Monday, February 16, 2015

Truly Free

Truly Free
1 Corinthians 9:16-23[1]
A recent column in the local paper bemoaned the sad state of affairs in the generation of people born between 1980 and 2000, known as the “Millenials.”[2] In it, the author complains about the fact that they are more interested in the number of their Facebook friends than in actually working for a living. While I realize the column was meant to be somewhat tongue in cheek, I also know that much of what was said there is repeated over and over by those of us with grey in our hair. It’s true that many young people have a different outlook on life than people in my generation. But then my generation had a different outlook than those who preceded us. It seems every generation has challenges with their children and grandchildren.
Often the complaint that we level against younger generations is that they are narcissistic or self-absorbed. The common gripe these days is that they have a sense of entitlement. They think they “deserve” a spot on the team or a good grade or a job with a good salary. And yet, I’m not so sure that those of us criticizing them have a better attitude in this respect.[3] I would say we all have some sense of entitlement. We all believe we have certain rights that ought not be violated. Just think about how you feel when someone cuts you off while driving by pulling into “your” lane.
I think that we as a people tend to believe that’s what it means to be truly “free”: we have certain rights that others have to respect.[4] In fact, our whole culture is founded on this notion that we possess certain “inalienable” rights. But as the world changes and especially as our economy changes some of us realize that the “rights” we thought we were guaranteed are evaporating before our very eyes. If we define our freedom by our rights, I’m afraid one day most of us are going to wake up and be deeply disappointed. When we define our freedom by the “rights” we can assert, it seems to me that we’re not truly free at all.
But our lesson from St. Paul for today casts freedom in a totally different light. Rather than grasping tightly to his rights as an apostle of Jesus Christ, St. Paul defined true freedom in terms of giving up whatever “rights” he might be able to claim.  This is a continuation of our lesson from last week, where Paul insisted that the true meaning of our lives is to emulate the love God has poured into our hearts through Jesus Christ by choosing to love others. In that context, he was addressing a problem in the church at Corinth: some of them felt “free” to take part in idol feasts, while others were definitely troubled by such behavior. And so Paul urged those who were claiming the right to exercise their freedom in Christ to forego that perceived “right” and to think not just about themselves but about the welfare of others.[5]
Here he presents himself as a prime example of that kind of life. As an apostle, there was an expectation that he had the “right” to receive financial support from the churches he was serving. Although St. Paul did occasionally receive gifts from churches he had formerly served, he made it a practice never to accept support from the church he was currently serving. Instead, he worked to provide for himself as a tent-maker, which was considered a rather menial job. In fact, some of the people in the church at Corinth probably saw it as beneath the stature of an apostle.
And yet, St. Paul insisted on carrying out his calling in this way, even though it caused problems on more than one occasion.[6] One reason for this was that Paul felt himself compelled by the free gift of grace he received from God, compelled to offer the gospel to others as a free gift.[7] In our lesson for today in fact he says that his service as an apostle was not something he chose to do “of his own will,” but rather that he felt a certain obligation because he was “entrusted with a commission” (1 Cor. 9:17). In fact, he felt so strongly about this that he could say, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).
Another reason for Paul’s unusual and somewhat controversial practice was that he felt it was essential for promoting the gospel.[8] He makes it clear that he found his freedom not by insisting on certain rights as an Apostle or as a Jewish Christian with a distinguished heritage, or even as a Roman citizen. Rather, he makes it clear that he could “become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) for the sake of the gospel. He could do this, he could hold even his cultural roles and personal identity loosely, because he believed that being truly free means letting go all those structures and defining lines and giving up any “rights” that might go along with them in order to serve the body of Christ.
  Our world seems obsessed with “rights.” But as St. Paul makes clear, we do not find true freedom by insisting on our “rights.” In this, the Apostle is not striking out on a totally new path. Rather he can say later that he essentially wants them to “follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).[9] Jesus set the example of giving up what one might be able to consider “rightfully mine” in order to serve others (cf. Phil. 2:5-8). His is the ultimate story of giving up his “rights” in order to serve others. I think the same principle applies to our lives. If we want to be “truly free,” we will not find that freedom by grasping our “rights” as if we are entitled to them. Rather, when we give up what we might consider “rightfully mine” in order to serve others, then we will be “truly free.”[10]

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/8/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Lee Pitts, “Generation Why,” Voice News 8 January 2015, p. 7.
[3] Cf. Drew Foster, “Millenial Entitlement Is A Myth,” Salon, Saturday, September 28, 2013, accessed at
[4] Cf. John Paul II, in “The Gospel of Life,” 19.3, said that we have “a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them.” See J. Michael Miller, C. S. B., The Encyclicals of John Paul II, 808.
[5] Joop F. M. Smit, “The Rhetorical Disposition of First Corinthians 8:7-9:27,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59 (July 1997): 486: “If Paul and Barnabas renounce at all costs their legitimate and undisputed right to eat and drink, in order not to be of hindrance to the gospel, then in imitation of them the Corinthians certainly ought to renounce their presumed right to eat and drink, in order to avoid putting a stumbling block in the path of their weak brothers.”  Cf. also Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 148.
[6] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 147: “Paul did not fit readily into any recognizable job description within the culture of the Corinthians.”
[7] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 147: “Paul decided early in his apostolic career to … [work] with his own hands to earn his living … supplemented by occasional unsought gifts from some of his churches …. This was a relatively unusual choice …, and the Corinthian correspondence shows that it proved controversial.” Cf. also Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 158; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:203.
[8] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 148: “Paul’s self-description serves as a model for the conduct that he is urging on the strong: like him, they should be willing to surrender their exousia [right/authority] for the sake of the weak in order to promote the gospel.”
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, 43: “in correspondence to the servanthood of Jesus, Paul conceived of his own apostolic activity as work. The proclamation of the gospel is a necessity (ananke), which he cannot escape (1 Cor. 9:16f.). Therefore in this service he becomes a “servant of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:1). The apostolic work carries all the marks of the servanthood of Christ.”
[10] See especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit; this is a theme that runs throughout his discussion of the church’s identity and calling. He begins the idea that Jesus establishes the freedom of God’s kingdom by sacrificing himself for others (117), by breaking the powers of oppression through the resurrection (98-99), and by assuring us that we are accepted by God, and therefore enabling us to accept others (188-89).  On this basis Moltmann understands the freedom of God’s kingdom as that which enables us to serve one another in the effort to bring freedom to others (84, 195, 278, 283-84, 292); he construes this life under the concept of “friendship” which Jesus models and we are called to emulate those who are “open for others” and who “love in freedom” (121, 316). I would suggest that this idea of freedom to love is a central theme in Moltmann’s understanding of the Christian life.

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