Becoming all things to all people

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church

 

1 Corinthians 9:15-23 (The Message)

 15-18Still, I want it made clear that I’ve never gotten anything out of this for myself, and that I’m not writing now to get something. I’d rather die than give anyone ammunition to discredit me or impugn my motives. If I proclaim the Message, it’s not to get something out of it for myself. I’m compelled to do it, and doomed if I don’t! If this was my own idea of just another way to make a living, I’d expect some pay. But since it’s not my idea but something solemnly entrusted to me, why would I expect to get paid? So am I getting anything out of it? Yes, as a matter of fact: the pleasure of proclaiming the Message at no cost to you. You don’t even have to pay my expenses!

 

 19-23Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!

 

            So I grew up in rural Wayne County, Ohio where everyone looked like me and everyone talked like me.  We were a pretty homogenous group of white, middle classed folks of Swiss and German background.  Thankfully we were blessed with a magic box in our home that allowed us to see into other cultures and to view people of different backgrounds.  See, the television isn’t all bad.

            But I had relatively little contact with people who were different from me, and the other kids that I grew up with had very little contact with people different from them as well.  And I remember very clearly our 8th grade class trip to Washington, DC.  I remember seeing people of every race, color, and creed together at the various memorials.  People that I had only seen on television were right in front of me in the flesh.  I remember seeing different clothing, different skin colors, and hearing the different languages, and laughing at the differences. 

            I also remember that some friends and I decided that since nobody knew us, we were going to pretend to be someone that we weren’t.  So we tried to talk with southern accents, then like a Texan.  When we got bored with that, we made up our own language, which was unintelligible to anyone and everyone.

            Now I really don’t doubt that everyone within earshot knew that we were faking it.  We probably didn’t convince anyone that we were southern, Texan, or foreign.  In fact, we probably even offended some people by trying to be something that we were not.  We probably offended the southerners and Texans by mocking their accents.  We probably offended the Asians by mocking their language.  We were trying to be something that we were not, and I believe that can easily be offensive.

            But yet that is exactly what Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to do in our scripture, isn’t it?  Isn’t Paul encouraging them to be fake?  To pretend to be something that they are not?  Well I would like to look at our scripture listed above to see just what Paul is asking of the Corinthians and how we might be able to be all things to all people without having to be fakes, phonies, or even worse, liars and hypocrites.

            Our scripture for today falls in the middle of a section where Paul is trying to strengthen his claim as an apostle of Christ.  Evidently Paul is hearing some people claim that he is not a true apostle, perhaps because he wasn’t one of the original 12 disciples, perhaps because he never actually met Jesus before Jesus’ death and resurrection.  We don’t know for sure all of the critiques that Paul might have heard, but we can say with confidence that not everyone thought that Paul was a true apostle.

            One critique of Paul seems to be that he is merely preaching about Christ because he is in it for the money or because he is trying to gain something by preaching.  And to this critique Paul goes into a time where he quotes scripture and cites other apostles and how they are to receive some type of compensation for their work for the kingdom.  Then Paul says, Hey, I’ll prove I’m not in it for the money or the perks.  I’m gonna keep preaching the Good News and I am going to refuse any payment.  Because my real reward for preaching the Good News is not to be found in money, food, precious items, or the respect of others.  Paul knows that his real reward is simply in being able to proclaim the gospel free of charge to all people (v. 18).

            So now that Paul has established himself as an apostle of Christ and shown the Corinthians that he isn’t in it for the money, he goes on to tell of the service that he has willingly entered into so that he might be able to lead others into the knowledge of the life-giving and life-changing message of Jesus Christ.  We call that the Gospel, the Good News, the transformative message of Jesus.

            Verse 19 says, “Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people.”  That sounds a lot like servant evangelism to me.  Become a servant to any and all to reach a wide range of people.  Jesus himself came to serve and not to be served.  I’m not sure why we would expect anything else as his followers. 

            What Paul is suggesting is that we humbly submit ourselves to others.  Do acts of kindness, do acts of service.  Scrape the neighbor’s driveway, shovel their walk in the winter.  Make friends with people through service.  Bake goods, invite them over for a meal.  And do these things so that you can build relationships with others.

            So I don’t think that serving others is really controversial.  Hopefully we all realize that we are called to do this as Christians.  However, much has been made of Paul’s statement in verse 22, which the NRSV translates, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”  It sounds at first that Paul is getting a little too relaxed in his freedom in Christ, doesn’t it?  Does this mean that if Paul wanted to witness to some crack smokers today that he would smoke crack?  Does this mean that Paul would become an idolater to convert idolaters, or a fornicator to convert fornicators?  I don’t think so.  The things that Paul is willing to do are not outside of his understanding of what he is called to as a follower of Jesus Christ.  And I like the way that The Message puts it here, saying that Paul kept his bearings in Christ, but became a servant to all kinds of people, entering into their world to better understand them from their own point of view. 

            Paul isn’t sinning by following the law around those that follow the law is he?  He isn’t making a claim that the law is what is giving him new life in Christ, is he?  No.  There is nothing wrong with being weak around those that are weak, there is nothing wrong with being like those that we are surrounded by, to find common ground with other people, as long as we are not compromising our convictions in Christ.

            To put this in a contemporary situation, I would say that Paul is finding things that he has in common with other people so that he can build relationships with them.  To the football fan, Paul would talk about football.  To the farmer, Paul would talk about agriculture.  To the musician Paul would talk about music genres.  Paul is trying to be accepted by the various kinds of people to build relationships with them and to show them the life-giving identity he has found in Christ.

            Now the biggest fear I have with this is something that we Christians have been accused of many times and that is hypocrisy.  Is Paul really being authentic when he is becoming all things to all people?  Or is he tricking them into something by faking an interest in them and in the things that interest them?

            I think we need to be authentically seeking relationships with people and we need to authentically care about the things that are important to the people that we are reaching out to.  If we authentically care about people then the things that they care about become important to us as well.

            I remember a few things that my mother had to go to and sit through during my growing up years.  I am the second of three boys.  So my mother was the only one in the family without a Y chromosome, the only female in my nuclear family.  And she was really not into the things that boys are into; sports, tractors, and cars come to mind.

            Basketball, football, soccer, and track practices put the miles on the brown minivan, as did our yearly trips to watch a professional sporting event.  Much time and petroleum was sacrificed in the name of sports.  Furthermore, every year, on the first weekend of February, our family would pack into the family car and make the two hour drive to Columbus for a farm machinery show called the Power Show.  A few weeks later we would load up the car and drive the other way to Cleveland for the International Auto Show.

            My mother had little to no interest in sports, farm machinery, or fancy cars.  But yet she went to all of these events and I don’t remember her complaining about any of them.  She would have never chosen to go to a basketball game, a farm show, or a car show if she was given the choice.  But she knew that these things were important to her boys, and she authentically cared about her boys.  So the things that were important to mom’s boys became important to my mother.

            I believe that this is what Paul is getting at when he says that he has become all things to all people.  He isn’t saying “Be a phony and make people think you have some common interests so that you can hook them into a conversation about Jesus.”  Paul is saying that if we genuinely, authentically care about other people, then the things that they care about and the things that are important to them should be important to us as well.  Paul isn’t advocating being a phony, or a faker.  Paul is advocating authentic acts of caring.

            It annoys me when people pretend to know about or to be an expert about everything, perhaps because I tend to be that kind of person.  But I am not suggesting that we try to be an expert on every subject that we might encounter, mostly because that is rather impossible.  But when you find someone with an interest that you don’t share, rather than trying to fake some sort of knowledge on the subject, ask questions.

            Asking questions is difficult for us when we meet other people, because, to be honest, most of us like to hear the sound of our own voice.  But if you really care about someone, if you truly are seeking to establish an authentic relationship with them, then you must ask questions.

            One of Sonya’s cousins married a guy that seems to really want to get to know other people.  And everyone loves Joel.  He is a good guy.  I think that people like Joel because he seems to really care about what is interesting to other people.  And he isn’t afraid to ask questions when he doesn’t know about something.

            I remember his first visit to Nebraska and I remember thinking, man, this guy is pretty fresh out of the package or something because he just seemed like he was being immersed in a culture so out of his experiences.  And I guess it seemed that way because this was very much outside of his previous experiences.  But Joel wanted to know all about Grandpa’s tractors and his woodworking projects.  He wanted to know about Uncle Tim’s work with an irrigation company and how the irrigators worked.  He wanted to know about Jack’s work as a mechanic and about the tractors and equipment that they serviced.  Joel even found a way to connect to Sonya’s rowdy younger cousins.  He had never shot a gun in his life and the boys were more than willing to teach him how.

            Was Joel truly engaged in everything that he was learning about?  I think so.  Not so much because he was really interested in every last detail, but because he was interested in the people.  And he was able to engage these people in conversation at a meaningful level because he didn’t sit around and just talk about himself.  He asked everyone else, “So, what’s important to you?”  Joel understands what it means to become all things to all people.

            I don’t know that I have ever chosen to write a sermon based on a text that I have drawn from Peterson’s The Message.  The Message is a paraphrase of the Bible written in a more contemporary language.  I use the word paraphrase rather than translation because The Message is much more loosely based on the original texts.  The intention of The Message is to capture the essence of what is being said by the original author while not worrying about the exact wording in order to be more relevant for today.  For instance, in today’s scripture, The Message doesn’t say that Paul attempted to become like the Jews to convert the Jews to Christianity.  The Message says that Paul became a servant to the “religious”.  The point that The Message is trying to bring to our attention is that Paul wasn’t saying we need to limit our understanding of our mission field to Jews, but that it should be opened to people of all religious backgrounds.

            So why did I choose to use the Message this morning?  Well, because I believe that the premise for which Paul is writing this passage is taken up by Eugene Peterson’s efforts toward providing a version of the Gospel in contemporary language.  The point is to meet people where they are in order to show them the life that is available to them in Christ.

            Last Monday I had an interesting conversation with a guy about my age in a coffee shop here in town.  We were both sitting there reading and he initiated the conversation, asking me if I was a student (I guess nobody else reads these days).  I told him that I am a pastor at a local church.  He asked me of what flavor, to which I responded, “Mennonite.”

            He wasn’t very familiar with the Mennonites, but he knew that we had some similarities with the Quakers that lived close to him in North Carolina.  I explained our connection with the Quakers as historical peace churches and our strong belief in discipleship.  He explained to me that he was raised in a Jewish family and he really didn’t even have much of an understanding of Christianity.

            We launched into a conversation about the essence of Christ; whether he was divine or whether he was human or whether he was both.  But I soon realized that he was having problems keeping up with me.  He kept asking questions like, “What do you mean by divine?  How could Jesus have had siblings?  How does Joseph fit into the story?” and so on.  I realized quickly that he was less interested in my understanding of Substitutional/Satisfaction versus Christus Victor Atonement Theology, and more interested in why we as Christians choose to live and believe the things that we live and believe. 

            I was trying to draw this non-practicing Jew into my world using my language and the language of the church…and I failed miserably.  People outside of the church don’t use language like atonement, divinity, or trinity.  But they do use language like non-violence, feeding the hungry, simple living, and creation care.  So I stopped trying to pull the guy into my world and I decided instead to enter into his.  And we had a lot in common.

            He is living with a group of people that share the rent and responsibilities around the house and around the farm which they all work on.  He helps run an organic farm in North Carolina.  So we talked about raising our own food and livestock.  We talked about the architecture of downtown Staunton.  We talked about how the church has failed to love homosexuals in the way that Christ loved all people.  We talked about many, many things.

            After this conversation, I just couldn’t help but to think about Paul’s writing to the church in Corinth where he says that he has become all things to all people.  And I like the way that The Message puts it here, saying that Paul kept his bearings in Christ, but became a servant to all kinds of people, entering into their world, learning from them and their world view, and exposing them to the life-giving message of Jesus Christ.

Becoming all things to all people doesn’t mean that you have to be fake, or that you have to be a phony.  No, become all things to all people means that you care deeply about them and you enter into conversations with them about things that they find important.  And these things become important to you because people are important to you.  We must enter into these conversations at the level where the people are, and not expect them to automatically know the language of the church.

We must become all things to all people so that they might be exposed to the life-giving and life-transforming message of Jesus Christ.  We must become all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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