Sunday, January 24, 2010

Christians and "Rights"

This is sermon #22 from First Corinthians. This is an issue that does not go away!

1 Corinthians 9:15-27


It's almost everywhere today –– the issue of rights. It's in newspapers, magazines, on television news, talk shows.... It can be civil rights, human rights, women's rights.... Our nation has been shaped by the Bill of Rights, following the Declaration of Independence in which it was stated that everyone has the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Our culture has taken seriously the right to pursue happiness. If pushed to give the ultimate motivation in life, most people will either explicitly say or imply their personal happiness. Why do people do what they do? What motivates us? What is our hope and expectation? The common denominator, I think, would be happiness. We choose the things we think will make us happy. That is the American (and the human) way.

Where does Christian faith and practice fit into that? Do we assume God's first desire for us is that we be happy? And if we assume that, do we automatically buy into the ways the culture around us seeks happiness? Do Christians have this "inalienable right" to pursue happiness?

Think about Jesus –– what motivated him? Is personal happiness the issue we find Jesus seeking and offering in the gospels? John tells a story in his gospel where the disciples had gone to get food while Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan woman, telling her how to find her true desire. When the disciples returned with the food, Jesus was not hungry. Why? My food, said Jesus, is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work (Jn 4:34). Jesus was motivated by a desire to please the Father.

When we come to the Corinthians, we find that their desire was to keep enjoying life at the heathen temple feasts. And, they rationalized, there was no reason for them not to do so since they knew there was no such thing as other gods.

Paul had told them they should not continue to eat at the temples, but they said they did not have to listen to him –– that a real apostle was supported by the people over whom he had authority, and since Paul was not supported by them he had no authority over them. Paul's response here in chapter nine is two-fold: first he affirms the principle that people who give their lives to the work of the church should be supported by the church, but then tells why he has chosen to refuse that right. It's at this point we see into the heart of a person who understands and follows Jesus.

That is why a letter written by a man named Paul came to be part of the Scriptures. Paul knew God in a way and followed Jesus Christ in such a way that his words communicated something that God wanted all of his people to know. Paul causes us to think of Jesus, and that happens in this situation.

When I read this passage I realize how far I have yet to go in my own conviction and obedience. This is application of the gospel in a way that takes us beyond the elementary stage of the assurance of God's love and sins forgiven. This is a level of commitment that takes understanding. It is an obedience that can be legalistically enforced to some degree externally, but calls for true spirituality if it's real.

There are three things we can see in Paul which help us come face to face with what it means to follow Jesus alongside our human and cultural tendency to contend for our rights. I want you to consider Paul's practice, purpose and perspective as he tells the Corinthians what makes him "tick."

The first practice, and the one that is most evident, is his refusal to be supported by the Corinthians. Why wouldn't he take their support? It's because of his understanding of his call. Paul is serious when he refers to himself as a "servant" of Jesus Christ; he means that he is Jesus' slave. A slave, Paul reasons, is not paid for his service. A slave doesn't have rights.

Preaching is not an option for Paul. He admits to being under a compulsion (v16). This is not a preacher's itch; it is his divine destiny. God had taken hold of him for that purpose. I know something of a compulsion to preach, but I do not know in my experience anything like Paul's Damascus Road encounter with Jesus. Paul never got over that.

Paul was also concerned that the way he gave the gospel illustrated it. In offering a "free" gospel (i.e., without taking support) his ministry is a living model of the gospel itself (v18). He refuses to do anything that may hinder the gospel's acceptance. On top of that, without taking support Paul is free of the manipulations his supporters might put on him. In v.19 he is clear that he belongs to no one. If rights become too important to Christians, they find themselves entangled in things that can stifle allegiance to Jesus.

I have been in churches where a person who made large contributions used that as a power play for the very purpose of manipulation. In one case a man expected his sins to be overlooked because of his financial gifts –– sometimes personally to the pastor. In another situation, a man expected the pastor to support the decisions and directions that he wanted –– and would give accordingly. Paul wanted to be free of any such possibility.

There were other ways Paul practiced freedom. He was actually a rather inconsistent person, at least viewed one way. Paul had just told them not to eat at the temples, yet later he will argue that it can be alright to eat meat that comes from the heathen temples. In one situation Paul would observe Jewish laws and in another situation he would ignore them. In things like circumcision and special days he would sometimes observe them and other times he would not. Religious people with an eye for consistent detail would look on and find that Paul drove them crazy. What was Paul's purpose for such a practice of what he called "freedom?"

In can be very easy for a person to exercise Christian freedom (one's rights) for personal convenience –– happiness. Why would Paul eat at the Jewish deli one time and the Gentile grill the other? Was it because one day a bagel was just the thing to make him happy, while on another day he happened to be in the mood for pork barbeque?

In vv19-23 we find the reason –– purpose –– for the things Paul does. There are six purpose (Greek: henna) clauses here, and five of them say the same thing in principle. Paul does the things he does "in order to win" people. For Jewish people, he is willing to be kosher. For non-Jews, he doesn't worry about the Mosaic laws. For people with weak consciences, he lives as though his own conscience is weak. Paul enters in with people who live outside God's law, though not in a way that violates the ethics of Christ's kingdom. And all of it is to lead them to Jesus.

In the larger context of the letter, he chooses to not have a wife (though he could) so he can be devoted only to the Lord's concerns. He will not accept support (he could) so his very ministry is a picture of the free gospel and beyond the manipulation of any supporters. His ministry is not merely his profession. Paul is consumed with only one thing: how he can introduce other people to the Lord and Love of his life. No "right" is more important than that.

In all honesty, how often do we approach our rights as Paul did? It is so much easier to be like the Corinthians and do something on the basis of our personal happiness and convenience, and so much the better if we can justify it by a "right" that everyone recognizes.

Paul had discovered that true freedom is the freedom to let one's rights go if it means an opportunity to show Jesus. What better way is there to show Jesus than to lay aside personal convenience? Isn't that what he did? How convenient was it for him to leave the glories of heaven to come here to die on a cross? Where would we be if Jesus had made his decisions based on his own happiness?

Paul had been seized in his life with that perspective. This was the compulsion that propelled him in everything he did. People who follow Jesus will come to the place of both understanding and commitment where they choose to do the hard thing instead of the easy thing if that's what witnesses to Jesus. Personal happiness and rights fade into insignificance when we see who Jesus really is and what he has done.

The final verses in this chapter capture that spirit with a great earthly illustration. It is something we can identify with in our sports-addicted world. In Paul's day it was Olympic and Isthmian Games –– racing, wrestling, jumping, boxing, the javelin and the discus.

I remember a track and field runner from high school. He told of running daily until his sides screamed in pain. Sometimes he would get the heaves. He did not do that to feel good; he was in training for something more important, and he gave up the right of indulgence. He wouldn't drink, not out of Christian conviction, but because he wanted his body to be under control.

Then I think of people who have chosen to be extra careful with their eating just to stay slim and attractive. They control themselves. There is no law preventing them from a box of chocolates; they have the right –– they choose to lay that right aside.

You can easily think of other things which require discipline in this world, but things to which people commit themselves. They are usually things which will not matter a hundred years from now. That is Paul's perspective in v25 –– They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

Why do we do what we do? What rights do we choose to exercise? Why? Is it for our temporal happiness, or is it because we choose those things which make us more like Jesus and help his kingdom to grow? The freedom we have to exercise our rights is a wonderful yet dangerous thing. It is wonderful because God has chosen to give us the ability of rational choice. It is dangerous because we can exercise our rights for selfish reasons and be destroyed by the very things we choose.

In Peter's second letter we are reminded, "people are slaves to whatever has mastered them." Have you ever found yourself saying, "I don't have to answer that!" or "There's nothing wrong with that!" or "I'll do it if I want to!" or other such things? The selfish desire to please ourselves and answer only to ourselves is unbelievably strong. Only the power of Jesus through his Spirit is stronger. Paul himself ends by applying this to himself –– “I master myself.... I keep my body under control.... I do not always demand my happiness or my rights." Why? Why, Paul? "So that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified."

Who is in control of your life? Why do you do the things you do? Is there any right or any object that promises happiness more important to you than Jesus and being like him? Paul knew what it meant to follow Jesus and he wrote this so you and I could know it, too. Why do you do the things you do?

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