Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Ms. Brin Bon, ’13 M.Div, Yale Divinity School, intern at our Monastery
Epiphany 5 B – Sunday, February 5, 2012
Ms. Brin Bon, ’13 M.Div, Yale Divinity School, intern at our Monastery
Epiphany 5 B – Sunday, February 5, 2012
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
With that kind of exhortation it’s a wonder any preacher ever did discuss this reading. That said, I’m going to take my chances…
Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (c. 1618-20),
(Probably) Valentin de Boulogne (ca 1594-1632),
Blaffer Foundation Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX.
What I’d like to turn to is this now-clichéd message of Paul’s that we should be all things to all people. What I have been especially curious about, Is how this particular exhortation (among Paul’s many exhortations) is related to his stern warning that we are to always preach the gospel.
Many years ago Woody Allen made a “mocumentary” (a fictional story in the form of a documentary) called Zelig. Leonard Zelig was a person capable of being an Italian mobster in one minute and a black trumpet player, accompanying a 1920’s jazz ensemble, in the next; he could switch from being a Boston socialite, complete with a Havad accent, to a unionizing proletarian from the Bronx in a flash—all depending on what type of people he was surrounded by. Zelig, “the human chameleon” could be all things to all people, it seemed.
But the ability to alter your very identity in order to blend in with your surroundings is not what I think Paul had in mind when he used himself as an example of how to preach the gospel. I think what Paul was demanding is more nuanced than that, and certainly more complicated than merely taking on the characteristics of the people around us in order to address them at their own level.
What this example highlights is the question of identity. Is Paul advocating that we have to abandon our own identity in order to preach the gospel? I can think of many ways that I try to be all things to all people in my own life: a therapist to a friend in need, a cook to a hungry partner, a nurse to a hurt child. But none of these things require me to stop being the person who God made me. As a therapist I am still a mother, as a cook I am still a student, as a nurse I am still writer. So at this point we have to refine our question a bit further to ask: What does it mean for us to be all things to all people, while still maintaining our own unique identities? And moreover, how does this help us proclaim the gospel? As far as I can see it, there are two parts to answering this question, both of which help us understand something about our own relationship with God, and both of which are deeply theological.
The first part of the answer is to understand something about how we are known by God, and the second, related part, is to extrapolate from that relationship in order to understand what it means
to know God through one another, and for others to know God through us. Importantly, neither of these things require that we lose our own identity in order to “win others to Christ,” as Paul hopes. So first let me say something about identity, and then move on to what this means in terms of our relationship to God.
Earlier in First Corinthians (1:10) Paul urges the church in Corinth “to be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Now, here in chapter nine, Paul tells us that we are not just to be united with each other—in the way that coffee and milk become united in a cappuccino—
but that we are supposed to become like one another—the way that a chameleon turns green against a the leaf of a tree, or gray against a slab of rock. To keep with the metaphor, what we have to remember is that a cappuccino is still coffee and milk, and a green or gray chameleon is still the same chameleon. Similarly, though our primary identity should be as a disciple of Christ, we are also individuals with unique personalities, peculiar habits, different wants and needs—not to mention the rainbow of different shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities that make us exactly who we are.
The fact of our uniqueness complicates the question of what it means to become all things to all people, while not losing the very identity that God so lovingly knit together in our mother’s womb. But the fact of the matter is that God, in meeting us where we are, meets us in our particularity, as unique individuals, stamped with the mark of God’s creation. God is at all times already with us.
The Gospel of John tells us that God loves us so much that he gave his only son as a sacrifice for the whole world (John 3:16). Second Corinthians assures us that our God is with us in times of suffering and affliction (2 Cor 1:4). And the Psalms tell us that God is with us in our going out and our coming in (Psalm 121:8). Not only does God love us deeply, but God is with us wherever we are.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the most vivid example of God’s radical love for us, and God’s deep desire to enter into relationship with us. If we think about Jesus’ incarnation in the context of the passage from Paul, we see that the incarnation is the epitome of God’s willingness to meet us where we are, by taking on our very humanity, and by walking alongside us as a companion who knows our quirks, our temperaments, and our needs—because God has experienced them, too. Ultimately, it is Jesus Christ who is all things to all people.
In 1 Corinthians 11:1 Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ…” Here we begin to see what it means to be all things to all people: just as we imitate Paul, and Paul imitates Christ, we, too, are to imitate Christ. And it is Christ who meets us where we are. It is Christ who is all things to all people.
This turns us to the second part of what it means to be “all things to all people,” which has to do with how we understand God to be in relationship with us, and how we are to be in relationship with each other.
When we look at the text again we see that Paul is not just talking about his relationship to God. In our passage from Corinthians for today, Paul is sandwiched between the God who called him,
and the people to whom he is sent to preach the gospel. We, like Paul, are in similar interesting relationships—with God, our creator, sustainer, and redeemer, on the one hand, and with each other—our brothers and sisters in Christ, on the other hand. In order to fully realize the importance of this “in the middle” position, we have to see that God is not just in relationship with us, but that God is in relationship with those around us—and is so in their particularity, too.
We must recognize that God is already dynamically at work in the lives of the people around us.
When Paul becomes like the Jew, or the Gentile, or the weak he is able to see God in them, and recognize his common humanity with those who are perhaps quite different from him. He is able to find within himself the knowing that it takes to reach across identity, and past difference—a knowing that allows him to see that we are all members of the Body of Christ. Thus, Paul preaches a gospel that is written both to our commonality and our individuality.
Here is where all these different strands of yarn begin to weave together. God does not ask us to lose ourselves, our unique identities, or our individual differences, to share in His blessings. The God who meets us where we are—in our affliction, in our daily routine, or even in our sinfulness—is a God who loves us and can heal, encounter, and forgive us all the while valuing the diversity or our gifts and the complexity of our needs. In fact, it is in our particularity that we are most fully known by God as God’s unique and beloved creation.
Now I want to turn back, for a minute, to what I said earlier about Jesus’ Incarnation. The Incarnation did not end with Jesus’ final ascension into heaven, but continues with the incarnational mission that we are called to live into as Christ’s disciples in the world today.
This past week I met a youth minister from Harlem named Aswan Morris. The “Young Life” youth program that Aswan leads takes a deliberately incarnational approach to preaching the gospel to inner city kids in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. The first thing Young Life’s leaders do is meet kids where they are. This might happen by attending a high-school basketball game, or by hosting a social event and inviting area youth, or even just by hanging out with kids after school and asking them about their lives.
Aswan and his volunteers show these kids that Jesus loves them, by showing them that they love them. The Young Life program is incarnational because the presence of the youth leaders
in the daily lives and activities of the kids they serve, helps these kids to see that Christ is alive in the world, and working through all of us. It is incarnational because, like God, these mentors meet kids where they already are, recognizing the particular needs and the unique identities of each of the youth they encounter, believing that God is already there at work in each of them.
Turning to the Gospel we read this morning (because I had to fit that in this morning, too!) we see how Jesus meets the people he encounters where they are, and in knowing them in their individuality he is able to provide them with what they need. For Simon’s mother-in-law he gives healing; to the others who are sick and suffering from disease, he cures them; and to those possessed by demons, he frees them from their captivity. After Jesus performs these miracles in Capernaum he goes to the people of Galilee, searching out the sick and the tormented wherever they may be, and proclaiming the good news to all who need to repent and turn to the Lord.
I think that in the passage from Corinthians Paul is inviting us to live out the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, in our encounters with each other. Being all things to all people does not mean losing our own unique identities, but in fact, it requires us to honor the particularities and search out the individual needs of ourselves and each other.
Where is God asking us to find God in the strangers around us? Where does God invite us to meet God in the particularities of our neighbors, or even our enemies? How might we proclaim the gospel by meeting someone else on his or her own ground? Who is God inviting us to serve
by honoring those things that make that person unique in the eyes of God?
If God loves us in our uniqueness, then we are also called to love each other in their uniqueness. If God meets us where we are, then we are called to meet each other wherever “the other” happens to be, or in whatever state of need we might find our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Looking deeply for the Incarnation of Jesus through the lives of one another allows us to be all things to all people—to recognize the Holy in one another, and to bring our whole selves before a God who loves us and takes us as we are. By searching out the presence of God in the people around us, whatever their difference, or ours, we can love God and love our neighbor, and we can proclaim the gospel that is the Good News of Jesus Christ. Amen.