The Main Thing

February 4, 2024

Series: February 2024

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"The Main Thing"


1 Corinthians 9:16-23
           16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

           19For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

The Main Thing

            The other night, I stumbled across the documentary The Mission.  I’m not talking about the 1986 film with Robert De Niro, rather the 2023 documentary about a young missionary named John Chau.  Chau, an American evangelical, felt called by God to go and convert the Sentinelese, among the world’s most isolated Indigenous peoples living on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, almost entirely undisturbed by outsiders. Let us make clear that I don’t take people’s earnest religious convictions lightly, even as I take issue with their substance.  Chau is killed in his efforts, and I wonder for what I would be willing to die.

            Nevertheless, I am critical of going to a culture uninvited looking to impose a way, particularly a religious way, upon them. Again, I do not doubt the sincerity of Chau or the generations of missionaries like him.  If you believed you were saving someone from eternal damnation you might do similarly.  I know there are instances of missionaries bringing good things—hospitals, schools, water filtration systems, a liberating message to some who live under oppression. However, there are also cultures ravaged, peoples’ ways vilified, populations dislocated, others virtually wiped out.  Think of what was done to Native children on this continent in boarding schools.  On balance—and I know this would get me in trouble with some—I believe the missionary movement as it’s been carried out has been a mistake and a damaging one.  A Jewish professor I once had described with crass directness one area missionaries where left their mark:  The missionaries brought two things to the people there – vodka and venereal disease. 

            What do we with the fact that Paul, the author of today’s second reading was himself a missionary, making many converts?  Many of you, I know, struggle with some of his writings, and yet none of us are in a church today without Paul.  He is the single most important force expanding the movement beyond Judaism.  He was an apostle of inclusion, tirelessly working to let others in without conforming. 

            I recently stumbled upon another documentary as well. This one traced the footsteps of Paul with a professor of religion and biblical studies, Mark Fairchild.  The Last Apostletakes the viewer through Turkey to see where Paul traveled on his missionary efforts.  In the film you see pristine ruins (if there is such a thing) of these little villages and ancient synagogues where Paul preached the gospel. You encounter villages where clearly Pagans and Jews lived together in harmony, both populations retreating from the marauding forces of coastal pirates.  There is no doubt that Paul felt a conviction to convert, having had his own conversion experience.  Note, crucially though, his experience was a direct one of the risen Christ.  He was not convinced by someone who told him what to believe. 

           As a missionary, Paul takes an interesting approach.  “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). You have heard that phrase before, but in modern parlance it is used negatively – you can’t be all things to all people, yet this is precisely what Paul says he is doing.  It is what you should do, become all things to all people in order to connect with them or win them over, depending how you look at it.  To a Gentile, a non-Jew, Paul becomes as a Gentile, a Jew a Jew, he becomes weak to someone who is weak.  He sheds what he deems non-essential to share the essence of what is.  To use a modern phrase, he is laser focused on keeping the main thing the main thing. What that is, we will get to in a moment.  Paul was onto something because so often we confuse the minor things for the main thing. It’s the classic case of a church bickering over the font in the bulletin while forgetting to teach people to stand up for the poor. 

            Paul uses the term “save.”  Rescue is the same word.  Salvation is actually a complex concept and shows up in different ways throughout scripture, though we can do it little justice in the moments we have left here.  It is used to describe liberation from captivity, the wellbeing of the nation, being among those judged to be righteous at the culmination of all time with the return of the Christ and the establishment of the holy city upon earth.  In modern Western Christianity it has largely been taken to mean the promise of heaven to individuals.

            Many have assumed “the main thing” is about getting people to make formulaic statements about Jesus so they are spared eternal damnation.  While well-intended, I submit this misguided and wrong.  I don’t even think that’s how Paul would describe it, even if he and I might see it differently.  When I look at his own writings, I find something else central.  For Paul, the Christ event matters.  That’s the understatement of the year.  It matters cosmically.  In Christ, a rift between humanity and God, between creation and God, is healed.  Whether you buy that construction or not, understand its significance.  In 2ndCorinthians 5:17-20 Paul writes,

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

The main thing is reconciliation.  It has been accomplished in Christ and our charge is to be ambassadors of that reality. We are one.  We are not separate from God and ought not be from one another. This is what we should be devoted to, to studying, to manifesting in the world, our cosmically reconciled state with God and all creation.  If we are reconciled, then “they” are not broken, and we don’t need to fix them. We can engage others at their consent, expecting mutual benefit and enlightenment, but we can relinquish the notion that God is ours to deliver to anyone else.  If you are wondering about what’s called “the great commission” at the end of Matthew, we can delve into that another time, but I’ll say here not only is it almost certainly a later addition to the gospel, and I am not convinced Jesus said it.  Even if he did, I think we misunderstand this, or understand it only on a shallow level. Make disciples.  A disciple is a student.  Student of what?  Of Christ, of the way of love?  I’m okay raising up disciples of love.  What bothered me about The Mission, is the presumption that the missionary has God and the Sentinelese need it.  That denies the main thing that I see in Paul’s writing.  The documentary about him labels him “the last apostle,” but really he is among the first apostles of inclusion.  We are to be apostles in that line, recognizing God’s universal activity and availability, preaching and advocating reconciliation. 

            If we are to be missionaries in anything, it is in that.