Imagine a missionary goes from here to a rural part of Africa, but he doesn’t get on well. You see he doesn’t make an effort to understand the local culture. When he is talking with the people he always says ‘back home what we do is ...’ in a rather patronizing way. He refuses to eat any of the food, unwilling to even try it. When he talks about the local people he uses phrases like ‘them’ and ‘their sort.’ In short he makes no effort to become one of the people. And he makes no progress in sharing the gospel with the people—not because the gospel is irrelevant to them but because he is not open to them.
Compare that with the great missionary Hudson Taylor. He worked for years in China. He dressed like the Chinese, and had his hair in the Chinese pony-tail style of the time. To the Chinese he became like the Chinese, to win the Chinese. Hudson Taylor put the gospel above his cultural identity.
This morning we are going to think about putting the gospel above our rights, our comfort, our independence and our culture.
- Will we forgo our rights and comfort for the sake of the gospel? (1-18)
Paul wasn’t everybody’s sort of leader. To many in the church at Corinth he just didn’t seem impressive enough. They respected those who lorded their authority over others. But Paul wasn’t like that. He didn’t make a big deal about himself. He didn’t demand to be served. He didn’t trumpet his own importance. He didn’t even insist on his own rights.
His critics suggested that he wasn’t an apostle. But Paul was one of those unique apostles that we read of in Acts. His apostleship had its root in that amazing encounter with the Lord on the Damascus road. Of all people the Corinthians should have recognised his authority, after all he had planted their church—they were a seal of his apostleship.
As an apostle Paul had certain rights—the right to be provided for where he went; had he being married, the right to bring a believing wife with him; the right to earn his living from preaching the gospel. Paul offers incontrovertible proof of those rights—drawing from the world of the military, herding, the Old Testament, and harvesting. It is even the Lord’s command that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. Yet he had decided to forgo these rights rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.
You see some people suggested that Paul was only in it for what he could gain—that he was like the many travelling teachers of that day who were motivated by material reward and prestige. If people thought this they might not take his message seriously. So he went without his rights to provision and pay, and funded himself by tent-making.
That was costly! Tent-making was a hard and humble task. It was sweaty and smelly work with leather. After all the effort he would have put into sharing the gospel he then had to spend hours making a living. But for Paul it was a cost worth paying for the sake of being able to communicate the gospel most effectively.
Indeed in verses 15-18 it seems that Paul delights in this humble circumstance. Others might mock and look down on him for forgoing his rights for Paul it was a privilege.
A man who was serving as chaplain to the New South Wales cricket team was being interviewed. He was asked if he ever got autographs—the team had some famous players and their autographs could be sold. He replied something like this, ‘I never take anything. I don’t take tickets for games and I pay my own flights to away fixtures. I don’t take any freebies. I could, but I don’t. I want the players and officials to ask why I am here, and I want them to realise that it is not because of anything that they could give me but because I have something to give them, the gospel.’ Though he had the rights to certain things, he felt that it was strategic for the gospel not to take them.
The gospel is more important than rights and privileges. If we are followers of Jesus then we are to be gospel people. Our lives are not to be built around retaining our rights; they are not to be centred upon how much money we can earn, how comfortable we can be, or what status we can we can attain. For the Christian all things are to be put in perspective by the gospel, and how we can best live and speak in a way that illustrates it and commends it to others.
2. Will we forgo independence and culture for the sake of the gospel? (19-22)
In 2003 Tyrone beat Armagh in the All-Ireland final. I remember that night. I was taking a harvest service in a town in Tyrone. It was bizarre. Here we were a very sombre looking bunch of people yet outside you could hear the beeping of car horns as people drove up and down the street celebrating. I suspected that no-one I was talking to cared much about the match. It seemed like there were two cultures that had nothing to do with each other. Yet if we want to be faithful to our gospel-calling we will seek to relate people from all the cultures that surround us.
Paul writes, ‘Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.’
Paul had grown up a Jew. Yet as a Christian he was free from the Old Testament law, for example he could eat all foods. He had a strong conscience—so while there were some in Corinth who, for example, feared it was wrong to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols, he knew there was no problem. Yet Paul was willing to accommodate himself to people’s customs and scruples. To the Jew he became like a Jew, to win the Jews—he would have observed their rules and customs while with them.
To those who weren’t Jews, those not having the law, people who had a different cultural background than his, I became as one not having the law ... so as to win those not having the law. He does mention that he is under Christ’s law—he won’t morally compromise as he builds bridges. To the weak I become weak, to win the weak—so while there was no problem with eating food sacrificed to idols he wouldn’t have done so in the company of those who thought there was so as not to offend them.
‘I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.’
If Paul worked with Muslims he might consider observing the Ramadan fasts or only eating halal meat in their company; if he lived in a loyalist area he might take an interest in Ulster-Scots history or the Twelfth; to reach nationalists he might support GAA and engage with Saint Patrick’s day; if he knew migrant workers he would surely learn at least a few words of their language and try some of their food.
We are to ensure that we do not place barriers between ourselves and people of differing cultural backgrounds. We are to engage with people in their cultures seeking the opportunity to share the gospel with them. Sometimes we may disagree on what the best way to do this is. So let’s pray for wisdom, for this is our calling!
3. Will we strive with our hearts set on the prize? (24-27)
Paul finishes this section, and prepares his readers for what will follow, by pointing to the dedication of those who were preparing for the Isthmian games, that were held in Corinth every second year. They prepared for months for a perishable wreath, but we strive for a wreath that is imperishable.
The prize that Paul speaks of may be the unspecified reward given to the faithful and dedicated believer that Paul writes of in chapters 3 and 4. So when Paul says that he does not want to be disqualified, he is not saying that his salvation is in doubt, he is saying that he does not want to miss out on future reward.
Paul wants to excel in the Christian race. While we are saved by God’s sheer goodness and grace, we won’t know what it is to hear ‘well done, good and faithful servant,’ without a life of discipline. This crown was not won without hard work. I beat my body, he is speaking figuratively, and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself might not be disqualified. What we have seen so far in this passage is not a call to an easy life. Think of the Apostle Paul, having spent hours sharing the gospel with people, sweating over his leather-work—all so he could be more effective in sharing the good news.
Do we really think that it is easy to reach out to people who are different than us, to accommodate ourselves to their culture so as to gain a hearing for the gospel, to put up with those who might look down on us for doing so? Paul strives—he forgoing his rights, praying, working, resisting sin and half-heartedness, as he seeks to remain steadfast and sure, setting his eyes on God’s gracious reward. Our sinful nature would have us be a spiritual slob, to settle for a life of comfort and ease, to hang around only with people who are like us, to have little vision for reaching the lost, to have goals determined by wealth and status. How tragic that would be for us and our church! So, with God’s help, we make our bodies our slaves. Despite the longings to be spiritually lazy let’s be dedicated and committed to the gospel of Christ, acting with love for God and neighbour as strive towards the reward that awaits those who live with determination and faithfulness.