1 Corinthians: 9: 16-23; Mark 1: 29-39
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
– 1 Corinthians 9: 20-23
In this land of rugged individuality, one of the worst insults you can make about someone is to say that he is a “phony,” “two faced,” that she is “all things to all people,” someone who, like the proverbial politician, “tells people just what they want to hear.” People like this remind us of the snake oil salesman, sizing up their mark, and convincing them that whatever they’re selling will cure exactly what ails them.
So what are we to make of Paul’s famous assertion to the Christian community of Corinth: “I have become all things to all people?” Does he mean to say that he just tells people what they want to hear? That to an orthodox Jew, he too piously observes the 612 purity laws from Leviticus? That to the reform Jew, unhappy with the rigid and doctrinaire temple religion, he’s a revolutionary reformer? While to a Gentile, he thinks most Jewish practice is irrelevant? Doesn’t he stand for anything?
Well, to understand this, first let’s look at the context – Corinth was a wildly diverse cosmopolitan place, a cultural melting pot for the Ancient Near East. Here lived observant Jews, reform Jews, Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female, a rainbow people from literally “…every tribe, language, people and nation.”
Most, of course, lived in teeming poverty, while the tiny elite hoarded all the wealth. So if Paul wanted to win people to Christ, he needed to understand all of these cultures, and to speak each of their languages. He needed to find a way into each and every very different heart.
Because what he had to share was absolutely foreign and revolutionary and scary for all of them, regardless of their culture – the Good News that none of these divisions matter in the eyes of God; that God loved every single person in this melting pot equally, and that God called them to love each other, not compete for cultural or religious or racial superiority, or for the scraps from rich people’s tables.
That’s why Paul saw a great freedom in becoming “all things to all people.” As a Christian, he saw every person in a new and different way. “I am free with respect to all,” he said, “I have made myself a slave to all.” Confronted with the tremendous diversity of the Body of Christ, Paul saw that God had no favorites. Yes, the Jews were God’s “chosen people,” but so were the Gentiles, so were men and women, so was every one.
Because the fact is that what joins all of us is our common identity as “beloved children of God,” and what joins us as Christians, is that we’re committed to “loving our neighbors as ourselves.” The more different we perceived someone, the more we were called to love them. “What is it worth,” Jesus asked, “if you love only those who love you?”
Which is why in today’s gospel, Jesus makes a bee line directly from the synagogue gates to the gates of the city, where the most untouchables lived – the sick, the disabled, those possessed by demons – and doing so was a scandal to the priests whose company he had just left.
And speaking of priests, just after I was ordained over a dozen years ago, I arrived in a parish that had just chosen a wonderful, energetic, wise and very smart Rector, Thomas, 29 years old… and gay. On my first day, barely hours into my priesthood, Thomas called me into his office and said,” Paul, when I arrived, a dozen families left in protest over my sexual orientation. Your first assignment is to bring them all back.” I found myself tearing up, confronted by this extraordinary priest – someone who, knowing he is hated simply for who he is, responds with phenomenal generosity of spirit. “Paul,” he went on, “we all have need of one another – no matter what we believe about each other. Go gather my lost sheep. They’ll listen to you in a way they can’t right now to me.”
It was a slow and painful process, listening to so much I found so painful to hear, so impossible to respond to. But I sat in each of their homes visit after visit, prayed with them, and tried to find the words that would penetrate each of their hearts. After a year, eight families had returned, each in their own way, some only when I celebrated the Eucharist, but in the end, fully embracing Thomas when they finally let themselves get to know him. The next year one other family came back – nine out of town lost sheep. The tenth moved away… probably because I just kept on visiting them. This was an experience that shaped my priesthood forever.
I’m thrilled to announce that at Easter Vigil this year, Bishop Laura will be joining us, and we will confirm at least one of our ECY members, and we hope more, and maybe even some folks from nearby parishes. And at every confirmation, we all join in and repeat our own baptismal promises. Together we’ll affirm this revolutionary faith, and together we’ll assert that God’s impartiality trumps all of our prejudices. We’ll promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being; knowing that none of this is even remotely possible without “God’s help.”
St. Francis once famously said, “Preach the gospel at all times, and only when necessary, use words.” We don’t bring people to Jesus by giving them some slick sell job, nor by telling people just what they want to hear. No, we win them to Christ by looking so deeply into their hearts, we see their common humanity, their common share of God’s abundant love. And we love that bit of the divine within them in a way that afflicts them with the contagious joy Christ plants in our own hearts.
That’s precisely why God calls us to be “all things to all people,” to see beyond the differences of language and culture and race and economic status – and yes, even prejudice – and to love every person we encounter – every person – as equally beloved of God. This is how we discover the wideness in God’s mercy, by trying our best to first see God’s love in ourselves, so that we may then see, in every person, near and far, the beloved child of God that lives within them.