Monday, February 09, 2009

Obligations, Contexts and Such (First Corinthians 9:16-23)

In the same way we can sometimes figure out the other half of a phone conversation based on the part we can hear, we can sometimes figure out what was in the letters to which Paul responded. Perhaps they have said something about how they are still sharing the gospel even in the midst of their squabbling and troubles.

And Paul replies (I paraphrase): “What do you want, a cookie? That’s what we’re supposed to do!” Of course, I don’t know that Paul would actually have quoted Chris Rock, but the idea is the same. Sharing the gospel is not an extra or an add-on for Christians. It is part and parcel of our lives and an obligation we all have.

The obligation doesn’t stem from a rule that we get in trouble if we disobey. God gave us salvation as a gift, and there’s no quid pro quo where we have to do a favor for him in order to keep it. Sharing the gospel is a part of living a life rooted in God’s saving grace. Eating is this kind of obligation. There are no real rules about it, except keeping your elbows off the table, but we all find ourselves pretty much obligated to eat.

So does that mean we need to confront every person we see with some variation on, “If you died tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” Must we flex our pointing fingers, practice making “sin” a three-syllable word and learn how to describe the torments of hell in graphic and horrifying terms?

No, not unless you really want to. Paul continues, describing how he has shared the gospel with different groups of people. When he says things like, “to the Jews, I became as a Jew,” he doesn’t mean he pretended to be something he wasn’t so he could fool people into agreeing with him. He means he shared the gospel with people in the context of their lives and cultures.

To his fellow Jews and to people who observed the law of Moses, Paul could speak about the gospel message and about Christ’s work in terms of the history of Israel.

He could refer to the story of the Exodus, to the prophets and the exile to Babylon because his listeners would know those stories. But people who weren’t “under the law” literally wouldn’t know Abraham from Adam, so he would use what they understood to explain the same message. When he spoke at the Aeropagus, for example, he talked about the “Unknown God” of the Athenians. Elsewhere, he quotes Greek poetry in speaking to Greek people.

So we too must share the gospel in different ways according to the context of the people with whom we’re talking. And remember, context can also take into account the different groups of people we interact with in the course of a day. At work, we may be the boss. At home, we may not. In school, we may be the quiet one. At home, we may not. As a restaurant customer, we receive deferential treatment from the wait staff. Elsewhere, we may not. How do we share the gospel within these different contexts?

Well, I can’t answer for you, because I’m not in those contexts with you. But as my understanding of what it means to share the gospel has developed, so has a different understanding of how I do that within all of the different contexts of my life.

Does the gospel message amount to nothing else but salvation from sin? Is it just fire insurance? Or is it a response to God’s offer of restored relationship with him? The former is a one-time deal, the latter involves a lifetime and lifelong change.

If I’m following God because I believe that doing so is the most authentic, the most purposeful and the most fulfilling way to live life as a human being, then I am changing my life to align it with what God asks of me. Or I ought to be, anyway.

How do I share that within the different contexts of my life? I guess it would come from being a God-following person within those contexts. Sometimes that will ask for my spoken testimony and sometimes it will ask for my silence. Sometimes it will ask for my action and sometimes it will ask for my stillness. But whatever it asks is in light of my assumed obligation to live out the life God calls me to and share both that life and God with those people I may meet.

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