Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Two teams gather together today in Minneapolis at U.S. Bank Stadium. After all of the hard work, the practices, the team meetings, the games, the time has finally arrived. It’s the Super Bowl. Millions will gather around chips and chicken wings to watch the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots clash for one final game of the year. One final game where … it is all about winning. The losers are forgotten. The winners endure into history. It’s all about winning.
It’s not just that way in the Super Bowl. It’s that way in our lives too. Children battle it out over a toy to win possession of it…until they get bored and move on to a new one. Teenagers jockey to win positions of popularity. Athletes, young and old, duke it out to win another trophy for the case. Employees compete with other co-workers to win the praise of their bosses in hopes of winning that promotion. Corporations and company owners fight to win the next big contract. It’s all about winning.
Even the apostle Paul was all about winning. Five times in our Epistle reading, he references winning. But his understanding and approach to winning might look and sound a bit different than what we are used to.
For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free from all, I have made myself servant to all, that I might ‘win’ more of them (1st Corinthians 9:16-19).
You see, Paul was all about winning. But not winning the Super Bowl or a trophy or a promotion or a contract. His sole goal was to win others for Christ. It is a mission that began for him when he was on that road to Damascus. Breathing threats against the Christian Church, and having just approved the stoning of Stephen, Paul was met with a blinding light. And in that light, Jesus called out to him. Literally calling him out of darkness and into the marvelous light, Paul was soon baptized and began being instructed in the doctrine of the apostles. And then he was off and running. But not running for a trophy. He ran throughout his life to win others for Christ.
Listen again: For though I am free from all, I have made myself servant to all, that I might win more of them (1st Corinthians 9:19).
Luther explains this verse in this way: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant to all, subject to all.”
Perhaps even more clearly put: ‘The Gospel not only frees us from sin but also frees us for service. Every aspect of our lives is to be adapted to the needs of others so that they might come to faith in Christ.’
Now this doesn’t mean that we adapt the message of the Gospel to fit the wants and desires of others. To do so would only lead people astray and away from God. Rather, we hold fast to the message of Christ and Him crucified, and we let His Word stand.
What Paul is advocating for here is a most generous flexibility in love for our neighbors. And this is by no means any easy calling to fulfill. It means we are to put aside all of our self-interests, all of our wants, all of our rights, everything for the sake of winning others for Christ. Even if it means giving of our lives. In the verse preceding our text, Paul says that he “would rather die than have anyone deprive him of his ground for boasting.” Paul would rather die than not preach the gospel.
Now we are not all pastors, nor are any of us the great Apostle Paul, and we are certainly not Jesus. But like Paul, we have all been entrusted with a ‘stewardship’ as Paul calls it. We have all been given the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our baptism. We have been filled with the fruits of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We have all that we need to share hope and teach Christ.
So why is winning others for Christ so difficult? Well, ever tried putting aside your rights and self-interests? It ain’t easy. Not one bit. We are a look-at-me, it’s all about me, selfie culture. Just watch the Super Bowl today. How many times do you think we will see our look-at-me culture on full display? From demonstrations during the National Anthem to touchdown dances to post-game interviews. We will be inundated with the unholy trinity of me, myself, and I.
But before we go pointing a finger at the athletes and celebrities, we need to stop and look at ourselves. How often do we seek the spotlight? How often do we seek attention? I mean, isn’t this where the selfie with our latest food that we ate all began? We love drawing attention to ourselves, and we love to think it’s our right to do whatever we want to do because we want to do it. But have we ever stopped to think that our words or actions might be drawing others away from Christ? You see, the problem is that with every attempt we make to draw attention to ourselves, our focus is driven farther away from Christ and loving our neighbor.
So Paul tells us: To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings (1st Corinthians 9:20-23).
Here Paul displays this generous flexibility that is all in alignment with love for his neighbors, not the self. He wants nothing to come between them and God, so he puts his interests and his rights aside to meet them where they are at in life. And where does this approach all come from?
From the One who displayed the most generous flexibility in love for others ever. Jesus willingly gave up His rights to the throne of heaven in love for us. He humbled Himself by being born of a virgin in a stable. He faced public scrutiny by dining with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He was mocked, beaten, and whipped…all for the sake of winning others…He even gave His own life. He sacrificed His life so that He might save us.
As I wrote this sermon, I couldn’t help but think about the movie Hacksaw Ridge. In the movie, PFC Desmond Doss refused to bear arms during World War II for religious reasons. He faced constant scrutiny and abuse for being a pacifist who insisted on fulfilling his duty to be active in the war. But, when the Battle of Okinawa took place, Desmond Doss did the unthinkable. Facing a barrage of enemy fire, his battalion was ordered to retreat, but Doss refused to leave his comrades behind. Without a gun on his hip or in his hand, he single-handedly saved 75 men from death by literally dragging them out in the midst of constant enemy fire and lowering them by rope down the ridge. Each time he saved a man’s life, Doss prayed out loud, “Please Lord, help me get one more.”
What if we adopted this mentality for the sake of winning others for Christ? What if we put aside ourselves and our selfish desires so that by all means we might save some? Even just one more. There is not-a-one of us here that does not know someone that is not a believer in Christ.
What would it mean to us if someone set aside their own self-interests and the result was that our lost loved one was found in Christ? Perhaps it was their tithe to the Lord that paid for the pastor or missionary who serves in their community. Perhaps it was their time that they took out of their busy schedule to meet our loved one where they were at to share the love of Christ with them. Who knows?
God knows. And that’s why He equips each of us with all that we need to share the Gospel of Jesus with others. But there is a discipline that comes with it.
Paul writes: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1st Corinthians 9:24-27).
If we are going to run in such a way to win others for Christ, then it is essential that we practice self-control so that we don’t get caught up in this world and all of its temporary pleasures. It’s essential that we are in the Word daily and receiving the Lord’s Supper often so that we are constantly connected to Christ. So that we are given a share in Christ’s victory. So that we are equipped for winning others for Christ. Because we can’t do it on our own, and nor could Paul.
You see, Paul’s constant motivation for winning others for Christ was to look in the mirror and see himself for who he truly was. He was a sinner, and he knew it very well. He wrote: For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing (Romans 7:19) and that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost (1st Timothy 1:15).
This constant recognition of who he was before God, gave him a sense of gratitude for all that he had gained because of His Savior. Jesus had become all things in order to win him over from death to life. Suffering, bleeding, and dying, Jesus became weak so that by all means the weak would be saved. Paul, you, me. We are saved because of the self-sacrifice of Christ.
When we go about winning others for Christ, it all begins with looking to Christ and all that He won for us. He won for us the victory we needed over our sin, death, and the devil. He won for us eternity in heaven. As we consider the great debt he paid on our behalf, He motivates us to share that good news of great joy that is for all people. To be all things to all people in order to save some. “Please Lord, help me get one more.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.