Text: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Theme: “For the sake of the Gospel”
Intr – I was told the story of a Christian missionary who was walking on the street and saw people in cult-like religious institution working in something in their property; painting, if I remember it correctly. He then decided to join them, and help them all the way through their needed renovations in that building. What do you think about it, would you do that? Would I do that? How would you feel if you drove by your pastor helping people doing work in cult-like religious facility?
I recall this story as introduction today because to me it seems a very interesting, unique or even radical way of following what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9. “Be all things to all people”. How do you do that, you become all things to all people, without losing the essence of your faith? Was that leader carrying a good witness by helping to renovate an institution that teaches things completely opposed to the Christian faith? For this is the goal of “being all things to all people”: that you walk with people where they are without compromising your Christian faith, message and life in the Gospel.
I know, it is not easy. And I am not saying that we must go out and do what that man did. But the fact is, there remains a tension in our daily life: You are called to remain faithful to Christ and His Word, to be who you are and you are called to “be other people” (all things to all people.) From this tension, the main point of reflection for our sermon today is to think about how can we be all things to all people, that is, to be other people, contrasted with a world that keeps urging you to just be yourself?
1 – “be yourself” x be all things
We live in an era in which authenticity has been elevated to super star status. We are prompted to pursue the “be yourself” mantra as constantly as “buy this” and “watch that”. You can speak louder if you need, you can be direct and rude it that is the cost of it, but you must be unapologetically you.
Being yourself is good when framed correctly. But from the Christian perspective, the problem starts when we think that being ourselves means that everything in us is good enough, so we just need to show it. You don’t need lots of change and progress, you are already good just the way you are. So whatever defects we have they are just an expression of who we are and if we are courageous enough to face our mistakes and live up to them, we should be fine. The language here seems to exclude change, repentance, forgiveness in favour of plain self-affirmation.
On the other hand, we have Paul saying we can be “all things to all people”. Paul is nudging you here to be someone else.
-I am free from the old law, but if some people still esteem it, I may observe some old rites so that I can connect to them.
-I am not familiar with many of the costumes of the gentiles, but I may share in some of them.
-I know there are weak people close to me, so I will avoid to speak my mind all the time for the sake of them
This is good too. But the problem here is when we go too far to keep the peace and to be in other people’s shoes; when we forget the reason we are doing so – for the sake of the Gospel – and we allow the clear message of the Word be muddied in our daily lives. We change from being all things to all people to being anything to anyone.
We see here that we live in a tension: “Be yourself” – good. “Be other people” (All things to all people) – good as well. How do we reconcile that? In a way, we are supposed to be ourselves. On the other hand, Christians are called to “be other people.”
My suggestion here is that we should not try to solve this tension, but to embrace it. The best way to do so is by clarifying the two sides of the same person – you.
Yes, be yourself. You can’t be anyone else, only you. But as a Christian, you have received a new identity, a new self. And that is the self you want to be:
-A sinner who depends on God’s forgiveness;
-A person placed in a place, time and among people with your vocation, your unique gifts and talents;
-A bearer of the Good news of the Gospel, so you try to be yourself by being who you are in Christ in daily life;
-Someone who is unapologetically Christian, but you speak the truth in love;
– Someone ready to repent, be forgiven and grow in faith. You don’t need to double down on things you do wrong just because you need to be authentic. You are always ready to turn around and correct whatever is needed. Therefore, You don’t abide by “I am this way, there’s nothing I can do”, but you are constantly seeking ways to grow in your faith life guided by God’s Word.
-All things to all people
Once you are secure of who you are in Christ, you are free not to be just yourself, but to “be other people” too.
-You can exercise empathy. “be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
-You can help people where they are, so that you have opportunities to share where you are.
-You listen more than you speak in many circumstances.
-You don’t need to be afraid in engaging with the world and its challenges and problems, for you know in whom you have believed and your are close to Him in His Word and Sacraments.
-You can surrender your rights – for example, when you do something you wouldn’t because that helps a person in need, or your don’t do something you are free to do, because of consideration for other people who might get offended by it.
2 – For the sake of the Gospel
These two sides of the same coin find their purpose here: we do it for the sake of the Gospel. When Paul says he became all things to all people, he is not implying that he would change the Word to please people. He means that he would be willing to adapt himself to the circumstances, culture, needs and sensibilities of his hearers, of the people he wanted to connect with whenever needed, but never by compromising the Word of God – on the contrary, for the very sake of the Gospel. Being all things to all people implies taking some risk. However, taking on risks doesn’t mean abandoning truth. Actually, we won’t be helping people to come near Jesus if we withhold the truth for the sake of how people would react. A doctor cannot withhold a serious illness diagnostic and treatment from her patient just because the patient won’t like it. Truth and empathy go together as we share the Gospel of Hope, for this is why we are living after all – for the sake of the Gospel.
As Christians we live right in the middle of that tension, of being ourselves in Christ and “being other people” for the sake of the Gospel. We may fail as we take some risks. Actually, we will fail. God’s forgiveness is there for us. Besides, tension demands energy, and energy needs a source. God feeds us in His Word and in His Sacrament to forgive, strengthen and send us to a world that is desperately trying to be themselves, but in need of a better approach to it. We know the One who made all things to all people – Jesus – and we know that living in Him we have the constant source of faith and strength to be ourselves as we live with others.
Cc – Weeks later, the leader of that cult-like entity who was helped by that Christian missionary came to see him. He wanted to understand what was the driving force behind someone who would help an institution whose teachings were opposed to his. They engaged in conversations, he learned about the Christian faith and, later on, that leader abandoned his former life and faith and was made a believer in Jesus.
Be yourself. Be all things to all people. These two may bring tension in our life, as we try to identify when one or the other is the better option. But it is a tension worth living. After all, we do it all for the sake of the Gospel. The Gospel that invites people to be who they can be – one in Christ. The Gospel who gives people Faith, Hope and Eternal Life.
As opposed to an approach like this: “Well…couldn’t he have had a different approach? For example, not being so straight forward about sin, death, hell and things like that. The same about Grace, about the only Way in Christ, about how we do 0 per cent and God does 100 per cent when it comes to salvation. By omitting this he perhaps could have connected to a larger audience and won more and more souls to the Kingdom. It is not that he would omit it altogether, it is just that he would be saving some parts of the Gospel, especially the “hard stuff”, for a later occasion…”
“There is no better way of hurting someone,” goes the saying If it hurts, it hurts. If the Law of God hurts our self image about our relationship with God, this is how it is; if the Gospel sounds like craziness to many ears, perhaps it’s because it really is!…. The Law comes to shatter the expectations and hopes of the self and to point to the Gospel, that will lift us up as we notice God’s Grace overflowing our hearts. We cannot water down the message to please our human expectations. Especially in times when lots of human expectations, theories and ideologies go directly against the message that we proclaim.