A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison for Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, February 7th 2021.
These days, if you describe someone as trying to be all things to all people, you are not paying them a compliment. At best, you are describing them as indecisive; not wanting to upset anyone. At worst, you are saying that someone is two-faced, trying to gain advantage by telling you one thing but telling others something different, even though they know both can’t be true. So, it’s regarded as bad try to be all things to all people. That’s a pity really, when you consider that this reverses the phrase’s original biblical meaning.
This phrase, about being all things to all people, probably came into our English language not via Shakespeare but through the King James, or Authorised Version of the Bible. That translation, which was still the dominant one when I was a child, reads, ‘I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.’ (9:22 KJV) Or to put it in English that is more twenty-first century than seventeenth, ‘I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.’ (NRSV)
Paul says that to Jews he has become as a Jew, choosing to live under religious laws he no longer sees as binding (9:20), whilst at the same time, with Gentiles – ‘those outside the law’ – he lives without regard to the Jewish laws. (9:21) And then, regarding those who were weak – whether we’re talking here about religion, or poverty, or social status – he lived on their terms. (9:22) In this he was faithful to his Lord and ours, Jesus Christ, who ‘did not regard [his] equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness,’ becoming just like us (Philippians 2:7-8); so becoming in himself, everything for everyone.
What makes the difference between the meaning we give the phrase, about being all things to all people, today, as compared with what Paul means by it in Bible, is the purpose for which it is being put. In contemporary meaning of the phrase, you make yourself all things for all people for your own benefit; either to avoid conflict, or to gain advantage over others. Paul, on the other hand, was not doing this for himself. He was doing this to fulfil his obligations to God, as a follower of Jesus Christ; he was doing it for the good of others. He was, as he puts it, making himself all things to all people, ‘so that I might by any means save some.’ (9:23)
Actually, Paul was a very flexible person, except concerning the Gospel – the ‘good news’ – about Jesus Christ. Paul lived his life to proclaim this good news message that ‘God is for us’ (8:31), not against us, for God had given his own Son, Jesus, in life and to death, so that ‘neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.’ (8:38-39)
Where Paul was flexible was in how he got that message across, and that’s something for us to learn from today. Living in a society which was marked by great divisions – slave and free, Jew and Gentile, powerful and weak – Paul knew that your life circumstances affected how you heard a message and responded to it. So, if he was to get the good news message about God’s love for us in Jesus Christ across to others – to ‘save some’ (9:23), he would have to be very flexible about the ways in which he shared that message with everyone.
So, if speaking to Jews in synagogues, he would place Jesus’s story into the story of God’s dealings with Israel, from covenant with Abraham to the freedom of exodus from Egypt. (Acts 13) On the other hand, in conversation with gentile philosophers in Athens, he began by talking about their gods, then about the unknown God they acknowledged, and only then about that God’s Son, Jesus Christ. (Acts 17)
I think a big reason why the Gospel of Jesus Christ spread so quickly, and has spread so far, is that from its early days it was lived and told by people like Paul who conveyed it in an appropriate way for the situations of the different sorts of people who were hearing it. It was the same message of God’s love, made known and real through Jesus Christ, but it was told in ways appropriate to whoever you were – rich or poor, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, man and women; all of you could be followers of Jesus in your own way and situation.
Our challenge is that as Christianity gets established it takes on particular forms. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, except that soon we want people to be Christians in the way that we are. Paul tries to make himself like all people in order to share the Gospel where they are. Churches have tended to try to make all people like us so that they might accept the Gospel in the same way that we experience it. Hence all that energy put into trying to get people to come into the everyday life of the church, compared with the effort put into getting the Church to go out to the everyday life of other people.
Just to be clear, I’m in favour of people coming to church, but I’m aware that this approach most touches those who look like the people who are already part of that church. So it will be good in the months ahead, as lockdown rules begin to ease, to consider the balance of effort we put into the activities of this church; the extent to which we find ways to make ourselves all things to all people so as to win them for Christ, as opposed to trying to make all people like us so that they then can be introduced to God’s love in their own lives, whoever and whatever they are.
O God who has spoken to us in your Son, give us the enthusiasm of Paul to live and share the good news about Jesus, in ways that speak to all people. Amen.