1Corinthians: All Things to All People
Topic: Christian Discipleship & Love Scripture: 1 Corinthians 9:19–9:23
“God’s reign calls us to embrace not chiefly those who are like us, but to evade the comforting strains of the familiar and be claimed by others.” Richard Jensen, In the Company of Others.Paul continues with a theme that he began in Chapter 1: to be a Christian means to prioritize Christ and the gospel in our lives, and that can mean de-prioritizing our own likes and dislikes, our personal comfort, even our rights, in order to minister to others. In a well-known passage, he writes, “I have become all things to all people so that I might, by all means, save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
I’d like to ponder this passage together with you this morning and ask what guidance it might have for us in our lives as we try to live our faith. The apostle names some categories of people, and declares, “I became like them.” People under the law—I became like them. People not under the law—I became like them. People who were weak--I became like them. We might think he was a chameleon or shape-shifter, lacking a core personality. Remember, though: this is Paul - one of history’s strongest figures. What can he mean?
To get alongside people, he studied their beliefs and ways of life. He honored the values and practices that were important to each group and each individual. He didn’t deny difference, and he didn’t denounce it. He met people where they were, and spoke to them in ways they could understand.
In the case of those he terms “weak,” it might be that he dropped any claim to superiority, and related to them as a fellow human being with flaws and weaknesses of his own, and thus he became “weak.” It’s an act of selflessness. This open, vulnerable Paul stands in contrast to the image we might have of him as dogmatic and unbending. Instead, we encounter a person of strong faith who was nevertheless determined to be in relationship with all kinds of people, crossing boundaries of culture, race, religion, and personality, in order to befriend them.
This characteristic was beautifully portrayed in a CBS mini-series called “Peter and Paul.” Anthony Hopkins played the role of Paul. In several scenes he was shown truly enjoying the fellowship of people, appreciating their ways, laughing with them, and singing with them. When he was shipwrecked and landed on the island of Malta, a viper bit him, but miraculously he wasn’t harmed. Seeing this, the people concluded he must be a god. After they became convinced he was a mere human, they celebrated with him. In the mini-series, Anthony Hopkins joins-in their folk dance, expressing the sheer joy of friendship. These people who were so recently strangers were now friends in faith. To this day, Malta claims one of the oldest Christian communities on earth, tracing their spiritual lineage to the day Paul washed up on their shores and became “all things to all people” for them.
Maybe Paul’s approach is an antidote to our modern tribalism. It’s been observed that the internet can have the unfortunate effect of polarizing us in our own bubble. Instead of fostering respectful dialogue, it can insulate us in our echo chambers. There, we listen only to those who agree with us, buttressing our biases instead of broadening our horizons. How do we break out of our boxes and bubbles? How do we become all things to all people? Do we even want to? Do I need to give up my firmly held beliefs?
Paul certainly didn’t think so. The purpose of his cross-cultural ventures was to share Christ authentically and relationally. The respect factor was crucial. Paul knew you couldn’t win people over to Christ at the point of a sword. You couldn’t persuade people by trashing their religion, their race, or their cultural practices.
Maybe we could start at a simple place to follow his example: view the “other” among us as a beloved child of God. No matter how different they may look or act, they too are loved by our Creator. We can take a small risk and offer at least a friendly greeting or a kind word. Though I’m not inclined to strike up conversations with strangers, I tried it recently at Walmart. A checker whose headwear identified her was standing near the sliding door. I said, “Must get cold standing here.” She said, “Oh yes, very cold.” A short conversation followed. Maybe it wasn’t much, but at least for those moments, a gap was bridged and a connection was made.
We can develop not only respect but true appreciation for other ways of believing. We need not abandon our own beliefs, but we can strive for a basic understanding of other faiths, other perspectives, other ways of being in the world.
We can also strive for an openness, and humility, that asks, “What can I learn from this person? It’s not just about what I have to tell them—my point of view—it’s also about what I can learn from them. A friend of our church, Tom Barr, was amazed at the interfaith class we had a while back, organized by Rev. Sue Baller-Shepard. He was struck by the fact that we allowed representatives of other religions speak for themselves, and share their own beliefs. He said I’m not aware of another church that would invite different faith groups to have that kind of freedom to describe their religion.
Recall that Paul said, “To the weak I became weak.” What does that mean? Maybe he was acknowledging this truth: everybody suffers. Everybody bears a burden. No matter how much they seem to have their act together, everybody is wounded in some way.
In relating to others, we can try to be honest and vulnerable about our own “weaknesses,” and thus, open a door to mutual understanding.
The war correspondent Richard Engle is an outstanding reporter, who has dodged real bullets and was held hostage by terrorists. He seems to have it all together. In a recent article, he wrote of his two-year-old son’s diagnosis of RETT syndrome, a terrible disease that causes physical and mental development to cease in infancy. He wrote, “I have been so lucky in my life and career. Now I feel as though my luck has run out.” Everybody has a need or weakness. Those vulnerable places in people’s lives are areas where we can help to comfort, uphold, or heal.
Here’s a question: was Paul “all things to all people” merely because he had an agenda, and wanted to convert them? It wasn’t a fake concern—it was genuine. He had a life-transforming message he felt compelled to share. His desire to relate to as many different people as he could was born of Christian love. He was able to say authentically, “I’m doing this all for the Lord and for the gospel.” Many who make that claim should be given a wide berth - few humans can manage to do everything for the Lord, and the more vocal they are about it, the less likely it’s true. With Paul, his actual life confirms his claims.
Churches grow by relationships: extended families, friends, acquaintances, visitors who have been warmly welcomed. People need a spiritual home, and when they find respect and listening, they are likely to feel welcomed and wanted.
Here’s a challenge for us all this week: How can you and I be “all things to all people” as God was? How would that self-concept change my attitude toward people I know, and people I don’t know? How does true openness enrich our witness to Christ in the place where we are?