“I became all things to all people, so that by all means, I might save some.” There are a lot of half verses of Paul that can lead a preacher into trouble, but none more dangerous, I think, than the second half of the twenty-second verse in the ninth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Maybe the danger factor plays into the fact that this is, by far, my favorite sentence of Paul’s. As I studied this piece of scripture this week, I made a rule on that “a preacher should never, ever, preach a sermon based solely on one-half of a verse of Paul,” and today I will all but break that rule because it is just so rich. This morning, I’d like to do something just a little different; so that I won't out and out break my rule. Instead of one sermon on a half verse of Paul, I’d like to give you three brief sermons all based on this half verse. You will, no doubt, be able to guess the one which I think is the better interpretation, but I believe all three, flawed as they may be, have something to teach us about the ministry of Paul, that is, in all actuality, each of our callings as well.
Sermon #1 – What I have dubbed “The Inculturation Sermon” - “I became all things to all people, so that by all means, I might save some.” Over that past 2000 years there have been many ugly battles between Christians. Wars have been fought over church structure, worship formats, the role of the cross, and many, many, many other topics. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, tells them of his attempts to bring the gospel to a wide variety of people, who, for various reasons, heard the gospel in a wide variety of ways. To the Jews, his first converts, the good news of Jesus was that the Jews had been redeemed. In Jesus, God had restored the throne of David and in the second coming Rome would be overthrown. To the Gentiles, who came along later, the good news of Jesus was that all of humanity had been redeemed. When the curtain of the Temple tore in two, Jesus opened the very gates of heaven to everyone. To women, of particular concern for Paul, the good news of Jesus was that he came not to be served but to serve, thereby raising the role of the fairer sex to that of God himself. There was good news in Jesus for slaves, for the sick, for the lonely, for those in prison, and on and on. What Paul offered them was the ability to hear the gospel in their context, so that they could see the good news for themselves.
Today, we must be willing to translate the good news for the wide variety of people, who, for various reasons, will hear the gospel in a wide variety of ways. Letting go of our need to be right about every nuance of faith, we must preach the good news of a God-who-loves to children who are abandoned. We should preach the good news of a God-who-restores to the alcoholic struggling to put her life back together.
And, when it is necessary, we must be willing to wait patiently for the finer points of doctrine to come about, not excluding from the kingdom (as if we could) those who, for a variety of reasons, struggle with the Virgin Birth, the miracles, the Trinity, etc. Like Paul, we must be willing to become all things to all people.
Sermon #2 – Which I have named “The Evangelism Sermon” - “I became all things to all people, so that by all means, I might save some.” Miriam Webster’s Dictionary defines evangelism as “the winning or revival of personal commitments to Christ.”i As followers of Jesus Christ, we, like Paul, are called to preach the gospel to all people so that they might be saved through a personal commitment to Jesus. With well reasoned understanding and the Word of God, it is the job of the Christian, the evangelist, to preach the gospel to all nations. That means bringing the Word to Africa, to South America, to Asia, Australia, and all the ends of the earth. It means making the Son of God known in every language, and restoring all cultures to the vision for life that God has laid out in this holy Word. Becoming “all things to all people” does not mean bending to every whim of culture, but translating the prescriptions of God for world-wide consumption. For the people to whom we preach their very salvation is at stake. We must take this call seriously so that by all means, we might save some.
Sermon #3 – I affectionately call this one “The Me Too Sermon” - “I became all things to all people, so that by all means, I might save some.” I promise you this, in the coming weeks and months, you are going to be downright sick of hearing about Rob Bell’s new book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Both Keith and I have read it over the past month, and it has, in many ways, re-framed the way we both look at the Church and the world. In the book, Bell quotes writer Anne Lamott “who says that the most powerful sermon in the world is two words: ‘Me too.’ Me too. When you’re struggling, when you are hurting, wounded, limping, doubting, questioning, barely hanging on, moments away from another relapse, and somebody can identify with you – someone knows the temptations that are at your door, somebody has felt the pain that you are feeling, when somebody can look you in the eyes and say, ‘me too,’ and they actually mean it – it can save you. When you aren’t judged, or lectured, or looked down upon, but somebody demonstrates that they get it, that they know what it’s like, that you aren’t alone, that’s ‘me too.’”ii
Paul is notoriously wordy, but essentially he is saying to the Church in Corinth, "me too." I have been weak. I have been under the law. I have been made free from the law. I have been in all sorts of situations, and so I can sit with you in yours and say, "me too," while I share with you the hope that is within me; the good news that brought me out of my situation. And, as much as becoming all things requires a “me too” lifestyle of sitting and listening, it also calls for getting up, rolling up your sleeves, and getting to work. For us, becoming all things to all people, means becoming a teacher to those who want to learn. It means becoming a chef to those who need a meal. To the homeless we become a host. To the prisoner we become cookie baker, worship leader, and prayer partner. To our neighbors we become a helping hand, a word of encouragement, or a pot of homemade soup.
We become all things to all people, so that by all means, we might save some. And by save, I'm not necessarily concerned with eternal salvation - since only God can work that out. By save I mean it in the way Paul wrote it, Sozo, - to bring to safety, to cure, to ensure salvation, to make...well, to preserve, to recover, to restore, to save. By sitting and listening or getting up and doing, maybe, just maybe, we can save someone from the loneliness that is so common in the human condition. Maybe we can save someone from hopelessness. Maybe we can save someone from despair. By saving them in the ways that we as humans can, maybe we open the door to their being saved in the way only God can. Share the love of God with reckless abandon, become all things to all people, so that by all means you might save some. Amen.
iiBell, Rob and Don Colden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, Zondervan, 2008, p. 151-2.