Thursday, February 19, 2009

Identity Politics: Freedom in Christ

This sermon was delivered by Micah Towery, Good Shepherd's youth minister on Sunday February 8, 2009. His text was 1st Corinthians 9:16-23

Some of you know that I went to college in Virginia for two years before transferring to Binghamton University. It was a small, Christian college of about 300 students at the time, and it was known for its rules as much as it was for its education. We weren't allowed to drink, we weren't allowed to smoke, there were certain movies that we could not watch, certain channels that were blocked from the televisions in the dorms—I'm not talking the Playboy channel here, but essential cable fare like MTV, and VH1—and just in case any offensive material happened to break through the regular channels (which was quite often) there was a pleasant little device called the "Curse Box" that would mute curse words or any similarly foul language and substitute in subtitled alternatives. "I'm gonna kick your toe, man!" So, for example, if you were watching Gone with the Wind, one of the most famous lines in all of movie history would have come out something like this: "Frankly, my dear, I just don't give a …"—and then the TV would mute and the word "darn" would appear in subtitles. Good luck if you wanted to watch anything that had harsher language than Anne of Green Gables.

I hope most of you remember at least vaguely the ideas from Matt's sermons last week, because I'm going to build upon that. He spoke about our freedom in Christ and areas in which we are free to do as our conscience guides as long as it does not cause our brother or sister in Christ to fall into sin. This passage was oft-cited at my old college. We were implored to defer to the weaker brother. But a problem arose when it became obvious that these brothers and sisters were not really weak as much as easily offended. When we watched The Godfather, it wasn't like they were tempted to fall back into their former lives as mafia dons. So we referred to this situation as the tyranny of the weaker brother. We felt more manipulated than called toward holiness. But then something worse began happening. The campus began to split into factions. And rather than seek to come together, neither side would budge. On the one side people took to calling themselves the weaker brothers so they could control people's behavior and on the other, my friends and I, all residing in one particular wing of the dorms that came to be known as "the den of sin," grew increasingly angry at being manipulated. We were resentful and rebellious.

The problem was that my friends and I came to identify ourselves with the "den of sin" and they came to identify themselves as "the weaker brother." Our identities became a wedge that drove us apart in every way, not the least of which was our brotherhood in Christ. Now, generally speaking, there's nothing inherently wrong with most identities, but they can be immensely destructive if not kept in check. I once saw a church split because they broke into two groups—one that wanted a church bell and one that did not. For each side the question of the church bell became more central to who they were, to their identities, than whether they were brothers and sisters in Christ's One Body. When that happens, a church becomes non-functional. You could be talking about how to bake cookies and fights would arise between the anti and pro bell constituents.

This is the exact opposite of what Paul wants to happen. Let's look at the passage. Paul is speaking about his obligation to preach the gospel—something I believe we must look to as an example in how we should go about the work of the gospel: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 16 For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship. 18 What is my reward then? That when I preach the gospel, I may present the gospel of Christ without charge, that I may not abuse my authority in the gospel. 19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more;…[skip] 23 Now this I do for the gospel's sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.

Let's first understand the context of what Paul is saying. If you go back to the beginning of chapter 9, you will see that he is responding to challenges to his apostolic authority. At that time, people used to get paid to go around and teach. Paul, however, for his own reasons refused payment. Unlike many of the other apostles or pagan philosophers of the day, he did not earn his living through teaching and preaching. And some at Corinth saw this and argued that because he was not being paid like the other apostles, he might not be one. His lack of pay signaled to them a lack of what we might call professionalism this guy not good enough to get paid? They'd say I follow Apollos, and I pay my apostle!

Now, we must understand first that Paul has every right to claim payment. He spends the first part of chapter 9 arguing that, if he so chose, he could rightfully demand payment for the work he's done. So Paul is not saying here that we should not pay pastors. But after arguing this, Paul seems to do an about face. He then argues that he cannot take pay. Paul has found in his ministry that he was able to preach the gospel better when money was not involved. Indeed, Paul's first obligation is the preach the gospel, he says—necessity is laid upon me—and if pay gets in the way of that, I am obligated to preach for free.

Money (at least within the scope of our focus today) is not the real issue here. It's not even really about Paul's authority. Instead, it is about his obligation to preach the gospel without any hindrance. In particular, Paul is speaking about the hindrance of identity. He does not want to be identified as a paid teacher because that would get in the way of some coming to the gospel. And this is an obligation that is laid upon all of us. We might not be called to preach from the pulpit or as an apostle, but we are required to preach nonetheless without hindrance, without letting anything get in our way. Now, I want you to realize how life changing this concept actually is, that it's a sort of revolution of identity. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant [you could say "I enslaved myself"] to all, that I might win the more; 20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; 22 to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 23 Now this I do for the gospel's sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.

What is Paul really saying here? The other day, I walked by a bar and it had a neon sign for Bud Light, and below the brand name it said "Be yourself." We're so used to seeing these things that I think sometimes we don't realize how absurd it is. Here is a billion dollar business that exists with the soul purpose of getting you to drink their beer telling you "go ahead. Be yourself." I felt like saying well thanks Bud Light! I was waiting for your permission! But of course, if you asked them "who am I?" they would probably say "I don't know but I'm sure you drink Bud Light." We are so drenched in this message of self. Be all you can be. Get in touch with your inner self. We as a culture are obsessed with our own identity. We are like perpetual teenagers going through an existential crisis. And here comes along Paul and throws a cherry bomb in our crisis: "Your identity does not matter!" [silence.] "What…? What matters then? How can I do anything unless I know who I am first??" To which Paul responds "know nothing except Christ, and Him crucified." You can't know your true identity unless you know Christ first. Indeed, our identity is shaped by the fact that Christ was crucified, whether we follow him or not. It changes everything about us. It is revolutionary.

Being in Christ is revolutionary. It frees us from sin. We were slaves to sin before, meaning we couldn't do anything except gratify ourselves in some way, but now we serve Christ—not ourselves. But more than that, because of His crucifixion we are free from anything which divides us, anything which keeps us from sharing the gospel and the love of Christ with one another. And by anything, I mean anything: your personal history, your insecurities, your race, who your family is, what your job is and how much money you make. You see, all those things try to make claims on our lives, to enslave us. They make us say "this person can never be my brother in Christ because he makes way more money than I do and can never understand what I go through!" Or "this person is black and I'm white, and there are racial tensions in our society that prevent us from fully understanding one another." Or "I'm from this family, and we have never gotten along with that family. We may sit in the same church, but we sit on opposite sides."

Rather than identifying first as followers of Jesus, we say “I am a Kennedy” or a “Towery” or “a Student” or “Irish” or and we think things like “I am a poetry student” and he's “a contractor” how can we possibly understand each other?? And if we do, it won't be long before these things tell us what we can and cannot do with regards to Christ. Paul is saying that Christ obliterates all these boundaries.

Turn to Ephesians 2:11-16 11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called "uncircumcised" by those who call themselves "the circumcision" (that done in the body by the hands of men)-- 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

I love it when Paul calls Christ "our peace." A lot of churches these days are talking about "seeking the peace of the city" by which they mean social justice projects, feeding the poor, ending racial violence, seeking equality. Now, there is nothing wrong with this at all. In fact, we are called as Christians to help restore justice where we are able. But, we must also remember that when we seek the peace of the city, that Christ is that peace. Christ is the only just thing that we can cling to. Not Christ as a means, that is, let's convert them all to Christianity then guilt them into being better people. But rather, Christ as the end toward which everything in the cosmos, everything in our society, everything in our neighborhood and in our lives points.

So when we look out into this new neighborhood, hopefully one in which we'll stay, we need to see not just a bunch of social ills that must be solved, we must see people of all identities, starving for the true justice and equality that comes only in the identity of Christ. We cannot have it any other way. And, here in this church, we cannot let our identities, who we are, what we aspire to be, how we think things should be run, who should be running them, divide us because that's when the gospel takes a back seat. And when that happens we will be headed in the opposite direction of Christ.

Let's pray: Lord, we come to you today, many people from many places, knowing that you desire for us to be made one. We ask that you would heal whatever divisions are in this church. And we ask that you would allow us to take your mindset and desire for us to be one into this new neighborhood. Help us bring your peace to it. Lord, we ask that anyone sitting among us today who desires to become one with you and your body here today, that you would give them the courage to follow you. Bring them into your fold. Amen.

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