Such attention to the outlooks and habits of others is hardly new. We simply could not survive, as a society, if we did not take time to consider the customs and concerns of others. It is a difficult task at times. How do we balance respect and liberty? Recent events in France for instance challenge us to reflect upon how we balance, on the one hand, the healthy right of free speech and, on the other hand, expression with care not to offend unnecessarily. Banning critical comment or cartoons about religious matters is not, I think, a good way forward. Yet unbridled license to say anything, about anyone and anything, can be deeply offensive and destructive. Our Federal Attorney General George Brandis has said that, in Australia, we should preserve the right of someone to be a bigot. This is not illegal. Yet, I would say, if we have the right to be a bigot, we also have a responsibility, morally and socially, not to be a bigot. For this is not just about reducing the potential for harm. It is also about increasing the opportunities for growth in relationship, at all levels. This is at the heart of St Paul’s teaching about sharing the gospel in today’s second reading…
Now, of course, as I have said, there are limits. St Paul would not be wanting us to understand his words as saying that everything goes. Paul is not saying that we simply adapt Christian Faith to what others already do and believe. He was not in the business of what is called ‘syncretism’: that is, simply blending or fusing different types of belief and practice. As Christians, we have to remain true to our own experience and inheritance of Faith. Yet, and this is Paul’s point, the way we entered into the Faith may not be the way for others.
There is a place for what we might call ‘soap box’ evangelism. Straightforward proclamation of a key biblical text might, on some occasions, reach others. In a similar manner, the handing out of a bible or religious tract might occasionally touch the soul of others. Mostly however, it misses the mark as the best way to share the good news of Jesus. For the best form of evangelism is one which speaks from the heart of God into another person’s heart, into their particular circumstances and outlook. We do best, as sharers of the gospel, when we get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit speak in, to, and through, the words and lives of others. This is the example which St Paul sets for us in today’s reading.
There are therefore three aspects of Paul’s words which I want, briefly, to highlight today, to encourage us in sharing the Gospel. The first is the call to share our passion. ‘Woe to me’, says Paul, ‘if I do not proclaim the gospel!’ Why does he says this? It is not, I think, because he fears God will punish him. He knows that God loves him too well for that. Paul, after all, is the greatest of all Christians in affirming that we saved by faith, through God’s grace, not by works of any kind, including whether or not we preach the gospel! No, Paul says that he must proclaim the gospel, because he is simply passionate about it. He cannot not proclaim the gospel. It is God’s gift and joy to him.
So what, I wonder, is the special gift and joy which God has given to each of us? For most of us, it will not quite be the same as for Paul, yet it is just as important. What is it that you and I, each of us, are passionate about when we pray, think about, or experience God in our lives? That is what we have to share with others. It might be sharing the Faith, like Paul, by speaking, or preaching, or teaching. For most of us it will probably be something else: perhaps listening, caring, healing, providing food or hospitality, making, building or repairing things, encouraging others or creating community in other ways. Whatever it is of God that brings us joy shares God’s good news. This is what each of us, like Paul, has to share with others.
For secondly, the task of sharing our Faith needs all of us and all of our passions, not just Paul’s. After all, Paul is being a little rhetorical, isn’t he? No one person can be all things to all people! In our diverse Australian society, we have so many people of so many different generations, backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles. None of us can possibly get alongside all those different kinds of people. We need each and every one of us to share our particular passion with others, getting alongside them, as the jargon has it, ‘where they are’, and sharing the little bit of good news and the little gift we have each received.
Let us then recognise our particular gifts God has given us for mission and let us encourage one another to share them in different ways with others. Those are the first two aspects of Paul’s words in our reading today. The third is perhaps even more crucial. Can we let go of ourselves so that God can connect with others across our usual boundaries and differences? For, as God’s community, the Church can never really grow when it simply asks others to become just like those of us who are already part of the Church. We have to let go of ourselves, and many things we cling to as important, if we are to allow God properly to connect with others. We have to become, as Paul encourages us, ‘as others’ so that others may know God. For what matters is God’s relationship to everyone not our particular ways of relating to God and one another. Sharing the love of God is not about us trying to make people become more like us, but about trying to allow God to make people more like Jesus. Maybe that means that we have to be willing to learn much more about the language, the customs, the hopes, the hurts, the fears and the joys of others. For, as St Paul was trying to tell the church in Corinth, it means being far less of a ‘me Church’ – thinking about what kinds of Church suits us – and far more of a ‘we Church’ and a ‘Church for others’.
In the name of the One who let go of himself, humbled himself and became a servant of others, that they might be set free to find their true selves in God: in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
by Jon Inkpin, for Epiphany 5 Yr B, Sunday 8 February 2015