Epiphany 6: 15 February 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
These verses continue to express Paul's defence. At one level he is still trying to justify the fact that he works to gain financial support so that he can exercise his ministry, rather than 'by faith' depending on hospitality and support from among those to whom he ministers. The latter was the pattern which Jesus set up. Paul is doing a kind of first century 'worker priest' ministry. For some it just exposes his lack of status. This infuriates Paul. He has taken it upon himself to exercise ministry and look at financial support in a very sensible and flexible way. He is prepared to work really hard to make his ministry possible.
Today's section often stands alone, as it does in the Lectionary, without the existential context. It is clear, however, that this is as much a personal statement as anything else. Like a disciplined athlete Paul is prepared to 'do it tough'. Only those prepared to do the hard yards will get anywhere. The illustration is common in the secular world of Paul's time. For the 'spiritual', Paul is in danger of digging himself into a hole. The conflict will become worse and Paul, even more desperate, as 2 Corinthians 10-13 show.
Why shouldn't Paul use the latest wisdom from the secular world about self management and motivational training? Paul is wonderfully flexible at times. He sees through rules and regulations and through claims of status to what really matters. What really matters for him is making the message and meaning of the gospel known. There may have been patterns for doing so in the past (which probably suited semi rural Galilee), but even if they were established by Jesus (as they were!), that doesn't mean they can't be changed in new situations. Love has the capacity to change, to adapt, to be flexible. Paul's way of doing things made good 'love-sense' in the situations he faced. His priority was the love expressed in the gospel. It was not ensuring other people recognised his official status or even with ensuring a 'Lord Jesus' got things done in exactly the right way. Paul's Lord, Jesus, was not a slave of patterns (or the lord of patterns!) and obsessed with being a lord, but one who emptied himself, poured himself out. That is where Paul is coming from. That is why he can be free. That is also why he can appeal to common sense.
Self discipline is the key to success. Only the successful win the prizes. Unfortunately, we can read the text this way and use it as the key text for a so-called Protestant work ethic. Paul's use of the image is a little more subtle. He is not suggesting that the gospel teaches that there is a prize to be earned by hard work. For him the prize is the gospel itself; or, better, being able to be oneself confidently in the presence of God, the God who loves. Freed from the need to prove oneself and win prizes, we, with Paul, can be free to turn our attention from ourselves to others. For love and for ministry we can exercise discipline, ensure we get adequate ongoing training, and stay 'fit' (in all relevant aspects!) - why? So that we will one day be given a wreath? be acknowledged as true apostles? No: rather so that we may love more effectively. Otherwise, as Paul says, we will end up proclaiming the gospel to others, but ourselves miss the mark, indeed, contribute to the world's (and the church's) problems not to its solutions. ... quite a good text for reflecting on the need for life long education for ministry!
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