1 Corinthians 9.16-23
I guess a lot of preachers will understand how St Paul was feeling when he wrote, ‘Even if I preach the gospel, I can claim no credit for it; I cannot help myself; it would be agony for me not to preach!’ It was something that he just felt impelled to do. And when he was under arrest, and couldn’t preach in person, he carried on his ministry in letters which he entrusted to his many visitors. Today, of course, he would be in his element! He would be able to blog, or even tweet, his thoughts and reach people far and wide.
Preaching is something that people feel called to do. But not just preaching. As St Paul himself recognised, we can be called to a great many different tasks by God. And then we can claim no credit for what we achieve; they are things that we couldn’t help doing; it would have been agony not to do them.
The removal of Sir Fred Goodwin’s knighthood has called into question the whole ramshackle honours system. Why should some people be rewarded and recognised for doing what is really just their duty, while other people’s efforts pass unnoticed and unremarked? Aren’t we all just supposed to do what God wants us to do, without claiming any credit for it or receiving any honours?
Inadvertently perhaps, St Paul also reminds us how frustrating it can be for people who like doing things, but can no longer do them. We live in a culture, for which St Paul himself is perhaps partly responsible, that doesn‘t give enough value to simply being, or reflecting, or praying, but sees doing as more important.
St Paul goes on to make a point against other leaders of the church at Corinth, whom he thought were perhaps a little too highly regarded. It would seem that some of them had accepted payment for their work, but St Paul had always made a point of paying his own way by making and selling tents, so that his ministry was ‘without expense to anyone’. Not that he thought for a moment that he didn’t deserve payment. He himself said that the labourer is worthy of his - or her - wages, but in Corinth he was prepared to waive his entitlement so as to be free to say and do exactly what he thought was right, and so as not to be a burden on anyone.
This attitude has coloured the approach to ministry in the Church ever since. To this day, for better or worse, ministers do not receive a salary, but an allowance to meet their needs and release them from doing other work.
The banking crisis has, of course, thrown up another hate figure to rival Fred Goodwin, and that is - of course, the current chief executive, Stephen Hester, who has been forced to forego his annual bonus. People have asked whether he really needs a bonus on top of his salary to incentivise him to run the Bank.
Interestingly, I heard Greg Dyke, the former Director General of the BBC, talking on the radio the other day. He was asked whether it really made sense to cut the next Director General’s salary by a third and he said that it probably did. When he took the job, he said, it wasn’t about the money. He had taken a huge cut in his income just for the prestige and satisfaction of getting the best job in broadcasting! That I guess is the kind of spirit in which ministers are expected to work.
Being free to say and do whatever he thought was right didn’t mean, however, that St Paul felt entitled to lord it over the people he was preaching to and pastoring. He had tried, he says, to make himself ‘everyone’s servant, to win over as many as possible’.
Ministers often say, no doubt to the infuriation of some lay people, that they are nobody’s servant but God’s. It’s interesting that St Paul doesn’t take the same line. People can’t boss him about, he owes them absolutely nothing, but nonetheless he tries to do what they would like him to do if he possibly can.
This approach doesn’t recommend itself just to ministers. I was intrigued that, in the same interview, Greg Dyke said the reason why he was so well loved and well respected by the staff at the BBC was because he had listened to what they wanted him to do and then he had tried to see whether he could make it happen. Things didn’t always work out as his staff might have liked, but at least they trusted him to be on their side.
St Paul concludes this passage with a fascinating insight into his strategy for mission. He has always tried, he says, to get alongside people, to see how it feels to be in their shoes. It could seem like running with the crowd or bending with the wind, striving to fit in with other people and please them at the expenses of his own values and beliefs. But St Paul insists that his actions have been shaped by a deeper imperative, to share God’s love with all sorts and kinds of people.
I think it’s one of the justifications for doing interfaith work, as well as for trying to get alongside people in the pub and the cafe, or on the stock exchange. The key thing is to remember that it is ‘to them all’ that we have to reach out, not just to some.
So, for example, the recent decision of an Anglican Diocese to get rid of their social responsibility officer while at the same time creating a new post to help them get alongside and minister to corporate businesses caused bewilderment and disappointment, not because the world of corporate business doesn’t need, or somehow doesn’t qualify for, spiritual support but because the poor and disadvantaged need support as well.
It follows that our task, here in Sandal, is to make ourselves everyone’s servant, so that we can help to share the blessings of the gospel with all the different communities and interest groups on our patch.
Our gospel reading begins with another story of someone who, like St Paul, became a servant of all - in this case quite literally meeting the needs of all the guests in her home - after she met Jesus. In this way she becomes a paradigm of all those who willingly undertake their work, and seek to do their very best, for love of and in response to Jesus their Lord.
And then it continues with a vivid reminder that the gospel really is for all - for people with every kind of need and from every place. Above all, it reminds us that just as St Paul felt impelled, by his calling from Jesus, to preach, so Jesus felt compelled to proclaim his message wherever he could.
And, as we have seen. all of us have a part in that same calling; some of us as preachers and some of us as doers of the Word. St Francis of Assissi is supposed to have told his followers, ‘Go out and preach the Gospel. If you have to, use words.’ Actually, what he really told his followers, in the Rule he gave them, was: ‘Don’t preach without the proper permission. However, you can still preach by your actions.’ It’s not quite as catchy, but I’m sure we all understand and share the sentiment.