Epiphany 5 (B)
A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 5, 2006
Text: 1 Corinthians 9:16
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” Paul exclaimed. “Woe to me! My life is worth nothing if I’m not using it to preach!’
Now that’s a little melodramatic, don’t you think? Surely Paul’s getting a little carried away with himself here. He’s a gifted man – a brilliant thinker, a careful writer, a compassionate minister. His preaching ministry is just one small part of Paul’s work. In fact, it probably wasn’t even his strong suit – Paul himself admits in another place that his enemies often say that “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” Paul’s can’t be serious when he says “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!”
And yet, there it is. He doesn’t take it back. He doesn’t qualify his exclamation, or soften it even a bit. It looks for all the world as though Paul means what he says – his life is a waste if it’s not spent preaching and proclaiming the wonderful news of Jesus.
Do you want to know what I think? I think Paul did not go far enough. I’d like to suggest we all take as our motto today: “Woe to us if we do not proclaim the gospel!” We are all called to be preachers, every one of us, and woe to us if we don’t bother to preach!
Right about now some of you would probably like to lodge a protest. You’ve read enough Scripture to know that we all have different gifts and therefore different callings. Paul himself wrote about exactly that idea, and many times, too: “Now you are the body of Christ,” he explained to the Corinthians, “and individually [you are] members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” Implied answer – “Of course not!” The Church needs all its members with their many different gifts just as the body needs all its parts with their many different abilities. How can we all be expected to be preachers of the gospel, then?
I bet some of you would also like to remind me of my own words. We’ve talked about the idea of vocation before – how God calls us to serve in many different roles, both in the church and outside it – and you remember how much I like to draw on old Martin Luther when this sort of question comes up. You’re thinking about how Luther realized that a farmer could live a faithful life farming just as surely as a pastor can live a faithful life pastoring. You haven’t forgotten the times I’ve explained how a mother at home with her family might be living quite a bit more faithfully than a Bible professor who doesn’t take seriously the words he studies. In fact, just about everything you’ve ever learned from me or from the Bible probably argues against what I’m proposing here – that God calls us all to be preachers, and woe to us if we don’t listen!
I think all our trouble with this proposal can be traced back to one thing: We misunderstand what it means to proclaim the gospel. We mistake being a preacher for standing around in a pulpit on Sunday mornings giving speeches. Our idea of preaching, brothers and sisters, is too small. We need to think bigger. We need a much wider, broader notion of what it means to preach.
St. Francis of Assisi can help us out here. You may remember him – he’s the saint who’s often shown chatting with the animals – a real-life Doctor Doolittle. He’s also famous for nailing down what a life of preaching is all about. Francis taught: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
You see, you can preach without a single word passing your lips. Your whole life can become a sermon if you let it. The best preaching in the world comes from the people whose lives have been changed by Jesus, so that they begin living toward others the same way the Lord Jesus lives toward them. No matter what your God-given vocation is, you can proclaim the gospel through it…and most of the time, you won’t even need to use words.
You proclaim the good news that our God is love every time you refuse to answer one bad turn with another. Your Lord, whose Spirit fills you to the brim, is the Lord who taught the crowds: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Whenever you answer a smack in the face with peace instead of retaliation, you’re turning the world’s way of doing things on its head and preaching a sweet story about Jesus and his grace. People will listen.
And you proclaim the good news that forgiveness and reconciliation are possible every time you reach out to your worst enemy. Your Lord, whose Spirit helps you to pray, taught his followers: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Whenever you show love and kindness to the very people who would hurt you, you’re turning the way of the world upside down and preaching the beautiful music of forgiveness in Christ. People will listen.
You even proclaim the too-good-to-be-true-but-it-is-true-anyhow news that God’s own Son chose to die himself in order to take away the world’s sin, every time you come to communion. Your Lord, who died with you so that you might live with him, said quietly to his friends, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.” And so Paul reminds you that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” And people will listen.
In countless different ways you preach the good news to all the people who pass through your life. Sometimes you even use words.
“Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” Perhaps now Paul’s exclamation makes sense to you. Perhaps it strikes a chord somewhere deep down in your spirit. Perhaps you are ready to claim the title “preacher” for yourself – it’s always been yours! – and step more boldly into that role, no matter what your vocation is.
From one preacher to another – there’s nothing in this world that will bring you more joy! Amen.