Isaiah 40:21-31, I Corinthians 9:19-27
February 8, 2009
The Apostle Paul was considered to be the first missionary of the Church. And he was an amazing man! He established churches throughout the eastern and central Mediterranean world. He was very good at speaking about the Gospel. And even though it often got him in trouble, he was not deterred!
I’m sure we’re all thinking we could never be a Paul. And that may be true. But what I want you to see today that the way he shared his faith with the world is not all that different than anyone else. And where we might not be able to preach with his passion and fire, we can understand and emulate the feelings and inspiration behind it. And that can change our witness to the world.
Paul wrote, “Though I am free from all men I have made myself a slave to all men.” Then later these famous words, “I have become all things to all people.” “I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in it’s blessings.” I want us to think about that for today. And I’d like us to see that we are called to be people of God like him in the way we share our life of faith with other people.
In the first century, the church grew at an astounding rate! The way the Gospel spread across the known world has been described as a “wild fire.” And we can think of the images of wild fires we’ve seen on the news. That was how the Church grew in it’s early days! And it happened for two reasons. It grew because of the efforts of people like Paul. And it grew because of the simple telling of the story from one person to the next. And both of those efforts had very similar characteristics. And I want us to think about this passage from Corinthians because I think it highlights some of those characteristics. As I said a moment ago, the reasons behind Paul’s message, and the ways he delivered it is the same as it was for common people sharing their own stories. And I think it can be ours, too.
Again, Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all people.” Paul was great at that. If you read about his encounters with various groups of people in the book of Acts, you will find that when he spoke with each of them, he did so in ways that they would relate to. That’s part of what it meant to be “all things to all people.” Let’s think about how he did that.
First of all, Paul approached people with love. And the way we know that is that he treated people with “respect.” As you’ve heard me say, respect is a huge part of this thing we call “love.” (Love, which many people in our world think is just a feeling.) Love is “the choice to show respect and honor to someone whether or not you agree with them. And that is sometimes a hard choice to make! But if we’re going to share ourselves with others, we have to love them! And if we love them we have to respect them, and we have to respect where they’re coming from. We can’t look down on people or they won’t look up to us! In other words, if we don’t respect them, they won’t respect us either!
Second, Paul spoke to people in their context. He used examples from their world. Like he says here, when he was speaking to the Jews, he used their scriptures. When speaking to gentiles he used their stories. When he was speaking to the Greeks, he used examples from their culture. He was “all things to all people.”
When we love people, when we reach out to them, we need to know what their world is like. We need to be observant of their lives and their culture. And we need to avoid making assumptions about what they think. That means we need to listen! That’s where many Christians miss the boat! They often worry about having the right things to say to people. Well, that’s not as important sometimes as listening! My mother used to say, “that’s why God gave you two ears and only one mouth! Sometimes we may even need to use their language. (I know not everybody can pull that off, but the principle is valid.)
Paul spoke to people in ways they could accept. He used examples from their lives. He used their philosophy. He tried to use their insights, and to give them respect. He appealed to them in terms that were not confrontational or controversial, but welcoming and gracious. We need to do that, too. As one speaker I heard years ago said, “We need to love people into the kingdom of heaven, not browbeat them!”
I want to tell you, though, one place where this gets hard. In our world today, when we say, “thus and such is true because the Bible says it,” that may not have the impact we would like. The authority of the Bible – which is a big one for us – may not be considered to be of value by others. And they may say to us, “That’s true for you, but not for me.” They may say, “my authority, my truth, comes from such and such.”
My friends, this is one I’m still struggling with. Because I believe with all my heart that God has revealed himself in a unique way through the Bible. But if my example and context comes from that source, and the people I might be speaking to have chosen not to accept that as a source, then I’m at a handicap. That’s the way it is in our post-modern world. And I have to tell you, I’m not completely sure how to deal with this. But I know that love is part of that answer. Trust in the Holy Spirit is part of it, too. But so is this next component of Paul’s approach.
The Third component of Paul’s witness is that he spoke from his heart, and he spoke to the people’s hearts. Paul didn’t just “talk information from the head.” He spoke of that which inspired his heart. And he recognized that as the way to touch people’s lives – by appealing to their hearts.
That’s important for us to do, too! By showing our hearts, by saying not just what’s important for us to know, but by thinking about what inspires our hearts, that’s how we can appeal to people on a heart level. And that’s important. Because people these days are searching for their own hearts. Many people have broken hearts. And we are offering healing to those whose hearts have been broken. But that’s not easy. It’s always easier just to “give information.” “Here’s the doctrine!” we might say. But doctrine doesn’t often touch people’s hearts.
The next thing to point out about Paul’s approach is that he recognized that appealing to the heart takes time. Throughout his ministry, Paul placed himself in relationship with people. He became involved in their lives. He didn’t just come in, “hit ‘em with the Gospel,” and “blow out of town.” He established real relationships with people. His letters were full of personal greetings for people he had come to love over time. That’s so important, because so much of the Christian experience is about relationships. That’s why TV church or Christian books alone doesn’t cut it. Those things can be good. But it is the Christian experience lived out among others that makes this life of faith what it is.
When I was in College I was part of Campus Crusade for Christ. And part of that organization’s effort was to share the faith in a “structured way.” And I would say there is some good to that. But what bothered me about it was that too much of what we called “witnessing” was the giving of information. Systematic, and packaged material like the “Four Spiritual Laws” is good information. But frankly that kind of approach always left me a bit flat. And I realized later that it was because the heart part of the message was missing. The relationship part of it that was not there.
Too often, the only times we touched the lives of other people was in those times when we were “witnessing” to them. When we were sharing our faith “formally and intentionally” it was the only contact we seemed to have. And I remember that really bothered me. I didn’t know it at the time, but the important thing for me was the same as it was for Paul. The important thing was this “sharing of the story within relationships.” It was more than just words. It was caring for and being a part of people’s lives. We need to remember that, too.
The last part of this I want to tell you is that Paul had a heart for the Gospel. He was truly excited about his relationship with the living God. He had a passion for the story of this Jesus he met on the road. And he had desire to share that in a loving way with others. If you think about it, we tend to share with each other that which is important in our lives. And if we aren’t talking about our relationship with God, it’s important to ask the question “why?” How important is our faith to us?
We’re moving towards Lent very quickly now. And as we do, I would remind us that asking ourselves questions like that is important. How excited are we about our relationship with God? Is knowing about God the only thing for us? Or do we strive to know God!? Is our head the only player in our faith, or has the Gospel story touched our hearts – that place where we really live?
That may be the most important thing for us to think about today. Yes, these things about Paul are all good things to think about. And as I started out saying, the reasons for and the ways of sharing the life of faith are not all that different between him and any other person. And I hope we will consider those things in our lives? But the most important thing is, do we live in that joyful relationship with God? Do we have that daily, personal contact with God? That is what makes all the difference for us. That’s what makes the life of faith vibrant, and fulfilling, and meaningful.
So make this a time when you remember that relationship. Make this a time when you renew that relationship with God. When we do that, then we have something to share with the world!
Eternal God, help us to know you better. Help us to draw closer to you and to feel you drawing closer to us. May your love and your grace be seen in us. May our lives be a witness to your light in the world. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.