All Things to All People?

All Things to All People?
A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Tricia Dykers Koenig

The campaign rages – does it ever stop anymore?   I don’t watch the so-called debates, I use a DVR to skip TV commercials, in the car I listen to audiobooks or NPR, but still I can’t seem to avoid the vitriol and the fact-challenged pandering of our perpetual political season.  Every candidate is intent on convincing every audience that he or she – usually, he – is just like us, or if not one of us, entirely dedicated to our interests – assuming that we are not members of a group that he thinks most voters love to hate. And now the lectionary brings us Paul proudly announcing that he has “become all things to all people” – nice work if you can get it, a politician’s dream, but on the face of it not the gold standard for integrity.  Pretending to be something you’re not?  Willingness to do whatever it takes?  Huh?

All things to all people.  The section of 1 Corinthians that the lectionary offers up for today is part of a longer discussion on the issue of meat sacrificed to idols.  In case you’re not up on that particular controversy, a refresher: the Corinthian Christians were apparently at odds over whether it was ok to eat meat from animals slaughtered in pagan cultic rituals, the opportunity for which would have been fairly common since feasts held in temples were part of social life.  Paul agreed in principle with those who asserted that such a diet was spiritually indifferent – since there’s only one God and idols don’t exist, there’s no difference between idol meat and any other menu item, no harm done.  Except!  There are brothers and sisters  who, seeing some dining in the temples, might follow suit and thereby be drawn back into their former pagan way of life.  Paul calls them persons with “a weak conscience” – not exactly a compliment – and yet those whose superior theological understanding makes them strong have a responsibility to these weaker sisters and brothers not to endanger their spiritual health.  “I won’t eat meat ever again,” Paul declares, “if food causes the downfall of my brother or sister.”  The harm is not in the karma or the cholesterol, but in the effect that choice might have on others in the community.  Paul is willing to give up his own rights in order to guard the spiritual well-being of the less sophisticated members of the body, and he urges that course on the Corinthians as well.

Now the idol-meat controversy isn’t contemporary, but the conclusion he draws – consideration for the overall community good takes precedence over my own rights – couldn’t be more current.  If the exercise of my freedom in Christ causes another to stumble, love requires me to forego my freedom.

I will admit that I have struggled with this passage in relation to LGBT inclusion.  We are convinced that the God we know in Jesus Christ blesses committed same-sex relationships and that God honors the content of committed relationships over their form, but others are scandalized – should we be giving up our rights for their sake?  I don’t think that the principle Paul pronounces extends so far as to allow some members to exclude others who somehow offend their sensibilities – concern for one group of siblings doesn’t mean that we may stand by while they harm others of God’s children, or elbow them away from the table.   In giving up meat, Paul isn’t volunteering to starve, and the very essence of the Gospel is at stake when some Christians preach exclusion.

The apostle, in commending being all things to all people, is working on how to bring all people into the fold:  going out of his way to address them on their terms; supporting their spiritual journeys by meeting them where they are and encouraging them to move on from there, rather than judging where they ought to be.  Paul won’t allow anything to come between him and those receiving the message of the Gospel – but it is still the Gospel of grace that he is preaching.   In Paul’s ministry, the Gospel is not relativized to worldly social conditions…  but he is willing to be; limiting his own freedom in order to accommodate the weakness of others.  As Richard Hays writes, “Paul’s slavery to Christ is expressed in the form of submitting himself in various ways to the cultural structures and limitations of the people he hopes to reach with the Gospel.” [i]  But there can come a terribly problematic point at which the Gospel is being obscured by the objections of the weak.

So here’s the problem I’m wrestling with at this moment in the life of the Presbyterian Church, and you Riviera folks are just the ones to help me:  with the long-awaited passage of the amendment to remove ordination discrimination from the Book of Order praise the Lord, some of our brothers and sisters find their consciences troubled.  They think we’ve sat down to a banquet of sinful food, they’re afraid that our diet will make them and us sick, and their extreme distaste is threatening our table fellowship.    Is there something that we, the strong in Paul’s analogy, should concede in order to keep “weak” Presbyterians at the table?  Ought we even try?  How much can we legitimately give up in order to accommodate the sensitivities of others?  Are we betraying the cause of LGBT justice by wanting to?  Can we stay together with those who won’t respect our consciences?   Should we be working to keep our conservative siblings in some relationship to us until, by God’s grace, we can all agree on the menu?

What indeed is the best course for the good of the whole community, for the most effective proclamation of the Gospel in the world?

The Covenant Network has long been in the thick of these questions, trying to hold in tension values that seem to many others to be mutually exclusive.  For the first time, we’re approaching them from the other side of constitutionalized discrimination, but there’s still plenty of institutionalized discrimination going on.   We continue to work to make the church and the world safe for LGBT people, and we want to hold the church together while we do that.  Some think we’re not moving aggressively enough to denounce the various manifestations of homophobia still plaguing the PCUSA:  “How can you tolerate those who are responsible for violence against God’s LGBT children?”  While others accuse us of being responsible for conflict and schism: “You’re not doing enough to reach out to those who are offended by the changes.”  Have we tried to be all things to all people, only to be nothing to anybody?

Some days it does seem easier simply to say adios to the right-wing, everybody do your own thing and let’s just get on with it.  But here’s why we want to keep the PCUSA together if we can: for the sake of LGBT people, and all children of God who need to experience deep in their souls the grace of Jesus the Christ.  For the sake of the world that looks upon how we treat each other and ought to be able to say “see how they love one another,” not  wonder about the power of a Lord who talked about loving both neighbor and enemy but whose followers are continually at each others’ throats.  For the sake of the LGBT people and their families closeted in congregations that denounce them and who will be further isolated if their congregations go off to associate only with those who reinforce their prejudices.  For our own sake, since we dare not assume that we have a corner on the truth of God.  For the sake of those who think they do know absolute Truth and need, themselves, to be redeemed by the Gospel of grace.

Right now, some congregations are determined to leave the PCUSA – or at least their leaders have so decreed.  Others say they’re planning to stay if they can “differentiate” themselves from us so they can establish themselves as the “idol-meat”-abstinent.  Proposals are floating to allow people to self-select into non-geographical presbyteries, withdrawing in order to stay.  And anxiety is the order of the day.

So what course serves the cause of unity, if that’s our goal?   Will allowing churches to cluster in like-minded groups allow the breathing room that keeps us together, or fragment us even further?

Honestly – I don’t know the answers.  And at this point, I’m more concerned with getting the questions right.  I’d like to venture that the question is not “How do we win?  How do we stick it to the opposition?  How do we protect our power?”  The question is, will our actions  build or fracture community?  Will our community maximize love, that is, contribute to overall well-being?  How do we help people – those whose rights we champion, and those with whom we are contending, and those who are looking on wondering what Christianity is all about – how do we help all people know and experience the love and grace of Jesus Christ?

All things to all people.  When we hear this phrase it’s most often prefaced by “you can’t be,”  meaning you have to be yourself and not something you’re not.  But to hold tightly to the most basic principles while being sensitive to the scruples of others – it requires being very in touch with one’s core identity and very firm in one’s convictions.   To be all things to all people yet still remain oneself – it requires deep integrity.  It requires getting in touch with the parts of oneself that connect with others who may in some ways be very different, aware of our own complexities and gentle with the contradictions of others.  Sometimes it requires sacrifice.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise to people whose Lord warned that those who save their lives will lose them, and lost his in order to save ours.

All things to all people.  How we understand that is Paul Apostle versus pol-iticians.

  • Over the airways these days for the politicians, it’s spin – for Paul, it’s about the deepest truth.
  • For the politicians, it’s take – for Paul, it’s give.
  • For the politicians, it’s power grab – for Paul, it’s giving up personal power and prestige and perks for the sake of the other.
  • For the politicians, it’s self-aggrandizement – for Paul, it’s self-denial.
  • For the politicians, it’s love me – for Paul, it’s the love of God for all.

Which is it for us?  For progressive Christians, are we emulating Paul or the politicians?  The Apostle in Corinthians insists:  if it’s a choice between being right and being loving, choose love.

Can we be strong enough to treat all people as children of God, even those who don’t return the favor, because we are so secure in our conviction that we are God’s beloved and they are too?  If we can hold fast to that guiding principle, then we’ll probably make the right decisions when it comes to all the issues swirling around the Presbyterian Church; and if we make the wrong decisions, God will help us fix it.

It’s when I remember that God is sovereign that I can take a deep breath, relax, and re-engage the questions without all the anxiety.  Not because the questions are not important, but because Love is Lord of heaven and earth – and has invited us to be a partner in that Gospel.  When we engage the questions with love, the answers will come.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.


[i] Richard B. Hays.  First Corinthians.  INTERPRETATION: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997.  p. 153.

Comments

  1. Jeff Winter says:

    Rev. Koenig writes….Is there something that we, the strong in Paul’s analogy, should concede in order to keep “weak” Presbyterians at the table? I assume she is calling me “weak” since I am one of those PCUSAers that says homosexuality is not of God. As someone who has worked in the gay and lesbian community for years and has concluded that God does not create homosexual persons then I don’t know how to relate to other Presbyterians who say that homosexuality is of God. Instead of callling people like myself “weak” (that is a put down that I resent) maybe Rev. Koenig ought to exegete Scripture that highlights the grace of God extended to sisters and brothers who don’t agree with her.

Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.