A sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 9.16-23 and Mark 1.29-39, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 4, 2018
“I have become all things to all people.” Paul’s seemingly breathtakingly arrogant declaration stirs me to wonder: What sort of person says this and why?
Paul always has fascinated me. Yes, because my mother named me after him, but more notably because the biblical portrait of Paul is captivatingly, multi-dimensionally complex.
Paul, an orthodox Jew, persecuted the followers of Jesus, yet became the greatest Christian apostle.
Paul isn’t mentioned in many ancient non-biblical sources, perhaps indicating his lack of prominence in his contemporary literary circles, yet his letters constitute a (perhaps the) significant part of the New Testament.
Paul, though physically active, traveling miles upon miles to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, was physically unattractive – short in stature, bald, heavily bearded, with a hooked nose and bowed legs. OK, that’s not found in the Bible!(1). While reading his letters could be a positively compelling experience, seeing him was not!(2) Yet he had a certain charisma!
Paul was feisty, boldly confronting his critics, even among Jesus’ followers, including Peter, the chief apostle.(3) Yet though courageous in the face of danger and violence,(4) he freely confessed his fear and despair.(5)
Paul. A unique individual, who, in one breath, could say, “I am who I am” and “I have become all things to all people.”(6) In each case, the stress is on “I”. Paul knew himself and, looking through the lens of his self-awareness, intensely identified with others. Paul cared for himself and had compassion(7) for others, wanting, willing to experience what they experienced and to share with them his experience of Jesus.
This is the season of Epiphany; the word, again, meaning “revelation.” Historically and liturgically, we, the church, focus our attention on the revelation of Jesus Christ, his messiahship, his mission to the world. So, we hear Jesus’ declaration of purpose, saying to his disciples, “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message (of God’s kingdom), for that is what I came out to do.”
Taking the words of Paul and Jesus together, I hear a call to us, Epiphany Church, to consider how we, as a Christian community of compassion, speak and act, work and serve in the world. This is about mission, who are we, and vision, who are we becoming. Yes, it’s easy for us, as a historically, currently, and probably always will be small congregation to continue to do what we have been doing. Nothing wrong with that. Yet, as days and times and seasons change, so, too, we. Thus, let us intentionally prayerfully ask: What message do we proclaim to the city of Laurens and the surrounding region that we, with Paul and Jesus, might say: “We have become all things to all people…for this is what we have been sent out to do”?
Illustration: Saint Paul, James Tissot (1836-1902)
(1) From the Acts of Paul, a first century Common Era text of unknown authorship of apocryphal stories about Paul, which provides information missing from the canonical Acts of the Apostles.
(2) See 2 Corinthians 10.1, 9-10.
(3) See Galatians 2.1-14.
(4) See 2 Corinthians 11.23-28.
(5) For fear, see 1 Corinthians 2.3. For despair, see 2 Corinthians 1.8.
(6) This last is not the word of the highly-caricatured shrewd politician who says and does whatever it takes to make a point or to win a vote. Points and votes, even when artfully made and craftily gained, are momentary personal victories tainted by the inauthenticity of their inherent duplicity. With Paul, I behold something truly lasting and real.
(7) Compassion (“com”, with + “passion”, suffering); that ability and willingness not only to be with others in their pain, but to embrace and embody their pain as one’s own.
2 thoughts on “Paul’s All”
I’m struggling with your call to the mission of being all things to all people and taking that mission out into the world. I think we all know our strengths and weaknesses and so we are likely ready to go out into the world and help others with the things that come easy to us. But to be ALL things to all people we’d also be signing up to do things we aren’t great at right? Is Jesus ok with us doing a “halfway good job” in order to serve some people?? Or is the point that we just be physically present?? I’m definitely looking forward to working on the mission but I’m not sure how easy it will be.
Loretta, I appreciate your struggle. Being – even striving to be – all things to all people seems to be an impossible task. Still, I think Paul’s point, given the context of the passage, is one of utmost focus. That is, he was supremely committed to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and in that wholesale weddedness to his calling, he sought to identify with his audience, whether Jew or Gentile, so to speak in a way or style or language that appealed (made sense) to those who read his letters and listened to him.
In the same way, my appeal to the Epiphany, Laurens, is for us to dream our way into being all things to our surrounding community. In suchwise, we may discern new ways to be a community and new ways to embrace and connect with the world outside our door.
The same appeal/call can be rendered to and heard by individuals. Thus, a question can be: Given my sense of my calling (whatever that might be), how might I reach more people? What words or figures of speech or patterns of being and living might I adopt so to be understood by more folk?
And as for your question, yes, I believe Jesus accepts all of our efforts faithfully undertaken. As an olden saying has it: God doesn’t call us to be successful (for the fruit of our efforts is God’s doing), but rather that we be faithful.
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