1 Cor 9:24-10:5
The warm weather last week may have had you thinking about Spring. We have had a very mild winter, and you have to wonder whether February still has one unpleasant surprise in store for us. But the recent weather gives you hope that Spring will soon be here.
We look forward to Spring and warm weather. And if you are anything like the way we do things at the Surburg house, that means that you are also looking forward to grilling season. Warm weather means that it will be time to fire up the grill and start cooking outside.
Like many of you, I love to grill. It’s a nice way to help out Amy with a little of the cooking. It’s relaxing to sit on the deck with a glass of wine while those wonderful aromas waft up around me.
If I ask you about what you like to grill, you are probably going to mention first one type of food: meat. Sure, we do side vegetables on the grill and that is a delicious way to prepare them. But most of us don’t grill only vegetables as our meal. If we get the grill going, it is because we are going to grill meat. The only question is what kind it will be. Will it be chicken, pork or beef?
We assume that meat will be part of our main meal each day. But it wasn’t this way in the Greco-Roman world that surrounded the Mediterranean. Instead, their diets were based on grain, either baked into bread, or in Roman practice often prepared as a gruel using water. They ate vegetables such as leeks. The main source of fat content in the diet came from olives. Those near the sea at some fish. But what they didn’t eat on a regular basis was meat.
Meat was just too expensive for the ordinary person to eat frequently. When people did eat meat, it was almost always tied to one source – animals sacrificed to pagan gods at their temples. People ate meat at the dining rooms that existed on the temple grounds. The meat that was sold in the market almost always came from these pagan sacrifices. And this raised a question for Christians. How were they to view this meat? How were they to view the pagan settings in which this meat was often eaten?
The Corinthian Christians thought that they were pretty great. They had knowledge. They were spiritually mature. They had been baptized and were receiving the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar, and so they thought that they were protected from spiritual harm.
They said things like, “We know that we all have knowledge.” They said things like, “We know that an idol is nothing in the world and that there is no God except One.” On this basis, they claimed that they could eat whatever they wanted, wherever the wanted.
In the previous chapter, Paul had granted that food in and of itself doesn’t determine our standing before God. But then, he challenged the Corinthians to think about how their behavior affected other Christians. He wrote, “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”
We live in a world that is obsessed with its “rights.” But Paul says that faith in Jesus turns this all upside down. Instead, because of what Jesus Christ has done for us by his sacrifice we now seek to put others ahead of our “rights.” Paul himself had done this. Although he had the right to seek financial support as the one who taught them God’s Word, he had not done so. He had given it freely as a gift.
And this typified Paul’s approach. Just before our text he said, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” Paul had not made use of his rights. Instead he had put the salvation of others ahead of himself. He wrote, “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.”
What Paul has said thus far is a digression in his argument that is meant to teach the Corinthians - and us – about the need in the Christian life to serve others; to put them first. Yet in our text he now pivots towards the main point he wants to make. He says, “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.”
Our culture’s love affair with sports is nothing new. The Greco-Roman world had it as well. Corinth hosted the Isthmian games which were just another ancient version of the Olympics. And so Paul takes up the language of running, boxing and athletic training in general to make the point that every Christian must maintain discipline and self control.
We must do it because salvation can be lost. The problem is that we don’t really believe that. We don’t really believe that habitual fornication – breaking the Sixth Commandment as a way of life – is going to drive out the Holy Spirit. We don’t really believe that coveting and putting wealth and the lifestyle it provides ahead of God is sin that threatens salvation. We don’t really believe that despising preaching and God’s Word by regularly choosing to do something else on Sunday morning makes any difference at all.
But the apostle Paul says that this is dead wrong. He wants the Corinthians to know that reception of the Sacraments is not some kind of magic protection for those who just choose to do what they want during the rest of the week. In order to make this point, the apostle refers to the experience of Israel in the Old Testament.
He writes, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.”
The Israelites had experienced God’s miraculous deliverance though the water of the Red Sea. They had eaten the bread from heaven – the manna God provided. God had given them water from a rock. In all of these things, it was Christ who was providing for them. But in spite of this, the end result for most of them was God’s judgment and death.
Immediately after our text Pauls says the things that occurred to Israel happened as an example for us so that we won’t desire evil, or be idolaters, or engage in sexual immorality or put Christ to the test. And then he adds, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
Paul wants us to know that we live in time when the end of the ages has come. He is describing what happened when the Son of God was incarnate by the work of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary; what happened when he died on the cross for your sins; what happened when he rose from the dead on the third day. In Jesus, the end time salvation of God has arrived. He has given you forgiveness and eternal life.
And the thing about this salvation is that it is purely a gift. It is entirely a matter of God’s grace – his undeserved love and favor. That is the point Jesus teaches in the Gospel lesson today – the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. You have received what you did not deserve because Jesus received what you did. He received God’s judgment against your sin on the cross. In his grace and mercy, God the Father sent him as the sacrifice for your sin. And now God freely gives you on account of Christ the thing you never could earn or deserve. He gives you forgiveness, peace and salvation.
Being saved requires no effort. But living as a saved person does. The devil, the world and our own sinful nature are continually trying to take us away from Christ – to take forgiveness and salvation away from us. And so there is the need to resist sin and temptation. As Paul expresses it in our text, there is the need “to discipline my body and keep it under control.” There’s no cheap grace here. It’s not, “I like to sin, and God likes to forgive.” Instead, because we live as those who are in Christ we are now able to identify the threats and the struggle. And through the leading and strength the Spirit provides, we now seek to exercise self-control; we seek to be disciplined in the face of sin and temptation.
When we blow it, we confess this for what it is – sin. We repent. And we give thanks to God that because of Jesus the forgiveness that we could never earn is there for us, ready to be received by faith. When we return in faith to the promise God has made about our baptism; when we hear our pastor speak the words of Holy Absolution; when we receive the body and blood of Jesus given and shed for us; when we hear the word of the Gospel, we know that our sins are forgiven.
But we don’t live expecting to fail. We don’t live thinking it’s no big deal if we do. We don’t live thinking that we can do what we want, because at the end of the day Jesus has us covered. Instead we live as those who know what Christ has done for us and what he has made us to be. We are a new creation in Christ – we are those upon whom the end of the ages has come.