Have you ever reached a point where you just couldn’t hold back anymore, and had to let something out? Like when your favorite song comes on the radio but there are other people in the car. So you just sort of tap your feet and nod your head, but then the chorus comes on, and you finally let go and belt it out? Or if you have some fantastic news to share, the kind that makes you giddy and excited, so much so that you blurt it out the moment you see a good friend, before they can even answer your “guess what?” Imagine for a moment what it feels like to have all of that enthusiasm or energy building up inside of you. Put another way, what drives you and makes you passionate? What topic can you go on and on about for hours in great detail with very little, if any, prompting from someone else?
For the apostle Paul, the answer was “the gospel.” That is, the good news about Jesus Christ. He was ecstatic about his ministry and mission in sharing this with others. Throughout his letters to early believers, you can feel his passion and energy. In our passage today he articulates a bit more behind his motivations as he describes and defends his authority as an apostle to this in Corinth. This isn’t just a casual hobby, or something he does to get some sort of reward. He feels compelled to do it. It’s something he cannot resist. In fact, he knows that something will be missing if he doesn’t; he’ll be doomed if he lets this opportunity pass him by. This is Paul’s calling, and he wants to be clear to the people that he’s not in it for the money, or any other gain, but rather for the sake of the calling itself.
I am a huge fan of reality tv shows that allow contestants to compete in their areas of passion. Currently, those are Top Chef and Project Runway. Both shows highlight the creativity of the chefs or designers, with the judges and mentors calling on them to dig deeper into their own points of view and come up with end products that are innovative and push the envelope, not just maintaining the status quo. The contestants are pressed to do something revolutionary and inspirational. I imagine Paul would have loved to have been a contestant on “Rome’s Next Top Apostle.” He had ideas spilling out, and a drive and passion that would have put him at the top of the group. But I wonder if that might have gotten him in trouble a bit. You see, invariably on these shows, designers and chefs will try to do too much. All of the ideas get put into one dish or one outfit, and it ends up muddled or confused or chaotic. They lose a sense of focus, an understanding of the audience or challenge, and lack a coherent point of view. Over and over again we hear the judges encouraging them to “edit, edit, edit” and to create things that are innovative, but also show some restraint. They don’t quite have to do it all at once.
Maybe, though, Paul could roll with this approach. As he describes his work as an apostle, he indicates that he has placed some limits on himself already. In the verses leading up to this, he refers directly to his refusal to take funds for this work, so that the financial pieces will not encumber the communities he serves. Indeed, he is making himself available for free. Going further back, we might recall the text from chapter 8 which we read last week, that discusses the importance of Christian communities limiting their eating of meat sacrificed to pagan idols so as not to be a stumbling block with others in their community for whom that might be a slippery slope back into those cultural practices of other gods. In all of this discussion, Paul limits his rights as an apostle for the good of the community and its witnesses. He identifies limits, his own and those he believes to be faithful approaches to living, for the good of the community.
He also embraces the limits of other perspectives. He embraces the limits of other groups to become a servant and share the good news in a way that can truly be heard in a variety of contexts. Rather than just ramming Bible verses down their throats or screaming until he is hoarse, Paul enters their world and experience it from their point of view. From within those limits, he keeps his grounding in his passion, in Christ, and is able to proclaim his message in powerful ways, ways that can actually be heard because he is within the limits of what others understand. He works within the frameworks of others to accomplish amazing things.
Last fall I was introduced to the amazing story of Phil Hansen, an artist whose work reveals unbridled creativity[i]. He was a featured speaker at the Ted conference in 2013. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with “Ted Talks,” they come from a nonprofit, nonpartisan group devoted to “ideas worth spreading,” in the form of short and powerful talks. It began in 1984 as a conference featuring Technology, Entertainment, and Design, but has expanded to include almost every topic imaginable today in more than one hundred languages. Today, TED is a global community, welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world. I want to invite you to find a place where you can see and hear this video – it’s a little longer, almost 10 minutes – and in watching it imagine what it might tell us about Paul’s journey to share the gospel and our own calling to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Many times we hear the phrase “know your limits” and see it is as a discouragement or a negative, implying that we are unable to do something. Today I would suggest that Paul’s approach to evangelism turns that idea on its head. Knowing the limits of one’s community and context are what allow Paul to excel, and indeed expand and grow the kingdom of God for the sake of the gospel. The limitations, it seems, gives way to creativity. Just as Phil’s embracing the shake opened the door for new ways of living into his calling, Paul’s embracing of different perspectives and worldviews allowed him to fully live into proclaiming the message he just couldn’t help but share. No matter the limitations, it seems, God finds a way to get the message across. As disciples today, maybe we should also embrace the frameworks or limitations we might have or think we have, and consider how the Holy Spirit might breathe new creative life into our retelling of God’s story. When we do, we will be truly living for the sake of the gospel.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
February 4, 2018
[i] Phil Hansen (February 2013). Embrace the Shake. https://www.ted.com/talks/phil_hansen_embrace_the_shake