The word of the day is “became.” What lengths would we go to bring others to Christ? In our reading of 1 Corinthians 9:19-27, Paul says, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant of all that I might win the more” (vs. 19).
Think of the distances that St. Paul traveled to bring the Gospel to the world of the Roman Empire. The apostle embarked on three great missionary journeys covering over ten thousand miles. On these trips, he encountered constant hazards. On land, he was vulnerable to robbers, hungry, thirsty, sleepless, weary, cold, and in danger of attack from both Jew and Gentiles (vs. 26-28). And at sea, he was shipwrecked three times and spent a night and day adrift at sea (vs. 25).
His journey reminds us of the monks of Valaam Monastery in what is now Finland. In 1793, they traveled 7327 miles across Russia, Siberia, and the Bering Straights to bring the Gospel to the native peoples of Alaska. The journey took them almost a year.
Calculating the Distance of Bringing People to Christ
But there are other ways to calculate the distance that Paul, the Valaam missionary monks, and countless others have covered to bring Christ to those who did not know him. Paul mentions the cultural expanse between peoples. Indeed, Herman of Alaska first had to learn Aleut so that he could communicate with the Alaskans and teach them the prayers and scriptures of the Church. Think of the hours he spent to learn the language.
To Set Aside One’s Identify to Reach Others
And Paul said that he had to give us his own identity in order to reach his hearers. “To the Jews, he because a Jew” (vs. 20), he said, though in Christ he knew he was no longer under the restrictions of the law of Moses. On the other hand, to the Gentiles, he became as a Gentile (vs. 21) who had no divine law, conforming to Gentile practices as far as he could without violating the law of Christ. Moreover, to those who were weak in faith and who had scruples about certain practices, such as eating meat offered to idols, he took on the characteristics of the weak (22). In all these ways, he identified with those whom he wanted to reach. He gave up his own background, preferences, and mindset in order to relate to the worldview of others, “becoming all things to all men” (vs. 22).
In the popular mind, ethnicity and Orthodox go together. There are good historical reasons for this melding of ethnicity and the Orthodox faith. The Orthodox strongly believe that the worship and teaching of the Church should be in the native language of the people.
Yet, our reading teaches that the priority should not be ethnicity but the Orthodox faith that transcends cultural divides. In our cosmopolitan society, we need to recommit ourselves to this primary focus. Our outreach must be both to those of Orthodox ethnic background and those from other sociological and cultural circumstances. Bridging the gap of culture is not merely a matter of conducting worship and teaching in English. We should also be sensitive to the backgrounds of immigrants, people of color, and the poor and vulnerable, all of which have their own backgrounds, mindsets, and living conditions. It takes concerted effort to understand and to relate to these cultures as different ways of life. But perhaps Paul would have said that he was willing to became one of them so that he might win some. What about ourselves? Or do we stay in our own cultural bubble?