It was a beautiful Sunday morning at Holier Than Thou Baptist Church. The pews were filling up and the regulars had found their favorite seats. Soon, the traditions of worship would begin: singing, Scripture, preaching. But before the Call to Worship was spoken, another tradition had to be fulfilled: the weekly game of Judge a Visitor. As members whispered to each other in the choir loft or in the hallway before the service, they used one of handful of scorecards to judge those who visited the church for the first time
The first was the Christian Insider Scale. Pretty quickly visitors could be summed up on this one. How long have they been a Christian? Had they spent plenty of time in churches? How well did they know the insider language? Sometimes one of the Holier Than Thou regulars would throw in a church word and gauge their reaction: “narthex” or “benediction” or “Eucharist.” Of course, the hope was that the visitors were already “broken in,” that they were long-time Christians who were just new to town and looking for a church. That they were primed and ready to join and sign up for half a dozen committees and maybe even teach Sunday school next week. The higher they scored on the Christian Insider Scale, the better.
Others used a different scorecard: the “Are They Like Me?” Gauge. Some wanted to know if the new visitors would be like them – have kids the same age, or have a similar ideology or lifestyle. The youth were always excited to see another person their age, even though they played it cool. Of course, the more likely the stranger was to dress like them or agree on political party or cheer for the right football team, the higher they scored on that gauge.
Finally, there were a few who used a different measure: Tither Potential Quotient. This was especially popular among the Stewardship Committee. How likely were they to begin to give significantly to the congregation, and how significant would that gift be? This score was more subtle. What kind of car did they drive? What is their job? How many kids do they have in college and how expensive was said college? Some who measured the Tither Potential Quotient were worried about the long term health of the church and wanted to make sure there would be givers for many years to come. But others, when you got right down to it, were looking for more people to give more money to make sure that the church could stay about the same as it has always been, without the current members actually having to start giving sacrificially themselves.
The scorecards might look a little different at the Holier Than Thou Baptist Church, but there is one thing they have in common. Each of them asks, “what can you do for me?”
Sisters and brothers of the First Baptist Church, let me say this emphatically: The First Baptist Church of Lawrence IS NOT the Holier Than Thou Baptist Church! We are and we have always been very different! And yet, this little homespun parable is perhaps a helpful foil for discussion. We say that we are a church that worships, works, wonders…and welcomes. What does it mean to be a welcoming church? For whose sake do we welcome?
Before we look to our own context, I would begin with a much older one: the story of Paul and the Corinthians. I brought up this context last week, as we looked at a passage in the first chapter. But what I didn’t spend too much time in was the story that got us there. Paul was a missionary of the highest caliber and effectiveness. He traveled around to various communities and started churches and used his teaching ability and missionary zeal to bring more and more believers to Christ.
His pattern was usually the same: go to a new community, find the Jewish synagogue, tell them that the message that they had been learning and teaching their whole lives had been fulfilled and amplified in the person of Jesus Christ. He taught in synagogue after synagogue, telling his own story of faith as a good Pharisee, and watching the recognition in their eyes. Those same eyes lit up when he began to tell of God’s grace and Jesus’ life of sacrifice.
It was an effective strategy, so Paul figured “why mess with a good thing?” He stuck with what he knew and what always worked. Antioch. Cyprus. Lystra. Derby.
And then he got to Corinth. He started in the synagogue, preached the good news of Christ and waited for their eyes to light up like everyone else’s had. And then, the leaders of the synagogue…threw him out. They didn’t want to hear anything about Jesus. The plan that he always followed failed miserably. So Paul, went next door. He began a house church in the home of a wealthy “God-fearing” Gentile named Justus – right next to the synagogue. And people started to show up. Eventually, the church grew too big for his house and over time they grew into a network of house churches all around the town. It was a completely different way of doing church than what Paul was used to. And it forced him to rethink his reliance on the scorecard: on the Insider Scale. In the passage I read this morning, Paul is talking about this process. There is a litany of those who Paul has reached out to, and the way that he translated the Gospel to each different kind of convert. “To the Jews, I became a Jew…to those without the law, I became like one without the law….to the weak…etc.”
At first glance, it sounds like Paul is just putting on a mask every time he talks to someone new. Just like the stereotype of a used car salesman…cozying up to a potential buyer and telling them what they need to hear in order to seal the deal: “Hey, nice yarmulke there…you must be a Jew. Funny thing…I am, too!” Then five minutes later to someone else, “you don’t like the law? Me, either? Who needs the law? I always thought it was overrated.”
But, scholar Robert Scott Nash suggests that Paul is not so much a used car salesman pitch as it seems. He says this is an example of a common Biblical poetic structure called a chiasm that uses repetition to make its point. So, Paul says that he becomes like a Jew, and like one under the law – meaning the same thing. And then he says he becomes like one NOT under the law and one who is weak. By this, Ward suggests that he means a Gentile, one who doesn’t have an understanding of the faith already programmed, one who needs a little more training. So in short, this whole paragraph is saying, “if you are a Jew, I’ll share the Gospel like a Jew needs to hear it. If you are a Gentile, I’ll share the Gospel like a Gentile needs to hear it. But I will always share the Gospel.”
Paul is not like a used car salesman, but more like a translator. A good translator has to know both the source material and the language into which she is translating that material. In the same way, Paul was sold out both to the truth of the Gospel – the source material – and the language of those who whom he was preaching – whether they are insiders like the Jews or newcomers to the faith like the Gentiles. Paul is willing to change his strategy, change his language, change his practice, for the sake of the Gospel. If he has to change for the Gospel to be proclaimed, then so be it!
Paul realized that whenever he submitted to this transformation, he was the one who was blessed; “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” But when he allows himself to sell out to Christ, and to become a “slave” to others for their own sake, then he is the one who is blessed. No longer does he need to play the “judge the outsider game.” Instead, he shares in the blessings of allowing the Spirit to work through him to transform him and those to whom he preached. Ironically, because he became a slave to all, he was truly free!
So it is with us. Are we willing to see the outsider as a gift of God? A part of the body of Christ? Are we stuck, like the members of Holier Than Thou Baptist Church, judging to see if others have the right credentials, the right insider language, the right potential to be “one of us?”
Of course, like Paul, we too must avoid the pitfall of the used car salesman stereotype, of telling people what we think they want to hear. There was a hilarious article on the Babylon Bee Christian satire website a couple of weeks ago: “Church Surveys Community to Discover Which Doctrines it Should Abandon to Get Them In the Door.” It is a tongue and cheek article about a church that went out into the community to poll members to see which church doctrines were offensive, so they could stop believing them! Of course, Paul is not saying that the Gospel is a public opinion poll. The core of the Gospel is still about the cross. About grace. About love. About God with us. But we re-translate it from context to context and time to time. To prove the point, Paul spent a good chunk of this letter talking about meat sacrificed to idols. How many of you struggle with that particular concern in your life? Does that mean that you are unfaithful to the Gospel? Or that the Gospel has been translated in new and ever-changing ways?
I think that the translator metaphor is good for us, as well. We must become fluent in both the source language and the translation language. We must make the Gospel a foundational part of who we are and what we believe. Meanwhile, we also have to listen with new ears to those we want to share the Gospel with. What would happen if Holier Than Thou Baptist stopped asking, “what can you do for me?” and started asking, “what can I do for you?” Which is the question we must ask as well.
Because as we do this, imagine the blessings we receive! Like Paul did with the Gentiles, we begin to see those in our midst as part of the body of Christ. We participate in the work of the Spirit in new ways. We move from being friendly to making friends. We move from “what can you do for me?” to “what can I do for you?” We move from assimilation to shared transformation. We move from we’ve never done it that way” to “behold I am doing a new thing!” Like Paul, by becoming a “slave to all,” we become truly free!
Someone did that for you. Someone did more than try to assimilate you, but instead saw the potential for God to use you to this a better place. So, they said hello. They reached out. They welcomed you. They maybe even chose to be uncomfortable so that you weren’t.
I want to close by showing you, well, you. Testimonies from you: First Baptist church members in response to the question, “who was your hello?” Who was one of the first people who welcomed you? Showed hospitality to you? Made you feel like this could become your home? As you watch, ask yourself who that might have been for you. And as you pack up your things and head for the exits, ask who might say that about you one day.