Preaching for Free
Scriptures: II Corinthians 11:7-11; 12:13-18
This is a dangerous sermon to preach at a time when our church is beginning to consider its annual budget. I am not sure Paul’s example is one I want to emulate.
The puzzling thing is why Paul does this. Why does Paul insist on preaching for free to the Corinthians. He does not do this in the case of other churches. In our first scripture reading, Paul says, “And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends [he is talking about church folks, brothers and sisters in Christ] who came from Macedonia.” Paul is quite willing to accept support from the Christians in Macedonia. So why not from Corinth?
It is not because the Corinthians are too poor to support him. Last week we read about a special offering Paul was collecting from the people in Corinth to help the starving Christians in Jerusalem. In chapter 8 he says to the Corinthians, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need.” That does not sound like a congregation unable to support its pastor.
Here is something even more puzzling. Turning down pay does not help Paul’s credibility with this congregation; it actually hurts it. I have mentioned before that were factions among the church members in Corinth some of whom rejected Paul. They preferred flashier ministers whom Paul derisively calls “super-apostles.” I picture them like TV evangelists, with slicked back hair and fabulous wardrobes, traveling to conferences in a private jet. These “super-apostles” dismiss Paul as an amateur hack, someone who preaches for free because that’s all his preaching is worth.
I will talk more next week about the battle between Paul and these other preachers. But for this week I want to talk about why Paul refuses compensation from the Corinthians. The reason is not budgetary; it is theological. Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that the gospel is not something you pay for; it is a free gift of God’s grace.
Paul makes that connection right away in our first scripture reading, verse 7: “Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God’s good news to you free of charge?” Preaching the gospel for free is Paul’s way of emphasizing that the gospel is free. You are welcomed into God’s family and God’s kingdom not because you have done anything or given anything but because of what Jesus has given for you.
In our second scripture Paul echoes God when he says, “I will not be a burden, because I do not want what is yours but you.”
That’s how God feels. God does not need our money. Seriously, friends, do you think the Creator of the universe is strapped for cash? God does not need our money; God wants us. God wants each of us to be part of God’s new creation, part of that great company of people accepting God’s forgiveness for the things we cannot change, receiving God’s support for the things we can change, learning to love others the way God loves us, knowing that God is not finished with us yet and that God’s grace is greater than anything we can do to mess it up. That is what God wants for us, and you cannot buy that, you can only accept it, believe in it, and pass it on.
And that is the only legitimate reason for preaching or giving.
In the year 2000 a movie came out about an 11 year-old boy named Trevor who is given an assignment in his social studies class: come up with a way to make a difference in the world and do it. Trevor proposes a plan which he calls "Pay It Forward." The idea is to do something difficult, risky, and significant for three other people and instead of asking people to pay it back, ask them to pay it forward—to do the same thing for three other people.
When explaining it, Trevor emphasizes three essential details of his plan. First, the gift or act of helping must be free. At one point in the movie Trevor feels let down by his social studies teacher, Mr. Simonet. He says to him, "You don't really care." Mr. Simonet replies, "I care about you." Trevor says, "You're a teacher; you're paid to." That is exactly what Paul does not want the Corinthians to think. The apostle Paul does not want the Corinthians to think that he cares about them because he is paid to. He wants them to understand that his care for them is free, just like God's care for us in Jesus Christ.
Second, the gift or act of kindness must be hard, risky, and significant. It must involve sacrifice. One person in the movie is arrested for his act of kindness. Another is killed for it. Another must confront years of bitterness and pain in an extraordinary act of forgiveness. This is not your ordinary random act of kindness. These are unearned, unexpected acts of significant personal sacrifice, kind of like what God has done for us in Jesus.
Finally, the gift or act must be accepted and believed before it can be passed on. Near the beginning of the movie a criminal smashes a car belonging to a reporter. As the reporter stands there looking at the wreckage wondering how he will get home, a man in a business suit comes up and hands him a key. "You look like you need help," he says. “Here take my Jaguar. It's yours to keep." The reporter grabs him and says, "What's the catch? Will I get a huge bill for this?" “No,” the stranger says, "it's a free gift. Pay it forward by doing something significant for three other people." As the stranger leaves the reporter says, "You're crazy. I'll bet this car is stolen. I'll bet it's rigged. It will probably blow up the minute I turn it on. There is no way I will ever get into that thing." If he does not believe in the gift, there is no way he will accept it, and if he does not accept it, he has nothing to pay forward.
I have a theory that the reason many people have a hard time accepting God’s grace is because they have a hard time believing in it. They think there has got to be a catch, or they think there should be a catch.
Now back to my original question. Why does the apostle Paul refuse payment for preaching, but put on a full-court-press for giving to needy Christians in Jerusalem? Answer: Paul does not want us to think that the gospel is something we pay back; it is something we pay forward.
In our second scripture reading Paul says, “For children ought not to lay up for their parents, but parents for their children.” Have you seen the latest figures on what it costs to raise a child? According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture a child born this year will cost $233,610 to raise up through age 17, which does not include the cost of college or if at some point the child moves back home. There is no way any of us can pay back our parents for what they have given us; we can only pay it forward. We can only try to give our children what our parents have given us.
The same is true for the gift of God’s presence and grace and forgiveness and hope in Jesus Christ. You will never have enough assets to pay for it; but you don’t have to. It's free. It's already yours. All you have to do is believe it, and accept it, and the best you can to help share it.