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Sermon for February 5, 2012

1 Corinthians 9:16-27 (5th Sunday after the Epiphany—Series B)

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT

February 5, 2012

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Our text this morning is the Epistle lesson recorded in 1 Corinthians 9:

For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!  For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship.  What then is my reward?  That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.  For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Harold Bloom is the author of 27 books.  He is a former Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard.   Currently, Bloom is Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University.   And he’s got a book out called Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.  When it first came out, that title, mounted on a rather nice hardcover, caught my attention at Barnes and Noble.  I read the publisher’s notes on the inside cover to see if it was a book for me: “Harold Bloom has written about religion and the Bible throughout his career, but now, with Jesus and Yahweh, he has written what may well be his most explosive, and important, book yet.  There is very little evidence of the historical Jesus–who he was, what he said.  As Bloom writes, ‘There is not a sentence concerning Jesus in the entire New Testament composed by anyone who ever had met the unwilling King of the Jews.’”

And that’s where I stopped reading.  I was appalled.  As a college history major I could not believe that anyone would publish such a naïve statement.  I mean, honestly, there is no basis in history for it because history and historians do not deny the existence of Jesus, Paul, or Peter.  As a Lutheran Pastor, my righteous anger flared.  “What?  You’ve got to be kidding me!  Who does this nut-ball think he is?  Jesus was the unwilling King of the Jews?  Jesus had never met Peter or Paul?  How ludicrous!”

But the problem really isn’t with the historical accuracy of Bloom’s claims.  It isn’t even about his theological errors.  From reading this, the problem seems to be that Harold Bloom hasn’t met Jesus Christ in the Gospel.  And there are a lot of “Harold Blooms” out there in our community.  There are people living on your street who haven’t met Jesus Christ.  They don’t know that He is the willing King of the Jews.  They don’t know Him as their Lord and Savior from sin, who lived a perfect life for them, who died on a cross taking their punishment, who rose again from the dead, and who freely gives the forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who trust in Him.  They are the unchurched, the non-believers.

The unchurched have not yet received the forgiveness of sins by faith in Jesus.  They don’t yet have eternal life, but rather stand condemned under God’s perfect judgment.  What can be done?  Of course there are those who will always reject Jesus Christ and His forgiveness and eternal life.  St. Paul admitted that in our text when he wrote, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some,” not all.  But did Paul ever stop telling people the Gospel?  Did Paul ever say, “There’s no point to telling these people about Jesus”?  Absolutely not!  In fact, quite the contrary.  Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”  For Paul, telling people about Jesus in such a way that the Holy Spirit would use that Gospel to create saving faith is a necessity.  Paul is compelled by the Spirit to preach because God entrusted him with the stewardship of the Good News about Jesus.  He’s constrained to present the Gospel free of charge, that by all means he might save some.  Paul does everything in his life and ministry for the sake of this Gospel so that he might share with the lost in the blessings of Jesus’ forgiveness and eternal life.

You and I would do well to imitate St. Paul as we proclaim the Gospel of our Savior free of charge to the unchurched.  So how do we go about doing that?  Following Paul’s example, we become all things to all people that by all means we might save some through the proclamation of Jesus Christ.  But here is the key, fellow Gospel-proclaimers: adapt yourself to those to whom you tell the Good News of Jesus but never, ever change the message of the Gospel to suit people’s religious or cultural tastes.

It is through the Gospel, and only through the Gospel, that people receive forgiveness and eternal life.  And there is only one Gospel that is the power of God unto salvation.  Paul wrote to the Galatian Christians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:6-9)

Yet there are well-intentioned Christians who end up proclaiming a different Gospel, thinking that they are “helping the cause.”  Church bodies and congregations feel that they must change the message to suit people’s feelings or way of thinking or way of life.  They end up watering down the Good News about Jesus so that it becomes a different message entirely.  We are told that the contemporary sinner will not sit still for solid or in-depth Bible teaching or preaching.  We are told that the typical unchurched individual will not sit still for doctrinal teaching or messages that emphasize sin, hell, wrath, judgment, even if those emphases are followed with the Good News of Jesus.  And so the emphasis becomes simply to get people in the front door any way possible and perhaps slipping in the Gospel at some point down the road, if ever.  Gospel proclamation takes a back-seat.  Telling the people about Jesus isn’t what’s important.  The result is then a watered-down message and a substitute message of the cross proclaimed to the unchruched through gimmicks, manipulation, worldly philosophy, emotionalism, and entertainment.  And that message does them no good at all because it is not the true Gospel.

So do we change the message to suit people’s wishes?  Do we change the Gospel to fit in with the world’s ideology?  By no means!  To win the Jews, Paul knew he must become “as a Jew.”  He was careful never to cause them unnecessary offense, but he never changed the Gospel message.  He became as “those under law,” like the Jews and the numerous God-fearing Gentiles.  He did not make an arrogant display of his new freedom in Christ but reached out to the God-fearers in a sympathetic way, humbly identifying with them in order to win them for the Gospel.  Paul became like those not having the law, like the Gentiles.  He became like the weak.  He became all things to all people so that by the means of the Gospel, some might be saved.  But the message was never changed.

One of the early church fathers, Cyril of Jerusalem, wrote this about Jesus, “Everywhere the Savior becomes “all things to all men.”  To the hungry, bread; to the thirsty, water; to the dead, resurrection; to the sick, a physician; to sinners, redemption.”  And the message never changed.  Jesus said in our Gospel today, “Let us go somewhere else–to the nearby villages–so I can preach there also.  That is why I have come.”  Our Lord said, “I have come to seek and to the save the lost.”  Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

The Gospel is all about Jesus.  It does not ever change.  As Lutheran Hour Ministries reminds its listeners, the Gospel is about a changeless Christ for a changing world.  Hebrews 13:8 tells us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”  It was Jesus Christ who took on human flesh as the substitute for all humanity.  He took every person’s place under God’s holy Law.  He kept that Law perfectly for everyone.  Jesus suffered humanity’s punishment for all sins when He died on the cross as our substitute.  Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection has purchased and won for all people the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  There is forgiveness for the times that we have watered-down that message in order to suit someone’s needs.  There is forgiveness of the times that we have not clearly presented the true Gospel of Christ so that people might be saved.  There is forgiveness for making the Gospel into something that it is not.

And that’s what the Gospel is all about—forgiveness in Jesus Christ for you and for the world.  It’s the Gospel message that brought you salvation.  It’s the unchanging truth that created saving faith in your hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.  And it is this never-changing message that the Holy Spirit still uses to create saving faith where and when it pleases God as the unchurched hear this un-changed message of Jesus Christ and His life, death, and resurrection.

There are indeed a lot of people like Harold Bloom in our world.  There are so many people who need the life-saving, precious promises of the Gospel.  The Lord Himself has entrusted to you, His people, with the task of sharing the Good News about Jesus with the unchurched.  By the power of the Gospel at work in your lives through the Holy Spirit, present the Gospel free of charge.  Adapt to the changing needs of the people to whom you speak this great news without changing the message.  It’s the pure Gospel, and only the pure Gospel, through which the unchurched receive their forgiveness and salvation in Christ.  So give them that perfect gift, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 


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