1 Corinthians 9:16–23 (NRSV)
16 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! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 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.
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 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. 21 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. 22 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. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
What are the things we are proud of? For me I am proud of my sons, my wife and her creativity, my education, maybe even my heritage, but of all the things I am proud of I am proud to be able to serve as a pastor. This idea of ministry is what changed the very course of my life. Most of you have heard my calling which began across the ocean in Ukraine, but became very real in a pickup truck sitting in a park while I was trying to nap between classes and one of my several jobs that year. I still feel the excitement of that day when I think about it. Words of scripture seemed to come across the airways and burrow deep in my soul, asking me “Do you Love me?”
Do you love me? I was working that year at probably my dream job, I was working with a respected soil scientist with the hopes of entering into a career in agricultural research, but all at once the course of my life shifted. Suddenly four simple words ignited a fire in my soul that I could not extinguish. Do you love me? It was as if God was challenging and daring me to respond, and the response that was required took me from the high plains of Kansas to the urban metropolis of Kansas City. Even then I did not know exactly what was going to happen but doors began to open. Those doors led me to Winfield, Arkansas City, Wichita, and back to Kansas City. There were challenges, heartbreak, and joy. But through it all there was one thing that was amazing, I had the privilege to see people open up their hearts and deepen their faith.
For a farm kid from Kansas one would not think that urban ministries would be where God would lead me. Most would see me in a rural setting speaking to the people and the culture that I had encountered for my entire life. But that is not what was required. That would be too comfortable. God does not call us to be comfortable, he calls us to live on the edge of total abandon.
Paul was called to a similar life. He was called to preach the Gospel. In his heart burned a fire that would not allow him to do anything other than share the Gospel of Jesus. He say, “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel.” Have you ever really considered this statement? Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel? This sort of passion is what I hope each of us has the privilege to experience. Such drive and passion that we could not even consider our lives in any other way.
This passion is when we live according to our personal callings. Not everyone is called to live a life like Paul, not all of us have the gift of apostleship. Not all of us have the gift of teaching, or healing, hospitality, or preaching. But if we are called to Christ we have a gift for ministry. Every person that is in this building, every person in this community is here for a specific reason, every person here has a specific task that if pursued would draw our community closer to Christ and expand His kingdom to influence more people.
The scary thing about that is that everyone here is important. Why is that scary? Because if we accept that someone else is just as important as ourselves we cannot control what is going on. We lose a bit of ourselves and suddenly the future begins to blur. Paul goes on to say that he is obligated to proclaim the gospel. This obligation has risks. If he releases control to proclaim the Gospel the he has to release his life into the hands and the giftedness of others. How will he survive? How will he afford to continue to spread the Word? What if he is not received? Yet still he says “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel.”
Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! There is a passion in those words that I hope each of us taste. This passion comes from deep within our hearts, it is the essence of who we are and who God created us to be. This passion is a mixture of special gifts of the spirit and the uniqueness of every individual. Man and God working together toward a common goal. Our giftedness begins with understanding who we are as individuals and grows from there. God can create out of nothing but usually he builds on what is already there. This is seen throughout history to the very dawn of time. There is a progression of increasing complexity in the story of creation, and then as the crowning glory God creates man in His own image out of dust. He used what was already there to bring about something greater, and then He breathes life into it. This is what how spiritual gifts work. There is within each of us something to build on, something that makes us uniquely receptive to participate in a ministry but then there is also something missing something that is beyond our own abilities that allows God to shine through our lives.
Personally I know what my passions were and continue to be. I enjoy learning. I enjoy looking at things from different perspectives and studying them. That is why my dream Job before God called me to ministry was in the sciences. I have a passion to know, to study, to find answers. God built on this passion of mine, but I would not be in here if it was in my own strength. This is where spiritual gifts come to play. I would be content just studying, I would love to spend all day observing, and recording results, but that was not what God had in mind. The problem is God did not call me to be a researcher He called me to preach. This is extremely difficult because I do not talk. To be perfectly honest I could spend an entire day without saying a word and I would think it was a great day. Yet God called me not only to talk but to stand before a group to speak. In my own strength I would never do this, yet there is a passion burning within me that I can see no other life. Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel.
What are our passions? What are our gifts? What are our ministries? I wish I could quickly provide an answer for those questions. But if I could then there would be a problem. It would be an answer based on myself and not on God. TO answer those questions requires a life of discipline. A life that is engaged in the holy rhythm of life that Jesus showed us during his ministry. A life of worship, prayer and service. It is through prayer that we open our lives up to a conversation with God, and it is through worship where we as a church collectively meet together to praise God and encourage those around us to continue walking. There is the personal and the corporate. We personally feel the call and then those around us confirm that calling and encourage us to walk in that direction. This is why the gathering for worship is important, it is when we gather collectively that the spirit of God reflects off of others and we can begin to see more clearly. But we gather not just to praise God but to be sent out to extend the kingdom, and use the gifts that he has given us.
This is where things get interesting. Paul is called to proclaim the Gospel. He says that he has an obligation to proclaim, that even though he is free to do other things he is compelled to proclaim the Gospel. He is a slave to this task so that the kingdom can expand. Think about that for just a moment. Though he is fee, he makes himself a slave for the kingdom. He goes on to say that he become like a Jew to win the Jews, like one under the law to win the ones under the law, he becomes like one outside the law to win those outside the law, he becomes weak to win the weak. He becomes things to all people so that he can win some. These are some of the most disturbing and most powerful words in the epistles. They are disturbing because within these words there is a risk of losing everything yet they are powerful because there is the hope of gaining even more.
What is it to become like something? When we read these word we often find ourselves cringing because it sounds like Paul is being too open and too accepting. He is becoming, joining or compromising something important. When we cringe we are probably misunderstanding what is being said. The word become deals with awareness. It speaks of experiencing life from a different perspective and moving around in that state. When Paul says that he becomes a Jew with the Jews he is proclaiming the Gospel through a perspective that the Jews would understand. And when he speaks of becoming one outside the law, he does not mean that he is throwing everything out, but that he proclaims the Gospel through a perspective of those outside the law. He is aware of where these people are and how to speak to them. He gains that perspective by moving within their circles, going where they go, eating what they eat, and building on what they know. There is a risk in doing this, because when we become aware and move around in the circles of people outside our comfort zone we run the risk of becoming something different.
But woe is me if I don’t proclaim the Gospel. Where would we be if Paul did not become, if Paul did not become aware of a different perspective? Where would we be if Paul stayed Saul? Paul risked everything to proclaim the Gospel and he lost everything he was proud of yet he gained the kingdom. What would happen if we too would release ourselves to the passions of God? What would happen if we became aware of the perspectives of those outside of these walls? These questions are the ones that make us cringe, because when we consider these things we are faced with losing ourselves to something outside of our control. We move beyond our places of comfort and must rely on others to provide in our areas of weakness. What if we became like the person down the street?
I have often wondered why I ended up in the areas I have been. Why did God send me to one of the largest cities in Ukraine, instead of a rural community? Why did God call me to preach when I do not even like to talk? Why would He put such a strong desire in my heart to proclaim the Gospel in an urban setting when I just want to go home and sit on a tractor to work the land? The reason is because the ministry that he has called each of you to participate in is uniquely coupled with the ministry that he has called me to. The things our community needs are wrapped up in the gifts that God has given each of us. But it is not necessarily the things we desire. To win our community we must become our community, we must open ourselves up to seeing things from their perspective and begin to proclaim the gospel in a language they understand. We must lose ourselves to the ones God wishes to win and in doing so we will find who we truly are. To win this community to the kingdom, we must become a slave to the community, become vulnerable, be moved by what moves them so that we can speak as one with them and join them as they walk the journey with Christ.
Does that make you cringe just a bit? I hope so, because then we know that the Spirit is at work. But the next question is which direction will we choose? Will we move into our community or will we stay in comfort? Will we risk all we have known or will we let what we have wither on the vine? Will we sow the seed and work the soils or will we harden our hearts to the very people God has called us to? Will we join Paul and say woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.
I began by asking what we are proud of I want to close by again asking what are we proud of? Are we proud of standing our ground or are we proud of the ministry that God has given us? Are we proud of ourselves or are we proud of those that we have helped along the way? There are things to be proud of in this meeting, each of those things are coupled around individuals being used not within the church but outside. I am proud of this Meeting because I know there is much more that can be done and we are nearing a place where we are willing to lose ourselves to become the light in our community. I am proud because we are beginning to think less about ourselves and more about people outside these walls. Yes I am proud of our facility but I am proud in that only because we are in a better position to serve those around us. I am proud because each of us are beginning to say, “I do all for the sake of the Gospel, so that I may share in its blessing.” It is not about us, but it is about them. It is not about our influence but God’s influence in their lives. Let us lose ourselves for the sake of the Gospel and see the glory of Christ be honored in our community.