempted, he said, and see where that led?
Disappointed, she nonetheless agreed to this plan. She wracked her brain for awhile to come up with some ways she could be a neighborhood missionary, then hit on an idea.
She and her husband lived in a community that was growing. Lots of people were moving in all the time. She would bake bread and welcome newcomers to their community. No Bible tracts. No religious jaw. Just a welcome from a neighbor.
At first, the woman thought that she was wasting her time on some insignificant activity. But over time, as she organized her life around pursuing this mission outreach, she became friends with a number of the newcomers.
When a crisis developed in their lives, they would call her for help or ask her for prayers.
Many asked her the reasons for her joy and helpfulness to others and she was able to tell them about Christ.
Over the decades, this woman saw hundreds of people who previously had no connection with Christ come to believe in Him, in part because she organized her life around sharing Christ in a simple, practical way.
Living out our mission for Christ may entail renouncing the attention, comfort, and respect the world gives to its movers and shakers and its success stories.
It may cause us discomfort or even suffering.
That’s OK. As Paul writes elsewhere: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory…to be revealed to us…”
When Christ returns, the dead in Christ rise again, and we begin to reign over a new heaven and a new earth alongside Christ in eternity, the mad scramble to assert and maintain our rights will be shown for the sham and the shame and the waste that it is.
In the end, when we see Christ, the only thing that will matter is whether we have held onto Jesus Christ, because anything else we may hold onto—anything we may think we have the right to hold onto—will slip from our mortal hands.
Only the God we know in Jesus Christ is immortal.
And only Jesus Christ, the conqueror of death and sin and futile living, is worth living and dying for.
Only Jesus Christ can give us the eternity of forgiveness and fellowship that none of us has any right to expect!
So, what about it? Are you willing to renounce your worldly rights in order to live for Christ alone?
Are you willing to live the mission of sharing Christ with others, whatever your job?
If you are, let God know it…and then seek, however imperfectly, however inconsistently, however constantly you (and I) will need to repent and to be renewed by God’s Holy Spirit…live it!