Real Freedom (and Pandemic Paul)

We would never dream of putting up a sign that said, “Unvaccinated? Keep OUT.” 

But that’s exactly what we’re doing.

It’s become a cliché to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?”  But this week, I’ve been thinking church should be asking itself what Paul would do.  Of course, anyone who has spent any time in church or Vacation Bible School has heard about Paul the Apostle.  Paul was born in Tarsus which was a part of what is now the nation of Turkey.  But despite being born far from Rome, Paul was born to parents who were both Jews and Roman citizens. 

There were privileges that came with being a Roman citizen.  It was as if the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights only applied to citizens, and you carried those rights wherever you went, anywhere in the Roman world.  Non-citizens didn’t have the same rights and slaves certainly did not have them.  Romans could not be beaten or treated harshly, and while they could be arrested, they couldn’t be tried in any court outside of Rome but had to be returned to Rome, or to a Roman court, for trial.  In modern language, citizens were privileged.

But Paul didn’t always use that privilege.  Paul found that sometimes his privilege, his rights, his citizenship, and even his freedom, was a disadvantage when sharing the message of Jesus with the people around him.  In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul said:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Even though Paul was not a slave, he sometimes gave up the rights that he had so that he could be heard by the slaves and share the message of Jesus with them.  Even though Paul knew that following Jesus released him from some of the dietary restrictions and rules of the Jewish faith, he would follow those customs when he was with the Jews so that they would be able to hear his words when he shared the gospel.  But when Paul was living among the Greeks and other people who were not Jewish, he would follow their customs for the same reason. 

Wherever Paul went, he did whatever he could to allow people to hear his message.  And that often meant giving up something important.  Paul found that his rights, his privileges, and even his freedom, got in the way of people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.  Slaves wouldn’t hear a message that was preached by someone who used their citizenship and their freedom to act better than them.  Jews wouldn’t listen to someone who was an outsider and violated their religious laws.  And people everywhere feel more comfortable around a person who respects their customs.

But what does that mean to us?  What would Paul do if he lived among us today?

As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic crisis in the United States, we are hearing a lot about rights and privileges.  We have a right to move about freely.  We are free to choose whether we will wear a mask.  And those persons who are vaccinated are being granted special rights and additional freedoms. 

But is exercising those freedoms the right thing to do?

I’ve seen churches advertising that they are “Open and Mask-less.”  Vendors are selling signs saying that vaccinated persons are welcome in their church.  And I’ve seen churches that say things like, “All are welcome.  Unvaccinated persons must wear masks.”  I understand that these are the rights that are given to us under the United States Constitution, and the privileges of having access to the Covid-19 vaccine.  But will exercising these rights prevent us from sharing the message of the gospel?

It was once common for churches to ask visitors to stand up and introduce themselves.  That custom made me so uncomfortable that I vowed never to return to any church that made me do it.  And so, I worry that requiring unvaccinated persons to wear masks will make them feel unwelcome.  We would never dream of putting up a sign that said, “Unvaccinated? Keep OUT.”  But that’s exactly what these signs are saying.  Anything that draws a line between “us” and “them” is exactly what Paul spent his life trying to avoid.

If Paul were writing today, I wonder if his words wouldn’t be, “Though I am vaccinated, and am free to do as I wish, I have made myself to be unvaccinated, to win as many as possible.  To the unvaccinated, I have become unvaccinated to win the unvaccinated.  With the mask wearers, I have worn masks, to win those that wear masks.”  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

We have rights.  But what if using them turns people away?  In the twenty-first century, like Paul, we must be careful that our rights, privileges, and freedoms do not get in the way of people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Blessings,

Pastor John


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