A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (07/02/21): All Things to All People

All Things to All People

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

I have become all things to all people.

This is one of St. Paul’s most famous declarations about himself. Talking about his work as an apostle he famously declares that he has done all that he can to get close to the people he is trying to share the good news with, even becoming like them with he’s with them.

Woody Allen made a film in 1983 called “Zelig.” It is a fake documentary about a character that Allen himself plays. In series of newsreels which purport to be from the 1920’s we see Zelig in a variety of situations where he becomes like the people he is with. At one points he is with a group of orthodox Jews and suddenly he is transformed, he has a long beard and the earlocks, and he is wearing a black kaftan and a large hat. Zelig yearns for approval so strongly that he physically changes to fit in with those around him.

St. Paul is not Zelig. What he is and what he does is not some kind of neurosis. He is not so embarrassed about himself that he does anything and everything he can to fit in and not be noticed. That is not at all what Paul is up to.

What Paul does is an evangelistic strategy. Indeed pretty much everything which Paul says or does is part of his evangelistic strategy. What he does, he does to win people over with the Good News.

It has been often said that: “the chief obstacle to belief in God is other believers in God.” Perhaps Paul was conscious of that thought. And he does the very best he can to get out of the way of his message. Paul mixes with all kinds of people, so he says:

To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews

Perhaps this was easy for him. This was his natural state. This is what Paul had been brought up as. But Paul also often states that his commitment to Christ has set him free from the restrictions of Jewish culture. He is no longer bound be the law. He doesn’t have to be Jewish anymore. But when he is among Jews he becomes like them. He does his very best not to offend Jewish sensibilities. He tries not to allow his freedom to offend their opinion. He does not do this to fit in. But to give himself the time and space to receive a hearing for his message. If he charged in amongst people committed to a Jewish way of life, amongst those who were living out Jewish cultural conventions, and he flaunted his difference from them, they would stop listening to him even before he had opened his mouth. So among Jews Paul became like a Jew.

On the other side of the great cultural divide which Paul works with:

To those outside the Law I became as one outside the Law

This move was the most difficult that the early Christian evangelists had to make. They had to move out of the security of the Jewish communities the grew up in and were all part of. They had to go and address the wider world, everyone who was not Jewish and who were indifferent or even hostile to Jewish ways of life and Jewish faith commitments. There was much in how Jews lived and the kind of religion they practiced that offended the cultural expectations of everyone else in the ancient world. But Paul freed by Christ from the restrictions of Jewish culture doesn’t have to demand that his cultural sensibilities be accommodated. Paul the evangelist has learned to put up with all those things that would have rubbed Paul the Jew up the wrong way. And again he does so not simply to fit in, but give himself the time and the space to receive a hearing for his message. This was especially important when he was speaking to people who were not necessarily predisposed to listen to what someone like him had to say. So among Gentiles Paul became like a Gentile

This strategy of Paul’s extended even among the beginning-Christians who his message had already touched:

To the weak I became weak

Obviously most of those that Paul found himself speaking to were new Christians. They had just moved out of the wider society and cultures they had been part of and into the strange new world of the Church. And typically their understanding of Christianity was quite narrow, even as their first flush of commitment to it was very intense. If Paul was as free as he new Christian faith allowed him to be he could easily offend those whose place in the faith was not as secure as his. He doesn’t do anything that might confuse or upset new believers. Or anything that would make them lose their new found faith. Once more this is only so that the new believer can give him the time and the space to hear what he has to tell them. So as we might now expect among new believers Paul became like a new believer.

Paul can do this because he knows that those cultural patterns, those social ways of being, all those ways that people behave with one another, all the habits and opinions that groups of people share, Paul knows none of them make a difference to the gospel. They are just the circumstances which people find themselves in. They are happenstance into which he and we must speak the gospel. In contemporary terms we might put it (as I find I often do) something like: “If you want to say something radical, dress conservative.” If you have a message, you should try your best to not let you, the speaker, get in the way. As a student I preached in a church somewhere in Lancashire. At the end of the service an older lady came up to me and said: “I was so pleased. . . so pleased. . . so pleased. . . ”  As you can imagine I was anticipating some compliment about the quality of the worship I had just led, or the excellence of my sermon. “I was so pleased that you were wearing such shiny shoes!” Which felt like a terrible let down. But on reflection, how easy it would have been for something as trivial as unpolished shoes to get in the way of that lady’s listening. And indeed her comment suggested that it often had!

Paul strategy is not giving in to the cultural conventions of the world. It is not merely assimilation, to that would be to have become like Zelig. It is not losing our separate identity as Christians. It is recognising that the message of the gospel is radical. It is strange and often hard to hear. People’s cultural sensibilities are less important to us than their getting the good news, as Paul puts it:

I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some

This is the most important thing to Paul. And it may be the key to reading everything that he writes. Paul of course, as carefully as he is avoiding offending, the Jews, and the Gentiles, and the weak of his own day, just as quickly can give offence to those who live now. This applies, among other things, to Paul’s instructions to women. I had a great-aunt who always spoke of St. Paul through gritted teeth as “that man Paul” for this very reason. He did say that : Women should cover their heads. And that: Women should not speak. And also that: Women should never have authority over men. Unfortunately these and other pieces of advice which he gives, pieces of advice have been taken as holy writ. It is assumed that Paul’s words demand the kind of punctilious obedience which he as a Pharisee had once given the Law. Some read Paul as if he were establishing a new kind of law in place of the one he says the gospel has abolished. And it is assume then that it applies to Christians in all places at all times in every circumstance. But remember:

I have become all things to all people

Everything that Paul does, he does to get the gospel a hearing. Paul knows that among the people the Good News creates there is neither male nor female. But he also knows that the wider society he lives in thinks that women should know their place. He knows that if the church publicly practices the liberty that it truly possesses it will give such offence that no one will listen. The church will be dismissed as either troublemakers or as insane. So for the sake of the gospel Paul suggests then that women (for the time being) retain their conventional position and their traditional roles. But Paul almost certainly would give the opposite advice to us. In a society where the equality of women is broadly (if not universally accepted) to prevent women playing a full public role in the life of the church would cause such offence that the message of the Church could be dismissed. And indeed we know that it often is, on exactly those grounds. In order to get the Good News a hearing we do indeed have to become all things to all people.

The contemporary way of putting this is to say: “We must speak to people where they are.” We do have to be alongside people, to know and understand them, to be able to speak in such a way that we don’t put them off before we get to the important stuff. In this we probably have an advantage over Paul. We are a lot more like our neighbours than Paul was to many of the people he was trying to bring the Good News to. But we still carry our church culture with us. Often we assume that our experience of church is the gospel. Everything we do; the hymns, the prayers, the sermons, the building, the social activities, all of it, we assume is essential to the gospel. And that to become a Christian requires becoming like us! It was that kind of thinking in the 19th century that meant that missionaries took Rugby and Cricket and Football, as well as a lot of less benign things with them when they took the good news into the wider world, and why they often erased indigenous cultures as they went. Becoming all things to all people is not simply to become assimilated to the culture or the society we find ourselves in. The gospel is meant to make a difference. But that difference is not to make all people to become like us. People are meant to be changed by the good news. It may not make them become like us. It may not even make them people we are comfortable with. But then neither Paul nor we are Zelig, with a desperate neurotic need to fit in. All we need to do is give the gospel enough time and enough space to receive a hearing So that like Paul:

I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings


All Things To All People by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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