“I have become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:23). It often surprises me as a I read the Bible to discover where particular sayings come from. I either didn’t know or had forgotten that it was St Paul who gave us the expression, “all things to all people” – or “all things to all men” as some of us may know it. I am reminded of an old lady who read Hamlet for the first time at the end of her life and complained that Shakespeare had just strung together lots of other people’s quotations!
What does that phrase mean to you? I think for many of us, it carries negative connotations, often meaning that we can’t trust a person’s sincerity. They will happily say one thing to one person, and something quite different to someone else. Most often perhaps, it is a saying that we have often applied to untrustworthy politicians. That is certainly what Abraham Lincoln seemed to imply when he said that, “It is easiest to be all things to all men, but it is not honest. Self-respect must be sacrificed every hour in the day.”
To Paul, though, it meant something very different. For him it was most definitely a positive attribute, suggesting that he could reach out to a much wider range of people, in all situations. To Jew and Gentile, slave and free, rich and poor. He was breaking down the traditional barriers that divided up the world in which he lived. He was ultimately seeking to live out the true meaning of his wonderful promise that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
When I read the passage, it immediately reminded me of an experience during my ministerial training. While at college, all the trainees were expected to spend a short time engaged with some form of chaplaincy work – hospital, industrial, prison, etc. With a group of others, I spent time with those engaged in military chaplaincy. Specifically, I spent time with the RAF chaplains at the Marham air base in East Anglia. It was a fascinating experience and I learned a great deal from the humility and quiet witness of the chaplains I met.
I learned that the military chaplains in the three services operate in a slightly different way, though. Chaplains in the army and the RAF take a rank – captain, major, squadron leader, etc. – and are gradually promoted over time, to reflect their experience and service. They subsequently wear the insignia and marks of rank on their uniforms. Naval chaplains, however, do not have any rank. They take on the rank of the person to whom they are speaking. So, if they’re speaking to a mechanical officer in the engine room of a submarine, they take on hir or her rank. If they’re chatting with a rating in the galley, they are a rating. If they’re addressing the Admiral of the Fleet, then they are an admiral! They truly are “all things to all people”.
Now, of course, this system – like all systems – has its positive and negative aspects, and the chaplains from the different services will argue each one’s merits. It’s very hard, if not impossible, for any of us to set aside our identity and background completely. It is a constant challenge for those involved in all aspects of ministry. How can I put aside all my own preconceptions and prejudices to engage with someone absolutely honestly, while retaining my own sense of self?
Yet, to my mind, the system adopted by the naval chaplains is the one that most closely seems to resemble Paul’s example. If we think about Paul’s extensive missionary journeys round the Mediterranean, after his conversion, as recorded in Acts and the epistles, that is what he tried to do. To the faithful and pious Jews he encountered, he was a strict and faithful Jew, able to engage in deep and learned debate about the holy scriptures (Acts 22:3). To Gentiles, seeking out the truth of Jesus and his gospel, he was open and friendly, willing to eat and share their food and engage in table fellowship (Gal. 2:11-13). To slaves, he was willing to treat them as his equals and to share the gospel with them freely – reminding them of his status as a slave of Christ (Phil. 1:1). To other folk, he was simply another stallholder – a tentmaker – in the marketplace of Corinth, always willing to chat with people who came to his bench and tell them stories about Jesus (Acts 18:1-4). To the women washing clothes outside the city in the river, he was someone who took an interest in their lives and their work, and was willing to engage with them – to great effect (Acts 16:11-15). He tried to meet everyone where they were and to treat them as his equals.
In his turn, of course, Paul was treading in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. In our reading from Mark this morning, we heard how Jesus engaged with people where they were and met their particular needs and expectations – a preacher, a teacher, a healer. In the gospels we read how he engaged with different people in different ways: how he helped Peter’s mother-in-law was not how he challenged Nicodemus, the learned pharisee, and, in turn, not how he spoke to the Roman Centurion. Most importantly, in all of Jesus’ ministry, we see God engaging with people as they were. God made flesh and blood, so that he could talk with us as an equal, and we might understand his message. As Paul wrote elsewhere, in the letter to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:5-7)
The challenge for us as followers of Christ is how can we, like Paul, follow that example. It is a constant challenge for all Christians, and all churches, to be all things to all people yet retain our identity. How also do we serve God’s people when their needs are so diverse and diffuse? During our recent Bible study on James, I was extremely conscious that we had some people in the same group who had been studying and reading the scriptures all of their lives, while others had never opened a Bible! When our church and community, contain so many different backgrounds and needs, how can we manage to be “all things to all people”?
One answer is that we have to “bear with one another” (Col. 3:13) and “encourage one another and build up each other” (1 Thess 5:11), as Paul advises the early churches. We need to recognise that while we may need deeper scriptural engagement and opportunities for theological argument, other brothers and sisters may need something far more basic. We also need to recognise that this cannot be the job of the minister or pastor alone. That each of us have different gifts and graces, and different backgrounds and experiences. Together, as a church, we can be many things to many people, because we are fortunate enough to be so different and diverse.
Most importantly, we need to remember that our small community need not necessarily be “all things to all people” all the time. We are part of a much, much greater universal church that exists in every corner of the globe. There are churches that specialise in ministry to refugees, to migrants, to inner cities, to prisons, and so on and so forth. Collectively, we can be “all things to all people”, therefore. The challenge for us is to ask ourselves, which bits of God’s world are we meant to serve? As we discuss our mission plan in the coming weeks and months, we can ask ourselves, if we are not called to be all things to all people, can we be ‘something to some people’? Who is it that we are meant to serve here and now? What opportunities has God given us to serve the Kingdom?
Perhaps the key phrase we heard today, though, comes a few sentences earlier in the passage, where Paul says, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). We all know that there is a constant danger of churches turning inwards on themselves, and forgetting the calls of mission and evangelism. I am often asked the question whether the world needs the gospel at all, whether we even need to attempt to be “all things to all people”. My answer is always an emphatic ‘yes’! Like those first Galileans who flocked to hear Jesus, people today need the hope, the love and the joy that the gospel brings. Open up your newspapers, watch your televisions, speak to people on the bus, and you will hear the same need. The need to know that we are loved and cherished by a God who cares more for each one us than we can begin to imagine. Let us, therefore, take up Paul’s challenge today and every day, to be “all things to all people” so that we might be a blessing for God’s world and people. Amen.