Summary: The necessity of proclaiming the gospel, the necessity of cultural relevance and the necessity of spiritual integrity
Being with it - the necessity and challenges of cultural relevance
There have been remarkable changes in rural communities over the last fifty years or even the last twenty years. When many of us were children, we grew up with a good understanding of the agricultural world. Many of the children we were at school with were farmer’s sons and daughters, and many of us worked on farms in our school holidays and the weekends. But now all is changed. We live in communities where many people have no idea about the realities of agricultural life.
And there is no less remarkable a change in the spiritual world. If any of you saw Songs of Praise a couple of weeks ago from Christ Church Oxford, you will have seen Bishop Richard Harries being interviewed. As you know, he is shortly to retire, and he was asked about the changes that he had seen. One of his comments was that forty years ago, you could depend upon people having an understanding or knowledge of Christian ideas and stories. However, the world has changed so that you cannot depend on that now. Society at large has little understanding of the Christian faith.
And so it is that we find ourselves in very much the same position that St Paul was in when he wrote this first letter to the Corinthians. We find ourselves in a situation, just as St Paul did, where the culture around us is vastly different to the Christian culture, and where the Christian culture is largely not understood.
The necessity of gospel proclamation v16
One might ask the question as to whether or not it matters. I think St Paul makes this absolutely clear. For right at the beginning of our reading this morning, in v 16, Paul talks about the necessity of preaching or proclaiming the gospel. There is a need to proclaim the gospel. There is a need to tell the good news of Christ. It is not an optional extra. For St Paul makes it clear that he is entrusted with a commission. I am sure that we are familiar with the great commission that Jesus himself gave the disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Matt 28:19-20. ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations‘. That great commission did not change. It applied to St Paul as much as to Christ’s first disciples. St Paul, there was an urgent necessity to proclaim the gospel. And this necessity to proclaim the gospel arose not only from Christ’s commission, but also from Paul’s conviction that the great news of the life changing work of Christ should be freely available to everyone. v18. Having received those blessings, Paul is anxious that they should be shared v23.
And I believe that it is no different for us now. If we have truly accepted Christ as our Saviour and Lord, then we will want to do his bidding. We will want to carry out and continue his great commission. And indeed, it is not just a case of compulsion, but also because of our compassion that we want to share the great things that we have received with those around us. Most of us, if we receive a big box of chocolates, want to share our good fortune with those around us. We offer the chocolates around. And so it is, or should be, with the great blessings that have been received through Christ. So first of all, Paul makes it clear that there is in the necessity of proclaiming the gospel.
The necessity of cultural adaptation v22
Now as we talked about earlier, St Paul was proclaiming the gospel in a situation where the Christian culture was generally misunderstood or not even known. St Paul was proclaiming in a situation where the fundamental ideas of Christianity were unknown. So the necessity of proclaiming the gospel effectively requires the necessity of cultural adaptation. V22. What Paul says in his letter is that he has ‘ become all things to all men, that I might by all means to save some’. At first sight, this seems incredibly open-ended. So what does he mean by that?
What we see as we look closely at what Paul says here and elsewhere is that he starts from where his hearers are. He was prepared to adapt. He starts from the cultural position of those to whom he is talking. He starts with an adaptation and relevance to their cultural situation. So to the Jews, he starts from the point of view of what it’s like to be a Jew. He starts from the cultural position of a Jew. And because he understands that cultural position, he can move on from it to proclaim the gospel with relevance. And you can find that very clearly laid out in the letter to the Hebrews in the Bible.