Be All Things to All People

5th Sunday after Epiphany – February 4, 2018

Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it. 

19Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:16-23)

There was once a faithful pastor who prepared his sermon. He put together his Bible Classes. He spent hours getting the church building ready for Sunday. Everything seemed perfect. Then on Sunday, the people came. The scene was picture perfect. But if you were there, you would have noticed right away that something was wrong. The pastor faithfully preached and taught in English, but this was a mission in India – and nobody understood a word he said! All his preparation, all of his study was for nothing because he didn’t come to the people in their own language. He didn’t meet the people where they were.

The Lord always comes to people where they are – even if that means doing something he has never done before. There was once a man traveling with a couple companions on horseback. These men were on a mission – and it wasn’t a good one. They were looking for Christians. Everywhere they went, they hunted down believers in Jesus and locked them up. This trip would be no different. Or so they thought.

All of a sudden a light flashed from heaven all around them. Each man fell off of his horse onto the ground. Then a voice boomed from heaven. The message came specifically for one of them. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul had lived during the ministry of Jesus. He had heard about Jesus’ death on the cross. He knew the rumors of Jesus’ resurrection. He heard about Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit brought 3,000 people to faith.

And he had been angry about all of it. He had thought that these believers were liars. He thought Jesus was nothing more than a deceiving lunatic. But Saul had been wrong. And now it was that very Jesus who stood before Saul. Saul didn’t recognize him. “‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked.” Then came Jesus’ telling response: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

On that day in Saul’s life, on that road he was traveling, Jesus met a persecutor of Christians, and he converted him into a believer. On that day, Saul became Paul – a missionary for the Lord. Jesus met Paul right where he was.

Ever since that day, Paul had been doing the same thing. He would travel to towns and go into the Jewish churches, talking to people about who Jesus is and why he came. He sat with people next to rivers and shared the good news. He spoke with Greek philosophers and Cyprian sorcerers. He spoke with lowly servants and on one occasion he spoke to the Roman Emperor himself.

The people were all different. They spoke different languages. They had various concerns. They held different jobs and lived in vastly different places. But they all had two things in common. The first was that every one of these people Paul met was a sinner who needed to know about Jesus. The second thing they all had in common was that Paul found a way to talk to them.

This morning Paul reveals the secret behind his mission work. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” Now listen to some of Paul’s mission examples. “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.”

It sounds simple enough – doesn’t it? If you are around Jews, respect what they respect and pretty soon they will respect you, too. To Gentiles who don’t follow the Old Testament law, speak to them on their terms. Don’t mandate that they have to sacrifice animals – because they don’t have to. To those who are weak, meet them where they are.

It all sounds so simple. But we need the reminder, because we aren’t always mindful missionaries. In our own mission fields, to the people around us, we can sometimes be like that missionary we heard earlier. We do the work, we set everything up, we get prepared…only to speak the wrong language.

Paul says he became a Jew in order to speak to the Jews. But what if there are people we don’t want to talk to? That gets in the way of sharing our faith. Paul lived as a Gentile when he was around Gentiles in order to talk to them about Jesus. But sometimes we struggle to give up our rules. I want to talk and act like a Lutheran – even if the people around me have no idea what that means. That also gets in the way of sharing our faith. When it comes to the weak, Paul said he made himself weak. My sinful nature wants me to act strong in front of the weak to impress them. But God isn’t impressed…and neither are those who need to hear the word.

When we fail to meet people where they are at, and we have failed, we are forgetting what mission work is all about. It isn’t about me. And it isn’t about you. Paul reminds us: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel.”

Now comes the ultimate example. Jesus met everyone exactly where they were at. He came to a Samaritan woman who had been committing adultery and sat by her at a well in order to share the good news. He walked along the Sea of Galilee to catch fishermen to be his disciples. And even while Jesus suffered on the cross to take away your sins and mine on the cross, he was thinking of others – meeting them where they were. He turned to the thief on the cross next to him, a man who was being punished justly, and saw his faith and said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

Just look at where Jesus meets you. He came to you through the waters of baptism. He comes to you this morning through his word. He will come to you through the sacrament of Holy Communion. Jesus meets you where you are at, and he promises to help you meet others where they are in their lives.

That might mean talking to that family member you have been avoiding, so that you can tell him about Jesus. It might mean walking over to your new neighbor’s house and introducing yourself. It might mean getting coffee at a place you haven’t for a while. Sharing your faith isn’t always easy. It doesn’t always feel comfortable. But it is so important. There are people around you that may never hear about Jesus unless you tell them. Don’t let your sinful nature get in the way. Don’t let your pride keep you from talking to some people. Share Jesus. Make Paul’s mission refrain your own: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.” Amen.