All Things to All People
I Corinthians 9:16-27
“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them…..To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
“On To Immortality!” That was the headline on the front cover of Sports Illustrated, in reference to Super Bowl #49. The rest of the headline said this, “After a Super Bowl win for the ages, the Patriots chiseled their place on the Rushmore of NFL Franchises, and their quarterback staked his claim as the greatest ever.” The sportswriter is no doubt a student of NFL football and is reflecting the conventional wisdom that Quarterback Tom Brady is a shoe in for the NFL immortality, along with two other quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana who have also led their teams to four Super Bowl victories.
Students of Scripture will be uneasy with any talk of immortality that isn’t focused on Jesus Christ, of Whom Paul writes to young pastor Timothy, “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light….and any of you who have stood at the gravesite service of a loved one in recent months and years are looking forward to that day when the trumpet will sound and the perishable bodies will be putting on the imperishable and the mortal bodies will be putting on true immortality.
Students of the Gospel will remember that the truly great ones in the eyes of God are those who have been molded and shaped by God into being servants of others. The ones who will be commended by Jesus on the Last Day aren’t the quarterbacks who have thrown the winning touchdowns, but rather the ones who have spent their days letting their lights shine in such a way that others would see their good works and give glory to God. The ones who have understood what it means to be all things to all people on behalf of the Gospel. Or to say it this way, what it means to live out our little part in God’s grand and glorious plan to have mercy on sinners. First, what that meant for Paul. Secondly, what it means for a preacher. And third, what it means for those listening to and believing the Gospel.
Paul’s Role in God’s Story – Few could appreciate the grace of God like Paul. He was the ISIS or the AlQaida terrorist of his day. When he wrote that he was the (Worst) of the sinners, few could argue the point. He was a Pharisee and a son of a Pharisee. As a young and ambitious man, he was intoxicated with hatred for the Gospel. He breathed threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus. Although we don’t have specific reports that he killed Christians, he went before the high priest and saw to it that they were imprisoned and executed.
It should tell you something about God that he would take the very chief of first century sinners and turn him into the very Best of the missionaries. How did God do that? He started the process with a bright light from heaven as Saul approached Damascus. With a question, “why are you persecuting me?” With a man of God named Ananias who prayed for and laid hands on and instructed and then baptized Saul. That’s how God got his attention and as the years went on God molded and shaped Paul into a preacher who wanted nothing more in life than to preach the Gospel at no charge. Into a free man who was subject to nobody who made himself into a servant to all.
God did that by making sure that Paul was whipped by Jews five times, 39 lashes each time. By making sure he was thrown into prison far more times and beaten far more than just about anybody else. God worked in him a servant heart by making sure he was beaten three times with rods, stoned once, shipwrecked three times, by making sure he was often in danger from rivers and in danger from robbers and in danger from his own people and in danger from Gentiles and in danger in the city and in danger in the wilderness and in danger at sea and in danger from false brothers, and on and on through fiery trials and the furnace of affliction, God’s Spirit produces a preacher absolutely on fire for His Savior. Who wants nothing more from life than that he might preach to the Jews in such a way that they would listen and to the Gentiles in such a way that they would listen to and believe and be saved and spend their eternities mounting up with wings like eagles and soaring.
“It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.” Those were the opening words of “Tale of Two Cities”, written by Charles Dickens at the time of the French Revolution. That saying came to mind as I reflected a bit this past week on how God called and gathered and enlightened and sanctified Paul into being a preacher who had a passion for being all things to all people. Which led me to look into my own life story to see how I might measure up against Paul. Not well, I had to answer. My journey of faith is quite the opposite of Paul’s. It began quietly, at the age of 19 days, in the waters of Baptism. Almost without exception, my days and years have been easy and soft. And yet the more I thought about it, the worst of my days have turned out to be the best of my days, at least in terms of serving as a pastor to the people of God.
A Pastor’s Role in God’s Story – This past Wednesday morning, for Release Class time, we watch with our youth the testimony of Gianna Jessen, the young lady who survived abortion and considers her cerebral palsy to be a gift to be used for God’s glory. Which led me to share with our youth three of the worst days of my life and how God has used them to shape me up into the kind of servant He wants me to be.
In the (worst) of times / In the (best of times)
September 5, 1968 was the day God began to teach me what it meant to be a pastor. It was the day my 20 year old brother was killed in a car accident, three days before he was to leave for basic training for the Army. It was also the day when our old and faithful Pastor Dierks gathered my extended family around the Word of God in our living room and showed us the way through tragedy. He recited Psalm 23 to us and explained how to make it through the valley of the shadow of death. He invited us to recite the Apostles Creed and explained what it meant to believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. He pointed us to the words of Job, “Naked came I into this world and naked I will leave. The Lord gives and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” Before the day was over, I was thinking seriously about wanting to be a pastor, and to this very day, every time I make my way to the funeral home or to the nursing home to make arrangements, my desire is simple – that I could be what this grieving family needs me to be, for the sake of the Gospel.
New Years Eve, 1971 was the night God began to teach me what it was like to have your heart broken. That night my first ever girl friend dumped me like a rock and took up with a friend of mine. The next few days I jumped high every time the phone rang, sure that she would come to her senses. She didn’t. As the weeks went on, I obviously survived, and about 10 months later, God arranged life in such a way that Debi and I would meet and get to know in a puppy love sort of a way, and 40 years later, here we are, going through the grandparent chapter, hand in hand. To this day, whenever I read on Facebook or hear in person of marriages that are struggling or have an opportunity to serve a person with a broken heart, my one desire is this – that this pastor could be what that wounded soul needs him or her to be, for the sake of the Gospel. Our second lesson today, as we consider a pastor’s role in God’s story – that in fact the worst of times are often those God will turn into the best of times for the sake of the Gospel.
Your Role in God’s Story. Everybody has a story, of course. Stories with all manner of brokenness and healing, with every kind of twists and turns, with lessons learned and then forgotten and learned again. This morning, in closing, I want to point out the obvious. Not a one of us lives our story in isolation. We live in a vertical relationship, with God, by faith – and in all kinds of horizontal relationships, with others, in love. By nature, we live as if life is mainly about me, myself, and I. But in the waters of Holy Baptism, we are moved to life as if life is all about Jesus Christ. In this Epiphany season, we do well one more time to ask what it means to let our Gospel lights shine…..what it means to serve Christ by serving others…..what it means to be all things to all people.
First, it means that every Christian a (disciple). To be a disciple is to be a follower of Christ. It is to spend your days knowing that you have been given a place within God’s story, that you have an active role to play, that not a one of you is unimportant, and that no vocation is insignificant. What we do in our own little corners of the world matters here and now, and beyond.
Closely related to the fact that every Christian is a disciple, by definition, is that Every Christian a (missionary). The Holy Spirit doesn’t just call and gather and enlighten us with His gifts. He keeps on sending us back into this world to feed the hungry family that needs to be fed and pour a cup of coffee for a friend that really needs that coffee and to listen to that neighbor who needs to be listened to. Every morning His mercies are brand new and meant to move us towards changing those diapers that need to be changed and giving a ride to that elderly person who doesn’t drive anymore and visiting that friend in the hospital who is there through no fault of his own as well as the one who is in prison because of mistakes made and repeated. Called out of this sinful world by grace and then sent back into it day after day with the greatest story ever told. The story of a Father who has loved us with an everlasting love and of a Son who offered up a once and for all sacrifice to end all required sacrifices and of a Spirit who proceeds from that Father and Son guiding and teaching and molding and making us into a body of believers who have a passion for saving souls into eternity.
On To Immortality! The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town where more and more of her members are understanding more and more what it means to be all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel. Where they are appreciating more and more how God can bless their simple acts of kindness, where they are seeing more and more the potential of every conversation, every circumstance, and every routine. They know that the worst of their days can turn out to be the best of their days, and so they wake up in many of their days eager to see what good works God has prepared for them to do. IN Jesus’ Name. Amen.
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