Sermon Notes for February 4, 2018
This morning, I’d like to turn turn our attention to Paul and what he has to say to the Corinthians. This is one of those passages of Paul's that applies easily to the church in every day and age. As we read it two thousand years later, we can still see how it applies to our lives today.
Paul begins talking about boasting for preaching the gospel. We all know people who are so impressed with their own righteousness that they boast of it, yes? People who do good, but then need to tell everyone that they have done something good. "Well, you might think you are holy, but let me tell you about what I did yesterday..."
The thing is, it's not about sharing the gospel so we get something out of it, even something as intangible as rewards in heaven. No, we are called to share the gospel for its own sake and not to use it to put ourselves above others.
Then Paul says something strange to Corinth. "For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them."
You see, Paul was a Roman citizen. And in that day and age that gave him more freedoms than anyone else around him. He could practically do whatever he wanted, so long as Roman law was not broken. Sound familiar? In our own culture we have similar freedoms. Provided we do not break any laws, we can do whatever we want, in theory. In reality, economics and income and culture have as much driving force on what we can do as laws do. But still, we have a privileged class with enormous amounts of freedom in their lives, just as a Roman citizen at that time would.
Yet Paul turned away from that. Instead of using his freedom and privilege for his own gains, he set all of that aside so that he might be able to lift up others. He set himself aside so that he might travel and teach the gospel to all who would hear it. In setting aside his freedom and chance for power, he managed to get himself jailed several times.
Paul went and met people where they were. That was why he was so effective in his teaching. He met with Greeks and talked to them in the terms of their culture. He met with Jews and talked to them about their culture. Everyone he ran into, he listened to, and talked to them about the gospel from their perspective, not his.
William Barclay says "We can never attain to any kind of evangelism or friendship without speaking the same language and thinking the same thoughts as the other man... Paul, the master missionary, who won more men for Christ than any other man, saw how essential it was to become all things to all men. One of our greatest necessities is to learn the art of getting alongside people; and the trouble so often is that we do not even try."
We all know people for whom this skill comes naturally. We have all met those people who have no trouble making friends no matter where they go. Who go from one group to another, fitting in easily. They are almost instantly likeable, because they show interest in people. They are the ones who ask us about our lives and interests and actually listen to the answers. That is what Paul did.
Now, this skill does not come naturally to everyone but that doesn't mean we cannot cultivate it in our own lives. It just requires a bit of imagination. We have to take the time to imagine ourselves in another's place. We have to ask questions about another person's life and really listen to the answers instead of waiting for our turn to talk. We need to show an interest in another. Once we start doing that, asking about what people really love, it is amazing how interesting other people become.
Is it always easy for us to come out of our own patterns and meet others where they are? Of course not. But the question is, are we willing to become 10% uncomfortable to try to help others find a place?
In order for Paul to "become a Jew", with Jews of other cultures, he had to care about a group of people who differed from him, care enough to meet them on their own terms. He had to go far outside of his own comfort zone. Whether someone is a Jew or Gentile, under the Law or outside the Law, under the gospel or outside the gospel, strong or weak, seeker of the things of Christ or seeker of the things of this world, in order to connect with them and guide them to the fullness of life in Christ, Paul at least had to know them, seek to understand them, try to see the world through their eyes, attempt to see the ways that they see their own stories before telling them of a larger gospel story.
He's not compromising the gospel. Instead, Paul seeks to help people recognize from their own perspective how the gospel offers hope. He's caring about the people he is talking to first, before trying to preach to them.
Rodger Nishioka who is a professor of Christian Education and youth ministry tells a story about a time he is riding on the subway, and is watching a young man walk up and down the car, preaching to people about how they can be born again. Most people are trying not to make eye contact. Rodger himself is studying his paper, trying not to make eye contact because he didn't want to have the argument that being a Presbyterian makes him a Christian too. But the young man focuses on a pair of women across the aisle from Rodger. They are younger, college aged women and the young man gets up in their faces with a pamphlet "HAVE YOU BEEN SAVED?"
And one of the women looks at him and asks. "Aren't you even going to ask us our names first?" And the subway stops, and they get off the car and the man stares after them in confusion.
You see, the young man didn't understand what I think Paul instinctively did. Shouting the gospel at people doesn't work. You have to care about people first, and then you can offer the gospel in a way they will understand. We have to meet people where they are, rather than expecting them to come to us.
For Paul, it is about genuine contextualisation of the message and, more importantly, radical identification with his audience. You have to get to know people in order to talk to them. This is incarnational ministry. Just as Jesus became a human being to identify with all of us to share his message, so Paul seeks to have something in common with his hearers. It means giving up all of the privileges of his birth, nationality and his status as a Pharisee. The Good News takes him to places and people he would never have dreamed of going. More importantly, it changes him. To identify with the Gentiles, the outcasts of his Jewish world, transforms Paul. That he did this effectively and sincerely is evidenced by the Christian communities that he founds, churches where the most impossibly different people manage to live together in genuine community.
We would help ourselves and our neighbors if we were to reflect on how well or poorly we embody Paul's approach, as individuals and as communities of faith. Paul, in fact, by his own telling, was not all things to all people. He was run out of town, beaten by mobs, thrown in jail by people with whom he did not exactly fully connect. We will not be all things to everyone either. But, one quarter of the New Testament came from the hand of someone who lived a mission that mattered, treated everyone as if they mattered to him and to God, and sought to embody a still more excellent way.
That is what we are called to do. To go out and to try to see where others are, instead of assuming they will come to us. To ask questions and listen to the answers. To see how the gospel might apply to another's life instead of knowing how it effects us.
Indeed, even within existing church communities, we can use this approach. We can use this with people we have known for years, but have never quite gotten along with. Paul is writing here to the church of Corinth, a church that is often in conflict with itself, and showing them a better way.
Bruce Rigdon writes, "Paul clearly does not expect everyone to agree. Instead he asks something of both groups, which he hopes will make it possible for all of them to move forward together. What he asks is that those on each side identify with those on the other side, in order to become as if they were the ones with whom they disagreed. This will not result in a change of conviction, at least not at first, but it means that they are to recognize what it would mean to act on behalf of those whom they are opposed."
Wouldn't this be a more Christian way of settling our disputes? Wouldn't this be a better way of relating to anyone we run into? Christ tells us to love one another, which is not the easiest of goals some days. Taking time to see where other people are coming from, walking a mile in their shoes as it were, makes a good first step.
So this week, try to do as Paul did. Set aside where you are and instead try to come from the perspective of another. Try meeting people where they are at instead of expecting them to come to you.
By so doing, you may end up sharing the gospel without even realizing it.