1 Corinthians 9: 24-27
February 13, 2000
© John M. Connan
I want you to close your eyes right now. I want you to dream for a moment. I want you to dream about the future of this congregation and the future of the Uniting Church.
In your dreaming were you optimistic or pessimistic?
God gives each of us the freedom to shape our own lives and the future of institutions -schools, hospitals, libraries, worshipping communities, and even pipe organ manufacturers. Those who are optimistic about the future of the Church will plan and act on a different set of assumptions from those who are pessimistic about its future. The pessimist is ready to close everything down and plans accordingly. The optimist expects that better things are yet to be and plans for expansion..
You can be a Hanrahan, and shape the facts to your own pessimistic ends.
(Quotation from Said Hanrahan.)
Or you can be as foolishly optimistic as Dicken’s Wilkins Micawber with his “difficulties.. most overwhelming, just at present,” but always ready “if anything turns up.”
Christians, we know, should be optimistic. God is on our side. As for the church, “all the powers of Hell will not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18, NLB).
Being positive is not always easy. To be human is to be subject to our emotions, especially depression.
At times Jesus had to encourage his disciples and lift their spirits. Paul and Peter in their letters needed to urge on the first followers of Jesus.
Most of those early Christians didn’t amount to much. Few were of any consequence. And it wasn’t long before the opposition to the Christians became outright and bloody persecution.
Paul was writing to the Christians in Corinth. The city had had a chequered history. Situated on the isthmus separating northern and southern Greece, it was a crossroads for land and sea. It had long been prosperous. In the Greek wars of the second century BC the city was destroyed and lay deserted, until colonised by Rome a hundred years later. The rebuilt city attracted people from everywhere once again. Even in its re-establishment, as the site of the Temple of Aphrodite with its 1,000 sacred prostitutes, it never lost its reputation for loose living. Once more Corinth was a byword for profligacy and immorality.
This didn’t make life easy for the Corinthian Christians. It wasn’t easy being counter-cultural. It wasn’t easy being followers of a newly emerging faith. It wasn’t easy following the new ways of the way of Jesus. And, although Paul didn’t know it, it would only get harder in the not-too-distant future.
Paul spent some time in Corinth. After he moved on, others arrived wanting to change and dilute Paul’s message. Arguments broke out. Things within the Church got heated. Paul wrote in rather strong terms. They resented his tone. An anti-Pauline feeling developed. His authority was questioned. Was he an apostle and as spiritual as he claimed?
Paul didn’t take criticism easily. In this letter we call First Corinthians he again offered his advice. But he also strongly defended his right to give advice!
With them, he pointed out, he’d shared the gospel at no cost, while working as a tent-maker. He’d shared the good news in every possible way with every possible person.
“I am not bound to obey people just because they pay me, yet I have become a servant of everyone so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with the Jews, I become one of them so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with those who follow the Jewish laws, I do the same, even though I am not subject to the law, so that I can bring them to Christ. When I am with the Gentiles who do not have the Jewish law, I fit in with them as much as I can. In this way, I gain their confidence and bring them to Christ. But I do not discard the law of God; I obey the law of Christ. When I am with those who are oppressed, I share their oppression so that I might bring them to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ. I do all this to spread the Good News, and in doing so I enjoy its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
If that was not enough to prove his right to offer advice, he used an image familiar to them, the way athletes at the Isthmian Games 10 km out of the heart of the city trained relentlessly to win. Unless they trained exclusively for the Games for eight months, they were ineligible and were scratched:
“Remember that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize. You also must run in such a way that you will win. All athletes practice strict self-control. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run straight to the goal with purpose in every step. I am not like a boxer who misses his punches. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (9:24-27).
As Paul explained himself, he set out for the Corinthians and for us the way ahead.
However difficult the way ahead may be, go on – with determination. However costly moving forward may be, go on - with clear purpose.
There must be a goal. Only by keeping that goal in sight, only by training with the clear purpose of reaching that goal, only by bending every muscle to reach that goal will the prize be won.
We can face the future with chins drooping or with heads held high. But being optimistic without facing the difficulties of our situation will be disastrous and foolish – in the hope that something will turn up.
As we work through our NewStart series, we need to be optimistic and realistic. Whether this corner will continue to see Christian worship week by week or whether we move on from where Christians have worshipped for 134 years depends on us. Even if we move elsewhere, whether where we move has a future will still depend on us.
Whatever we do, we will need a goal we all accept. It will need to be so clear that, week by week, we will know what we’re doing fits into that purpose and moves us toward that goal.
If we are to stay as a worshipping community, it will be as costly as it was to the athletes training for the Isthmian Games. It will require from us all: readiness to accept a disciplined approach to the common goal, maximum effort, and dedication to the task. That will not be easy. It may not fit in with what we want to do. It might upset the priorities we want to set for ourselves. But that’s the only way to reach the goal of ensuring a worshiping community here on this corner for another 134 years.
The choice is ours.