All Things to All People

I preached this sermon at LSTC’s Augustana Chapel today (Thursday, February 9). This is a somewhat edited version (I’ve changed a few things and made a couple of small but fairly substantial additions) from a recorded transcript, mainly because I’ve taken to not writing my sermons. The sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 —

16 For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. 18 What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. 

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 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. 21 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. 22 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. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

So why do we preach the gospel? Why do we do this? Why do we go to places like seminaries and spend four, or five, or six years studying to do this? I think we’d all answer because we’re called, and I know that means different things for each and every one of us. We talk about these calls, we sing about them in our hymns and our songs, and often times it is Jesus knocking so gently on our door, the “softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.” And maybe that’s your experience.

I can tell you, my call to this ministry is a little bit more like waking up one morning with a splitting headache, a really dry mouth, looking around and wondering: “Where am I? How did I get here? Why I am wearing this uniform? When did I get this tattoo?” Because the honest truth is a lot of the way God calls us is not terribly gentle. It’s not “softly and tenderly Jesus is calling.” Maybe Jesus is calling someone softly and tenderly, but that wasn’t Paul’s experience. Paul was on the road to Damascus when he was laid low and struck blind, and then delivered into the hands of the very people he was sent to kill. Into their mercy. And I fully suspect Ananias and his friends probably looked at this blind and helpless man and said: “If we kill him now, no one will know.”

And I know when we go to negotiate what it means to be a pastor in our parishes, we talk about salary packages and housing allowances. We think of pensions and health care. But what promises did Paul get? What did Jesus tell Ananias? That Paul would suffer much “in my name.” And Paul lost his head for the sake of the gospel.

All that aside, we preach, we do this as Paul said, as Martin Luther I’m certain believed and probably wrote somewhere, and many of those who came before us and will follow long after us, we do this because we have to. And woe to us if we do not. What choice to do we have? And that, brothers and sisters, is something of a really awful place to be. To know in your bones that this is what you are made to do, that this is what God intended you to be, has yanked you out and if necessary God has beaten you up and not just a little bit either. There’s a hymn that Pastor Albert Starr, Jr., has sung at Bethel: “Break me, mold me.” It’s not a gentle process sometimes. But we do this, we proclaim this word because woe to us if we don’t.

Because it’s who we are.

But that just makes us street preachers. That just makes us yahoos who stand on street corners, who go to college campuses, the kind of people I’ve seen who swing their Bibles around like sticks or clubs and usually focus on fornication and homosexuality. “Repent, or you are damned!”

There’s a little Missionary Baptist church that’s for sale on 43rd Street and Cottage Grove, we pass it just about every time we go to worship at Bethel on Sunday. And one morning, Bridget Illian, who was riding with us, said: “Well, if this doesn’t work out for you Charles, maybe you can buy that church. And make it Waters of Babylon Missionary Lutheran Church!” See, I’ve given this matter some thought. But the world is full of yahoos. You wander around the South Side of Chicago and it is full of tiny little churches lead by bishops and apostles, places with names like Acme Baptist Church and Rain or Shine Missionary Baptist Church. Who knows, maybe they aren’t all yahoos, and maybe people are hearing the word, but sometimes the world needs yahoos. People who will walk into the marketplace and proclaim to the Athenians that this unknown god that they honor is really the crucified and risen Lord of creation.

But there is an honest truth. God doesn’t just call us — or all of us, or most of us — to proclaim the word in the wilderness. God calls us to be part of community, to be in a community. God calls us to preach this gospel in the mess of humanity. And Paul understands what this means. I think we all understand what this means. This means doing the hard work of being in relationship with people. And Paul makes a rather ridiculous claim — I find it rather ridiculous — that he has become all things to all people.

He describes here that to the Jews he became a Jew, to the gentiles he became a gentile, to those under the law he became as one under the law, to the weak he became as one who is weak. This is all about being in relationship. And I find myself wondering: how far will he go with this? Among Christians who do missionary work with Muslims, this is actually an important discussion — what does it mean to preach the Gospel among Muslims? How far should Christians go in adopting Islamic culture when they preach the gospel to Muslims in places like Indonesia? How much like Muslims should they live so that the word of the Lord can be preached and lived in their midst? I don’t know, and there’s no good answer. Paul doesn’t say “to the pagans I will become a pagan.” He does say “to those not under the law, I become as one not under the law.”

But for Paul, this is self-giving love, a kind of self-surrender similar to what Jesus does time and again in his ministry, his life, in his acceptance of judgment and death. Paul is, I think, echoing that self-giving love, showing it to the communities he is in the midst of, the communities who have sought his care. “To Jews,” he says, “I will become as one of them, so they are not worrying about my strangeness, my non-Jewness” — not that Paul had a problem with that — “but they’re not worrying about this, they are hearing the word of the Lord.”

Self-giving love? How easy is that? How prestigious is that? “To the losers I will become a loser. To the failures I will become a failure. To outsiders I will become an outsider. To strangers I will become a stranger.” How prestigious is it to give up one’s-self like that? More important, and something I think a lot of us have experienced, what happens when the powerful or the many demand that you give? That you surrender? That you become a Jew in order to preach to the Jews. That’s a struggle I have. And I will always have that struggle. When someone demands I become something, it is hard for me to give up myself and become what they ask. And I think part of our ongoing struggle in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over sexuality is in part about this. Because who is willing to surrender their claims to the right understanding of scripture, to the right understanding what it means to be church, to the right preaching of the gospel. Who is going to say: “To the queers I will become queer”? Who is going to say: “to the straight I will become straight”? Who is going to say: “To the homophobes I will become a homophobe”?

This self-giving love is best when it’s mutual, but the fact that it is self-giving means we take risks that the people we are engaging will not respond with love. Because, sisters and brothers, this wonderful, terrible self-giving love is not about loved ones. Or friends. Or even strangers. It is about enemies.

And the unfortunate fact is that all too often, in the communities in which we live, in the churches in which we worship, it is the loudest voices, it is the most frightened ones, that make the most insistent demands. “You must become. You must surrender.” And they often times seem to win. And then it isn’t self-giving love anymore. It’s abuse. It’s oppression. It’s easier for the powerful to say to the powerless and marginalized “you must bend” than it is for the powerless to say to the powerful “you must too.” Because they don’t have to listen. When it’s demanded, it’s not self-giving love anymore. And it is an unfortunate reality of our human existence.

But it doesn’t end there brothers and sisters. It’s doesn’t end there because Paul surrenders anyway, and he doesn’t do it because it’s demanded of him or asked of him, but because Jesus did it. And he knows that in, with and through Jesus — the one who gave himself for all and for everything — he can. Paul can, in fact, become all things to all people. Because Christ loves, because he came and lived and surrendered and died and rose. Because Jesus did these things, we who are joined to Jesus in baptism and communion, we can do these things. We can, in fact, become all things to all people, not through our own power or means, but because of Christ. We can, in fact, become Jews to the Jews, gentiles to the gentiles, and all the categories Paul names, because Jesus has.

Because he surrendered, because he loves, we can. And we do. Every day. And not just here. But every place where people gather around the word. In Christ’s surrendering to death, to sin, to violence an oppression, he rises to show us they have no meaning. That many of the things we struggle with mean nothing. That hope and life in the resurrection of Christ win in the end. And not fear.