Sermon: Your Flexible Friend

A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, February 4th 2024

1 Corinthians 9: 16-23

Watch the whole service on YouTube

‘I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.’ (9:22)

That’s one of those quotations that has had its original meaning reversed in our culture, which was once more biblically literate: ‘I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.’

These days, when someone is described as trying to be all things to all people, it’s no compliment. The verdict is that they have failed at what they were trying to achieve. They spread themselves too thin. Foolishly, they attempted to reconcile the irreconcilable. And perhaps there is a suggestion of lack of integrity; people presenting themselves as something they are not, in order to obtain something from others.

Yet here is the Apostle Paul, early church leader and follower of Jesus Christ, using that very phrase. In fact, I would guess Paul’s use of it is how this saying came into the English language: ‘I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.’ Given that Paul said this about himself, and noting the positive tone of this passage from his first letter to the Christians living in the Greek city-port of Corinth, it seems Paul meant to say that making himself all things to all people was a good thing, not a bad one.

So maybe it’s a good idea, not a bad one, for us to take a closer look at what Paul wrote, and see how he says something encouraging to us about sharing faith in our setting: ‘I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.’ And I think what Paul wrote can be encouraging to us in our setting because he is realistic and purposeful about an activity which can be just as beneficial to us as it might be to others.

Realistic, purposeful and beneficial: first, Paul is realistic, in recognising that not everyone is like you and me, whoever ‘you’ and ‘me’ might be. And it’s here that Paul presents the positive aspects of being all things to all people.

How was Paul to present the good news about Jesus to Jews? Well, it seems he did so by being thoroughly Jewish, going to synagogue, taking part in discussions about faith, and whilst in such company keeping the dietary and other regulations that were part and parcel of the Jewish faith, though he felt under no personal obligation to do so: ‘to the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.’ (9:20)

Then, when in the company of Gentiles, Paul would not feel the need to keep those religious regulations. Why put an obstacle in the way of conversation by turning down food that is offered to you in hospitality, when in any case you don’t think such restrictions are a requirement for followers of Jesus? And note too, Paul’s practice of going to the Gentile places of debate – the Areopagus in Athens (portrayed in stained glass in one of our windows), or the lecture hall in Ephesus: ‘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).’ (9:21)

Paul was intentionally meeting people where they were, and not expecting them to become in every respect like him before they qualified as followers of Jesus. He was trying to be all things to all people in a positive way. He was, to echo an old television advert for a credit card, a “you flexible friend”, at home with Jew and Gentile, with the weak as well as the powerful: ‘To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.’ (9:22)

Realistic, purposeful and beneficial: not only was Paul realistic about what was needed to engage effectively with diverse people, he was also purposeful about it. ‘an obligation is laid on me,’ he writes, ‘and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel!’ (9:16)

Years before I became minister here at Saint Columba’s you spent some time trying to figure out what your mission was here in North Shields. I know that’s the case because the statement that you agreed continues to appear on our website and in some of the documents associated with this church:

St Columba’s United Reformed Church aims to show the love of God as it is known to us through Jesus Christ.

I’m presuming that we are all still in favour of that.

I think that Saint Paul would approve, because not only do you have to be realistic about how you go about sharing good news with others, taking into account the different sorts of people and situations, you also have to have a message to share. It needs to have content.

So, what for you is the content of the gospel? What is the good news? If asked, how would you state it in two or three sentences, ones that you could share with others? It should be about God. It should be about Jesus. It should also be from you and about what you believe, so I expect that there would be variations in the answers that each of us would give.

At this point, as I was writing this sermon, I realised that it’s all too easy for me to challenge you to put together your version of the gospel for sharing with others in three sentences or less, but what would I say?

So here goes:

We live in a world made and sustained by a being we call God who is loving and just. This God is concerned for each one of us, enough to be with us in Jesus Christ – as human as we are human, and as much God as God is God. Through Jesus’s life and teaching we are shown the best way to live; through his death and resurrection we are reconciled with God. And God is ever present with us today, supporting and encouraging us to follow together in the way of Jesus.

I have to confess that I cheated: that was four sentences, not three!

Realistic, purposeful and beneficial: talk of faith sharing might sound challenging, a bit like hard work, and I’m not suggesting that it is easy. If it was we would all be doing it all the time. An encouragement and comfort though, is that realistic, purposeful sharing of faith can also be beneficial, not just for the recipients of the message, but for we its sharers.

Concerning sharing the good news Paul writes, ‘I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.’ (9:23)

I know some people who have engaged in inter-faith dialogue; having conversations about faith with Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, or Sikhs. One thing that several people report about such experiences is that it helped them in their own faith. When you have to share your faith with someone else you need to clarify what you believe, and what it leads you to do or not to do. Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s one with benefits. You become clearer in what you believe and why, because you have to put it into words and experience it through your actions.

It’s similar when challenged to have a conversation with someone who does not identify with a faith or religion. You have to think about what you believe before you can share that with them. If they ask questions about what you have said then you have to go deeper in order to respond. It might be that it changes, develops and strengthens your faith. It could encourage you to make your actions match up more closely with your words. Or as Paul puts it, ‘I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.’

In the Church Meeting, due to take place after today’s service, we will be exploring what it means to grow as a church. We’ll be talking together, thinking together, and at times “playing” together to help us do that. We’ll be talking about growth in terms of faith, of service, and yes, numbers too. Part of our discussion will include looking at how we share the good news about what we believe. Whenever we do that, let’s keep in mind what Paul had to say about faith sharing;  it is realistic about people, purposeful about content, and beneficial not only to those who get to hear about Jesus, but also to those who share his story.

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