Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Monday, March 30, 2015

"All Things to All People": A Sermon

“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.”—1 Cor. 9: 22-23

“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.”

The Devil has a lot to complain about. We see it in today's Gospel, where demons are exorcised without even being given a chance to speak to Jesus “because they knew him.”

Jesus just casually heals the sick, banishes the demons, and gets on with the real business at hand: Preaching the Gospel—the Good News.

And then we have the Epistle; St. Paul writes “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” He’ll be under the law with you, if that’s where you are; he’ll be outside the law with you, if that’s where you are. And why? He says it flat out: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

When I first read this passage, really focused on it, in my high school religion class, I couldn’t help but think that St. Paul sounds a little bit like a con man here. We don’t generally hold people who try to be all things to all people in great respect. We value a certain integrity, a candor, even, in how people present themselves to us. And we’re not the only ones to feel that way—in the world Jesus lived in, Julius Caesar was scathingly described as having been “every woman’s man, and every man’s woman.”

I’ve just been binge watching the latest season of House of Cards. And in reading this passage I couldn’t help but think of the hacker who worms himself into a young woman’s life by pretending to share her addiction, and manipulates her for information. He calls this social engineering. It’s uncomfortable to say this, but I thought of St. Paul being “all things to all people” as I watched.

Right off the bat, I know that it’s not the same, of course. Paul is doing it for the good of those he engages. The end is good, whatever we think of the means. It’s all for the sake of the Gospel—but it does seem a bit manipulative, maybe.

In C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, we get the story of a conversion to Christianity in the days before and during the Second World War through demonic eyes. The story is told by Screwtape, a Senior Tempter in the bureaucracy of Hell, and advises a junior Tempter who is trying to land his first “patient.” One of Screwtape’s grievances is that God does not play fair in the battle over souls. He cheats, Screwtape complains, and, worst of all, “He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it—God cheats to save us. The demons don’t get a chance to speak, for the very reason that they know the truth about Jesus. St. Paul will be anything to you to get you to hear the Gospel—he’ll socially engineer his way into your life and—for your own good, of course.

And, I think there is a kernel of truth there. Jesus is, famously, a “lover of souls,” and God’s love for us is so strong that rules do get flouted in the story of salvation—Jesus saves the woman taken in adultery by the best bit of lawyering this lawyer can think of: Whoever here is without sin can start the execution. Nice one, that.

Jesus teaches us to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times, a poetic way of saying an infinite number of times. So, yes: rules give way to the felt necessities of life—the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath.

But I’d like to suggest that any analysis that basically agrees with Screwtape is probably one that hasn’t dug deeply enough.

So let’s look at the scripture again, with a more sympathetic eye. There’s a phrase that’s often used in counseling, or spiritual direction, “meeting people where they are.” It means that the counselor or spiritual director isn’t swooping in and laying down the law, but encountering the reality of the person the counselor or spiritual director is trying to help. Not sitting behind a desk or behind expertise, but listening. Building trust and not tearing defenses away too quickly.

I think that’s what Paul is doing here—it’s an extension of the lesson from last week, where Paul urged the Church in Corinth to give each other a break, to “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Paul’s account of his ministry reflects the same notion, that his freedom, his rights, his knowledge matter less than sharing the gospel.

The King James translation is actually a bit more emphatic about the sharing than the NRSV we heard read today is. Where the NRSV simply says “ I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings,” the King James makes the sharing central: And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.

The “with you” is the critical difference, I think. Paul wants to share what he has experienced in order that he can continue to benefit from the Gospel. It’s not enough for Paul to have found peace and redemption through his experience of Jesus.

The harsh defender of the law who encouraged the stoning of St. Stephen has become himself a lover of souls. Maybe he’s even afraid that if he doesn’t share the experience with others, he’ll relapse into that self-righteous, legalistic frame of mind.

Or, as we say in AA, you have to give it away to keep it.

So Paul is not saying that he will lie to people if that’s what it takes to bring them to faith in Jesus. He’s saying he will enter into their experience, empathize with them, and even identify with them. After all, he was the man under the law. He knows what that’s like. He’s been the outsider—dependent on the very Christians he had come to Damascus to persecute. And, finally, he knows what it’s like to be free. He’d like to keep it that way.

You have to give it away to keep it.

Jesus doesn’t have time to talk to the demons, and they don’t really have anything to say to Him. They know Him, after all. And the demons are really beside the point. They are the shadows that obscure the real self. They have to be dealt with, but the real mission is to spread the Good News—that we are free to be children of God, free to realize our own best selves through the love of God. Jesus is too busy spreading that Good News to wallow in the darker side of our nature.

So should we be. We all have our demons—our guilts, our fears, our disappointments in ourselves in our lives. We know those skeletons in our cupboards all too well, and we can wheel them out when we need to beat up on ourselves—stir up that self-hatred.

But we can push them aside, and listen to the people around us everywhere. Instead of raging at the people who push out buttons, we can all try to identify with them, hear what they’re suffering, what’s making them angry. We can respond with kindness, even if it’s an effort and not a hundred percent from the heart. Because when one of them does respond, it will be from the heart.

Good advice.

I might even take it myself.

After all, you have to give it away to keep it.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and, Holy Spirit. Amen

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