Paul’s (and Our) “All”

The text of the sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 9.16-23 with a reference to Mark 1.29-39, videotaped and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 7, 202.

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“I have become all things to all people.”

So, the Apostle Paul writes to the Christian community in the city of Corinth. At first glance, a strikingly, breathtakingly arrogant declaration! Yet, on second-sight, perhaps, an honest, even humble confession.

Thus, I wonder, what sort of person speaks this way and what might we make of it?

Paul fascinates me! Yes, my mother named me after him! Yet more to the point, the biblical portrait of Paul is remarkably multi-dimensional. Great contrasts found a home within him.

Paul was an orthodox Jew who never disavowed Judaism, even to the point of persecuting the followers of Jesus. Yet he became the greatest Christian apostle.

Paul is not mentioned in many ancient non-biblical sources, perhaps indicating that he barely made a blip on the radar screen of his contemporary literary circles. Yet his letters constitute a good portion of the canonical Christian scriptures.

Paul, though physically vigorous, traveling miles upon miles to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, was rather unattractive. Short in stature, bald, heavily bearded, with a hooked nose and bowed legs. (Okay, that’s not found in the Bible, but rather in a mid-second century apocryphal manuscript![1]) So, reading Paul’s letters was a compelling experience. Seeing him was not![2] Yet he had a certain charisma!

Paul was forceful and feisty. He fearlessly challenged his opponents. Even among the followers of Jesus, including Peter, the chief apostle.[3] Paul was courageous. Bravely facing danger and violence.[4] Yet 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.”

These are not the words of that highly-parodied crafty politician who speaks out of both sides of the mouth. Who says whatever it takes to make a point or to win a vote. Points and votes, even when slyly-made-and-gained, are only momentary personal victories; falling short of long-term importance and easily fading from corporate memory. However, with Paul, there is something enduring. Thus, we, two millennia later, contemplate his word, “I have become all things to all people.”

No. This is not the language of a clever campaigner or chameleon who, seeking acceptance, strives to appear to be whatever or whomever the occasion demands; changing countenance and color to match the moment.

I digress…

A problem with this approach is that one’s perception of the moment can be very wrong. And being a chameleon only works, and only temporarily, if those whom one attempts to deceive also are in overwhelming need of acceptance (which is why, sometimes, for a time, it works, because, at times, we are!). No. This is not Paul’s aim.

I have become all things to all people.”

This is a word – indeed, the word “I” – of one who, knowing himself, identifies with others.

This is the word of one who, caring for himself, has compassion (com, with, passion, suffering) for others.

This is the word of one who wants and wills to experience what others experience.

This is the word of one who loves and longs for community.

This is the word for what we, St. Matthew’s, strive to be and to do. Paul is a paradigm of what we, as a people, seek to practice in this place; being fully ourselves as individuals in the fullness of our lives in community. And what we seek to do, who we seek to be is especially, necessarily more essential during these pandemic-induced days of distance and potential disconnection.

This is the season of Epiphany, of revelation. Historically and liturgically, the church has focused attention on the revelation of Jesus Christ, his messiahship and his mission, to the world. So, we hear Jesus’ restatement 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, an encouragement to us, St. Matthew’s, to continue our communal-labor of serving the world in God’s Name.

Of identifying with others, all others, so to be and to become “all things to all people.”

Of proclaiming the message of God’s kingdom of love and justice.

For this is what we have been sent to do.

© 2021 PRA


[1] From the Acts of Paul, the approximate date, 160 C.E., is a text of unknown authorship of apocryphal stories about Paul, which attempt to provide information missing from the canonical Book of the Acts of the Apostles.

[2] See 2 Corinthians 10.10

[3] See Galatians 2.11-14.

[4] See 2 Corinthians 11.23-28.

[5] For fear, see 1 Corinthians 2.3. For despair, see 2 Corinthians 1.8.

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