This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany. The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 9:16-23.
Something that’s very interesting for me to observe at the moment, is that my husband’s church is going through the process of looking for a new minister. And because they are like most every other church out there, the list of things different people want in a new minister is dizzying: someone who’s a strong leader, who never upsets anybody. Someone who’s great with kids and will encourage new families to join, while having the senior members as gatekeepers. Someone who will help shape a vision for the future, while keeping everything exactly the same. And so on; it’s not that long since you were searching for a new priest, I’m sure you can relate.
So that came to mind for me when I read Paul’s line this morning that “I have become all things to all people, so that I might be any means save some.”
All things to all people; often the pressure we feel is as if what Paul means is that we have to please everyone all the time; be exactly what they expect, meet all of their needs, and never, ever rock the boat. (Not just ministers, either; I get the distinct impression that parents and even grandparents get their version of this too).
It’s not humanly possible, of course; in fact, trying to be that person is a recipe for a nervous breakdown. But what that points us to is that, in fact, that’s really not what Paul meant at all.
But then, what did he mean? And how does it apply to us today?
Let’s start here. Paul has as an assumption underlying a lot of what he writes, that the church – as a community of people – is fundamentally different to the wider society around it. That Christians do not think or behave in the same way, or have the same priorities, as other people.
Now it’s debatable whether that’s as true in our situation as it was for the first-century church; a lot of the people around us still inhabit a culture profoundly shaped by Christian convictions (or as one Jewish friend put it to me, most Australians are still “not quite not-Christian”).
But let’s take that assumption seriously for a moment, and see what it suggests to us. What Paul is saying is that the people out there – who are not Christian (yet) – are different from you; think differently, behave differently, and so on. In effect, they’re inhabiting a different sub-culture from the one we inhabit.
And Paul’s saying, the work involved in bridging that cultural gap is our work to do. If people don’t think like us, talk like us, do what we do… our job is to learn to think in their terms, speak their language, and be involved in the things they care about, in order to build the relationships in which they might come to know Christ.
Our job is to meet them where they are, because there’s no intrinsic reason why they should want to do the work to meet us where we are. And that’s no less true when the person we want to reach is across the street, than it is when they’re across the world.
Or to give you a different example of the same principle, my mum grew up on a sugar estate where her dad was the manager. When her brother, my uncle, was old enough, his dad set him to work supervising one of the cane-cutting crews. Perhaps not surprisingly, the tough men who were used to hard labour in the cane fields had little time for this young brat who’d never done a hard day’s work in his life.
So he picked up a machete and laboured alongside them. He came home with the palms of his hands shredded to ribbons, but in engaging in their world, experiencing life from their perspective, he earned the respect of the men, and the right to be taken seriously.
Paul’s saying it’s the same with mission. Meet people where they are, engage with them on their terms, if you actually want to build meaningful relationship (because it’s in genuine relationship that people will come to know something of Christ, through you).
This is what has often been described as an incarnational approach to being the church. The idea is that just as God the Son left the throne of heaven, emptied himself, and entered into human life for our sake – in the incarnation – that’s our model for how to engage with others too. That we should be prepared to set aside our preferences, and enter into the life of others for their sake. That Jesus, in his very life, gives us the model for how to live in a world which is different to us, but in whose flourishing we have a loving interest.
Now this is not the only way to think about mission, and it’s not the only thing we need to bear in mind as we go. There’s no point, for example, identifying with others so thoroughly that we lose our authentic identity as people shaped by Christ. But it is an important principle that reminds us where the obligation lies, on the divide between Christians and non-Christians; the obligation lies with us. It’s our job to build that bridge, make those connections, nurture relationships.
That’s what being all things to all people is about. Not pleasing everybody but cultivating the ability to relate to everybody. The mental flexibility to see things from a different point of view. The empathy to care about someone else’s fears and concerns. The willingness to spend our time and energy outside our own comfort zones. Paul talks about being all things to all people in terms of behaving differently with different groups, but actually I suspect the most important skill for us is real and deep listening. We can’t relate deeply to people where they are, if we can’t even gain an appreciation of where they are, or how they got there.
One fairly easy way to do this is to read some of the anti-Christian stuff online. Really read it; look beneath the rhetoric and understand the hurt, the fear, and the anger which drives it. Understanding those things will help us to understand how not to play right into those emotions every time we interact with people who have good reason to be hurt, fearful or angry with the church. Because we’re kidding ourselves if we think they don’t have good reason.
“I do it all for the sake of the gospel,” Paul said. Those of us who’ve found the gospel, who’ve been transformed by the gospel, and who feel that gap between a Christian way of being and the culture around us, have work to do in bridging that gap with our neighbours. But let’s do it, and do it well, for the sake of the gospel; and the opportunity to invite others to share in its blessings.