Woe to Me if I Do Not Preach

It’s just who I am. I remember my time at an Evangelical Protestant school for my undergraduate degree, and the 2 years of homiletical (how to give a sermon). It was a bit grueling and my professor was particularly tough on me. One day, I was walking with another seminarian and he overheard our conversation. He stopped me and said, “Brother Powell, you are a preaching machine!” I chose to take that as a compliment.

The truth is I do love to preach. It is a particular interest of mine because the scriptures declare “how will they hear without a preacher?” Preaching is as much part of our liturgical life in the liturgy as all the other aspects of the liturgy. It is integral to preparing one’s heart to receive the Eucharist. That’s why the sermon comes directly after the Gospel Lesson in the Divine Liturgy.

St. Paul confronts the Corinthians today in our Lesson with a powerful “sermon” about “rights” and the freedom of the Gospel. Look at 1 Corinthians 9:13-18:

BRETHREN, do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this to secure any provision. For I would rather die than have any one deprive me of my 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 entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my preaching I may make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel.

St. Paul is continuing the straightforward “spiritual medicine” he gives the Corinthians to move them forward in their spiritual lives. Notice what he says here today about preaching and his own ministry.

Just a little background will be helpful. First, St. Paul was a tentmaker by trade. In his missionary work through the Roman Empire, he paid for his ministry himself so that these young parishes could get off the ground. Now notice, he doesn’t say his way was the best way or even the proper way. In fact, he reminds his readers that the normal and rightful way to support the ministers of the Temple was to have them “get their food from the temple.” In other words, the right thing for the people to do is to take care of their ministers.

But look what St. Paul says. He declares that he has chosen to not insist on this “right” so that there would be no hindrance to the message of Christ. He adds that a necessity has been laid on him. He MUST preach the Gospel because he has been commissioned to do this. And, even though he could insist on being supported by his ministry, he exercises his freedom to not be so that there is no barrier to anyone in receiving his message. Why would Paul feel so strongly about this? Precisely because he understood that he was first a debtor to the grace of God. God had freely given him the Good News, even though it did cost Paul his previous reputation in the Jewish faith. Even though it did deprive Paul of his physical eyesight for a short time. Even though it did cost Paul times in prison, beatings, rejections, and persecution, St. Paul knew that he was a debtor to God’s grace. So, out of his freedom, he makes himself a slave to love by declaring the message of Christ and not insisting on his “rights.”

St. Paul leaves us with a powerful example of what it means to give FROM gratitude and not TO need. His example shows that gratitude is driven, not by external circumstances, but internal character.

Today, do you know what it is that is necessary in your life? What motivates you toward gratitude? Is it hearing about a need or is it driven by an internal “calling?” Your faithful willingness to forgo your “rights” for the love of others is always a sign that your heart has been moved away from self-destructive selfishness and toward being Orthodox on Purpose!

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