“Rights – or Rewards?”
January 25, 2009   1Cor.9:14-23
This past Tuesday marked the beginning of a new era for the United States when its first African-American president took the oath of office. A great day for human rights; a day of celebration especially for those who have toiled since the 1960s to gain equality for non-whites. In his inaugural address Barack Obama emphasized the freedom which is so dear to American hearts; the “God-given promise that all are equal, all are free”. He called on his hearers to carry forth “that great gift of freedom and [deliver] it safely to future generations”. It was truly a great speech, ringing with pride that their country is a democracy, in which the son of an African immigrant can be elected to the most important governing office.
    President Obama reminded his fellow-citizens that those precious freedoms were built on sacrifice: forbears who “struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw” - patriots who braved icy waters and blood-stained snow to fend off invading forces. He paused to honour current military personnel on patrol, noting each American needs to have that spirit inhabit them if they are to meet the challenges they face: “the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.” He called them to “a new era of responsibility”, “giving our all to a difficult task.”
    Freedom comes at a price. Liberty may be called an “unalienable right” in the Declaration of Independence, but it was wrestled from the colonial power at the cost of many lives. The economic challenges facing the United States now threaten their freedom. One article I read tallied the cost of the bail-out measures so far as $8.4 Trillion, or 60% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product. That’s bad enough in itself, but add that to their Public Debt estimated at 61% of GDP in 2007, and “External Debt” of $12-1/4 Trillion (2007), and that gets to be quite a hole. Printing money on such a scale risks devaluing the currency, which weakens a country. Just because those in power have the RIGHT (or ability) to take the money doesn’t mean they should; the rewards may be greater in the long run if they adopt a sacrificial attitude.
    There’s a parallel with the situation of the apostle Paul in 1Corinthians 9. Paul exulted in the freedoms Christ had won for him by giving His life at the cross. (The cross is the believer’s ‘Declaration of Independence’ if you will.) But Paul refrained from making full use of his rights because he saw greater benefit to others - and lasting reward (without deflation) to himself - by adapting himself as a servant, embodying a ‘spirit of service’, that others might be saved.
Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth deals with various matters the young congregation had raised. Apparently there existed some question about Paul’s authority, whether he was a genuine apostle compared to the original “Twelve” such as Peter and John. Perhaps it didn’t help that, unlike the other apostles, Paul didn’t seem to ‘expect’ to be housed and fed and have his expenses covered as was the general practice when other apostles visited. In the first half of chapter 9 Paul sets forth the case for his right to be treated and supported as a bona-fide apostle. V3, he makes a ‘defense to those who sit in judgment on me,’ those challenging his authority or right. In vv4&6 he protests, “Don’t we have the right to food and drink?...Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?”
    First Paul argues for his rights using examples from daily life, v8 “from a human point of view”. V7, a soldier doesn’t serve at his own expense. V13, in religion - whether Jewish or even the Greek religions in the area of Corinth - “those who work in the temple get their food from the temple.” Paul uses several references to agriculture: v7 those who plant a vineyard eat its grapes; those who tend a flock drink the milk; v10 the plowman and the thresher do their work in hope of sharing in the harvest; v11 those who sow seed ought to reap the harvest.
    Besides these examples from daily life, Paul appeals to the authority of Scripture - in this case, Deuteronomy 25:4: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Paul extrapolates that this would surely apply to people as well as oxen!
    Third, besides the reasonableness of daily life and the inspiration of Scripture, Paul appeals to the very words of Jesus. V14, “...the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” There was an explicit command of Christ he could use to back up his argument here.
    So Paul convincingly demonstrates that gospel-workers have rights, too - just as much as farm-workers, soldiers, and those serving at an altar.
    V15 though marks a dramatic turn in the flow of Paul’s case. Although he has rights, he has refrained from making use of them for the sake of the rewards that come from saving others. He notes, “But I have not used any of these rights.” (The right to food and drink; or the right to have a believing wife accompany him, v5.) He sets aside the whole first half of the chapter - all the ground won by his argument to this point.
    Paul was very conscious of his special appointment by Jesus on the road to Damascus. There the Saviour said to him, “I am sending you to [the Gentiles] to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Ac 26:18) That was Paul’s special commissioning, directly by the Lord. So he sensed an obligation perhaps even more strongly than the other disciples. Here in v16 he admits, “I am compelled to preach.” V17, “I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.” He was entrusted with a stewardship. After what the Lord said to him, he just HAD to preach - even if it meant tent-making on the side to support himself as he travelled.
    What about you – has the Lord spoken to you in your spirit about a special ‘commission’ He may be giving you? What is your particular, unique ‘stewardship’? Your gifts and abilities, your own web of relationships - how has Jesus equipped and positioned you to present Him to others in a way that they might be brought ‘from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins” and the holy-ing effect of faith in Jesus? Are you discharging the trust committed to you - using your gifts for Him who saved you?
    We talked at the beginning how, if the United States takes all this paper money offered in the bail-out, it may actually end up hindering its freedom - because of debt-bondage, deflation, and devaluation of the dollar. Paul was very conscious that if he was paid for preaching - particularly in unchurched areas - unbelievers might be skeptical, supposing the gospel was just a way to make money. One commentary says, “If he was accused of mercenary motives it might interpose a hindrance.” Given the scandals of the past few decades, one can hardly watch a TV evangelist without a nagging question about their sincerity or possible greed. Working as he did in ‘frontier’ areas, Paul didn’t want such a suspicion even to have the chance to get started. The surest solution was to be self-supporting by working with his own hands.
    In Paul’s view, the rewards of evangelistic work far outweighed his personal sacrifices. V18, “What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.” The very freedom of not being tied to monetary considerations was a real bonus for him; making the Good News available freely was a reward for Paul. Another reward is hinted at in v23: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” It is a joy to see others come to believe and receive Jesus in their life. Paul found it rewarding that little communities of faith were popping up along the Greek coast - communities he himself planted and watered. He was blessed by the fellowship of other believers.
    And a long-term reward is stated in v25: “we do it [that is, strict training for running a race] to get a crown that will last forever.” The gold medals won by Olympic athletes will be left behind when they die, even be burned up with the rest of the elements someday (2Pet 3:10); but Christians in eternity receive a lasting crown, a reward after the fire tests the quality of each one’s earthly work (1Cor 3:13). That prize gets Paul mighty excited.
Speaking of about-turns: the new president south of the border noted he’s the son of a man who, years ago, might not have been served at a local restaurant. Thankfully there has been a change in attitude since racism kept people out of political office. Yet Mr.Obama demonstrated grace himself in arranging for Rick Warren (a white man) to being the inauguration with the opening prayer.
    Being free in Christ - knowing He bought our redemption at the cost of His own life and access to the Father - that freedom and rich grace motivates us with His love to likewise accommodate ourselves to meet the needs of others. Paul didn’t make full use of his ‘rights’ but instead adapted himself to the urgent situation in pagan lands. So Jesus commissions us similarly to adapt to others in a way that they will hear or see Christ and His Good News through us.
    V19 describes this ‘putting myself at your service’ for Christ’s sake: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” (1Co 9:19) “Make myself a slave” - that’s strong language! Then Paul lists 3 classes of people that he “became like” so as to win: Jews, or those ‘under the law’; Gentiles, ‘those not having the law’; and the weak - as we saw in the previous chapter, Paul refused to eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol if it might cause someone with a weaker conscience to stumble. When Paul went to Jerusalem in Acts 21(24ff), he agreed to join in the purification rites of 4 other men, paying their expenses, so that everybody would see he lived in obedience to the law. Like a regular Jew. Yet when amongst the Gentiles at Antioch, he ate with them and did not keep his distance (Gal 2:11f). Yet all the time he remained under Christ’s law (21); or as someone put it, “not being an outlaw of God but an inlaw of Christ.” There were limits to Paul’s accommodation - he didn’t engage in anything immoral. He knew where Jesus wanted him to draw the line. Yet he associated with each class of individual, crossing the bridge culturally to where they were at, so he might communicate Jesus’ love for them.
    “Even though I am a free man with no master, I have become a slave to all people to bring many to Christ.” (19 NLT) Is that not like Jesus’ self-emptying to accommodate us? Jesus taught the Twelve, “whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:27f) Jesus fulfilled the Suffering Servant prophecies of Isaiah, including Isaiah 53(4ff) - “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows...the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him...the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” His last night with them, Jesus took the role of the servant and washed His disciples’ feet (Jn 13:1-12). That’s so key in witnessing to others - meeting them where they’re at, understanding their burdens, coming alongside and introducing them to the Lord who can help much beyond our means.
Last night there was a fundraiser in Wingham for Bethany Homes, a home for children out in Wetaskiwin, Alberta. Harvey and Elsie Jesperson looked after over 800 children between 1948 and their retirement in 1991. But there was a crucial moment when the whole project would have been nipped in the bud unless Harvey and Elsie had set aside original plans and accommodated themselves to others’ need with a servant’s heart.
    Early on, the project was conceived as a home for European children left homeless after World War II. Everything seemed to be going along well - the government donated barracks from an army training base; a local farmer donated 42 acres of land. 25 people came and started helping preparing the barracks for all those European children. But then things hit a snag. Because there was no large organization backing the project, at a high level it was deemed unacceptable. The organizers were disappointed. People started abandoning the whole plan. Then someone suggested it could be a home for children from not so far away. However it was the European children that had been in the headlines; looking after children from nearby was not so high in profile. Though everyone else left, Harvey and Elsie felt God’s peace about staying on to make a start. They accommodated themselves to the children’s needs...[audio clip]
    Years later – after managing an average of 45 children at a time, 52 weeks a year – Harvey had developed this little code that he taught the children: “C.O.D.” - short for “Call on Dad.” Whenever they had a problem, he wanted them to know they could turn to him for help.
    May the Lord help us to not always ‘demand our rights’ - though we are free in Him - but like Paul to make ourselves a slave to others, in order to win some. Let’s pray.