On Wednesday I had an opportunity to sit down and talk to John Kane for a little while about his work. I’ve long been inspired by John because he has spent his life not working but naturally extending the gifts God gave him in service to others. What struck me so profoundly in what John said is his recognition that at a point in time where people are weak and vulnerable - around a loved one’s death - rather than exercise his power to influence, or a mere business model of money and efficiency - he came and still comes alongside people to help give them the capacity and space to remember, to grieve, to love, to say goodbye, to celebrate a life, and to have closure and ultimately, to set the stage for healing and ultimately, God’s peace. That is Christ given and Christ fulfilled ministry.
I’m not here to make John blush though. John’s responses to my question about his calling into his ministry of service fit what we hear in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church today: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. Paul here offers himself and his personal conduct as an illustration of what we heard last week: that the Christian needs to consider the sensibilities of other people before acting on what they might have a right to do. That is: we need to take care that what we say and do opens the other person up to God and doesn’t cause them to stumble in their faith journey.
Last week we heard Paul tell the Corinthian Christians to subordinate their right and their knowledge that they could eat meat sacrificed to idols for the sake of the gospel. Now he is saying that he himself has sacrificed certain of his rights to better proclaim the gospel. He is a living embodiment of Jesus here: personal rights, or our authority or our power, or our ability to influence in accordance with what we want or what would benefit us, are less important than the proclamation of the gospel and of the ability of those who might be weaker than us in the faith, to hear and respond to God’s calling.
One of the reasons John’s explanation of his work struck me so profoundly is because I come from a generation where everyone, whatever their political or social persuasion, whatever their moral or ethical persuasion, has come to wield their personal rights as a weapon. And I certainly understand where this has come from. But the consequence isn’t healing anyone. It has torn us into polarized factions that speak right past one another with an almost frightening disregard for anyone who doesn't think or believe just like us and our little group. The result is a rather stark sense of being lost and alone.
Paul offers and John exhibits for me a very different use of one’s gifts and one’s rights: Paul, like Jonah whom I’ve talked about a few times lately, is under obligation—an obligation imposed on him by God. He doesn’t deserve praise for doing what he has to do. He would, however, deserve criticism (woe) if he did otherwise. That is what John seemed to say to me. Woe to me if I didn’t take this path of giving the things I have, of giving who I am, to come alongside of and build others up.
But then the passage takes an interesting turn: “What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel. If Paul is simply doing what he has to do, it would seem to follow that he should expect no reward. And yet, he says that in becoming a slave to slaves, a weak man to weak people, a Greek to Greeks, in other words, in coming alongside people where they’re at, as John spoke about doing, as Paul does throughout his ministry, their reward is in sustaining and nurturing a community, a body, an extended family, that protects from the inevitable isolation that results from focusing too much on ourselves and what we want and deserve.
The reward of coming alongside others rather than only seeking what we can get or take or what we deserve, of sacrificing to help provide resources, scaffolding, to another struggling church, or a next generation of potential Christians, is God’s peace; it’s a peace maintained by relationships of mutual affection, wise deference and discernment and sharing in the traditions of church families that make us resilient in the face of life’s inevitable struggles. It’s a peace I see alive in John’s life’s work; it’s a peace that draws, inspires, and opens others up to relationships of care, love, and growth not just of the other person, but of us too. So I ask you all: what would it mean for this Church to say with Paul: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” AMEN