Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
I Corinthians 9:19-27
Paul’s Use of His Freedom
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
This is a passage from I Corinthians that has a number of particularly interesting ideas in it – probably ideas that would each support a whole day’s Reflection in their own.
The first of those interesting ideas is what Paul writes about ‘becoming all things to all people’ in his mission to proclaim the good news about Jesus in the world – and specifically in the parts of the world where gentiles were in the majority. As you might remember from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul believed that a lot of the Hebrew religious customs like circumcision and eating kosher and doing ritual purifications were not required for gentiles who became followers of Jesus. In other words, you didn’t need to be a Jew to be a follower of Jesus. Maybe not surprisingly, this was deeply disturbing to Jewish Christians, who believed those traditions were the law of God.
It strikes some followers of Jesus as a little odd that Paul himself did actually observe those Hebrew traditions. And in today’s reading, he explains why. Paul says he strictly followed the Law of Moses so he could tell the story of Jesus to Jews without causing them to be distracted by his way of life. But in his ministry to the gentiles, Paul apparently made a point to set aside some of the Law so he could deal with those gentiles as equals, so to speak. He doesn’t specify what he means by that, but it seems that Paul was willing to do things like eat gentile food and enter places where gentiles congregated – things most strictly observant Jews would not do.
It’s important to note that Paul doesn’t say that followers of Jesus are free to just do whatever we want. What he’s saying is that in Jesus, the true law of God had been revealed as somewhat different from the traditional Hebrew understanding. So now Paul is striving to live according to that ‘refined’ law of God he refers to as “Christ’s law.”
There’s obviously a challenge in this passage for contemporary followers of Jesus like us, it seems to me. That challenge is figuring out how far we can go in being “all things to all people” without compromising our role as followers of Jesus – as the distinctive subculture we’ve been thinking about in our readings from the Sermon on the Mount recently. The example I’ve sometimes used in the past is that of followers of Jesus who do ministry among motorcyclists. Those ministers ride with the bikers and get to know them so they can share faith with them. All good. But some biker gangs drink too much and abuse drugs and get in brawls. Obviously not exactly a way of life Jesus would approve of his followers ‘fitting into’, I think.
So when we set out to be all things to all people, the lines between acceptable and unacceptable can get blurry. And we should probably face the fact that not all followers of Jesus will always agree on what’s OK and what’s not.
Obviously, bikers are just one example. You could probably think of lots of other subcultures where the values being lived out might be inconsistent with the life and teachings of Jesus. The business world, sometimes. Sports fans. Hunters. Car buffs. Political groups. In each case, it’s easy to think of occasions when lines could be crossed that would compromise our ability to ‘be Jesus’ in the world.
I wish I could give you a hard-and-fast rule to divide what’s OK for followers of Jesus and what’s not. But I can’t. Maybe the best I can do is to suggest that if you can’t imagine Jesus being willing to do something, then his followers shouldn’t be doing it, either.
But it seems to me that the real point Paul is making is that as followers of Jesus, we should be looking for chances to engage with the people rather than looking for reasons to stay apart from them. Because it’s only when we really enter the lives of people, when we get to know them and let them know us. And it’s only then that they’ll be willing to listen when we share the story of what God has done in Jesus, and what Jesus has done in our lives.
The second major idea in this passage is that discipleship has something in common with physical training. (It’s one of several places in his letters where Paul uses sports metaphors for the life of discipleship.) He says that those of who follow Jesus should regard ourselves as being in “strict training.”
James K. A. Smith touches on this idea in his excellent book You Are What You Love. Smith writes that spiritual disciplines like worship have a formative influence on us. Worship isn’t just about expressing our feelings about God. Rather, it’s a discipline in which our beliefs about God, and our relationship with God, are formed by what we do and say and sing and pray.
And of course, like exercise, the spiritual disciplines aren’t going to do much for you if you practice them once every couple of months. Or twice a year on Christmas and Easter. I suppose actually that if you only exercise twice a year, it’s more dangerous than helpful. And now that I think about it, you could probably make a case that’s true of worship on a spiritual level as well. If people show up on Christmas and Easter and tell themselves they’re Christians because they do, it reflects a sad – and maybe dangerous – misunderstanding of what Jesus has in mind.
But when we approach the spiritual disciplines – worship and prayer and study of scripture and service – with the same dedication an athlete brings to “strict training,” then the Holy Spirit can be at work in us, establishing the spiritual version of “muscle memory.” And the result is that our relationship with God in Jesus is enriched, and we become more useful to the kingdom of God.
Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that your Spirit will enable us to foster relationships with others to make your love known to them, and also that the Spirit will guide us in sharing those relationships without compromising the standards of behavior Jesus calls us to. And we pray also that you will move in our hearts to strengthen our commitment to the disciplines of faith, so we can know you better and serve you more faithfully. Amen.
Have a great weekend, and practice the discipline of faith joyfully on Sunday!
(The other readings for today are Psalms 40 and 84; II Kings 19:1-20; and Matthew 8:1-17.)