Of Rights and Love
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If you have siblings and you’re a younger or youngest child, you often get to learn from the wisdom of your older sibs. If you’re an older brother or sister, you get to pass on such wisdom when all things are working well. I think this whole sermon could be summed up in one line of wisdom an older brother of mine once told me. “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” What does this mean in terms of “Let everything you do be done in love” for the church in Corinth, for our church, for any church.
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Or we could put it like this – “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (8:1) Love edifies. Love literally here “builds the house.” The ninth chapter of Corinthians is one we might well look at and say, “What does all this talk, about the rights of an apostle, and how Paul chose to conduct his ministry, have to do with us?” We may look at chapter 8 and ask, “What does all this talk about meat being sacrificed to idols have to do with us?” Paul is making a larger point here though, in much the same way he was making a larger point about people aligning themselves with him or Apollos or Peter. We recall that wasn’t about a dispute between the apostles, it was about boasting. It was about being puffed up. “What do you have that you did not receive?” was the question that Paul put back in chapter 4. What we have in chapter 9 and the chapter that precedes it is further discussion of what Paul told them a little while earlier – “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable.” (6:12)
Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.
Or how about once again “It’s not all about you.”
Or how about this for the follower of Christ – “Your individual rights do not trump the good of the collective body.”
Is this not a message we need to be hearing today when so much is trumpeted about individual rights and sometimes these rights are even described as God-given? It’s not all about you.
Or as Paul might have put it, because he’s a little sarcastic and biting in this letter, “It’s not all about you, sunshine.”
In the previous chapter, the issue was food offered to idols. “We know,” Paul writes, “that no idol in the world really exists and that there is no God but one. We know that we are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak”. Not just something that someone who might be a bit of an ultra-legalist might be offended by, but something that might actually lead to destruction, as Paul puts it. Serious stuff indeed.
Not only is it serious, but to sin against members of your family is actually to sin against Christ (we are Christ’s body after all). If a certain food were to cause someone to fail, Paul tells them, he would never eat it (never ever even to the end of the age is how he puts it). For some reason, examples of this kind of thing often seem to revolve around drinking. One commentator gives the following hypothetical situation to pose the question what would you do around a new believer who has come to your church – “…this new believer is a recovering alcoholic, saved out of a twenty-year battle with alcohol and slowly learning how to live a life that doesn’t revolve around bars and nightclubs. On the other hand, you come from a family that occasionally enjoyed a glass of wine with a nice meal, served champagne at special occasions, or used alcohol in cooking and desserts. What do you do when this new believer comes around? Do you cook the same recipes and serve the same beverages? Do you surrender your own freedom in Christ for the sake of the weaker believer? Or do you avoid the hassle and not invite that person into your life?”
What do you do? I remember (and again another drinking example) when we were in Bolivia for the first time 12 years ago. We were serving in a small town in the Chapare region called Villa Tunari. Our friend and guide Ivan told us that the custom of the local church was to abstain from any alcohol. He asked if we would not sit out on a patio at the end of workday and have a beer. It would be something that would get in the way of the gospel that we were sent there to do and speak.
We’re talking about tempering liberty with love. Let your liberty be tempered by love is the message that Paul wants to get across here. It’s not all about your individual rights in the Kingdom. It’s not all about what you know and what you’re able to do because of the knowledge that you possess like you are up here and others are down there. Remember that Christ came down there, that Christ comes down there. This goes against much of the wisdom of the age, doesn’t it? “I have my rights and I have a right to exercise my rights!” is what we hear. Paul here is talking about self-limitation for others’ sake. Which might be considered kind of crazy considering that he’s the de facto boss in the situation- the apostle himself. It’s the boss’ job to tell everyone what do after all right? Of course, everything is turned upside down in the Kingdom of God. Remember this.
To make his point Paul talks about the rights of an apostle. He’s actually killing two birds with one stone here. Not only is he furthering his argument about all things may be lawful but not all things are profitable, he’s addressing concerns that people in Corinth had about the fact that he would not accept any support from them. There were some who felt that his tent-making job was demeaning you see. They felt that menial work was beneath certain people (and as I like to say I’m glad that those kinds of feelings don’t persist today!). This is not an issue that gets cleared up here, by the way, as Paul continues to address it in 2 Cor. Sometimes we need to keep hearing a message after all. So this is Paul’s message about himself. He poses it in a series of rhetorical questions. Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Do we not have the right to our food and drink?
I must digress here for a moment just to talk a little about the background in which Paul is living here. For philosopher/teacher/orators of Paul’s day, there were four ways of making their way cash-wise. The first is that they would charge fees. This might leave them open to the charge of greed and/or manipulation. The second is that they might have a patron – to be a kind of house teacher/philosopher. The problem here might be that one might become beholden to one’s patron, tempering the message, not wanting to cause offense, etc. The third way was that practiced by Cynics of the day – begging. This was seen as eccentric at best. Finally, the teacher could support themselves through other kinds of work – in Paul’s case tentmaking.
Some interesting things to note here. A professional clergy class was in place here. Paul supports the argument for this through examples (the soldier), through scripture (the ox is worthy of its grain), and finally through the words of Jesus himself. One still might be open to the charge of greed or manipulation, particularly if one is asking one’s congregation to fund an airplane or one is feeling beholden to big donors – acting in a sense as a kind of private chaplain to those who give the most. We see in our day too pastors who are in situations where they are called to bi-vocational ministry.
Paul has not applied any of the individual rights which he might have claimed to show by his very life a deep truth about grace. It is freely given. So Paul freely talks about it. In the same way we are called to live lives that are worthy of our calling. We are called to live lives that are reflections of Christ. There is a great line at the end of chapter 2 which simply (yet so profoundly goes “But we have the mind of Christ.” Christ is the one who told his followers that he came among them as one who serves. It’s the end of self-assertion and for the overriding concern for one’s own individual rights. To the Jews, I became as a Jew (which amazingly shows how deeply Paul saw his new identity in Christ, seeing as he was Jewish!). To those under the law, I became as one under the law. 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).
The law of Christ. The law of love.
Which I think should really be the thing that informs our thinking when we’re considering what all this means for us today. No matter what situation we’re in, the operative question has to be what does the law of Christ require here? What does the law of love require here?
It certainly requires a coming-alongside of people. It involves understanding. William Barclay talks about this in his commentary on this book. What did Paul mean when he said he has become all things to all people? It “is not a case of being hypocritically two-faced and of being one thing to one man or woman and another to another. It is a case… of being able to get alongside anyone. The man (or woman) who can never see anything but his or her point of view, who is completely intolerant, who totally lacks the gift of sympathy, who never makes any attempt to understand the mind and heart of others, will never make a past or an evangelist or even a friend.” He goes on to say that in conversation it more blessed to give than to receive – not to unrelentingly give our opinions but to give of ourselves.
Let everything you do be done in love. It’s not only about what we say of course but about what we do. When we make Thanksgiving dinner for our friends at Horizons For Youth we make sure to include a non-pork version of the stuffing because while all things may be lawful, not all things are profitable. What does this mean to you and those you are called to love and come alongside of?
Sometimes you have to take one for the team. Baseball playoffs are upon us. Someone has compared it to a batter coming to the plate in a tie game, he’s hitting .360, bases loaded, no outs. He gets the call from the third base coach – sacrifice fly. Sure it would score the runner but it’s going to affect his on-base percentage, not to mention take away an opportunity for something dramatic like a walk-off home run. Sometimes it’s better to take one for the team. To discipline ourselves, to do without something for the sake of the Kingdom. If you’re being triple-teamed on a drive to the basket, kick it out to the open shooter. It’s not all about your stats.
I appreciate that you indulge me in these sports metaphors. Paul liked metaphors from sport too. They’re as meaningful now as they were then. We’ve heard of the Isthmian games, held every two years. Not quite at the level of the Olympian games but a big deal nonetheless. Run in such a way that you may win. Athletes exercise self-control in all things, they do it to receive a perishable wreath (made from celery stalks interestingly), but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air, but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. Let us persevere friends. Let us persevere together. Paul is using examples of individual sports here, but we know we do not run this race or box this boxing match alone – we do it together. When Paul says “only one receives the prize” it doesn’t mean we’re in competition with each other – that’s part of the very thing Paul is writing against. Excellence in the Christ following life, excellence in the life of discipleship is found rather in “subordinating… individual freedoms to the good of others. Do we want to be part of such a team? God grant that the answer for all of us would be yes.