(This is the message that I was set to give for our Annual Membership Covenant Renewal Ceremony on Sunday, Nov. 21, but which was canceled due to weather. Rather than using it, or parts and pieces of it, later, I post it now for anyone who may still wish to consider its meaning for church membership, at EMC or anywhere else.)
I Cor. 9:19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 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. 21 To 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. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Focus verse: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I might share in its blessings.”
I begin with a story about two brothers (to each other), who will remain unnamed so that nothing about this story is construed to offend or ridicule any ethnic group. The two brothers got work one year for a company laying pipeline all around the Midwest. They each got a shovel, and were told to take their turns digging the trench for the pipe to go in, and shoveling the dirt back over it. They would be paid by the hour. One day the foreman came by and saw them both at work, one busily digging a trench and the other filling it in. By themselves; no one else was around.
“What are you guys doing, digging and filling a trench when there’s no pipeline going in?” the foreman asked.
To which one of the brothers replied: “The pipe-laying crew needed the day off,” and the other on said, “But we need the work.”
That story demonstrates a temptation that afflicts every community, every organization, every group, whether its the Boy Scouts, a business, a family, or even a church. I call it “missional amnesia,” a tendency or a temptation to so focus in on one part of the bigger picture—our part, our favorite part—that we forget the bigger picture, the end, the goal and the purpose for which we got together in the first place. The two brothers, so engrossed in getting money for moving dirt, forgot the bigger picture, the end, the goal and the reason for all their digging and shoveling, which was laying pipe.
Whenever such missional amnesia happens in a church, people may fixate on parts and pieces of church life, even good parts, their favorite parts, like the music, the fellowship, even the food, all the while forgetting the greater purpose that all the good parts and pieces serve. Or they might find that they are pursuing opposing missions. Conflict and differences then arise, not over how to carry out the church’s mission, which always requires discussion, discernment and adjustments, and rightfully so, but over the church’s very mission itself. That leads to a power struggle over who is most able to impose their mission upon others. Its much better if people join a group, a business, an organization, and, of course, a church, if they are joining not only the people whom they love and admire, but if they are also knowingly joining their mission, one they can agree enough upon, one they can keep remembering, one for which they always keep making course corrections and adjustments, so as to better pursue their common mission. Of course it helps if that mission includes having the best possible relationships with each other.
And that’s what Paul is doing with his Corinthian friends: reminding them of the mission they had forgotten, and telling them how better to pursue it. That mission is succinctly put in verse 23: “All this for the sake of the gospel.”
The gospel hopefully we all know. Jesus came preaching, “The Kingdom of God is at hand; Repent and believe the gospel,” which means, “good news.” In John’s Gospel, the good news is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
That’s the gospel, or good news. But all what for the gospel? Well, in this case, its relationships, and what Paul wants people to do in order to best relate to people inside and outside of the church. In today’s passage, Paul uses his missionary practice as an example of how he wants the Corinthian Christians to relate to each other. One of the earliest, most versatile, adaptable missionary anthropologists after Jesus, Paul is able to put himself into the shoes—no, make that even the skin—of all sorts of people, those with the law—fellow Jews—and those without the law—Gentiles; the weak, the strong and everyone in between. “I become all things to all people,” he says, not to try and make them like him better, for that would be hypocrisy. He says, “I become all things to all people so that by all means I might save some of them.” That is, that he might better share the gospel with them in language and terms they can best understand, so that at least some of them will accept the gospel.
And for those who don’t accept the gospel, at least it won’t be because Paul miscommunicated the gospel, or that, because of cultural barriers and linguistic problems they misunderstood the gospel, but precisely because they did understand the gospel, and said, No Thanks.
Which is quite a change for Paul from his previous life, as Rabbi Saul of Tarsus. In that role, he did quite the opposite. As a Pharisee, he would have demanded of Gentiles and fellow Jews that they become like him in order for him to have fellowship and communication with them. They would have had to observe Jewish dietary rules and regulations, they would have had to observe the purity codes, and not even touch a dead animal or a bleeding person within twenty-four hours of his sharing a meal or a handshake with them. But now throughout all his letters we see Paul’s amazing ability to suspend all that and to speak to people in their language, from their worldview, with their lingo and preoccupations, by entering their world, their place in the world, their shoes, even, it seems, their skin.
Not only was this a good communication skill, or good marketing. It was in itself gospel, or a demonstration of the gospel. Just as the fullness of God stepped into our shoes, took on our skin and dwelt bodily in Jesus and walked among us as God incarnate, so Paul could put on the shoes, and take on the skin of all people he met. That tells me that whenever he met people of any race, creed, color or culture, Paul must have been more interested in being interested in them, than in being interesting to them. That not only gave him chances to share the gospel about God-made-flesh in Jesus Christ, it also demonstrated the gospel of God-made flesh, incarnate in Jesus Christ. So it still is today: for many people to be able to hear and understand the gospel of God-made-flesh and dwelling among us, they have to see it in the form of loving people interested in them, rather than in being interesting to them. They must meet people who love them enough to walk in their shoes and put on their skin, so to speak. As Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church put it, “Many people are not Christian either because they have not met a Christian [who demonstrated such incarnational love], or because they have met a Christian, [who did not demonstrate such incarnational love].” Such incarnational love was visible, for example, when the Moravian missionaries from Denmark, in the 18th Century, sold themselves into slavery in the West Indies so that they could share the gospel with slaves and indentured servants working the sugar cane fields.
But for Paul, this ability to step into another person’s shoes and walk a mile in his or her skin is not just for missionary evangelistic practice. Its also necessary for relationships within the church. That’s why he’s recommending this practice to the church. As I said last week, here are the Corinthian Christians all hot and bothered over questions like, What are my rights? and Am I getting mine? And Paul reframes the question as, “Even if something is okay, even if it is my right, what will the effect of exercising my right be upon my brother and sister in Christ?”
But now he’s taking the matter a step further by making us ask ourselves, not just What will be the effect of my action upon my brother and sister? but What if I were my brother and sister? What is it like to be him or her? Let me try on their shoes and slip into their skin, like God did for us, and walk about for a while.
That’s what Dr. Richard Blackburn of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center did with all of us who attended the week-long Conflict Mediation seminar last October. We took common conflicts and acted out some communication and conflict resolution processes. Let’s say some people in a growing church want there to be a new Christian education wing built onto the sanctuary, to add more class space for the Christian education hour. Others would prefer that the money go into starting a new church with some of their members. People feel strongly either way, and for the best of reasons, the best of motives, the best of intentions. But without a good way to work the discernment process through, people could get frustrated, and then their differences could turn personal and ugly.
One thing Dr. Blackburn had us do, in role playing, was for people on both sides to list first of all their needs and interests, before they got around to talking about their positions and solutions. The positions and solutions were either more classroom space or another new church. Their common needs and interests, however, included good Christian education for all ages, enough teachers and space, readiness for growth, discipling new believers, sharing the gospel, reaching out to under-served people, increasing their diversity, and following the will of God. Then, once everyone had given voice to their needs and their interests, Dr. Blackburn had people from both sides of the controversy share what they heard people on the other side saying what their needs and interests were. And then he asked people on both sides, “Did so-and-so hear you correctly? Did so-and-so state your position well, and fairly?” That way, we were stepping into each other’s shoes, even into their skin. Not only then did everyone feel heard and valued, they found out just how much they had in common. Once they could all say Amen to their common needs and interests, their differences over their solutions and positions felt less scary, and more manageable.
By the way, I would highly, highly recommend any Lombard Mennonite Peace Center programs for any of us. What they taught me about communication and discernment in the church is also good for improving communication and relationships in marriage, in the home and at work. Especially helpful is the way we were taught to turn off our anxiety switches and to listen, so that we could take on someone else’s interests and positions and then repeat them to them, faithfully, even if we didn’t end up agreeing entirely.
“So I hear you saying that you would be open to starting a new church after you knew we had the numbers, the space, the leaders and the teachers to serve the families who are already coming, is that right?”
But good communication and relationships, even very good communication and relationships, are not the final, ultimate goal, in and of themselves, not even in the church of Jesus Christ. Paul’s words put even our most sacred relationships into an even bigger picture, the overall mission of our relationships, which is: “all for the sake of the gospel.” Because relationships are usually the first gospel that most people ever hear, or see. And because the gospel itself is a relationship, the supreme relationship, the source of all relationships: God’s relationship with us.
So this morning, as members here renew their membership covenant vows, if we do that because we love the people here and eagerly wish to commit ourselves to each other and our relationships for another year, at least, that’s great. I feel that way too. But we must not forget the bigger picture. No matter how great a church and its relationships might be, the church is not an end in itself. We are called together to serve something greater than ourselves, something that will sustain and increase our love for one another even when there are the inevitable differences or problems with communication. This church has a mission statement that reminds us what the true goal of this church is, and I think it could be fairly easily and accurately boiled down into Paul’s simple phrase, “all this for the sake of the gospel.” So, in the next minute, I invite us to look over this church’s mission statement, from our constitution, printed in the bulletin, and remind ourselves how we are committing ourselves not only to each other, which we should, but to this mission, as we best understand it, and what it says about our relationships, to each other, and with the world:
Our purpose is
• to respond to Jesus’ admonition to make disciples of all peoples (Matt 28:19-20),
• to provide a church that emphasizes traditional Anabaptist/Mennonite teachings while maintaining its Biblical foundations, and
• to strengthen/spread the Anabaptist/Mennonite witness in the Twin Cities.
(from EMC Constitution)