Sunday, February 08, 2015

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 9
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

You can try to explain, but it won’t make any sense.

First, you took a pad of very thin paper, and inserted a lined writing guide under the top sheet. Then, using a pen, you would compose ‘a letter.’

Very thin paper, of course, kept the weight down. There was a limit in the number of pages you could include in the letter, but that would be jumping ahead. You took the sheets and folded them, inserting them in an envelope (which itself was really just folded paper) and penned the address.

The process gets harder to explain at this point. Recipient’s address in the centre of the envelope horizontally, and just slightly below centre on the vertical. Return address in the upper lefthand corner (or the back, if you were some kind of rebel) and then, the stamp.

You could get distracted at this moment with philately, trying to explain why it’s called a first-class stamp, but you need to keep your focus. I say this because the next part is hard to believe: you tore along a series of perforated lines and put the stamp on your tongue! The taste was semi-sweet, you will recall, and left a bit of an after-taste.

Positioning the stamp at the upper-right corner, and you were ready to go for a walk. At this point, your student of ancient history will be incredulous. ‘You went to all that trouble and now you need to walk it somewhere?’ You try to explain the postbox, but now you’re getting tired of the endless questioning. Yes, you put it in the drawer, and yes, you always checked it again to make sure it dropped, and so on. Wait until you tell them about home delivery—that will really blow their mind!

I share this to point out an undeniable fact of life: when it comes to letter-writing, many of us are closer in experience to St. Paul than we are to the kid who has only ever sent a text message. The result was the same—someone received a written message—but the means couldn’t be more different.

Of course there is one critical difference between our experience and the experience of St. Paul, and that would be audience. For you see, Paul expected that his letters would be read and then circulated—shared with a wider audience—while we generally do not. Ironically, with the advent of email and the ‘reply all’ function, we may have finally come closer to Paul’s practice of expected letters to be shared.

And the proof of Paul’s desire for sharing comes from Paul himself. His practice was to dictate his letters to a scribe and then write the last portion of the letter in his own hand, adding the personal touch. In Colossians 4.16 we read the following:

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans (Lay-a-da-seans) and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

O the Laodiceans! They cause nothing but trouble. First, the letter that Paul mentions, presumably an epistle that he first sent to Laodicea, is lost to history. Forgeries exist, with one famously translated by the St. Jerome, but the scholarly consensus is that the Epistle to the Laodiceans is pseudepigraphical, or written in Paul’s name. If you don’t want to call it pseudepigraphical, call it pastiche, because French never fails to impress.

Back to the trouble-making Laodiceans, they’re also mentioned in Revelations, this time in the most unflattering way: “I know your deeds,” John says “and that you are neither cold nor hot.” (3.15)

And according to Merriam-Webster you can be Laodicean too, if you are neither hot not cold in the topic of religion or politics, but that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because Paul wants to be all things to all people, which is another matter all together.

But there are interesting parallels. Like being laodicean (nether hot nor cold), being all things to all people is rarely considered a good thing. Quite the opposite, really. And despite Paul’s strong endorsement of the idea, it continues to fail to impress. So why did he say it?

First, some context. Paul is writing to a church he founded, and there seems to be some controversy about the leaders of of the church and perhaps Paul himself. In this part of the letter he is writing about his rights: to earn a living, to take a wife, to preach the Gospel. We can presume he is writing to guide others, to allow them to make faithful choices. Then he shares this point:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible...I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

In the most literal sense, Paul is talking about religious practice: when surrounded by those following the law of Moses, he follows the law of Moses. When surrounded by gentiles, he does as they do, most specifically, ignoring the law of Moses. All things to all people.

His final example is being weak to those who are weak, and then he makes his famous claim to be all things to all people. He concludes this with “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

So what happened? His intentions are noble, his logic is sound, but we recoil at this notion of being ‘all things to all people.” Where did this idea go wrong?

First of all, we need to acknowledge that we live in the shadow of the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason that began in the 17th century and lives with us still. The idea that our thought will guide our actions, and not some outside force, takes hold in this era and remains with us still. Should we be ‘all things to all people’ or should be know who we are and act accordingly? Modern thought would dictate the latter.

Psychology, the great invention of the last century might chime in at this moment in the discussion. Intentionality, having ideas match actions or intentions becomes a touchstone of the science of the mind. Thinking one way and acting another is considered harmful, a sign of some disorder.

A final point on this, and related to Paul’s idea, is the notion of weakness. To the modern mind, the idea of ‘all things to all people’ points to personal weakness, since the strong know who they are and will only act from this. In this way of thinking, things like compromise and accommodation are less desirable, because they lack some kind of strength of conviction.

So how do we redeem poor Paul, and save his idea of ‘all things to all people?’ I think the answer may once again be found in weakness, and in the principles of pastoral care.

Imagine you are feeling somehow diminished, burdened with some difficulty, or care. Who will be the most effective caregiver? Is it someone who has experienced a similar affliction, or a person who has no direct experience of what you are experiencing? The answer, of course, is the confederate, the person who has experienced loss or hardship, even if that loss is significantly different.

So Paul is practicing good pastoral care, being all things to all people, weak for those who are weak, as just one example. But he is also pointing somewhere else, and this becomes the very centre of our faith. Paul shares a fragment of an ancient hymn in Philippians 2:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Jesus too was all things for all people—even unto death on a cross. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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