Posted by: Johnold Strey | October 29, 2012

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:7-12,19-23

SERVICE WITH HONOR

  1. Honor those who serve you with the gospel
  2. Honor those whom you serve with the gospel

Text: 1 Corinthians 9:7-12,19-23

Introduction

At the end of October, most Lutherans’ minds are on the church calendar and the celebration of the Lutheran Reformation.  For some that celebration takes place today; for us and others, we’ll celebrate the Lutheran Reformation in worship next Sunday.  If your mind is on the church calendar, then Reformation gets your attention; but if your mind is on the civil calendar, you know that two weeks from today is Veterans’ Day.  Veterans’ Day, November 11, is a day to remember all who have served our country and have protected the freedoms we enjoy here in America.  I think we can all agree that those who have served our country deserve some honor and respect for their service; after all, those who serve in the military are really honoring us by protecting and defending us by their service.  It only seems appropriate, then, that we return the favor and show respect and honor to those who have honored us by their service.

That idea from the civil realm is also true in the church’s realm.  The readings for today’s service focus on the idea of humble service in God’s church.  We saw two negative examples in the First Lesson and Gospel for today.  In the First Lesson, Old Testament King Uzziah became very proud, and dared to assume that as King he also had the right to usurp the role of priest in God’s temple.  In the Gospel, Jesus’ own disciples initially viewed their positions of leadership as a chance to compete for the title of “Greatest Among the Twelve.”  With these two negative examples in the background, we are going to look at the more positive example described by the apostle Paul in the Second Lesson from 1 Corinthians chapter nine.  What Paul has to say about Christian service carries a parallel thought to the example of military service I mentioned earlier.  Those who serve in the military honor us by their service, and it is only appropriate that we honor them for their service to us.  Paul’s words say much the same thing about service in the church.  On this twenty-second (and final) Sunday after Pentecost, St. Paul directs us to think about service with honor in the church.  To those who are ministered to in the church, he says, “Honor those who you serve with the gospel,” and to those who serve as ministers, he says, “Honor those whom you serve with the gospel.”

I.

Have you ever heard the expression “tent minister” before?  A tent minister is a pastor who works a secular job to make a living and carries out his ministry responsibilities as best he can on a part-time basis.  A very small parish might not be able to afford a full-time pastor, and so a “tent minister” serves them as best as he can under this arrangement.

The expression “tent minister” originates with the apostle Paul.  Paul chose to earn his living by secular work as a tent maker.  He could have earned his income by his ministry work (and there may have been other times when he did), but for reasons we will discover, he often chose to operate in a different manner.  However, this tent ministry situation caused some people in the church he was writing to to be unfairly critical of him.  Since he operated in a different way than the other apostles, some thought Paul to be a sub-par minister of the gospel.  Some people in this congregation failed to honor the man that God had used to bring them the gospel.  

Paul addressed this unfortunate attitude problem in our reading by addressing the situation.  “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk?”  The answer to these everyday situations is obvious.  The worker has a right to compensation from his work.  And this wasn’t just common sense.  Paul points out that this way of thinking is taught in the Old Testament Scriptures.  “Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing?  For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it about oxen that God is concerned?  Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?”  This obscure Old Testament law from Deuteronomy 25:4 about letting a beast of burden eating from the grain he was treading wasn’t just about humane treatment of animals.  This law came in the midst of many other laws about proper treatment of other people.  Paul’s point is an argument from the lesser to the greater: If we treat an animal with this kind of respect, then doesn’t the minister of the gospel deserve the same respect?

Paul had the right to receive compensation for his ministry.  After all, God calls on his people to honor those who serve them with the gospel.  “When the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest.  If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?”  Here is another argument from the lesser to the greater:  If a farmer deserves physical compensation from his work, how much more should Paul’s greater spiritual work be compensated in a physical manner!  In the verses between the two sections we’re looking at today, Paul explains why he declined taking an income from his ministry.  He was concerned that, as essentially the first world missionary, his work would be hindered if he received compensation from the very people who came to faith through his proclamation.

It’s unfortunate that Paul had detractors who assumed the worst about his situation and then caused him problems with their public criticism.  And it’s just as unfortunate when the same scenario plays out in the church today.  There’s nothing wrong with people having different perspectives on issues within the church.  There’s nothing wrong when someone in a position of leadership makes one decision while someone else has a different idea or perspective.  But what happens when honest disagreements turn into disrespect?  Oh, how easy it is to find ways to suddenly justify presumptive gossip.  Oh, how quickly personal thoughts turn into false rumors that turn into gospel truth in the minds of some.  And suddenly a once harmonious group is broken by disrespect for servants of the gospel and a disregard for the Eighth Commandment.  I’ve seen it happen in other settings.  I’m sure some of you have too.

Not only does this damage the ministry, not only does this fail to follow Paul’s divinely inspired words in our reading, but look what it does to the church’s focus: Instead of being focused on the Great Commission, the church has to focus on putting out fires.  Instead of advancing the Christian gospel, we have to play church politics.  Instead of confessing our sins with humble repentance, we spend our days pointing out the speck of sin in our brother’s eye while the plank of hypocrisy hangs out of our own eye.

Oh, what a sorry state of affairs exists in the church when we play “Monday morning quarterback” with the church’s servants.  That is not to say that public ministers of the gospel are perfect; far from it!  But the rumor mills and gossip chains cannot coexist with the Holy Spirit’s words in this chapter of Scripture!

But in an unexpected turn of events, the solution for this sin can be found in the message that God’s public servants proclaim!  For the message they proclaim is not their own message, but the message Christ gave his church to proclaim in the first place.  You heard it in today’s Gospel: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  Don’t focus on the person in the ministry; focus instead of the message of the ministry.

And here is that message: The church’s greatest servant of all, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into this world to offer his innocent life into death on the cross as the ransom payment to free us from every last sin that ever divided the church and that would have divided us eternally from God.  The church’s greatest servant, One who truly was perfect and is worthy of our respect, did not let his broken church remain in that broken state.  He has brought us back to God by taking our guilt away by his death.  He has promised to bring us together with him forever in heaven because of his resurrection.  He has given you these blessings because you know and believe in Jesus’ saving work on the cross.  And when we realize that this good news, news that reunites us with God and with one another, applies to us because God has brought us to faith, it enables us to have a brand new perspective of those who serve us with the gospel—a perspective that honors the ones God has called to bring us such tremendous, sin-forgiving, soul-saving news!

II.

Have you ever heard this quote from Martin Luther?  “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  That quote comes from Luther’s famous treatise called “The Freedom of a Christian.”  Luther makes two very important points in that quotation.  First: through faith in Jesus, Christians are freed from God’s law—its threats that used to fill us with fear and guilt, and its demands for perfection which have now been fulfilled by Jesus serving us as our Substitute and Savior.  Second: A Christian does not use his freedom to say, “I’ll just live my life by doing whatever I want.”  A Christian will use his freedom to serve others because he wants them to enjoy the same freedom and forgiveness and heavenly future that he has by his faith in Jesus.

Paul lived long before Luther, but it would be an accurate description to say that Paul was a vivid example of the axiom that Luther wrote in “The Freedom of a Christian.”  In our reading, Paul gives us four examples of ways that he honored those whom he served with the gospel.  “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.”  If Paul was speaking to an ethnically Jewish audience, he made sure to address them in a way that they would understand his message.  “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.”  If Paul was speaking to a religiously Jewish audience, he did the same.  Even though he was no longer bound by Old Testament laws and customs, he kept his audience in mind as he shared the gospel with them.  “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.”  When Paul preached to people with no knowledge of the Old Testament, he found a starting point that led to the gospel that made sense to his non-Jewish audience.  “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.”  If someone was weak in faith and might be offended by an action that was perfectly acceptable, Paul didn’t flaunt his freedom in front of them, but restrained his freedom so that the gospel could be proclaimed and heard and understood without offense.

Finally, Paul wraps up his discussion of the way he strove to honor those whom he served.  Paul honored the people he served by speaking and dealing with them in a way that they could grasp and appreciate: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”  When Paul says, “by all possible means,” he’s not saying that he used something else, some other means besides the gospel, to bring people into Christ’s family.  Rather, he’s using the expression as an emphatic way of saying yes: “I yield my Christian freedom so that, yes indeed, by all means, some who hear my message will be saved.”  And Paul tells us why he does this.  “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”  He honored the people he served because the gospel is so important.  He wanted people to hear about Jesus and believe in him, and he found great joy in the fact that God would have used him to bring souls to faith in Jesus Christ.

Our church’s Board of Outreach sponsored an online community survey this fall.  The purpose of the survey was to better understand the people who reside near St. Mark’s.  But why should we bother to get to know our community better?  I’m not the pastor who works directly with the Board of Outreach, but I think I can safely speak to this matter.  Our goal is not to discover what our community wants us to tell them.  If we discovered that people do not like the message of sin and grace and then changed our worship and preaching to accommodate that, then we might as well close up shop.  We don’t bring the world and its ways into the church, but we do bring the church and its gospel message to our particular corner of the world so that “by all possible means [we] might save some.” The goal for understanding our community is to help us communicate the gospel in this specific time and place.  You could say that our motto is, “We want to communicate the gospel to these people,” with the primary emphasis in that motto remaining on “the gospel.”

Is there a language group that is not being served with the gospel whom we could reach?  Is there a demographic group that we can serve in the spirit of Paul’s words: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10)? How can we as a church—pastors, teachers, staff, volunteers, members—take this precious gospel gem that has been entrusted to us, and then in an spirit of humble service, honor the people in our community by finding a winsome way to share this gem with them?

There are many possible answers to that question.  The ways we ultimately answer that question here at St. Mark’s are matters of wisdom and stewardship.  But we will have made an excellent start in this matter if we consider ourselves as humble servants whose goal is to honor the people God has placed around us.  And we can honor them by thinking about them as we bring the message that Jesus Christ has been thinking about them since before time began and that he thought about them and their salvation when he gave his life for them on the cross.  If we can keep that spirit of honor and humility and service as a congregation, it will go a long way toward one of our primary tasks as a church, to reach the lost with the same good news about Jesus fills our souls with faith and our hearts with peace.  Make it your prayer and your personal goal that the Holy Spirit fills your heart with the spirit that wants to serve others with honor.  Amen.

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