Text Study for 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 (5 Epiphany B 2021): In Praise of Persecuted Preachers

So, what’s a pastor good for anyway? That seems to be a question that bothered some of the earliest Christians – and not in a helpful way.

The section leading up to this text (1 Corinthians 9:1-15) responds to the Corinthian question about why they should pay Paul to proclaim the Good News to them. In this section, Paul makes clear to his readers that he’s not doing it for the money. Instead, he begins that section by declaring his freedom as an apostle, which is rooted in his firsthand encounter with the risen Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 9:1): “Have I not seen the Lord?

This bone-deep sense of vocation is hard for most contemporary readers either to believe or appreciate. I have had conversations with a number of parishioners over the years who simply could not accept that I was doing something that – if it had been up to me – I would not be doing. We live in a culture where personal choice is paramount (at least for the privileged). To do something under compulsion seems to most people at best stupid and at worst immoral.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Pexels.com

Proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ is not a career path for Paul. He had chosen the opposite path, as he himself describes. He was working as a persecutor of Christians, not a proclaimer of the Gospel. He notes this directly in 1 Corinthians 15:9 and in Philippians 3:6. If it were up to Paul, he’d be doing something else. Instead, a necessity has been laid upon him. This necessity is of such power that he says he would be miserable if he didn’t respond to his Divine vocation.

In my experience, people who enter the ministry of the Good New of Jesus in order to find happiness and self-fulfillment are often deeply disappointed. I find it analogous to the vocation of having and raising children. People who have children in order to find happiness and self-fulfillment are routinely disillusioned.

It’s not that Christian ministry is a source of unrelieved misery. Nor is it the case that parenting is an awful burden. Each vocation offers joy, meaning, purpose and satisfaction. But anyone who enters either vocation learns quickly that the heart of ministry is putting aside self for the sake of loving service. Truth be told, if it were up to most of us, we’d be doing something else.

But we can’t. Not won’t. Can’t.

Following Jesus leads us on a path of “downward mobility” as Katherine Grieb puts it. This emphasis, she writes, “is particularly needed in Corinth, where the Christian communities have become persuaded that success in church leadership means a high salary package, impressive credentials, and dramatic miracles. Paul insists instead,” she continues, “that the marks of a true apostle (someone who has been commissioned by the crucified and risen Lord) are evidences of suffering for the gospel and the power of enduring love in the face of rejection and misunderstanding” (page 159). So much for prosperity preaching!

If Paul were doing it for the money, that would be his reward. Instead, he knows that he has been entrusted with a “commission.” It’s hard to translate the word accurately here, but perhaps a better translation would be “office” or even “stewardship.” He uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 4:1. “Think of us in this way,” Paul writes, “as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” That verse should be kept in mind as we read today’s lection.

Nor is Paul doing it for the acclaim or honor, quantities which might have been even more valued in first-century Greco-Roman culture. “If I proclaim the gospel,” Paul declares, “this gives me no ground for boasting.” In Galatians 6:14, he makes it clear that there is only one thing about which Christians can rightly boast. “May I never boast of anything,” he says, “except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

We don’t know the background complaints for the section in detail. But I can imagine what they might be. People who have no money are unlikely to complain about having to pay Paul. The pushback likely comes from the same wealthy patrons who will draw fire in chapters 10-13 for eating all the best food at the Corinthian love feasts. Why, Paul, should we pay you to criticize us and how we live? Keep that up, and we’ll cut off your allowance!

Parish pastors know that conversation well. There is often the veiled threat – only rarely spoken – that straying outside the lines of establishment acceptability may result in an abrupt change in employment for the preacher. As I have said elsewhere, I am at least as guilty as the next pastor of self-censorship, soft-pedaling, vague generalities, and outright avoidance of confrontation in order to maintain my income, home, and career. Sometimes that might have been the course of wisdom. Sometimes it was certainly the course of cowardice. Retirement is an incredible luxury for which I am grateful to the Church daily!

Paul chooses to be unencumbered by any obligations to interest groups or entitled agendas. He proclaims the gospel “free of charge” so that he can make full use of his authority in the Gospel. In theory, at least, that is the only authority that ministers of the Gospel possess (and in theory, at least, the only authority they need).

That authority, rooted in the Word of the Gospel, apart from any institutional power or leverage, is rarely understood or acknowledged these days. It is even more rarely respected – in the Church and out. It is comforting, I suppose, to know that Paul had the same issues with entrenched and entitled power and privilege in the earliest congregations as well.

Richard Lischer was concerned nearly twenty years ago that the Church was “cautiously distancing its ministry from the word of God.” In place of the word were lodged a bland professionalism and a fuzzy pluralism. “Stripped of its word, however, the ministry disintegrates,” Lischer notes. “Without its organizing principle of acknowledgement, the pastor’s calling relapses into the chaos of busywork. The minister,” Lischer says, “is sliced, diced, and cubed into a thousand contacts and competencies but left without a heart of passion in the word, without a vocation” (page 168). Lischer remembers the memorable title of Joseph Sittler’s essay in this regard – “the maceration of the minister.”

So, what’s a pastor good for anyway? I think pastoral leaders need to offer a message in answer to that question at least once a year, and perhaps more often in this secular age. “The pastoral office is God’s way of helping the church to discover its true vocation in the world,” writes Lischer. “It is God’s gift to the church. The office of pastor was never meant to create a hierarchy of privileges in the body of Christ,” he continues. “It is not that sort of gift…The most fundament mark of the office of pastor, then…is the special gift by which it enables the people of God to discern their call.”

Paul may be free from extraneous encumbrances, but he is not a free agent in his ministry. He is “free from all” as he writes in verse nineteen, but he has enslaved himself to all for the sake of gaining some. He puts this another way in 2 Corinthians 4:5 – “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Paul has an inescapable vocation, given by the Lord firsthand.

Grieb expands on Paul’s imagery in a useful passage. “To understand the force of Paul’s image,” she writes, “we must recall how the institution of slavery functioned in the ancient world. The labor of the slave’s body provided leisure…for the owner. Paul is arguing,” she concludes, “that the service of the leader functions to create freedom for the community as a whole” (page 160). In Corinth, this means that the privileged, the positioned, and the powerful must make room for the rest. Paul will not settle for less.

Paul describes his efforts to reach those outside the congregation “by any means possible.” That likely produced additional complaints from those already on the inside and in charge. Paul, we’re the ones who are footing the bill. So, stop spending all your time and energy on those unworthy poor people who don’t have two pennies to rub together. Remember which side of your bread is buttered and who is holding the knife.

Paul may be a slave to the Gospel, but he won’t be a hostage to the privileged, powerful, and propertied. In his commentary on workingpreacher.org, Frank Couch writes that Paul “speaks helpfully to a present-day society that often approaches life — particularly church life — through the lens of a self-centered, self-protective sense of entitlement. It is easy to assume that God favors church people over “unchurched” people,” Couch continues, “and to act as if church people do not need to think about how their own practices and attitudes might unhelpfully assure that those “unchurched” people will stay that way. Too often,” he laments, “we give those outside of the faith no reason to feel invited or welcome to become insiders.”

Lest you think I’m stretching a point here, let’s look at the categories of people Paul chooses to embody for the sake of proclaiming the gospel and gaining some. Jews, lawful people, lawless people, and the weak – Paul says he has become “all things to all in order that from all I shall save some” (my translation). We might expect one more element paired with the “weak,” that is, the “strong.” But they are not mentioned. The omission is pointed and precise.

This omission takes us back to the opening chapter of First Corinthians. “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” he writes in verse twenty-six, “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Not many were wise or powerful or noble-born, but some were. These appear to be the members of the community who are making a stink about a variety of issues impinging on their perceived privilege. Paul does not become strong in order to gain the strong. Instead, we read in 1 Corinthians 1:25, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

So, Paul, why do you do it? No one is completely selfless, after all (perhaps this was a murmured comment by some of Paul’s detractors). You don’t get all the moral high ground, Mr. Apostle. There must be something in it for you too.

Quite true, Paul seems to reply. I am doing it all for the sake of the Good News. As I do it, I find that I am a joint partner in the faith, hope, and love the Good News produces in me and in my listeners. It’s no accident that the word the NRSV translates as “share in its blessing” really is yet another form of the Greek word koinonia. Even as Paul benefits from the Good News, he does not do so alone. It is only in the partnership of the Gospel that Paul finds a reward.

Paul is not naïve about the potential costs of preaching the Good News in ways that afflict the comfortable. He knows that a cross may stand in the middle of such a path. Grieb quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in this regard. “Christianity has always insisted,” King wrote, “that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” Preachers of the Good News need not seek out suffering for its own sake. Resistance, rejection, recrimination, and retribution will find us often enough.

We live in a time when bishops and pastors get emailed death threats for speaking the Good News of reconciliation in Christ across boundaries of race, gender, orientation, class, and nation. We live in a time when the Gospel of Jesus Christ is hijacked by white supremacists and pseudo-Christian nationalists to serve violent political agendas. We also live in a time when some Christian preachers are exhibiting courage in public in ways not seen perhaps in this country since the years leading up to Civil War – at least not in white churches. We know this is a way of life in Black, Brown, and Asian churches, but perhaps some of us are finally catching up a bit.

For that proclamation and for those preachers, I thank God. And I pray for their safety, sanity, and security.

If such preachers were doing this for money or notoriety, or even for safety and job security, they would certainly pick a different message. But they cannot. Woe to us if we do not continue proclaiming the Good News!

References and Resources

Aaron, Charles L., Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-isaiah-4021-31-4

BAGD, page 190; page 608.

Couch, Frank. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-916-23-3

Daubert, Dave. The Invitational Christian. Day 8 Strategies. Kindle Edition.

Grieb, A. Katherine. “’The One Who Called You…’ Vocation and Leadership in the Pauline Literature.” Interpretation 59:2, April 2005, pages 154-165.

Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-129-39

Lischer, Richard. “The Called Life: An Essay on the Pastoral Vocation.” Interpretation 59:2, April 2005, pages 166-175.

Metzger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Tucker, W. Dennis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-isaiah-4021-31-2

Wenger, Timothy. The Freedom of a Christian 1520, (The Annotated Luther Study Edition). Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2016.

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