By All Means Save Some 

The Rev Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 

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

I love that line from our Epistle reading today. Even though it is probably one of the most misunderstood and misquoted lines in all of Paul’s epistles, I still love it.  

Usually, if someone uses that line today, they mean it as an insult or a warning. It can be a way of accusing someone of being arrogant: “Oh, he thinks he’s all things to all people,” meaning that he thinks he’s so great, everybody should see everything in him. Saying that about someone is a way of puncturing their undeserved pride.   

On the other hand, many years ago, when I was an uncertain adolescent, wiser adults would use this line as a warning to me not to give in to peer pressure. I would try to do things that would make people like me, make me fit in with this group or that clique, and I would be told “You can’t be all things to all people – just be yourself.”  

So we often think that “being all things to all people” is a put-down or a warning.  

But that is not at all what Paul meant when he wrote that line to the Corinthians. He wasn’t making an arrogant claim about how great he was. And he wasn’t saying he was wishy-washy, going along with any group in order to fit in.  

Instead, he was making a profound statement about connecting with other people in order to show them the love of Jesus. I will do whatever it takes, Paul is saying, to meet people where they are, to learn their ways and respect their culture, so that we can form real and mutual relationships – so that in those relationships, I can show them in my own person what Jesus’ love looks like. I won’t just talk about Jesus, but I will love people myself in the same way Jesus loves them.  

So, when Paul went to spend time with Jews, he would act like a Jew: he would behave “under the law,” following Torah, keeping kosher, not working on the sabbath, washing his hands in the ritual ways before meals and before prayers. He would meet his Jewish friends on their own terms, so they could have some common ground. And then on that common ground he would love them as Jesus loves them.  

On the other hand, when Paul went to spend time with Gentiles, he would act like a Gentile: he would behave “outside the law,” eating pork if that’s what they were serving, working on Saturday if that’s when they were working, sharing the details of their lives in the way they lived. He would meet his Gentile friends on their own terms, so that they could have some common ground. And then on that common ground he would show them the law of Christ by loving them as Jesus loves them.  

Wherever he went, in Jerusalem or Judea or Galatia or Macedonia or Achaia or even Rome itself – wherever he went, Paul would get to know the people he came to, how they lived, how they thought, how they spoke. He would meet them on their own terms, and share the details of their lives, and find with them some common ground – and then on that common ground show them the very love of Jesus alive in their midst.  

That’s what Paul means when he says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”  

And the mission of Jesus for which Paul became all things is still the mission of Jesus for the Church today. Jesus calls and empowers us to try on Paul’s mission method today, by going out to meet people where they are, and learn about their lives, and find together our common ground – so that on that common ground we can all be grounded in the love that Jesus gives us.  

And let’s be clear that we must go out not just to talk about Jesus – because let’s face it, in our society today there are some people for whom the name “Jesus Christ” is a swear-word, not a prayer-word, and going out just to talk about Jesus isn’t going to cut any ice with them. No, if we’re going to do the mission today we have to do more than talk about Jesus: we have to get to know people, we have to share something of their lives, we have to find the common ground – and then on that common ground build up the common good: by loving them, caring for them, encouraging them, helping them to flourish along with us: and after all of that, then tell them the reason we’re doing all of this is because Jesus loves us. That’s what makes the name of Jesus mean something positive to people who’ve only ever heard it as a curse.  

So how do we do that? Our Episcopal Church, under the leadership of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, pledged at our General Convention in 2015 to join actively in the work of dismantling racism and building up the Beloved Community throughout our church. Our Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, at its Annual Convention last weekend, hosted the Presiding Bishop’s canon Stephanie Spellers as our keynote speaker, and she spoke powerfully to us about the church’s role in ending segregation, and our Bishop Mark announced a three-part initiative in which all our parishes will be invited to participate, including anti-racism education, training in being allies with marginalized people, and sharing our stories and making connections ourselves to become Beloved Community. You’ll be hearing more about that.  

But what really struck me was the way Canon Spellers spoke about segregation. Because she was using it as a broad term, to mean not only the way black and white are set apart in our society, but all the ways we tend today to separate ourselves: by race, by ethnicity, by economic class, by educational level, by political party – everything from gated communities where only the wealthy get in, to social-media circles where “friends” all read the same news and have the same opinions and create for themselves a lovely little echo chamber that forms everything they know. In so many ways today we tend to segregate ourselves, and then view all those others as rivals and competitors and aliens and enemies. From the highest levels of power to the lowest social stratum, that kind of segregating seems to be going on all through our society.  

But that is not what God wants for us. That is not what Jesus came among us to demonstrate. And that is not the mission of Jesus that Paul joined. What Paul shows forth as the ministry of Jesus is reaching across those lines, taking apart the walls of segregation, going to others to be with them where they are, learning their ways, respecting their culture, sharing their life: finding the common ground, and on that common ground growing together in the love that Jesus shows us. Becoming all things to all people, that by all means we might save some – that is the mission Jesus gives us.  

How will you join Jesus in that mission? At Trinity in Lent we’ll have opportunities to share our stories of race in our Lenten program with Emmanuel and Allen Chapel. Next Sunday after church we’ll show the documentary Threads of History, which tells the story of the Booker T Washington neighborhood just up Johnson Street from us but in some respects a world away. As a parish, Trinity is already taking some steps to go out beyond ourselves and be with people where they are.  

But we can do more. And not just as an institutional church, but as individuals, as missioners, like Paul, like our team going to Honduras this week – how can you “unsegregate” yourself? How can you go to someone you don’t know very well, to be with them, to meet them on their terms, to share a bit of their life with them, and all for the sake of the Gospel? How will you let Jesus teach you to love someone you never thought of loving before?  

“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some,” Paul said. May Christ empower us to become new things for new people, too. Amen.  

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