Paul makes a number of evocative statements in today’s reading.  He talks about pastoral pay, about voluntary slavery to the church, about his own freedom from the OT law and his subservience to Christ’s law.  Each of these needs reflection, but today I want to talk about his famous phrase, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

I have heard this simple phrase used in various ways in ministry, some spurious and some legitimate.  I have heard people use this to justify very ungodly behaviors and dangerous connections with very ungodly groups.  This is not a good verse to justify a recovering alcoholic regularly visiting a bar, or a youth joining a gang.  But I have also heard this verse used by people to push themselves out of their comfort zones and to reprioritize their life.  It is a good verse to justify joining a group that will stretch you or seeing the world through another’s eyes.

But Paul makes some startling statements here.  “I became a Jew, like one under the OT Law, like one not having the law, and weak.”  Who Paul is seems to be determined by who he is with.   When we do this, we call it “people-pleasing” and see it as a weakness.  So what’s the difference?

For Paul, this is a leadership choice, not a weakness.  For us, people-pleasing comes from a fear of criticism, but for Paul, it is a self-sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel.  And as we’ve seen, for Paul, and ideally for the rest of us, the gospel must come first, before our reputation (“weak”), before our rights to freedom (“under the law”), and before our legalism (“as one not knowing the law”).  We need to be willing to put ourselves behind our passion to see lost people found, infant faith grown, and servants taught and sent into this world.

We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.  Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know.  But whoever loves God is known by God.

The city of Corinth was not only the wealthiest of Paul’s recipient cities and the most ungodly (throughout the Roman world, “to play the Corinthian” was a slur about ones sexual immorality), but they were also the most arrogant about their learning.  They gluttonously collected and proclaimed Knowledge as a mark of pride.  So it is no surprise that Paul decides, among the many issues he addresses to this church, to address the whole idea of knowledge.  “We all possess knowledge,” was a haughty declaration of Corinthian pride.

Paul’s one-line corrective is important for us today as well.  “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up.”  This was a verse my dad gave me as I entered Seminary and has become a lifeverse for me, a check on the natural pride we take in knowing more than another.  When left unchecked, new knowledge is used at dinner parties, among friends, and even in our spiritual life as a way of saying, “I’m better than you.”  And so we sit in more and more bible studies, and we listen to more and more sermons so that we might know more and more, yet the poor go unserved, the starving are still hungry, and the world still doesn’t know the gospel.

Paul doesn’t go on to say that, “those who think they know something do not yet know what they ought.”  He says instead that they “… do not yet know AS they ought.”  We know all we need to know but we don’t know it in the right way.  We know it for the sake of puffing ourselves up, raising our rank with others, and as a weapon to be used against others.  Instead, Paul says, we should know what we know to help and love others, to build them up, and to defend those who need the information against the power of ignorance.

So know what you know, but use it wisely.  Find a balance between your learning about God and your doing for Him.  And most of all, never forget that the most important knowledge in the world is that you are known by God.

As we’ve mentioned before, Corinth was a wealthy, powerful city in the region.  So Paul’s messages in this letter are addressed to wealthy, powerful, but spiritually young people.  Which makes it a great letter for modern America who fits that mold perfectly.  And what does Paul have to say to us today?

Paul has much to say about marriage.  One of my favorites is, “Those who marry face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you from this.”  I can just imagine a Mrs. Paul listening to his sermon and rolling her eyes (or maybe that’s my wife when I say things equally insensitive).  Yet Paul has a point.  Those who marry are responsible for their spouse, kids, in-laws, and others for whom they would not otherwise be responsible.  And these responsibilities close off avenues of service that are otherwise open to us.  So to remain unmarried opens up many new avenues of service to God.  This is one of the primary reasons Catholic priests and nuns have traditionally been unmarried.  In fact, I’ve heard people talking about nuns say, “they are married to Christ”.

But I think this is an important point.  Not about marriage but about focus.  Is our focus on serving God before anything else?  Would we sacrifice the joys and blessings of marriage if we believed it would help us serve God better?  I’m guessing not.  We won’t even give up our favorite TV show or social media platform for God, let alone marriage.

We need to refocus this life of ours.  If we are truly going to claim that we follow Christ, then we had better follow Him.  And I promise that He will lead us into some very uncomfortable places.  Is my pastoral advice to remain unmarried?  No, for the same reason Paul didn’t – because for most, remaining unmarried will lead to lustful thoughts and actions, and so, Paul says, it is better to get married than to sin sexually.  But for those able to live celibate lives, Paul gives great praise.  For they will be uniquely qualified to follow Christ with more devotion than any of us married folk ever could.

This coming Sunday, Aug. 26, is our Kickoff Sunday and do we have an amazing day planned for you!  Everyone is invited to everything and we hope you’ll make an extra effort to join us for the whole morning.

9:15am – Sunday School Kickoff
Everyone gathers in the Sanctuary for music, The Great Family Faceoff, prayer, and a preview of our year including details about our Children’s  and Youth Ministries, our Christmas Musical, our adult Bible Studies, and more.

10:30am – Worship Together

We gather for worship including a Word of Witness from Paul Nauman, the giving of bibles to our kindergarteners, and the wrap-up of our series on Elijah and Elisha focusing on what Jesus had to say about these two prophets.

12:00pm – Kickoff Picnic
Bring a side or dessert to pass, lawn chairs or a blanket and join us for our annual picnic.  Burgers, brats, and hotdogs.  Salads, fruit, and chips.  More desserts than we can eat.  There will be plenty for everyone.

Suffering happens.  Every one of us who live beyond the first week of life will experience suffering.  It is as inevitable as death and God’s presence.

Yet we spend most of our lives and energies fleeing from it.  We work most of our day to make money so that we can live comfortable lives, so that our families can live comfortable lives, and so that we can avoid the suffering of poverty.  For those who work not for money but for purpose and meaning, we are seeking to avoid meaninglessness.  We have nice houses to protect us, nice cars to help us feel good about ourselves, and even attend churches that don’t talk about suffering except to alleviate it.  We run from pain, see sickness and death as enemies to be conquered, and do everything we can make our lives free of suffering.

And so we sit in church and wonder why it is so hard to have faith.  Why doesn’t this sink in?  Why do I doubt?  Why doesn’t it matter more in my life like its supposed to?  How can church be a sideline of my life, something I do but not really something I am?

The bible was written to and for a suffering people.  The gospel is a message of hope for the downtrodden and wounded.  Slaves, the oppressed, the poor, the diseased, the dying… it was to the suffering that the bible was originally written and the message of it is one of hope for the future.

We can’t put God truly first in our lives because we don’t need Him.  We have managed to alleviate most of our suffering on our own through our privilege and so a message of a better life to come doesn’t mean much.  Salvation is the act of being saved, but for we who do not know suffering, what is there for us to be saved from?

Only those who know suffering can truly understand the gospel.   This is why the hardest group to share Jesus with is not atheists or Muslims or the young or the old, but the wealthy and “righteous”.  It is they who do not know true suffering and so it is they (we) who have the hardest time with salvation.

Not to us, Lord, not to us but to Your name be the glory, because of Your love and faithfulness.
Why do the nations say, “Where is their God?”  Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him.

This is such an important thought.  In a culture that says, “It’s all about you!” we need this reminder.  From our entertainment to our politics, from our food choices even to our churches, we are constantly told that only we matter, that our desires and will are primary.

But that is not the truth.  It is not an opinion that God gets the glory; that is simple fact.  We cannot be God’s people and still take His rightful glory for ourselves.  Did you create the world or anything that is in it?  Do you make the plants grow our food?  Do you give yourself the skills you use to gain your riches?  No, in all of this it is God who originates and initiates everything we have, and so it is He who gets the glory from His children.

And next comes the hard truth that God is not bound by us at all.  He is not bound by our morality but is instead its source.  He is not bound by our expectations and in fact takes great joy in blowing them apart.  God is the unexpected one, sending an infant child where we expected a military commander, healing where we expected sickness, bringing life where we expected death, and showing mercy when we expected judgement.  God does whatever pleases Him, and often that means going against what we want or expect Him to.

When you pray, do you pray to the God of the unexpected?  The God who can do whatever He pleases?  Or are you still following a God of your own making, who follows your rules and expectations?

“Expel the wicked person from among you.”  Yikes.

While every church has a bylaw stating how to deal with immoral (“wicked”) people in their midst, I’ve seldom heard of anyone invoking it.  Few churches would expel anyone for sinful reasons, and with good reason.  Who’s to judge how wicked someone has to be before they are expelled?  What about others who are as wicked but not as public?  What is the church’s obligation to that person?  Is this still even relevant in the modern church or was this a command to an entirely different entity?

Paul gives some good insights into these questions.  First of all, he is the one who stands as judge over this person.  “Though I’m not with you physically, I’m there in spirit and have already passed judgement on them.”  Paul is an “overseer”, much more than our local pastors.  He is more a bishop or superintendent, an outside voice with authority calling this person to account.  But for what?

Yes, this person is sleeping with his step-mother, something the OT says is “detestable” (Lev. 18:8).  But more than that, the church is cheering him on.  “We’re free from the law so we can go ahead and do whatever we want.  For example, take Cletus over there who’s sleeping with his stepmom.  We applaud that!”  The act has led the entire church astray, and in so doing has ruined its reputation for morality in the community.  This is not just a personal sin but the very reputation of Jesus Christ at stake.

And the church is to kick this person out.  This was a time where there wasn’t simply another church down the block to attend like today.  If you were kicked out of the fellowship, there was nowhere else to go.  This was what the Catholic’s have called excommunication at its prime.  Given the communal nature of the early church, this was forcing poor Cletus (yes, I’ve made up that name) to leave his home, his church, and his community.

Is this still applicable today?  Do we still kick people out of the church for immorality deep enough that it hurts Jesus’ reputation?  Yes we do.  Take Willow Creek as a case in point.  But we need to be very careful, seek outside guidance, be sure the sin is unrepentant and pulling the whole of the church into sin, and even with that we pray for the salvation of that person’s soul.

Hard teaching today but one we cannot simply ignore because our culture tells us to be tolerant.  Let them be tolerant (though they aren’t), but we are called to be holy, and that is a deeply difficult task.

When we get a health scare, a job loss, financial trouble, family problems, or just need help, to whom do we turn?  Usually to an expert.  Health scares require a doctor.  Appointments, tests, medication, and we are well again.  In body, anyway.  Our spirit is still wounded with fears but we seldom recognize that.  Financial trouble requires a financial analyst.  Debt consolidation, maybe bankruptcy filings, and we’re back on stable footing.  Financially, anyway.  Our spirit is still wounded with humiliation, but we seldom recognize that.  Family problems want a therapist, phobias need a psychologist, and we turn to this world’s experts again and again.  And we walk away with a temporary fix and a wounded soul again and again.

Ps. 107 tell us to remember our history to help deal with our future.  It reminds us to tell each other our stories of salvation.

Remember when we wandered in the desert wastelands and were starving?  We cried out to God and He delivered us!  He led us to cities with lots of food!

Remember when we were imprisoned and enslaved and hard labor was the way of the day?  We cried out to God and He delivered us!  He freed us and gave us rest!

Remember when we rebelled against God and almost died?  We cried out to God and He delivered us!  He taught us how to obey and saved our lives!

Remember when we were caught in that storm at sea and we were terrified almost to death?  We cried out to God and He delivered us!  He calmed the storm and our fears together!

You see, the very God who dries up rivers and lakes and destroys entire ecosystems, the very God who blesses the land and brings rains and cool weather to replenish the land, this God of climate change and seasonal change is our God to whom we can pray.  If He can bring drought or floods, warmth and coolness with a thought, can’t He also be trusted to care for our needs when we cry out to Him?  Maybe He’s the expert to whom we should turn in times of trial and trouble.

I have an image of the judgement day that is based on this text, but only loosely.  I do not proclaim this to be truth, just my perception of a possible explanation based on 1 Cor. 3.

At the judgement seat, we will each pass through the fire.  I see a sheet of fire standing before the doorway to God.  As we pass through this sheet, the things in our lives we have built out of “straw, hay, or wood” are consumed.  These are the ungodly things, the unimportant things, the flimsy things we create in our lives, from an eternal perspective.  But the things we’ve built our of “gold, silver, and costly stones” pass through the fire unharmed and last.  These are the things God has called us to seek, to strive for, to do which last.

What in your life is straw?  Hay?  Wood?  I think of things like wealth, reputation, power, prestige, success, the good will of people.  These do not last for eternity.  These are inconsequential in the long run.  These are tools that will be useless in the world to come.  Yet these are the things this world tells us to value above all else.  And so we spend our time accumulating wealth and reputation rather than working for Godly things that will last.

What in your life is gold?  Silver?  Precious stones?  I think of things like strengthening your faith, helping others, caring for the poor, building relationships, worship, caring for our spouses and children, and especially evangelism.  These are the things that will last.  But we treat these like side dishes to life’s meal.  We do them when we have the time, or the energy, or the will leftover after we’re done seeking the straw/hay/wood of this world.

Maybe its time for a priority check in light of eternity.

I have an image of the judgement day that is based on this text, but only loosely.  I do not proclaim this to be truth, just my perception of a possible explanation based on 1 Cor. 3.

At the judgement seat, we will each pass through the fire.  I see a sheet of fire standing before the doorway to God.  As we pass through this sheet, the things in our lives we have built out of “straw, hay, or wood” are consumed.  These are the ungodly things, the unimportant things, the flimsy things we create in our lives, from an eternal perspective.  But the things we’ve built our of “gold, silver, and costly stones” pass through the fire unharmed and last.  These are the things God has called us to seek, to strive for, to do which last.

What in your life is straw?  Hay?  Wood?  I think of things like wealth, reputation, power, prestige, success, the good will of people.  These do not last for eternity.  These are inconsequential in the long run.  These are tools that will be useless in the world to come.  Yet these are the things this world tells us to value above all else.  And so we spend our time accumulating wealth and reputation rather than working for Godly things that will last.

What in your life is gold?  Silver?  Precious stones?  I think of things like strengthening your faith, helping others, caring for the poor, building relationships, worship, caring for our spouses and children, and especially evangelism.  These are the things that will last.  But we treat these like side dishes to life’s meal.  We do them when we have the time, or the energy, or the will leftover after we’re done seeking the straw/hay/wood of this world.

Maybe its time for a priority check in light of eternity.