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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Free – To Serve

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

“Freedom” was an electric word in ancient Corinth. Jesus and the Christian faith had set them free. That was part of the Good News of Jesus Christ. But they abused their freedom. They misused it. Intoxicated with freedom, they turned Christ’s liberty into license.

“My speech is free,” they maintained. So it is. But what about the divisions among them, the complaining, the rudeness and the boasting that was going on? Abused free speech that caused Paul to tell them to “Agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you” (1 Cor. 1:10-15) and “Do not grumble!” (1 Cor. 10:10) He wrote, that when he came to see them, he expected to find “Quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder.” (2 Cor. 12:20) And he wrote to them, “Many are boasting in the way the world does.” (2 Cor. 11:18) “Your speech is free,” Paul is saying, “but knock off the nasty stuff!”

“My knowledge is liberation”, they said. True again. They were liberated from the age long fear of idols by knowing Christ, the living and true God. But they took their freedom farther than that. They felt free to go and eat meat from an idol’s temple, and thumb their noses at Christians who were troubled about that. So Paul had to remind them that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Cor. 8:1) In other words, stop using your knowledge to injure another brother or sister for whom Christ died.

“My worship is free,” they might have said. No more of those dull Jewish synagogue services. None of this dead old liturgy. Let it be free. And don’t let anyone disturb me when I’m trying to worship! But, Paul tells the Corinthians, don’t forget whose house you’re in and whose supper you are eating. Don’t worry so much about your freedom that you have a negative effect on those who are young in the faith!

“My actions are free,” they said. I can do what I want. Don’t tell me what to do! I have my rights. And don’t say, “Thus saith the Lord!” But the Scriptures were given for our warning and instruction. They plainly show how the Israelites, intoxicated by their freedom, gave way to license and idolatry and were judged and punished by God (1 Cor. 10:1-12) In any case, how about our freedom to let love control our actions and put other Christians first? For “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails!” (1 Cor. 13:4-8a)

Our freedom cannot be used in such a way as to get in the way of freedom for others. And besides that, the free person has to carry the responsibilities of freedom. And that means following the truly free man, Jesus Christ, down the path of selflessness and suffering. That’s what the Apostles did, and they set the example. That’s what all Christians are called to do. Free though we are, we have been bought with a price, the precious lifeblood of Christ. (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23)

If we’re to avoid the mistakes of the Corinthians, we need to remember this definition: Freedom is not license to do what I want, but liberation to do what I ought.

And what ought we do? Paul gives us some clear guidelines for the proper use of our Christian freedom. They have a wide application. One of the wonderful things about the Christian faith is that it doesn’t have a long list of do’s and don’ts. It tells us we are Christ’s free people, and gives us principles for living to ensure that our freedom isn’t eroded. How we apply these principles is a matter between us and the Lord.

First, Paul tells us, we are free but are “Under Christ’s Law.” Jesus asks us to put our freedom under Him who set us free, to seek to please Him in our ethical decisions. It’s really a freeing thing to not be bound to a legal code, but rather to be bound to a person who loves us and wants what’s best for us above all else. It’s no pain to please such a person. If we make that our aim, we will have discovered the clearest guideline to the responsible use of freedom. To put it simply, we need to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”

Paul also tells us we are free whatever our circumstances. As Christians, our freedom doesn’t depend on outward circumstances. Paul was free, even when he was in prison – and so were Solzhenitsyn, Wurmbrand, and Bonhoeffer! Many of us have known people who were literally dying – but were free. Jesus was free when He was bound and standing in Herod’s courtroom. Freedom doesn’t depend on circumstance, but on attitude.

And then Paul tells us we are free, to be everybody’s servant! Released from the shackles of selfishness, we are set free for service to others. This is the main point of today’s Epistle lesson.

We need to be ready and willing to subordinate our freedom to evangelize others – to bring them the Good News of salvation and eternal life in Jesus. As Paul put it, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” (1 Cor. 9:19) “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor. 9:22) He came to people whoever they were and wherever they were and gave them the Gospel on their level. He used his freedom to serve those who were still bound, slaves to sin and ignorance.

We are called to subordinate our freedom, not only to winning people to Christ, but also to helping them along the Christian road. “Everything is permissible,” the Apostle concedes, “but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.” (1 Cor. 10:23-24)

Jesus is the perfect example of a servant. His investment in the lives of His disciples was the focus of His entire being. In fact, His investment cost Him His live! He demonstrated His commitment to them in the washing of their feet. That was how He “showed them the full extent of His love.” With a towel, some water, a basin and a heart of loving servanthood, He washed each of His disciple’s feet. The Apostle John tells us, “When He had finished washing their feet, He put on His clothes and returned to His place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ He asked them. ‘You call me teach and Lord, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’” (John 13:1-17)

We are not called to “Lord it over others!” Instead we are called to serve others and imitate Jesus’ examples.

The Apostle Paul summarizes this for us in his letter to the Philippians: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:3-8)

That’s our Savior and Lord, who died to make us free – free to serve!!


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