Adapt and React
(1 Corinthians 9: 16-23)
As I was preparing to lead the Celebration of Life of my brother who passed suddenly in December, I thought about what I was going to say, but more importantly, who I was going to be saying it to. The sharp words of my granddaughter still ring in my ears when I’m preparing a Celebration of Life. You see, she was about six when I led the celebration of her other grandfather’s life. I thought I had done a pretty good job until she approached me and said: “Gramps, I had no idea what you were talking about.” Ouch! I thought now about my brother’s audience. I thought about my mother who just lost her youngest child and my sister who lost her little brother. I thought about all of Jeff’s friends, many from his childhood and where he worked. And I thought about his two daughters and five grandchildren. I thought about the twin boys who were to turn ten in a few days and the questions they were asking as to why their grandfather who lived with them for almost all of their lives died so suddenly. Who is this God that would allow this to happen? I wasn’t there to impress them with my oratory skills or my dazzling knowledge of Scripture. I was there to help them understand that we live in an imperfect world full of imperfect people and that we have imperfect bodies and sometimes get sick, but through all of it Jesus Christ is right there with us, grieving, sitting beside us as we process our loss, ready to bring us peace, hope, and understanding. I had to adapt to the situation and react accordingly so the message, the gospel of Jesus Christ, was not lost on anyone who was listening.
And that’s what the Apostle Paul is talking about in our scripture reading for this morning. He’s talking about keeping it simple and relatable to the hearer. This, I think, is quite an admission for Paul, an epiphany if you will. You see, Paul wasn’t always that relatable. In his former life when he was known as Saul, he was a Pharisee, an expert in the Law of Moses, a Jew’s Jew. So offended was he that when this new interpretation presented by this so-called Messiah from Nazareth of how the God of Abraham really felt, he went on a mission to round up the Followers of the Way of Jesus Christ and even held the cloaks of those who stoned the first Christian martyr Stephen. It wasn’t until he had his “enlightening” experience on the road to Damascus that he came to understand his mission was not to impress God, his audience of one, but that there was a larger audience out there that needed to be reached, an audience that was diverse beyond imagination. He had to figure out how to reach as many people as he could whether he was talking to one, a few, or many at any given time when the opportunity presented itself.
The Apostle starts out by saying: If I preach the gospel, I have no reason to brag, since I’m obligated to do it. I’m in trouble if I don’t preach the gospel. If I do this voluntarily, I get rewarded for it. But if I’m forced to do it, then I’ve been charged with a responsibility. The mighty Saul has been brought to his knees and the humble Paul understands his mission. On the one hand, Paul proclaims the gospel voluntarily because it is what he wants to do with all his being. And yet, on the other hand, he also does it out of the obligation God gave him when he entrusted him to be his apostle preaching the good news to the Gentiles. He rhetorically asks: What reward do I get? and then answers his own question by stating: That when I preach, I offer the good news free of charge. That’s why I don’t use the rights to which I’m entitled through the gospel. His “reward” for willingly proclaiming the gospel is that he offers it “free of charge” which may mean that he has the reward of being able to brag because his life pattern bears an analogy to the gospel he proclaims. Preaching the gospel was Paul’s gift and calling, and he is essentially saying that he couldn’t stop preaching even if he wanted to, even if his life depended upon it. He was driven by the desire to do what God wanted, using his gifts for God’s glory.
He continues by saying: Although I’m free from all people, I make myself a slave to all people, to recruit more of them. I think what he’s referencing here is his dual citizenship. Paul was a citizen of Rome which gave him all the rights and privileges of a Roman citizen and he was also a citizen of the kingdom of God with all the rights and privileges that come with being a follower of the way of Jesus Christ. He says: I act like a Jew to the Jews, so I can recruit Jews. I act like I’m under the Law to those under the Law, so I can recruit those who are under the Law (though I myself am not under the Law). I act like I’m outside the Law to those who are outside the Law, so I can recruit those outside the Law (though I’m not outside the law of God but rather under the law of Christ). He says a mouthful here but what he’s talking about is being able to adapt to the situation, the audience he is speaking with, and react accordingly, and when I say react, I mean speaking their language in a way that makes the gospel understandable and relatable. What he is saying is that although he’s not “under the Law” in the sense that the Mosaic Law gives him his identity and exercises control over him, he observes the Law when he’s with fellow Jews. When he’s with Gentiles who are outside the Mosaic Law, his activity is governed by the cruciform pattern of Christ’s death on the cross so that he’s under the law of Christ. His pattern is to waive his individual rights in order to orient his actions toward the salvation of others, a pattern of life that is analogous to Christ’s.
He says: I act weak to the weak, so I can recruit the weak. I have become all things to all people, so I could save some by all possible means. All the things I do are for the sake of the gospel, so I can be a partner with it. He is highlighting the fact that he has humbled himself so that he can totally identify with the weak by himself becoming, not just acting, weak for the sake of their salvation. He listens and empathizes with whomever he is talking with. He is not judgmental and doesn’t waste his opportunity by talking about himself and who he was in a past life. He does his best to identify with his listener, to feel what they are feeling and to hear what they are saying. From there, he can share the gospel with them making it understandable and relatable. Paul has indeed become a partner with the gospel because his life shares in the pattern of Christ’s death on the cross as a visible proclamation that the crucified One is Lord. He has made himself a servant to all so that he might win the more. He has put his ministry of the gospel above his personal desires by being willing to conform, to adapt to the customs of other people, no matter what their circumstance, in order to bring them to Christ.
The goals of Paul’s life were to glorify God and bring people to Christ. Thus, he stayed free of any philosophical position or material entanglement that might sidetrack him, while he strictly disciplined himself to carry out his goal of bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to those who needed to hear it in a way they could understand. In doing so, Paul gives us several important principles for us in our ministries. First and foremost, find common ground with those whom you come into contact with. Avoid a know-it-all attitude, make others feel accepted, be sensitive to their needs and concerns; and look for opportunities to tell them about Christ. Be open, honest, and nonjudgemental. Be receptive to their questions and concerns.
We all can’t be like the Apostle Paul who was called for a specific purpose, but we can nevertheless be called. There is much to do. So, ask yourself what special gifts has God given you? And then, ask yourself if you are motivated, like Paul, to honor God with your gifts? And then ask if you are ready to adapt and react and be one of those somebodies who does something in Jesus’ name?
Let us pray.
O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace! Yes, gracious Lord give us voice to sing your praises to all who would listen, to all who need to hear of your light and your love. Let us talk of your glory and the triumphs of your grace to those who receive it. Humble us Lord so that we may carry your message to those who most need to hear it. Give clarity to our voice and may the words of comfort we speak be understood by all and received with joy. Like Paul, help us to be all things to all people in your service. In Jesus’s name, we pray, Amen.
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