Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝
Saint Paul wrote to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth that he has “become all things to all people.” If you neither read nor heard any of the Apostle’s explanations or examples that surround this little phrase, you would probably be a bit suspicious. Does this mean that Paul is a deceptive chameleon, a politician refusing to show his true colors wherever he goes? Does he propose that Christians should keep changing who they are in the presence of non-Christians, all with the noble purpose, “that by all means I might save some?”
Liturgical Lutherans often suffer the attack from those of a lower-church persuasion that we are ordered by Scripture not to hang on to out-dated, irrelevant statements of the Gospel but adopt newer, ever-fresh presentations to speak to an ever-changing audience that needs to hear it for their eternal salvation. And in preaching, sin and justification and confession-absolution may have worked as helpful terms for your grandfathers, but now you need to focus only on relationships, transformation, community and mission, so they say. And it strikes a chord, because it’s right there in Scripture, so there’s at least some of it that is right… isn’t there?
The example of Jesus may help you figure this out, but you must not pick and choose the things Jesus does and says that sound good to you and leave out the rest. That’s what happens for those people who claim Jesus was only about love and peace and tolerance of others, but they leave out His words on sin and judgment and most importantly, His sacrifice to take your rightful judgment and remove your sin. It also wouldn’t do merely to imitate Jesus or Paul as a moral example (even though you are encouraged to do so) but without also paying attention to what they say for your benefit.
That being said, think about when Jesus met with the woman at the well on the outskirts of a town in Samaria. It’s in John chapter 4. He was in the wrong area, speaking with a woman, which could have been easily considered scandalous, and the woman was definitely not a Jew, and to understand how uncomfortable that could have been, think about how you would relate to an Arabic-looking woman walking around in this local area. She’s covered in flowing robes and only her eyes are showing through a solid black veil. You wouldn’t know what to say to her, for fear that anything would only cause undue trouble. Yet Jesus accommodated Himself to speak with this woman. He asked for a drink, which submitted Himself to her unique service, yet still pointed out the hard truth that she was sinning by living with a man who was not her wedded husband. He didn’t say what she did was OK, His words were correctly judging, yet they didn’t sound “judgmental.”
Holding steadfastly to the pure and undeniable truth, along with reaching out in love and service to your neighbor is a fitting summary of Paul’s desire to become “all things to all people.” However, it can’t satisfy you as a fully adequate answer. How am I going to do this? This is all fine for Jesus to do because He’s perfect. I’m not; so I can’t possibly imagine that I could follow even a shadow of His example. What is there for me that I can fall back on in case I screw it all up?
As only one of many possible examples, what about when that friend or family member finally reveals to you that he or she is gay? You don’t know what to think at first, but only because multiple thoughts immediately start shouting at you from within. As a faithful Christian committed to the undeniable truth of the Bible, you’re aware that this is clearly wrong and full of the shame of sin. You’re probably partly embarrassed that I’m even talking about it now. Yet the moment just one syllable of the statements of Scripture on this person’s life choice passes your lips, you are condemned as judgmental, unloving, no different from Fred Phelps and the Westborough Baptist picket line. But on the other hand, in loving and accepting that friend or relative no matter what, you see the temptation either to jump in with both feet to defend the so-called “gay rights,” or at least half-heartedly you cave in when you get an unfair question like, “You can’t blame me for how God made me, right?” You see, your genuine concern for their soul’s condition in this persistent sin and your loving desire to serve and support the loved one, these seem like equal and opposite forces pulling your heart apart. And no one, not even your trusty, well-read Bible seems to be giving you the comfort and help you need in this or any other tough situation that you can think of.
Saint Paul said a little after this reading, “Follow me, as I follow Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1, NIV) And with Lent coming soon, you know the path down which Jesus is headed. His destination is the cross, where He performed the ultimate loving service to the entire world, yet also He met the cold-hard truth of the world’s sin head-on. This would also include all the signs of sin’s fallout, including murder, homosexuality, divorce, suicide, loss of work, and so on. And all along His way to the cross, as you follow Him from raising Peter’s mother-in-law up from her sick bed, driving away her deadly fever, to His gentle rebuke of a strange, outcast woman, you witness Jesus taking on your sin, your mess-ups, your missed opportunities to be both firm and loving. Once you see your ugly spiritual reflection in the mirror of God’s Law, your Savior has no further word of condemnation for you, rather He bids you turn to Him and let Him take your burden away.
Keep your attention fixed on the Blessed Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember that He suffered and died to forgive you and make you holy in all that you face in your daily life and calling. He didn’t just set an impossible example and demand you to follow it. That Cross of His is the true eagles’ wings bearing you up and renewing your strength. The Body and Blood of Christ that were sacrificed on that Holy Cross are the hand of the Lord that gently lifts and resurrects you from the death-bed of your sins and failings. It is simply not true that you have too great of a sin that your Lord is not willing to or capable of wiping it clean away. It is never impossible for God to reconcile you to Himself in perfect peace, nor is it impossible for Him to restore a pure, untainted relationship between you and that person in your life who through some sort of sin or another is separated from you, and for whom you approach this throne of God’s grace in prayer every day. That’s because Jesus has come to this sad world to make all things new and to bring the true joy of heaven under this very roof.
So it is this cross, this promise of forgiveness and resurrection that frees us from all things. And it is this same cross, forgiveness and resurrection that places in you the desire to serve your neighbor in whatever way you can. He has given you unique talents and even a little creativity to submit your own self-interest in deference to what others around you need. Perhaps you could talk a little sports like Paul does, when he mentions in our reading the Corinthian equivalent of the Super Bowl. We’re not after a flashy champion’s ring that’ll require sunglasses to see, but we do look forward to our Savior shining brighter than the sun, and we’ll be reflecting Him on that great last Day. As you can see, being “all things to all people” is far from being deceptive, rather the opposite is true: it’s proving that the true, never-changing Christian faith and living a life that is loving and confident in the forgiveness of your sins are the most real things that there are.
Be renewed in your strength, trust in Christ who forgave you and who promised you the Holy Spirit. Run and be diligent in good works and service to your neighbor, but do not remain weary with guilt over the commandments you may have broken. Walk with God your loving, heavenly Father, and not faint.
In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Is. 40:21–31 mount up with wings like eagles
Ps. 147:1–11 the stars…He calls them all by name.
1 Cor. 9:16–27 all things to all men that I might by all means save some
Mark 1:29–39 Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick