Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 9:7-12, 19-23
Date: October 20 & 21, 2018
The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
1 Corinthians 9:7–12, 19-23 (EHV)
7What soldier ever serves at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat some of its fruit? Or who takes care of a flock and does not drink milk from the flock? 8Am I saying this just from a human point of view? Doesn’t the law also say this? 9Yes, it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out grain.” Is God really concerned about oxen, 10or does he say this entirely for our sake? Yes, it was written for our sake, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher ought to thresh in hope of getting a share. 11If we sowed spiritual seed for your good, is it too much if we reap material benefits from you? 12If others have some right to make this claim on you, don’t we even more? But we did not use this right. Instead, we endure everything so as not to cause any hindrance for the gospel of Christ.
19In fact, although I am free from all, I enslaved myself to all so that I might gain many more. 20To the Jews, I became like a Jew so that I might gain Jews. To those who are under the law, I became like a person under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might gain those who are under the law. 21To those who are without the law, I became like a person without the law (though I am not without God’s law but am within the law of Christ) so that I might gain those who are without the law. 22To the weak, I became weak so that I might gain the weak. I have become all things to all people so that I may save at least some. 23And I do everything for the sake of the gospel so that I may share in it along with others.
How Do We Become All Things to All People?
Ever have a party or gathering where two different groups of friends and acquaintances meet? Maybe you throw a little get together at Christmas time and invite some neighbors and your coworkers. They don’t know each other. The only commonality they have is you.
It’s an event like that which can bring into stark contrast just how much adapting you do depending on the group you’re with. Maybe with one friend you talk sports, with another music, and with another movies. You have interests in all of those things, or at least knowledge, so you’re not being untrue to yourself, but if you know that your music-connoisseur friend couldn’t care less about baseball, you’re not going to ask him if he saw the Giants play. You adapt. You become simply a music-lover with that friend, and a sports-nut with another.
Paul recognized that the Christian ministry was all about adaption. That while the message of the Christian faith cannot be modified, changed, or compromised, he notes that we also can’t just ram-rod one, single-minded approach down the throat of anyone we come into contact with. We will want to adapt. But that begs the question here in 21st Century America, 21st Century Northern California, how do we become all things to all people?
One of the early things that the Christians figured out is that to do the work of gospel ministry effectively, they were going to need to specialize. In Jerusalem they realized that there were going to need to be people set apart for organizing the distribution of food to the poor and people to preach the Word; one person could not do both. So they designated those people, and allowed the preachers (at that time, the apostles) to focus on their work (Acts 6:1ff).
The work of the gospel ministry was so huge that they needed people to devote themselves fulltime to it. They couldn’t afford to have the preachers working “another job” to make ends meet. They had to take care of them and provide for them to free them to do what was necessary. Paul uses the Old Testament law about care of animals to drive home the point, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out grain.” While the ox is working, you allow him to eat a little bit to keep his strength up and as a thank you for the work he’s doing. It’s not kind or wise to prevent him from eating while doing the work you’ve given him to do. If we should be that concerned with an ox, Paul says, shouldn’t we be that much more concerned about our spiritual leaders? If we sowed spiritual seed for your good, is it too much if we reap material benefits from you? 12If others have some right to make this claim on you, don’t we even more?
There are many congregations where this section would be an opportunity to really get to the heart of a problem, to ask why they were not taking care of their called workers in an appropriate way. Materially speaking, I don’t think we have that problem in our midst, God be praised! Your pastor and teachers are well cared for and ensure that they not only can eat while treading out the grain, but have a comfortable life. But what other ways might you support that gospel ministry? What other ways might you be a blessing to your called workers? When was the last time you prayed for your pastor and teachers? When was the last time you spoke some encouraging words to them, asked them how things are going and didn’t let them get away with that non-answer of “Good, good…”? In what ways might you not only support your called workers but encourage them and make their work a joy among you, so that your life in Christ may be a joy?
When called workers are supported, like Paul and his coworkers often would be, that frees them up to dedicate that much more time to the work of the church. But what is that work? What is that becoming all things to all people? Perhaps it’s easier to start with what it’s not. It’s not changing the message; it’s not compromising the truth of God’s Word to make more people happy. It does mean adapting an outreach style appropriate for the audience.
Paul put it this way: To the Jews, I became like a Jew so that I might gain Jews. To those who are under the law, I became like a person under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might gain those who are under the law. 21To those who are without the law, I became like a person without the law (though I am not without God’s law but am within the law of Christ) so that I might gain those who are without the law. Paul was no longer a Jewish believer; he was not bound by the ceremonial laws that governed the Jewish people’s daily lives because he knew that those laws had been fulfilled in Jesus. But when he went to the Jewish people, he didn’t go and offer them pork chops and see if they wanted to do some work on Saturday. No, among the Jewish people, he subjected himself back under the law so that from that vantage point, he could show them their freedom in Jesus. Likewise, to the non-Jewish people, the Gentiles, Paul did not come with a strict diet of laws and regulations that he demanded the people follow. He did not come scorning and scoffing at their sinful ignorance, but rather came with God’s Word to show them their Savior, and just how dearly they needed that Savior.
He didn’t change God’s Word; he didn’t change God’s definition of right and wrong; he didn’t change that core, unshakable truth of the complete forgiveness in Jesus. But he adapted his methods to communicate that rock-solid message to different people.
How do we do that? How do we adapt? We start by looking at ourselves. We start by letting God’s Word address us where we are. We need to hear that message of sin and grace, law and gospel. We need to hear just how horrendous we are. We need to hear, like all people do, how we have violated God’s law time and time again. We don’t deserve any good from God; we deserve for him to throw us in hell. But God changed that. In fact, in the most amazing away, Jesus became all things for us. He became the one thing that he wasn’t: sin. Paul would write later to the Corinthians: “God made him, who did not know sin, to become sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21, EHV). Jesus bent over backwards to become what we really need as he became our sin, died our death, and suffered our hell.
And it’s that very message that we get to carry to the world, it’s that message whether through a private conversation or the work of the ministries that you support with your prayers and offerings, that we work together to spread! We can adapt our methods to meet people where they were because we were all there. We were all lost in sin and have been plucked from the fire of punishment by our Savior.
But where do start? How do we begin?
We’ve been studying friendship evangelism in our Sunday morning Bible classes. Sharing your faith can be scary, but you are the best ambassadors for our congregation, and ultimately our Savior. You live your lives in a way that glorifies God and then be ready to tell people what you believe, and perhaps even invite people to join us in worship or Bible class so that they, too, can learn about God’s eternal love for them.
We will have our next Voters’ Meeting next Sunday. There we get updates on what is going on in our congregation’s ministry and make plans for the way forward. This vital part of our congregation’s work is of great importance. What are we going to do? How are we going to do it? And in what ways can you help as part of our joint work? Please make plans to be at that meeting next Sunday.
God’s Word, that message of the cross, of sins forgiven in Jesus is more important than any opinion or feeling that you or I might harbor. What need to look at our surroundings. When Paul found himself in the synagogue, he adapted his methods of proclaiming that gospel. When he found himself surrounded by the idols of Athens, he adapted his methods of proclaiming that gospel. And it didn’t always work. He said his goal was that he may save at least some. Not everyone listened; not everyone is going to listen to us. But we need to look around us, our area here in Belmont, our resources here in our congregation, and ask, “How might we become all things to all people? How might we adapt to our environment to tailor our methods of proclaiming that gospel to those around us? Does that mean a radical departure from the methods of the past? Does that mean reinvigorating current ministries to go forward into the future? How can we work together to make this happen?”
Whatever we do, whatever decisions are made in the future, whatever the plans we lay before us, it is God that is going to determine the blessings that come from them; it is God that is going to work through us to accomplish his purpose; it is God who is going to strengthen our hearts and minds in the forgiving love of Jesus. Let us become all things to all people so we can show all people that God became all things for them. Amen.