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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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The Freedom of Discipleship

Category: Bishop's Sermons

Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

Tags: discipleship, disciple, freedom, paul, slavery, corinth, frankfurt

February 7, 2021    The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Church of Christ the King, Frankfurt

Text: 1 Corinthians 9:19: “For though I am free with respect to all,
I have made myself a slave to all,
so that I might win more of them." 


You might not have noticed last week and this week that this old letter from Paul to his unhappy little church in Corinth is speaking directly to what might be the most important question right now in our public square—the question of individual freedom and social obligation. And if we take Paul seriously—and we should always take Paul seriously—he’s going to have some things to say about how Christians should understand these ideas.

Remember that Paul’s letter is written to a church that is divided and angry. They don’t seem to have much respect for each other, much less for the ideas of love and reconciliation that Paul had taught them were central to the Gospel.

We know that the problem in Corinth was the division between the two communities he had gathered together in his little mission church. There were those who had come from the synagogue in town, and who, like Paul, were Jewish people who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the promise to Israel. 

And there were those who came from pretty much any other tradition, the people Jewish folks regarded as “gentiles”—people of other nations. For them, Jesus was the fulfillment of their hopes for deeper relationship with God and participation in that promise.

Paul was a person who could bring them together. His gift was bridging differences. Maybe he was charismatic; maybe he was diplomatic; maybe he was both. Somehow, when he created a community, people were able to put their differences behind them and join together around a set of shared beliefs and values.

But when he left and moved on to the next place, well, things got hard again. Old differences re-emerged. The arguments re-surfaced.

Now, you could say that the problem was the faith that Paul had been offering them. You could say that there was some basic flaw in the operating system of Christianity that made it inadequate to overcome the way people make meaning out of their differences.

Or you might even say—as many people do today—that the problem is belief itself. The beliefs that people brought into their new community—the Jewish belief of being a chosen and covenanted people, the pagan belief in a universe of gods who demanded worship, including the emperor—all of that was what always caused division. Religion itself was the reason for their division, the cause of their fighting among themselves.

Paul sees it differently. For Paul, the problem isn’t the different faiths people might have had before. And it certainly not a shortcoming in the Christian promise of reconciliation and redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ.

No, Paul says that the problem is us. The problem is human nature. The problem is that we are hard-wired to observe differences in each other—differences like religion, or language, or wealth, or race—and to make meaning out of the differences we observe. To imagine, and not just imagine but really believe, that something about the worth of people is bound up in what we observe about them on the surface, without even knowing them.

The church that we have inherited from Paul is still divided. We’re a long way past being divided over whether or not we have to follow the Levitical code about which foods are okay to eat and which aren’t, or the sharp edges between clean and unclean. We don’t invest a lot of meaning in those ideas anymore. 

Instead, we’re divided by other things. 

We’re divided in the church about race—about how to bring justice and reconciliation out of a culture that has misled us into unconscious and implicit beliefs that connect race with character, and value, and worth. 

We’re divided over how we should talk in the church about the issues that shape our lives as citizens and consumers, as political and economic actors. 

We’re divided over what makes for “real worship”—robes and vestments and ancient prayers, or projectors and microphones and unscripted worship?

We long to be united. But we treasure more deeply our particular ways of seeing the world, and the other people in it. And Paul sees this truth about us in the midst of it: What ends up dividing us are the choices we make about how to use the freedoms that God has given us.

We are free to believe what the culture around us teaches us. We are free to believe that we know all we need to know, or that the purpose of our faith is simply to confirm what we’d prefer to believe.

We are free to believe that the freedom God has given us means a freedom from any responsibility from anyone beyond ourselves—that we are free to spend our lives looking out for number one.

But what Paul sees is that the problem is that we use our freedoms in ways that more often than not fail to be mindful of all that God has done for us to save us from the damage we cause to each other, and to our own souls.

So when Paul calls himself a slave, what he’s talking about is the choice he has made about how to use the freedoms he has been given. He’s sharing with us a view into what it looks like when someone lives in a profoundly deep awareness of what God in Christ has done for them. 

And what it looks like is simply this: Putting yourself second, so that you can put others first. Making freely available to others what we have received without either paying or deserving. 

Paul says his goal is to be all things to all people, so that he can share the good news of the Gospel with all people without throwing up any barriers in their path. That’s what “free of charge” means. The thing is, if we don’t find a way to put ourselves second, if we keep putting our own preferences and our own prejudices first, then we will be nothing to no one. 

The kind of barriers we’re too likely to put up, the kinds of obstacles that get made by the way we use our freedoms, are things like—we love it that you’re here, but you have worship as we do. You might want to try the church down the street, because...well, you don’t look like us. 

God has acted through Christ to break down all the barriers that generations past had built to separate the children of God from the love of God. And God has given us the freedom to either accept and act on, or ignore and deny, our obligations toward others. 

Whenever we use our freedoms in ways that forget the obligations Christian disciples have toward all people, we are building walls that Christ came to tear down, blocking the light from those still living in the night of fear and isolation. So let us work to be more things to more people, weaving back together the tears in our social fabric and—using our freedoms to live in service to others—and, through them, to Christ. Amen.