by Rev. Tommy Williams, Senior Pastor
This last month, beloved writer, pastor, and theologian Eugene Peterson died. Best known for his paraphrase translation of the Bible he called The Message, Peterson was a wise and forceful teacher. He believed in forming disciplined disciples steeped in the Scriptural tradition.
One of my favorite of his many books is A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. One great nugget of a quote from this book is, “I decide, every day, to set aside what I can do best and attempt what I do very clumsily — open myself to the frustrations and failures of loving, daring to believe that failing in love is better than succeeding in pride.”
The life of discipleship, of following Jesus, is understood as a long obedience in the same direction. At the end of chapter 9 in I Corinthians, Paul writes. “Run (life) in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things…So do not run aimlessly” (verses 24-26).
In the life of discipleship, obedience and direction are most important. Self-control requires obedience to the “law of Christ” as Paul says. By law, Paul here means the law of sacrificial obedience that Christ followed in giving his life for all.
Paul models in this chapter what it means for Christ’s followers to do the same. He reflects on the Jewish Levitical tradition. In that tradition, the Levites were the priestly people of Israel and were not given a share of the land as the other tribes were. They were dependent on the generosity and provision of the people for their livelihood. In verses 13-14 here Paul does not criticize this so much as say that he does not want to be compromised by a dependence on others but be free to proclaim the Gospel. Paul has chosen to forgo freedoms enjoyed by other apostles like marriage and financial payments for his ministry.
All this is to say that Paul speaks to the Corinthians in their conflict as one unimpeded or uncompromised by factors that might complicate his witness to them. Instead, Paul speaks as one “with authority” in the best sense. He is looking out not for his own preservation but for the fruitfulness of the mission of Christ in Corinth and everywhere.
As for the church today, it is good for us all to check our motives, to pray about whether our critiques for the church are aimed at strengthening the unity of the church or preserving our place.
Are our opinions in service to God’s mission for the church or a reflection of our own previously held beliefs?
When we pray about our own motives and ask God to purify them, what we offer for the church then is not just our opinion but our best understanding of God’s hopes for the church — because the church is the body of Christ and we are members of Christ’s body. That is where Paul’s letter goes next.