1 Corinthians 9:13-27
Church Can Happen Anywhere: Church Happens … When We Run to Win
All things to all people. When you hear that phrase, “all things to all people,” you usually hear it with this at the beginning: “You can’t be.” That is, “You can’t be all things to all people.” Thank goodness, right? Who would want to be all things to all people? Usually, we tell this to someone when they’re trying to (and failing to) get everyone to like them, to please everyone. Do you ever struggle with that? Being a people-pleaser? And finally, either you come to the conclusion yourself, or a friend or loved one who is trying to help you get a grip on reality tells you, “You can’t be all things to all people!” You can’t please everyone. Not everyone is going to like you. Don’t even try. It’s a lost cause!
Last week I mentioned the Adam Hamilton book Half Truths, and we talked a little bit about some phrases that aren’t in the Bible that we think are, like “that’s just between me and God.” But sometimes the opposite is true: there’s a saying that we’re sure is just bad advice, and it turns out it comes straight from the scripture. That’s the case with this phrase, I’m afraid. “All things to all people” comes straight from the New Testament, straight from today’s lesson from 1 Corinthians, where Paul proudly proclaims that to proclaim that gospel, he has become all things to all people. “An obligation is laid on me,” Paul says, “and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! . . . I have become all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some.” All things to all people! I don’t know about you, but my initial impulse is to feel exhausted and overwhelmed. How can we live up to such a standard? All things to all people? I can’t do it. Trying to be all things to all people seems like the surest way to burn out of ministry that I can think of. Paul may have had the dedication and the drive, but just thinking about trying to be all things to all people makes me feel like I need a nap! All things to all people. Is Paul really saying what it sounds like he’s saying?
When our passage opens for today, Paul is talking about how he makes a living. We don’t think of it often, but of course, Paul had to have money to eat and travel and get from community to community, where he would go and preach the gospel. Paul notes that people usually get paid from wherever they serve: if you work in the temple, you get paid by the temple. So, Paul reasons, if you preach the gospel for your life’s work – you should be entitled and able to have that work also provide your living. Paul doesn’t do that, though, as he tell us here. He says, “I have made no use of any of these rights, nor I am a writing this so that they may be applied in my case.” We know from elsewhere in the New Testament writings that Paul and some of his companions continue to work as laborers throughout their time in ministry so that they can provide for themselves. And Paul says that he does this, works to support himself apart from his ministry, so that he may have the joy of boasting in the gospel. He wants to present the gospel “free of charge,” and doing so is the only reward Paul seeks.
And then Paul gets to this “all things to all people” part. He says, “though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.” Paul means that he is free because of his new life in Jesus. He’s been set free from this idea that he must work and work and work to earn God’s love and grace, something we can never earn, since it is given as a gift! His life in Christ is what enables Paul to receive the gift – and so he is free. Nonetheless, in order to help others find this same freedom, in order for others to find new life in Christ, Paul is willing to change the patterns of his life.
Paul writes, “to the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
It would be easy to assume that Paul is somehow compromising his beliefs or values in order to get himself “in” with these groups of people. He’s talking about Jews and Gentiles, and his ability to weave into both communities, even though he himself doesn’t really belong to either anymore, but rather belongs to Christ. But I don’t think Paul means that he gave up his understanding or his identity to preach the gospel. Rather, I think Paul means that didn’t assume or insist that others would have to adopt Paul’s ways and Paul’s journey and Paul’s practices as their own in order to become Jesus-followers. Instead of Paul insisting that Jews give up their practices in order to follow Jesus, or insisting that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could follow Jesus, Paul instead simply immersed himself with the people with whom he was sharing Christ. He spent years living with different communities of people, building relationships, learning about them, sharing with them. Paul does this, he says, because he’s in it to win it. That is, his purpose is to share the good news with others, to share the message of Jesus with others. And he wins when others accept the good news and find new life in Christ. That’s his purpose. That’s what’s most important to him. And so he’ll do what he needs to do to win – to help others experience what he has: a complete change of life in Jesus.
And Paul is just following the example of Jesus himself. When Jesus was preaching and teaching the good news about God’s kingdom, God’s reign come to earth here and now, Jesus didn’t wait for people to come to him, or for them to become like him. Jesus travelled to where the people were, and ate with them, and stayed in their homes, and spent time with them, all while being criticized by the religious leaders for doing so.
Unfortunately, our history in the Christian church of sharing Jesus with people doesn’t hold up well to the model. For many decades, centuries even, when Christian missionaries would travel abroad to bring the message of Jesus and the good news to people, they also brought with them an insistence that becoming a Jesus-follower also meant becoming a Westerner – that is, someone who would adopt the customs and practices of Europe and North America. I saw impact of this, still evident today, when I visited Ghana in West Africa while I was in seminary. My professors guessed that many of us expected worship services in Ghana to be full of music and customs that were indigenous to Africa – and in some places, that is exactly what we found. Worship that was in church buildings that looked like the other homes of the community. Music that resonated with the musical sounds of Ghana. Worship in the languages of the people. But the first worship service they took us to was in a very European-looking building, where the service was straight out of the Book of Worship of the Church of England, since it was the English who had colonized Ghana in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds. Even the style of dress was what you would expect to find in Britain, not Ghana. Somehow, we’d given the message that in order to be Jesus-followers, you also had to become like the messenger of the good news! The same thing happened to Native Americans here in the US. When missionaries shared the story of Jesus, it was with the explicit assumption, with demands, in fact, that Native people abandon their own culture and traditions and adopt the practices of missionaries. This is the very opposite of being all things to all people in order to share Jesus in powerful ways, and there is still pain and damage, healing that needs to take place, because of mixing up Jesus’ message and Jesus’ way with our way.
So how can we embody the example of Paul, the example of Jesus himself, as we share the good news? I think we begin by being clear about our purpose. Paul writes about being clear about his purpose. He is a runner in a race intent on winning the prize, not one who runs aimlessly. For Paul, the prize is when others learn about Jesus and commit their lives to following him, to being disciples. The prize is when others experience new life as he has. Not his new life, but their new life in Christ. His eyes are fixed on his purpose.
What’s our purpose? Many times, we talk about wanting to have more people in church – more children, more young people, more families, more people in the pews. I hope for that too. But I hope we are clear about why we would want such a thing. Do we want more people so that we can survive? Continue to exist as an organization? Have more people to pay our bills and serve on our committees and care for our facilities? Or: Has Christ so changed our lives, have we been so transformed by the love of God that we can’t help but want other people to experience what we’ve experienced, and journey with us as we seek to live more fully into the vision God has for our lives? I hope the choice is pretty obvious! And if that’s what we want – for people to have their lives changed because of the saving grace and love of Christ – if that is our purpose, our aim, the prize for which we’re racing – maybe having our eye on the prize can shape how we share our message.
I worry that too often when we invite others to follow Jesus, we’re really inviting them to come be like us. We’d like it if people went to church like we did, and had the same good morals we had, and behaved like we did, and got involved in church like we did, and practiced their faith like we did. That’d certainly be easiest, wouldn’t it? But what if instead of inviting people to come be like us, we instead invite ourselves to go and be with others. Imagine if, for example, we said “to those who struggle with addiction, I spent time in the very places where they struggled to make different choices, in order that I might win them with the good news. To those in poverty I became poor, in order to win those in poverty. To those who felt rejected by the church, I listened to the stories of those who had been hurt and went to the places where they found meaning, in order to win those who had been rejected.”
Church can happen anywhere, but it can especially when you are willing to step into the lives of others, to cross boundaries, to make connections, to pour yourself out for others, as we see Paul do, as Christ did, so that by offering your life, your time, your love to others, you might be able to share what God has done for you, and what God can do for them. How are you willing to share yourself with others, in order to share Jesus? Church can happen anywhere, when we remember our purpose. Not to create disciples like us, followers of our ways, but to make disciples who walk in the ways of Jesus.
“Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.” Amen.