The fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, 2015 – Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12, 21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”
I remember many years ago hearing someone argue in church that Paul couldn’t possibly have been all things to all people because it’s impossible to please everyone. I suppose this is right. Not everyone is going to agree with you or even like you, let alone you like them. But if people’s salvation depends on us being all things to all people, shouldn’t we at least try to be likeable and attractive to all? We probably think like this a little otherwise we wouldn’t have the expectation that Christian leaders need to be outgoing. Who, after all, packs out mega-churches but preachers with a lot of charisma. I just stand here reading from a script, and an overly philosophical one! Well, let’s get into the rest of my uncharismatic sermon.
We all know that St Paul is trying to get at something deeper here, but what? Let’s take another look at what he says: “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. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.”
So Paul divides humanity up into three kinds of people. First, the Jews who were under the OT law, a law that marks them as God’s chosen people. Then there are the Gentile Nations who were not chosen by God to receive his law. Finally, there is Paul himself who does not fit into either of those categories. He is under a new law, the law of Christ. It is this law that makes him “free with respect to all.”
So what is it about the freedom Paul has in Christ that allows him to be “all things to all people”? Today we typically talk about freedom as “freedom from” something: freedom from political coercion and taboos. Americans sing about “the land of the free and the home of the brave”. Political freedom has to do with the kind of democratic order we have developed in the Western world. In democratic countries we are “free from” the will of dictators–in the American Revolution it was freedom from the arbitrary will of the King of England. What this comes down to is a negative sort of freedom, a “freedom from” coercion. If you vote Libertarian, this exhausts your definition of freedom.
But wait! In politics we also have constraints on our freedom, if only a set of laws that prevent us from exercising our freedom in a way that coerces others. Why? We think we should not be free to steal other peoples’ possessions, to defame other peoples’ character, to incite hate-crimes, or to force our neighbours’ conversion to Islam or Anglicanism. Like the OT Jews we have a whole number of “Thou shalt not’s.” “Thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not give false testimony against your neighbour.” A lot of the Gentile Nations would have agreed, and so our Nation enshrines these in law and thinks it perfectly reasonable.
But then Moses wrote “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord they God in vain… Thou shalt not commit adultery… Thou shalt not covet…” Again, a lot of the Gentile Nations would agree. As we know Muslims certainly make blasphemy illegal. But in our Nation we like to categorize these as “taboos.” A taboo is something you don’t do because you don’t do it, or you do do because you just do it. In other words it’s a bit of a superstition; it has no reason other than that we’ve always done it this way. True, you might find some reason why you think blasphemy is immoral. But because no one really agrees on why it’s immoral, we’re not going to enshrine that one in law–at least not anymore. It doesn’t necessarily follow that just because you think something is immoral that it ought to have legal consequences, say the death penalty. What I mean is that because only a minority in our Nation thinks blasphemy is immoral, there’s no chance of it really being made illegal anyway. So the majority treats it as a mere taboo. One person’s moral principle is irrational to another person. Still, morals and taboos have social consequences, and people rebel against social consequences just like they rebel against political tyranny. One of the many reasons a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist might draw a dirty picture of Muhammed is because he regards Islam as an irrational set of taboos that have negative social, to say nothing of the legal, consequences. So in addition to speaking of freedom in the context of politics, we also speak of freedom in the context of taboos that we no longer want to be under. Again, the way we talk about freedom in this context is as “freedom from” something: an obsolete moral system.
But there’s another way to talk about freedom, Paul’s way, and it is to ask “what is freedom for?” In the 19th century when the German elite no longer understood the point of Christian ethics, they cast them off with a tremendous sense of freedom and excitement. “God is dead, and we have killed him,” proclaimed Friedrich Neitzsche with a little anxiety about what that might mean. Would this new era unleash humanity’s suppressed potential? Or would Europe wander aimlessly like a child without a purpose? Christians look at the twentieth century and see that without an answer to the question “what is freedom for?”, humanity has used its creativity for all sorts of violent ends.
“What is freedom for?” is the most relevant question you could ask today.
But as soon as we try to state what freedom is for, we run into the problem of coercion again. Christians often hear that they are trying to force their morals on other people, which means that as soon as Christian’s tell other people what they “ought” to do, they imply that there will be consequences if they don’t. Now that I’m married into a middle eastern family I realize it’s maybe only Western people who think that they can live life without ever telling anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do, but of course it’s impossible to talk like that consistently. We live in a highly moral Nation where you’re told not to smoke in public, not to throw out paper and plastic, or not to feed your kids McDonald’s. In fact our State tells us how we’re supposed to use our money: our money is for the welfare system whether we like it or not.
The glitch in our thinking is that we think we always have to like what’s good for us. “What freedom’s for” should be something entertaining or obviously useful to me. In our society we take it for granted that no one knows what’s good for me but me. But if we followed through with this consistently, our kids would be eating a steady diet of Chicken McNuggets.
Is it so patronizing to think that once we’ve graduated to adulthood, that we still might need other people to train us in what is good?
This is where I want to come back to St. Paul’s example of the Jews and Gentiles. The OT Jews were under Moses’ law. These laws had consequences whether the people liked them or not, whether they saw a use for them or not. And in Galatians Paul compares them to heirs of God who were still too young to receive their inheritance. Kids do not usually know in advance how everything they are learning will be useful when they grow up. Students in general don’t know this. But the Jewish kid, whether he knew it or not, was receiving the skills he needed to take over his Father’s house. Once he reached a certain age, he would be on equal terms with the Father, but until then he was under a nanny who taught him the skills he needed in order to run his Father’s house when he got older. When he’s still a child, when he’s still under the law, he’s really no different from the nanny’s own kid who is not an heir. Paul identifies the nanny’s kid with the Gentiles. Both kids are under laws that educate them. Both have to learn their ABC’s. But the Gentile kid was getting some other education in a lower profession, while the Jewish kid would graduate and take responsibility for his inheritance. Paul thought that time was now. What was the OT law for? It was meant to train up the Jews in the skills they needed to recognize the Messiah and follow him when the time came.
Anyone who plays an instrument knows that you are not free to improvise a ripping synthesizer solo unless you have a lot of practice. This is because freedom is a skill, it is a habit. You are not free unless you have been educated (one of the reasons why we believe in universal education). Christian habits in particular are meant to make us proficient in following Christ and loving others. This is what our freedom is for!
So Paul goes on in his letter to the Corinthians to point out the ways in which he has given up his freedom in order to serve them, whether Jew or Gentile. Did he have a right to receive a salary as a minister? Yes, but he chose to give up that right so that he wouldn’t be a burden on his people and to show them he was serious about what he preached. Did he have a right to get married like any other apostle? Yes, but he chose to give that up in order to fully devote himself to his people. He travelled thousands of miles, got beat up, was imprisoned, and suffered multiple shipwrecks just to serve them. And we know that Paul did this not to imitate Christ on his own strength. He did it because he knew that Christ’s power flows through us when we are at our weakest.
Paul was a teacher, and any good teacher will know from experience that you cannot expect your students to be proficient in grammar without first coming down to their level and teaching them the ABC’s. You have to speak in baby-language first. This is why the birth of Christ is so significant to us. By becoming like his disciples, the Son of God more effectively reached them with the love of God.
So, Christians have a little bit of the Jewish kid, the Gentile kid, and Paul inside of them. As Gentile kids we’ve received an education in the world where we’ve learned some good habits and a lot of completely worthless habits. As a result we need to come under a tutor, the Bible–the prophets and apostles, that will give us the education worthy of a son or daughter of God. In that way we are like the Jewish kid. We may not always know what every part of the Bible means or why we hold to every commandment, but we trust our tutor and try to do our homework. It is also why Christians are wrong to think that the freedom they have in Christ is a “freedom from” the OT laws. What reading the OT does is it trains us up in a set of skills that make us proficient in recognizing and following Jesus. And the more we have facility in these skills, the more freedom we gain, and the more freedom we gain, the more our freedom is useful “for” something: our freedom is for the sacrifices of love. At that point we graduate from the law of Moses to the law of Christ and we become a little like Paul. Paul could look back on the law of Moses and say, “now I know that this wasn’t a bunch of irrational taboos; now I know what that education was for.” Paul no longer lived under tutors and nannies, but could himself become a teacher to all, Jew and Gentile.
What allowed Paul to become all things to all people was the fact that he was a Christ-like teacher. He didn’t have to like everybody or be charismatic enough to get everyone to like him–he even said that he wasn’t that impressive in person. But because Paul consistently used his freedom for the sake of serving others, people listened. Like Jesus, who became all things to all people, Paul could be all things to all people to the degree that he used his freedom in Christ to serve others.
So here’s the take-home: freedom is more than just “freedom from” violence, coercion, and slavery–although as sinners it is true that Christ gives us freedom from a Gentile slavery to sin, death, and the devil. Freedom is for more. Freedom is for humble and loving service, a service that makes us all things to all people. This is far more effective than worldly charisma. So how do we become free? God gives us the habits of freedom. The way Jesus trains us in the habits of freedom is through reading Scripture daily and trusting that his commandments are for a useful purpose whether we know how or not. So be free, and learn the discipline of Jesus himself. Become his student.