Being All Things To All Men (a Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23)

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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 not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” 

I’ve never spoken on this passage before, as it always used to irk me:

‘To the Jews I became a Jew, to the Greeks I became a Greek, to the weak I am weak …’ How spineless! Good Heavens man, don’t you know who you are?

At first glance, St Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians here sounds like he used to work for a commercial radio station – ‘we’ll be whatever you want us to be’.

  • Do you like rock music? We’ll play rock music.
  • Do you prefer Country and Western? We’ve got both kinds!
  • Do you prefer something more esoteric from the mid-19th Century European Baroque era? Give us a few minutes and we’ll find something!

Whatever it is you want us to be, that’s who we’ll be! We’re here to please. We’re doing our best to be all things to all men (and women) (and children) (and … pets, if they‘ll help bring in the bucks).

Welcome to modern marketing, where who your identity is determined by what people want you to be!

It’s much the same in politics, isn’t it?

This is why I swear I will never become a politician, not in a democracy at any rate.

I’m serious. If you’re truly a democratic political leader, then your job is to represent your people, which means that your agenda is defined by whatever your constituents think is important!

Do you people feel that criminals are getting off too lightly? No problem. I’ll just put a few more of them in gaol! Do you people want to cut taxes and get rid of foreigners? I am your representative!

Democracy has its limitation (even the USA has realised that with Palestine lately).

Of course, the trick to being a good politician is to influence your people in such a way that they come to want what you want. If you’re clever enough to manipulate people that way then you might make a good politician. But it’s not for me.

No. In the church surely we are who we are. Our identity is not determined by the whims and desires of those around us. We have confidence in our own identity. We know who we are, and God knows that we are not going to compromise ourselves for the sake of popularity.

The first church I worked for, when it came to my end-of-year report, the guys in charge only had one criticism to level at me – my leather jacket.

‘We feel that it could alienate some people unnecessarily. Perhaps some Sundays you could turn up without your leather jacket on (like in the middle of Summer).’

So what did I say? I said ‘Hey! Me and the leather jacket come as a single package. I’ve had this leather jacket since I was 16 and I’ll have it until I’m 116. If you want me, you get the jacket. If you don’t like the jacket … well, you’d better find yourself another Sunday School teacher!’ (and they did!) (well, no … they didn’t really, but I think that they were probably a bit low on choices).

Well … that was me 20 years ago, but … well, times have changed, and I haven’t actually got that leather jacket on today (partly because I lost it shortly after that tirade).

That’s not the only reason. It also reflects the fact that I’ve come around in my thinking from those days, when I was a ‘rebel without a jacket’ to today, when I’ve actually come to see the wisdom of what St Paul was saying about being ‘all things to all men’.

To the Greeks I become a Greek. To the working class I become working class. To the academics I become an academic. To the boxing community I become a boxer. Why? Not in order to pleasethem. Not in order to feel accepted by them. Not in order to make them like me. But we become all things to all men so that we might be able to effectively communicate with them our message of love and reconciliation.

This was the issue for Paul. It was one of communication.

Paul knew who he was. Paul was a man who had worked through his own issues very thoroughly. He wasn’t ashamed to say who he was or what he stood for. But this is the point – that Paul’s own identity as a human being was fundamentally tied to the things that he believed in and the message that he stood for – to Christ and the Kingdom.

Christ and the Kingdom – that was who he was. So whether he was behaving like a Jew or a Greek or a tramp or an academic – it wasn’t that he wasn’t being true to himself. It’s just that those dimensions of himself were no longer a significant part of who he was.

Paul was Christ’s, as you are Christ’s, as I am Christ’s. And if we allow that reality to be the fundamental determining factor of our identity, then it won’t matter who we mix with or what labels people place on us or how we present ourselves.

We can be flexible in all things – in our class, our ethnicity, our education and our sexuality. Who cares? We are Christ’s. And so we take whatever steps are necessary to put other people at ease, to open up lines of communication with them, so that we might listen to them effectively as they share their struggles, and so that we might share with them our words of hope.

This was the issue I had, some of you will remember, when I first published my book. The fact that it had a number of four-letter words in it upset quite a number of people A lot of people said, ‘you’re just trying to look cool’. I said, ‘No. I’m just trying to communicate with my mates in the pub in a way that they feel comfortable with’.

It’s all about communication. It’s all about building bridges of understanding. It’s all about creating an avenue for sharing your message of love and hope with others.

Paul was a man who was defined by his work, and most specifically by his message. The very existence of the church is likewise defined by this message.

Karl Barth put it beautifully, that ‘the church is simply the crater that reflects the impact of the Gospel in history’. That is who we are – nothing more than the crater reflecting the impact of this message in history – of Christ and of His Kingdom.

So here we are at the beginning of a new year And it seems like an appropriate time to remind ourselves of who we are and what we are on about.

We are Christ’s – individually and corporately. We are defined by His message of hope for the coming Kingdom. This is our rationale as a community. It is our hope and it is our message, that must be shared with a world that is swathed in so much darkness.

And in sharing that message, who cares whether we are black or white or male or female or straight or gay or whatever! It is Christ who is important, his message that is important. The rest … is secondary. We do whatever we have to do in order to communicate our words of hope to those around us.

“I have become all things to all people” says St Paul “And I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.”

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy trinity Dulwich Hill, February 2006.

Rev. David B. SmithParish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.
www.FatherDave.org

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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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