A Million Little Proclamations of the Gospel

1 Corinthians 9:15-27

Paul’s lengthy explanation of the apostle’s right to be paid would logically end with a request for funds.  One can almost imagine Paul concluding the previous passage with the promise of an apostolic tote bag for those who give at the $500 level.  Instead, Paul insists that he has made no use of his apostolic right to compensation and has no interest in doing so.  As he is explaining how he does not desire to have the right to payment applied in his case, Paul interrupts himself, proclaiming that no one will deprive him of his ground for boasting.  Paul shifts the tone very suddenly, and this usually clues us into the fact that Paul is very passionate about the topic at hand.  Paul’s interruption leaves us wondering “what is Paul’s ground for boasting?”  We might assume that Paul is boasting in his proclamation of the gospel, but Paul makes it very clear that through his apostolic role, he is obligated to proclaim the gospel.  If he were doing it of his own accord, he could boast, but he has received a commission from God and is very simply doing what God has commanded.  His boast, therefore, is that he has not drawn a paycheck for his apostolic ministry; he has not made full use of his rights in the gospel.

Before we continue, it is important to unpack Paul’s boasting in this passage.  Has Paul forgotten what he wrote in chapter 3 of this letter, when he urged the Corinthians not to boast in human leaders?  Or is Paul simply being hypocritical?  I don’t think either is the case.  We might look at Romans 11:13, where Paul says that he “glorifies” or “magnifies” his ministry.  Paul does not do this because he is particularly impressed with himself, but because he firmly believes that his glorification of his ministry will make Israel jealous and cause them to receive the redemption brought by Jesus Christ.  In other words, Paul uses his boasting to proclaim the gospel.  This is what he is doing in our passage from 1 Corinthians.  Paul boasts in his willingness to sacrifice his full rights in the gospel for the sake of the gospel because he is calling the Corinthians to do the same thing.  Paul’s boast, in other words, is part of his gospel proclamation.

This becomes clear in the next portion of this passage.  Paul asserts that he is willing to use every weapon in his rhetorical arsenal and every tool at his disposal in order to draw people into the fellowship of Jesus Christ.  Though he is free with respect to everyone, in other words, he has become a slave to everyone so that he might win as many of them as possible.  Paul goes on to list those people: Jews, those under the Law, those outside the Law, and the “weak.”  This is, by no means, a comprehensive list.  Rather, Paul mentions them because he believed that the Corinthian attitude toward these groups was fundamentally misguided.  It was, after all, the Jews and the “weak” of the community whom Paul defended in the previous chapter’s discussion of idol meat.  Moreover, Paul explains that the Corinthian concept of the “Law” was entirely mistaken.  Paul claims that he became like one under the Law to save those who were under the Law, even though he himself is no longer bound by the Law.  This is important to note, because Paul recognizes that the Law has a legitimate hold on some members of the Corinthian community.  Furthermore, Paul notes that he became like one outside the Law in order to reach those who were outside the Law, but points out that being “outside the Law” does not exclude one from God’s law.  He argues that all of us are under Christ’s law.  Paul makes this ambiguous reference to Christ’s law several times in his letters, but for now, it’s important to note that freedom in Christ does not mean that one is free to do whatever one pleases.  Paul concludes this portion of the passage with his famous affirmation that he has become “all things to all people,” so that he may “by all means save some.”

Paul concludes this passage with the metaphor of athletes preparing for a race.  This enslavement to one another that Paul urges is like the training in which athletes engage as they prepare for a major event.  The Corinthians should think of their life in community as a race they are running together.  Importantly, Paul notes that they should not do this to receive a “perishable wreath,” but rather an imperishable prize.  This striving to which Paul calls the Corinthians is not a waste of time, in other words; it is preparing them for a goal toward which they should run.  Once again, Paul is alluding to his primary purpose in writing this letter, which will become clear in a few chapters.  In the meantime, Paul notes that he enslaves his body in order that he might abide by his own gospel proclamation.

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” — C.S. Lewis

Our culture is preoccupied with authenticity.  When new authors, movie stars, or singers come along, we have a cultural tendency to wonder whether their work is true to them, whether their public persona reflects who they really are.  There was an enormous kerfuffle several years ago when it was discovered that James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was mostly fictional.  People were astonished that this author would make up events and claim that they happened to him (to put it bluntly).  Prior to the discovery of the book’s fictional nature, it was hugely successful.  Readers were anxious to read the true tale of a person lost in drug abuse and alcoholism who found redemption in a 12-step program.  Hearing that the events of the book hadn’t actually happened, people felt betrayed and Frey became the butt of many jokes.  However, the fact that the book described events that hadn’t actually occurred didn’t really make it any less “true.”  There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who have experienced drug addiction and have been saved by 12-step programs.  Though Frey invented many of the book’s “facts,” the book resonated with people because it described a true experience.  Frey’s book, in other words, was not “authentic,” but it was true in the broadest sense of the word.

People have a tendency to balk at Paul’s assertion that he has become “all things to all people.”  In a culture where we value authenticity, Paul’s statement rings hollow: it makes him sound like a charlatan, a shyster, a snake-oil salesman.  I think that these labels would be correct if Paul’s understanding of the Truth varied depending on who was trying to persuade that day.  But Paul’s commitment to the central mystery of the universe, the gospel of Christ, was unwavering.  He was willing to do whatever it took to bring people into the fellowship of Jesus Christ, regardless of how “inauthentic” it made him look.  C.S. Lewis was similarly motivated.  The man who is known as “the most imaginative Christian writer of the 20th century” was not particularly interested in being authentic, original, or even imaginative.  For Paul and C.S. Lewis, the only thing about their proclamation that had to be authentic was the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In the same way, we are called to use everything at our disposal to proclaim the gospel.  We cannot fool ourselves into believing that there is only one “correct” way to preach the gospel, because this would be inconsistent with the whole history of the Church.  Paul’s words encourage us to hold on to our traditions, but also to try new expressions of the gospel.  We are called to remember that our particular Christian tradition does not have a monopoly on the Truth; the Truth of the gospel transcends our denominational, liturgical, and even theological differences.  We must remember to become all things to all people, holding Jesus Christ at the very center of our lives.

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