Video of the Divine Service here.
I don’t like cliches. I don’t like cliches because while they have some truth in them, the repetition of them robs the words of their full meaning. We have cliches like “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and “that’s a blessing in disguise.” A French poet once said, “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet; the second an imbecile.” When they’re first used, perhaps the words caused us to see something in a different way. Now they’re just things we say when we don’t know what else to say.
Lutherans have their cliches as well. For the Norwegians, it might be lefse and lutefisk; for the Germans, brats and beer. Or we talk about “Word and Sacrament,” or “Law and Gospel.” So of course those words point to true and real things. We do gather around the Word and sacraments of Jesus. We do want to make sure we understand and distinguish Law and Gospel. But the cliché can cause us to forget the full meaning behind the words we use. So sometimes we need to give up the cliché and simply proclaim and hear the Word and deliver and receive the Sacraments. We need to give up the cliché and simply proclaim and hear both God’s Law and God’s Gospel.
There are a couple cliches in chapter 9 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, as well. They weren’t cliches when Paul wrote them, of course. But they have become so, and sometimes we forget what Paul is actually saying because we’ve used the words so often. So Paul says that he has done everything “for the sake of the Gospel,” so that he can share in the Gospel’s benefits with those who receive it. And what he has done for the sake of the Gospel is he has become “all things to all people so that by all means he might save some.” I couldn’t count how many times I’ve heard those two phrases used: “for the sake of the Gospel,” and becoming “all things to all people.” There have been thousands of actions and ideas justified by people because “they’re for the sake of the Gospel.” Why are you doing this or that? Because I’m trying to be all things to all people. And if someone says that they are doing what they’re doing “for the sake of the Gospel,” who’s going to argue? You don’t want to be against the Gospel, do you?!
But can you imagine Paul saying “I became a prostitute to the prostitutes”? I became a drunkard to the drunkards? I became an adulterer to the adulterers? I became a liar to the liars, a thief to the thieves? I became a blasphemer to the blasphemer, or an idolater to the idolaters? Of course not. So if we misuse the cliché, we actually miss Paul’s meaning.
So what does Paul mean when he says that he became a Jew to the Jews, one under the law to those under the law, a Gentile to the Gentiles, and weak to those who are weak? Well, in fact, he actually shows us by his actions. In Acts 16, for example, he’s getting ready to travel on his missionary journey when he stops in Lystra and Derbe. There he meets Timothy, whose mother is a Jew, but whose father is a Greek—and probably an unbelieving Greek. Since whenever Paul goes somewhere new, he follows the pattern of Jesus and goes to the Jewish synagogue first, and then to the Gentiles, Paul wants to make sure that there are no unnecessary obstacles to the Jews hearing the Gospel.
So what does he do? He has Timothy circumcised. Paul doesn’t want to start off with the Jews having the argument about whether circumcision is necessary, so he removes that obstacle by having Timothy—who is Jewish by virtue of his Jewish mother—circumcised. But then you go read Galatians and there are those in the congregations there who believe that in order to be a Christian, you first have to be circumcised. It’s a prerequisite to be Jewish before you can be Christian. They stubbornly hold on to that belief and are teaching it there in Galatia. So will Paul allow people to be circumcised in Galatia? Absolutely not! Anyone who wants to force Gentiles to become Jews before they become Christians has added conditions to the free Gospel of Jesus that Paul proclaims.
So Paul does two seemingly opposite things, depending on the situation. If it’s going to be an unnecessary obstacle to a Jew hearing the Gospel, Paul will have Timothy circumcised. If it’s the teachers in Galatia, or Peter hypocritically eating with uncircumcised Gentiles until the Jews come with James, Paul has no patience for that. But even to those who might become Christians, or to those Jews who are new Christians, Paul doesn’t simply let them go on thinking that circumcision is necessary. He continues to teach the full Gospel until those new Christians grow up into the maturity of faith in Christ alone.
We have some examples in the history of the Lutheran church. When the Gospel was beginning to be preached freely again, part of that Gospel was believing all of Jesus’ words. And Jesus says “Take and eat” and “take and drink.” But all of the Christians were only eating the bread and Body, not drinking the wine and Blood. Luther doesn’t immediately go in there and say, “You’re going to drink the blood, because Jesus says so.” He teaches and teaches Jesus’ words until the people rejoice to eat the bread and drink the cup. But when people stubbornly oppose the drinking of the cup, even after they’ve heard the words of Jesus, Luther distributes the cup, regardless.
Or later, there were some Christians who said that the wine used in the Supper had to be red wine, because it was a symbol of Christ’s blood. Does it matter if it’s red or white? No, as long as it’s wine, according to Christ’s institution. But when those people wanted to force Lutherans to use red wine, the Lutherans used white wine. It was fine to use red wine for the sake of the weak, but when some try to require red, then it’s necessary to oppose that.
Or there were some Christians who said that in order for it to be a valid baptism, the person had to go all the way under the water, because it was a symbol of dying and rising with Christ. Is that going under the water a symbol of dying and rising? Yes. But when some stubbornly tried to require submersion or immersion, the Lutherans would only pour water over the head. Man-made laws must give way to Christ’s words and Christians, for the sake of the clear Gospel, may not require something that Jesus does not. It’s His saving words that matter, not our symbolic actions.
Just as we do not require children to know algebra as soon as they’re in kindergarten, or require them to be able to write ten-page essays with correct spelling and grammar, we do not require any new Christian to know everything about Christ before they are born into His family by baptism. We bear with the weak and those who are new to learning Christ. And we will not put any unnecessary obstacle in the way of them hearing the Gospel. We will not say, first give up all this sin and become virtuous before we will recognize you as a Christian. Nor will we require people to follow man-made laws if they want to part of the fellowship of Christ in the Gospel.
Paul knew he had to teach Jews that circumcision was fulfilled in Christ. And he knew that it was contrary to the Gospel to require Gentiles to be first circumcised before they could become Christians. And he did both of them because he was grounded in the Gospel of Jesus, which is the free forgiveness of sins in Christ’s death and resurrection for each sinner—for you and me—and nothing else but that. Every single thing we do should serve that purpose and goal: that those who do not know Christ will hear Him without prerequisites, and that those who are new to Christ will slowly learn Him and what His Gospel means, just as each one of us has.
And it also means that mature Christians are able to distinguish between the Gospel and everything else. We will not continue to stubbornly insist on something that hinders or opposes Jesus’ own words. We will continue to hear His words and believe them, even if—especially if—they oppose what we would prefer. And, as one Body, with new and old members, with mature and immature, with weak and strong, we will continue together to grow up into Christ. And that means that each one of us does not live to ourselves, but to God in Christ and to each other. We should, as Luther put it, not ask what has been done, but about how it is supposed to be done. And we will continue to pray for the grace to hear and believe His Word, that it will bring us to repentance. That is His work, and this morning He does it again, here from His pulpit and altar. It is no cliché, though it has been repeated again and again: you are forgiven. Take and eat, take and drink. It is precisely for you, strong and weak, Jew or Gentile, young or old, male or female, for the sake of Christ’s own Gospel.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 2/3/18