For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (9:19,22-23)
I won’t ask for a show of hands, because that might be a bit awkward to stand in judgement of the Apostle Paul, but when you heard the letter of Paul to the church in Corinth this morning: Did you think snake oil salesman? Con artist? Chameleon? Tele-evangelist? It’s not too difficult to take Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9 and interpret them in an uncharitable way.
We know people like this who seem to try to be “all things to all people.” People who say what they think others want them to say, whose position and performance changes according to the winds of the moment or the people they hope to impress or even manipulate. How can Paul who is the quintessential example of morality and integrity create such a portrait of himself by saying that he has become “all things to all people?” With a Jewish audience, Paul speaks as a Jew. A Gentile audience? Paul is a Gentile. People who are concerned with the law. Paul easily mixes it up in that language. Those new and immature in the faith, Paul takes on the cloak of weakness. What is this about?
He states clearly at the outset of the reading, ‘woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.” Paul is on the fire with the love of Jesus Christ. His whole being is filled and animated by the fervor to share the Gospel. Once he met Jesus in that blinding flash on the Damascus Road, he is so filled with the good news, that to try and hold back his proclamation of God’s love would be like trying to hold back a 100-foot wave on the ocean by extending one toe.
Paul had to preach because he was overcome with love for Jesus. And he believed down deep in his bones that every woman, man, and child should know Jesus’s love and grace as well. Once he encountered the Risen Christ, Paul’s life was totally transformed and now he lives to communicate this love to those who have not yet experienced it.
When I served in youth ministry, every week we would welcome young men and women who sometimes seemed to cling to life with their finger nails. Every week they faced a world that told them they were not enough—not pretty enough, not thin enough, not tall enough, not smart enough…not enough. So we would gather them and help them laugh and coax them to see themselves as awesome and show them how much they were valued. And to do this we would sing, dance, play basketball, pray, camp, go out all night to meet people who work at night, talk, share food, sleep over, go out in service, watch the Super Bowl—or at least the commercials, make pancakes and pasta, perform, retreat, make sculptures out of Spam, eat ice cream sundaes from roof gutters…. No matter where they were, we tried to meet them there. No matter their needs, we tried to stand with them. No matter their expression of faith or lack of faith, we tried to create a space that was safe. We wanted to offer the gospel free of charge. Woe to us if we did not proclaim the Gospel.
There is a part of the church that rejects this almost reckless openness. There is a part of the church that seems to declare that if liturgy is not performed to particular specifications and doctrine is not perfectly professed and beliefs are not stringently protected, that the faith is not being upheld. There were people, members of the church, who seemed to only politely endure the one time a year the youth were allowed to lead worship—taking over the front rows, singing with enthusiasm with guitars, reading scripture responsively, and preaching the sermon. And some of those same people would huff at why the young people didn’t sit in the pews on other Sunday mornings.
But the mentors and sponsors who stood alongside young people sharing with them the joy of Christ, did whatever it took to offer the “whateverness” of God’s love with all who came. And for many of the adults and young people involved, lives were literally saved. Woe to us if we do not proclaim the Gospel.
We are living in a very different time in the church. Unlike the gold rush days of the 1950’s and 1960’s when churches and synagogues were filled to capacity—when you did not know a person who was not a member of a faith community, today, going to church or synagogue is not the norm. But the world is not any less in need of God’s loving embrace. The world needs what Jesus and Paul are sharing. The world needs to know that they each one of us are marvelously made, that nothing can separate us from eternal love.
But without a common language and mutual expectations, how do those of us who believe the good news, who have experienced God’s love, who know what it feels like to be healed by Jesus, share that in a world that is resistant at best? How do those of us who know that without the presence of Christ in our lives we would not be alive with the promise of hope, offer this to people who are not buying?
And yet the times we are living in cry out for community. More than ever we need each other. We need community that embraces us and holds us close while we struggle to become the people we were created to be.
This is an anxious time. Though some parts of the economy are thriving, many continue to be left behind. In a recent article in the Berkshire Edge, the Rev. Jane Ralph, Executive Director of Construct Inc. say “the highest growing population facing homelessness are families with young children” Young people still struggle with what it means to be healthy and whole, what it means to live lives that matter? People who have been pushed to the margins of our society, work hard and yet find little encouragement to belong. Our country continues to roil in ugly and divisive words and actions. People separate into bunkers, pulling away from each other along widening lines of tribe and belief. Just because people are not coming into faith communities, does not mean people do not need faith communities.
So how do we share the gospel with those who long for the message of love and hope but demur at our invitation to join us here? How do we share the gospel with a world whose familiar place on Sunday mornings has become a couch or breakfast buffet rather than a spot in a pew? Jesus and Paul teach us that we need to go out. We need to create opportunities for relationships. This church has done this with great generosity. But we need to continue to listen for all the ways that Jesus is calling us out into the world to share the good news with others. This does not mean that we will find a crowded place on Main Street and shout, “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near!” But it can mean to share God’s love in a way that opens hearts around us. With friends, neighbors, coworkers, people in line at the grocery store, the need for the good news is all around us. But, how we share the good news will be different.
With children, we may share it by smiling, stopping what we are doing and taking time to look them in the eyes, acknowledging their beauty. With teenagers, it may mean working alongside them in the garden or at the food pantry, listening carefully to their hopes. With friends, we might invite them to lunch, talk less, listen more. With those who suffer, we sit alongside, offering our time and our compassion. Now none of this may mean that our average Sunday attendance goes up. But it can mean that through us, God’s good news is being shared.
This is what I hear when Paul says he makes the gospel “free of charge.” No strings attached. No pre-requirements. Just offering the eternal promise of God’s faithfulness—sharing human hearts touched by God.
With passion and persistence, Paul spread the gospel. Paul was not a con man. He was a Jew. He was a Roman citizen. He knew his weaknesses and did not hide them. Rather, Paul brought all that he was to each encounter. He sought to identify with each person and go beyond cultural and religious barriers to announce the Word of Life to all, without exception.
Now Paul was also a realist. He knew that everyone would not hear him. He suffered many abuses because of his enthusiasm for the Gospel. But that does not discourage him or keep him from daring to leap over some seemingly insurmountable situations. He knows that it is God at work. He knows that the power for love and healing, comes from God, not him. He faithfully follows the example of Jesus who continued to go to all showing the face of God to the people.
None of us can be all things to all people. But we can be all that we are with people. Each morning, we are invited to remember and live out the good news—that we are made in God’s image, that God loves and delights in us, and that if we place our trust in God who saturates all of life with goodness, our strength will be renewed, we will run and not be weary, we will walk and not faint and we can face whatever life sends us with confidence and hope. Woe to us if we do not proclaim the Gospel!
(I recommend a new Podcast Can these Bones. Co-hosts Rev. Laura Everett and Rev. Bill Lamar ask fresh questions about leadership and the future of the church.In Episode 6, Laura Everett and Almeda M. Wright visit about how to speak church to young people.)
 Rita Dichele. “An interview with Jane Ralph, easing the challenges of homelessness.” http://theberkshireedge.com/an-interview-with-jane-ralph-executive-director-of-construct-inc-easing-the-challenges-of-homelessness/