For All People

Sermon on 1 Cor 9:16-23

Psalm 147:5-7 Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp. (44)

Introduction

For Quinn’s 7th birthday, we brought him and a few friends to see Frozen. At the time I didn’t know the hit it would be. A week later nearly every 1st grade girl sang the lyrics to Let it go! at the top of their lungs, and I knew. While I believe the movie has a profound inherent quality (of message and story), what seemed to grab the attention seven to eight year-old girls was one particular moment: Elsa breaking free from the strictures of an oppressive environment preventing her from being who she truly is.

After an angry display of her powers, Elsa hurries off. Nothing holds her back; she’s been revealed, and her only choice (so she believes) is to head off alone into the cold, dark, snowy night. And here web receive that song of liberation. As Elsa heads through snow, she shrugs off what was and embraces her newfound liberty. She’s done with everything and now: freedom. She sings while creates as she moves through snow…

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do/To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free[1]

Frozen

She creates a castle, releases her hair, and transforms her drab sensible clothing into a stunning dress made of snow and ice. This moment activated chills of every person watching it deeply longing for freedom that is freedom to just be as is! I, too, found myself caught up in the momentum as Elsa’s rejected her captivity to what was.

Let it go, let it go/Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go/Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

Frozen

Elsa finally gets to just live as she wants to as she is. Elsa is the self-proclaimed queen of her kingdom of ice-olation. She’s free. Or is she?

1 Corinthians 9:18-19, 22-23

Then what is my wage? So that while preaching good tidings I might establish the good news without expense in order not to make full use of my personal ability and power in the good news. For being free from all people I bring myself under subjection to/for all people, so that I might gain many more people (1 Cor 9:18-19).

In the Corinthian situation of chapter 9, Paul is still addressing those whom he addressed earlier in chapter 8. In view are “the strong”—those who feel confident in what they know to be true and in their faith, and those who are economically and socially empowered to participate in this or that event or meal.[2] Chapter 9 is Paul’s further clarifying what he means about the freedom of the gospel for the one who is justified by faith in Christ alone apart from works.

Paul explains to the Corinthians that he received the gospel freely—the good tidings came to him of no charge and was not a product of his own doing (he didn’t earn it or produce it of his own works). He confesses he is without boasting here[3] because he received this gift freely, and he is compelled[4] to preach this good news because he’s been entrusted with this proclamation in word and deed.[5] As Paul freely receives, he freely gives—not from threat of hell or reward of heaven, but just because he cannot do any other in his conformity to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit who is the foundation of his faith.[6] He hinges it all to this purpose: so as not to make full use of my power and ability in the good news. In other words, Paul has not employed all of his rights to receive wages for his work, which he has entitlement to; he foregoes those by working with his hands to support himself. [7] Thus he exhorts the strong[8]: forego your own entitlement just as I have. [9]

And then with grand emphasis Paul dives deeper into the concept of gospel founded freedom: being free from all people I bring myself under subjection to/for all people (v.19).[10] I love studying languages. The more I study different languages, the more I enjoy my own language and the nitty gritty of grammar, word choice, and sentence structure. So, here I am compelled to highlight the importance of prepositions and cases because Paul is intentional with them. To speak of gospel freedom, for Paul, is to speak not only of freedom from other people (Ελευθερος…ων εκ παντων, the genitive prepositional phrase of belonging) but precisely that this freedom from is hardwired toward freedom to and for other people (πασιν, the dative case carrying with it the “to/for” prepositions, the case of the indirect object).[11]

For Paul, to be truly free is seeing your freedom from as freedom for and to other people. For “the strong” in Corinth this means that their freedom, if it truly is freedom, is not about an ardent insistence for their entitlements and rights. Rather, it’s for the weaker: those who don’t have what they have, those who don’t have access to what they have access to, those who are restricted in their ability to move about and do this and do that because of their dependence on other people and institutions.[12] Paul tells “the strong”: to/for the weak I became weak in that I might gain the weak (v.22). And then he concludes with …to all people I became all things so that I might rescue some. It is anathema for Paul that the believer would use her freedom to secure her entitlement. Instead, for Paul, his freedom from having to justify himself through works of the law is now freedom for those trapped in totalitarian religious and social systems. For Paul, this is the definition of what it means to act like Christ;[13] this is cruciform humanity in encounter with God in the event of faith that produces true freedom.[14]

Conclusion

So, back to Elsa. Is Elsa free when she tromps off into the wild winter night? Is she free as she constructs that stunning palace and her new persona unburdened by demands and expectations of others? No. She’s not free. She’s not acquired freedom but imprisonment. Freedom from when it stops there becomes a prison of the self. In order to maintain that type of freedom you must always pull back and away until you’re isolated. Then you must defend that isolation because freedom (strictly) from can never be free in the presence of another person. If my freedom is defined solely as freedom from (the law, from others, from obligation, from demand, etc.) then I’m not free because I can neither participate in those things nor not feel threatened by their presence indicating my limitedness. I’m not free if I’m limited by the threat of external things; this is the definition of enslavement. If I must have my way, I’m not free.

Elsa doesn’t become truly free until she figures out how to use her power in the presence of other people. Once she realizes love is the controlling factor, she’s released unto real freedom and can exist as is with others—not in her freedom from fueled by anger and rage keeping her isolated but freedom from that is drawn by love to be freedom to and for other people. Compare what she creates to protect herself from others and what she creates for others: in her freedom from she builds an ice palace, locking her away from others and in her freedom to and for she summons a summer snowfall, lays out an ice skating rink, and a snow cloud to protect Olaf.

Beloved, you’re free. God in God’s freedom freely descended because God so loved the world, the creation, the cosmos, so loved you to rescue everything and everyone from the powers of sin, darkness, and death; this is the content of the gospel, of the good news made flesh in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. That divine freedom is now our freedom from the powers of sin, darkness, and death to be free by faith and not works into grace, light, and life for and to others who are also the objects of divine love. To “share in the nature of the gospel” [15] is to stand with the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering and hurting, the wounded and sick, the hindered and ostracized. (There is no better expression of freedom than to willingly stand in solidarity with struggling humanity.) Where there are the sick, we become as the sick to rescue the sick from death; where there are those fighting for the right to breath, we become as those fighting for the right to breath to rescue those who are fighting for the right to breath from death; where there are those who have been displaced, we become as those being displaced to rescue the displaced from death. In our freedom from we count it not for us to seize for ourselves but for and to others; for it is this very thing God did for us.


[1] Let it Go! From the move Frozen Written by: Kristen Anderson-Lopez / Robert Lopez Performed by Idina Menzel

[2] And all of this is a further elaboration of chapter 6 where Paul addresses the body and what to do with it.

[3] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 695, “Paul has explained that the can glory or boast only where the principle of ‘freely you received, freely give’ operates, and when a renunciation of ‘rights is entirely voluntary. This cannot apply in his particular case to the act of preaching alone or to proclamation itself, for, like Jeremiah, in every account of his call Paul insists that God’s compulsion presses upon him.”

[4] Thiselton 696, “It is agony if Paul tries to escape form the constraints and commission which the love and grace of ‘the hound of heaven’ presses upon him. With this further logical step glorying (καυχημα) begins to slip back subtly into boasting.”

[5] Keep in mind that as Paul exhorted the Corinthians to treat their bodies well because they are the temples of God (the Holy Spirit), so to is Paul. And, thus, as Paul has received the good news, he has received it as the scribe and the scroll, as the messenger and the message in a bottle. This is why Paul is under Holy Spirit inspired compulsion to proclaim the good news: he is the temple of God proclaiming the good tidings of God (this links him with the great prophetic tradition that precedes him).

[6] Thiselton 697, “The whole argument hinges on sovereign grace, and that it is in freely giving in response to God’s free gift that καυχημα, grounds for taking delight in what one gives, becomes possible only within a framework where pressure and law do not apply: free gift in response to free gift. It is in giving that the believe receives, not as some ‘external’ reward, but through the internal grammar of the blessedness of giving which is a stamp of identification with the cross.”

[7] Collins qtd in Thiselton 697, “‘The object of Paul’s boasting is not the preaching of the gospel…Pauls’ boast is that he has not made use of the rights to which he is entitled…to support himself by the work of his own hands.’”

[8] Martin qtd in Thiselton 698, “‘Paul’s pointed surrender of his eleutheria and exousia (as one of the strong) is therefore…directed precisely at those who have these things and resist giving them up, that is, those of higher status.’”

[9] Thiselton 697, “This verse explicates the point just made above. Only by gratuitously proclaiming the gospel gratis can Paul go beyond the preaching which God has pressed upon him as an inescapable, not voluntary, task, and there by go the extra mile.’ To do this, however, he must forego a right, as he pleads with ‘the strong’ among his readers to do.”

[10] Thiselton 700, “Since ελευθερος is so strongly emphatic, we may retain the positive term free … to denote the Corinthian catchword taken up by Paul, but also combine it with NJB’s subtle use of the negative though I as no a slave to any human being, I put myself in slavery to all people…”

[11] Thiselton 701, “Paul very subtly but also emphatically presses in what precise sense Christian believers and Christian leaders are free and in what sense voluntary slavery performs a wholesome, even essential, saving purpose in Christ-like obedience and love for other.”

[12] Thiselton 705 “In this context the weak may mean those whose options for life and conduct where severely restricted because of their dependence on the wishes of patrons, employers, or slave owners.”

[13] Thiselton 706, “The weak stand in contrast to those with ‘social power, influence, political status…ability to competence in a variety of areas’ and by contrast have ‘low social standing’ and crave for identity, recognition, and acceptance. Paul’s foregoing of his rights to a ‘professional’ status by functioning as a religious rhetorician for a patron and toiling as an artisan demonstrate his solidarity with the weak both as a missionary and pastoral strategist and in Christlike behavior.”

[14] Thiselton 708, “Paul does all that he does to make transparent by his everyday life in the public domain the character of the gospel which he proclaims as the proclamation of the cross…, which derives its character, and not simply its ‘benefits,’ from Christ himself.”

[15] Thiselton 707, “To stand alongside the Jews, the Gentile, the socially dependent and vulnerable, or to live and act in solidarity with every kind of person in every kind of situation is to have a share in the nature of the gospel, i.e., to instantiate what the gospel is and how it operates.”

Are You Free?

Sermon on 1 Cor 8:1-13

Psalm 111:1-3 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures for ever.

Introduction

I was taken with the idea that love never participated with law. I was deeply invested in pursuing what seemed a clear and eternal divergence between divine command and promise, following closely to a specific reading of Martin Luther’s theology—the distinction between law and gospel. In this scheme, to be in a loving relationship with someone else means never making any demands on them. Here, Love is about creating space for that person to be as they are wherever they are whenever they are; this was the liberty of God’s grace, the freedom in Christ: true rest from the demands to “perform” and “people please” and “earn righteousness through work” and thus “true life”. While some of these ideas find some grounding (albeit with intentional nuancing), the underbelly of this theology wasn’t rest, freedom, and life but increased suffering, burden, and death. Well, it was rest for one group and toil for everyone else not in that group.

Then one day as I stood in a large church auditorium like sanctuary, watching a video of people talking about the liberative experience of this specific interpretation of God’s love and grace, I saw it. It was the last video. A married couple was sharing their story. The husband spoke about how wonderful this conception of grace was because now he comes home from work and there is no expectation on him to help with the kids or other events, he can rest if he wants to—fall back on the couch, kick shoes off, grab a beer, and watch some tv. Then the camera turned to the wife. “Yeah…,” she said half-heartedly. “It’s great because now when he helps, he wants to.” While her words affirmed her husband’s experience, her face and her eyes told me everything I needed to know. She was not free. She was not rested. She was exhausted, burdened, and suffering by being stripped of any ability to ask for help and to confess pain and discomfort because it would be “law” to him and thus “condemnation.” She was dead. When you see death, you can never unsee death.

That image—her face, her desperate eyes—fuels my academic and pastoral pursuits now as I’ve walked away from that destructive theology.[1] Liberty and freedom in Christ brings liberty and freedom to all and not at the expense of another’s body, mind, soul, and spirit. A relationship is only loving and free where both people in the relationship are mutually engaged in each other’s thriving not in turning a blind eye to things. Where both step into the exposing light of love calling a thing what it is and are willing to do self-reckoning work.

1 Corinthians 8:8-13

Now, “food of any kind will not prove us to God.” Neither if we do not eat are we lacking, nor if we eat are we over and above. But discern carefully this power to act of yours does not become a stumbling block for the weak.

1 Corinthians 8:8-9, translation mine

Paul proclaimed that the believer is justified by faith in Christ (ευαγελλιον) apart from works of the law. She need only faith in Christ, and this becomes the sole foundation of her justification and righteousness with God—there are no works of the law that can justify or make righteous as completely as faith does. Thus, the believer is liberated from the threat of condemnation and death that leads to death and is now free to love God and neighbor. There is nothing that can or will separate her from the love (presence) of God—not even hell. This is the freedom Paul proclaims to his fledgling churches: freedom inherent in the event of encounter with God in faith liberating into life and living. God in Christ comes to the believer, calls her, and rescues her from death into new life in the Spirit. This is grace.

In chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, Paul pumps the freedom brakes. He details guidelines for the Corinthian believers finding themselves in a conundrum. Some believers are fine eating meat “associated with offerings to pagan deities.”[2] They are whom Paul refers to as “the strong”—a phrase referring to both those confident in their faith and who were wealthy and had access the occasions to eat such meat.[3] Paul writes, while it is true that neither eating nor abstaining from this meat has an impact on their presence before God, it may have an impact on those “weaker” brothers and sisters—those who were both insecure in their faith (unsure about what is okay and not okay) and lower in social status.

Paul challenges the knowledge (γνωσις) of “the strong” resulting in their liberty to eat what they want and do what they please. Paul declares that knowledge (alone) puffs up and inflates and lures toward being an imposter; but paired with love it builds up authentically edifying both the beloved and the lover (vv. 1-2).[4] In other words, “the strong” should keep γνωσις yoked to αγαπη (love): even if they are free to eat, they should care more for their “weak” brother or sister who didn’t have the same access to such food and security in the liberty of their actions.[5]

Paul makes it clear that this love isn’t self-generated but imparted in the encounter with God in the event of faith (v.3). To love God is to be loved by God and known by God; this becomes the foundation for the love fractal. As we are loved by God, we love that which and those whom God loves seeing and knowing those whom God loves by seeing and knowing them, too.[6]

Paul’s point isn’t to side with the “strong” Corinthians or the “weak”, but to say: the composition of the conscience (secure or insecure) can lean toward a miscalculation about what is right to do and what is wrong.[7] Operating out of fear is as problematic as operating out of abundance of confidence. Paul warns “the strong” that their supposed liberty isn’t a reason for autonomous activity without considering the effect on others. [8] It’s not strictly about intent for Paul, these Christians may truly believe they’re free. Impact must also factor in here. For Paul, this is done with freedom wedded to love. Just because you can, says Paul, doesn’t mean you should because it may cause others to be polluted by being tripped up by your actions. [9] For Paul, a future forward ethic keeping in mind the potential impact of one’s actions/words on other brothers and sisters is the definition of freedom

Conclusion

For those who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan and for those who have ears pricked and heads turned hearing Christ call them by name, what is freedom for you? To follow Jesus as disciples means that freedom is going to take on an orientation toward the other. A cruciform freedom puts “weak” brothers and sisters before us. This is not to the loss of our freedom as if we lose ourselves, but in that we have received ourselves in the love of God in the encounter with God in faith, we enter into the plight with our brothers and sisters. True freedom for me is actualized only in freedom for you; if you are not free, am I free? [10] It becomes about mutuality. Mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz explains,

“Commitment to mutuality is not a light or easy matter. It involves all aspects of one’s life and demands a lifelong permanency. The way in which the commitment is lived out may change. From time to time one maybe less passionate about carrying out the implications of mutuality, but somehow to go back and place oneself in a position of control and domination over others is to betray others and oneself. Such a betrayal, which most of the time occurs by failing to engage in liberative praxis rather than by formal denunciation, results in the ‘friends’ becoming oppressors once again and in the oppressed losing their vision of liberation.”[11]

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology p. 100

If I in my strength cannot tame my liberty and walk with you so you can have your liberty, then I’m not free. If I cannot deem the liberties and freedoms of others as important as mine, then I have not freedom but bondage. If I am threatened by you having as much liberty and freedom as I do, I’m not free. If my autonomy must eclipse and ignore your need; I’m not free but captive.[12]

To be free, to be truly free isn’t to claim your rights as absolutes and acting on them no matter what. To be free, to be truly free is to say with Christ: into this I can enter with you. (This is solidarity.) Freedom can both break the law and obey it because it knows when to do which. If we’re free, then we are free–free to share in the burden of existence while trying to alleviate the yoke of suffering without losing our freedom. If stepping into the anxiety, fears, and concerns of our neighbor means we’ve lost our freedom then we didn’t have freedom to begin with. If we are unable to hear the cries of the weak, to listen to their stories of suffering, and affirm their lived experience, we’re not strong. So, beloved of God, you who are sought and called and loved by God: Are you strong? Are you free?


[1] I give credit for the start of this journey to two colleagues: Dr. Dan Siedell and Dr. W. Travis McMaken.

[2] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 620

[3] Thiselton “ε`ιδωλο’θυτα And the Scope of the Corinthian Catchprhases” 617  “…if Theissen and the majority of specialist writers are correct in their sociological analysis of the identities of ‘the strong’ and ‘the weak,’ the issue of eating meat, together with its scarcity for the poor and the variety of social occasions for the rich, has a decisive bearing on Paul’s discussion.”

[4] Thiselton 622 In re γνωσις Gardner “[compares] the contrast between ‘knowledge’ and love in this verse with the parallel contrast between 13:1-1 and the two chapters on ‘spiritual gifts’ which provide its frame. He sis that γνωσις is practical; but its nature and its relation to love can profoundly determine what kind of practical effects it set in motion.” And, “Love, by contrast, builds solidly, and does not pretend to be what it is not. If it gives stature to a person or to community, that enlargement remains solid and genuine.” “knowledge inflates” “φυσιοω suggests the self-importance of the frog in Aesop’s Fables, or something pretentiously enlarged by virtue of being pumped full of air or wind.”

[5] Thiselton 622-3 “Rather than seeking to demonstrate some individualist assertion of freedom or even victory, love seeks the welfare of the other. Hence if ‘the strong’ express love, they will show active concern that ‘the weak’ are not precipitated into situations of bad conscience, remorse, unease, or stumbling. Rather, the one who loves the other will consider the effect of his or her own attitudes and actions upon ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters.”

[6] Thiselton 626  “The kind of ‘knowledge which ‘the strong’ use manipulatively to assert their ‘rights’ about meat associated idols differs form an unauthentic Christian process of knowing which is inextricably bound up with loving.” And, “…it is part of the concept of authentic Christian knowing and being known that love constitutes a dimension of this process.”

[7] Thiselton 640, “Paul sides neither entirely with ‘the weak’ nor entirely with ‘the strong’ in all respects and in relation to every context or occasion. For the self-awareness or conscience of specific persons (συνεδησις αυτων) does not constitute an infallible guide to moral conduct in Pauls’ view….someone’s self-awareness or conscience may be insufficiently sensitive to register negative judgment or appropriate discomfort in some context…and oversensitive to the point of causing mistaken judgment or unnecessary discomfort in others.”

[8] Thiselton 644, “Paul is not advocating the kind of ‘autonomy’ mistakenly regarded widely today as ‘liberty of conscience.’ Rather, he is arguing for the reverse. Freedom and ‘rights’….must be restrained by self-discipline for the sake of love for the insecure or the vulnerable, for whom ‘my freedom’ might be ‘their ruin.’ This ‘freedom’ may become ‘sin against Christ (8:12).”

[9] Thiselton 654 “By projecting the ‘weak’ into this ‘medium” of γνωσις, the ‘strong’ bring such a person face-to-face with utter destruction. What a way to ‘build’ them!”

[10] Thiselton 650-1, “For in the first case, ‘the weak’ or less secure are tripped up and damaged by the self-assertive behavior of the overconfident; while in the second place it is putting the other before the self, manifest in the transformative effect of the cross, which causes the self-sufficient to turn away….True ‘wisdom’ is seen in Christ’s concern for the ‘weak” and the less secure, to the point of renouncing his own rights, even to he death of the cross.”

[11] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 100.

[12] Thiselton 657-8, “Chrysostom comments, ‘It is foolish in the extreme that we should esteem as so entirely beneath our notice those that Christ so greatly cared for that he should have even chosen to die for them, as not even to abstain from meat on their account.’ This comment captures very well the key contrast through this chapter between asserting one’s own ‘right to choose’ and reflecting with the motivation of love for the other what consequences might be entailed for fellow Christians if self-centered ‘autonomy’ rules patters of Christian attitudes and conduct. It has little or nothing to do with whether actions ’offend’ other Christians in the modern sense of causing psychological irritation annoyance, or displeasure at a purely subjective level. It has everything to do with whether such attitudes and actions cause damage, or whether they genuinely build not just ‘knowledge’ but Christian character and Christian community.”