THE POWER OF US
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 8, 2015, 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Micah 4:1-7; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”
1 Corinthians 9:22b

The Power of Us“I have become all things to all people.” It’s a famous phrase, from today’s New Testament lesson. But most people have no idea what it really means.

What most people think it means is a sort of insult. “Look at that person over there! He’s trying to be all things to all people.” The implication is the person has no backbone, no sense of self. If it’s a politician, you’d say, “She’s just pandering.” A person who’s trying to be all things to all people is something of a moral sell-out.

We’ve had a sad and strange example of this sort of thing in the news this week. It’s the story of Brian Williams, the news anchor on NBC television — a local boy made good (he grew up not far from here, in Monmouth County). It seems a whole lot of people have come to realize, over time, that the facts of some of the stories Brian Williams has told about himself just don’t add up. Now, granted, he told them he was a guest on talk shows, rather than behind the anchor desk, but still they hurt his reputation as a journalist.

There was the story of the helicopter he was flying in, while covering a story in Iraq, that took enemy fire and had to made an emergency crash landing. War veterans who were there swear it wasn’t his helicopter at all, but the one ahead of it. Sure, he and the general he was riding with were in harm’s way, and it could very well have been their helicopter that crash-landed — but it wasn’t.

Then there were the stories he told about New Orleans, just after Hurricane Katrina. He spoke of looking out his hotel window in the French Quarter and seeing a dead body floating by. The problem was, the streets of the French Quarter didn’t flood during the storm.

He also said he accidentally drank some flood water and suffered, as a result, from a case of dysentery. Doctors who were there were rather surprised. As terrible as Katrina was, they said, they knew not a single case of anyone who had come down with gastro-intestinal illness, as a result of contaminated water.

People heard these individual stories, and they sounded a little off, but nobody until now has put all the pieces together and detected a pattern of, shall we say, “overly embellishing the truth.” You can understand why a news anchor — carefully protected by his network as a multi-million-dollar brand — might fantasize about being a swashbuckling, risk-taking reporter in an Indiana Jones sort of way. It’s only human to daydream, to fantasize: but, when the boundary line between fantasy and reality starts to blur, it’s then that we have a problem. It’s a strange psychology — an example of trying to be “all things to all people,” in the negative sense of that expression.

Personally, I’ve always liked Brian Williams. I’ve been proud to see a fellow Jersey Shore boy rise so far. So, this is a hard thing for a lot of people. I wish him well. I hope he’ll salvage his professional career, but it’s hard to see how he can, in the profession he’s in — where truth-telling is so important.

*****

So, is this what Paul means when he says, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews…. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people…”? Is Paul constantly shifting the truth, changing his story to tell people what they want to hear?

No. He’s not. What he’s doing is different, and in a very important way.

For one thing, Paul’s not telling stories about himself simply to entertain, or to impress his listeners with his knowledge and experience. He’s telling them about Jesus. He’s doing it, he says, “that I may by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel…”

So, what is it Paul’s doing for the sake of the gospel? What does he mean by “being all things to all people?”

At the outset, let’s be very clear there’s something he’s not doing. He’s not exalting himself. Paul’s not spinning yarns, telling fish stories to make himself seem more courageous, more worldly-wise. In fact, he describes himself in a way that’s exactly the opposite. “I have become a slave to all, so that I may win more of them.”

It’s a rare enough thing, in our day and age, to say of ourselves, in all seriousness, “I have made myself a slave to others.” It was even more extraordinary to say such a thing in the Roman world, where everyone had daily experience of slaves, and knew what a miserable life they led.

Not only that, but for the Greeks and Romans it was all about rank and social class. A strong and ambitious person who rose up through the ranks they praised. Such a one, they thought, displayed the best traits of their highly competitive society. Someone who voluntarily followed the opposite course, on the other hand — who actually chose to move downward in the estimation of the society — they just couldn’t figure out. What sort of person would want to do that? What sort of person would choose to describe himself as a slave? Paul had achieved the unusual status — for a Jew — of being a Roman citizen. Why would he want to throw that away, even in his imagination?

Paul was not alone. In saying “I have become a slave to all,” he’s bearing witness to the way of Jesus Christ. A great many other Christian believers in his time are doing exactly the same.

If you read the book of Acts, it sounds like a few charismatic leaders, like Peter and Paul, sailed off to a distant city, set themselves up in the market square, gave an eloquent speech, and thousands spontaneously rose up to follow.

It wasn’t as simple as that. The Christian church exploded in growth, in those early centuries, not because of thrilling sermons by superstar preachers, but because it was a mass movement. We only hear about the ecclesiastical big shots, like Paul and his comrades, but the work of sharing the good news was first taken on by a dozen disciples, then many dozens more, then hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands.

How could it have happened otherwise? It wasn’t like they had cable TV or social media back then. You couldn’t send out a tweet, and watch it go viral in a matter of hours. Sure, Peter or Paul — if they were lucky — could gather a couple hundred people in a marketplace, and seek to win them with their rhetorical skills, but that alone didn’t account for the explosive growth the early church experienced.

Rodney Stark, a historian of the ancient world, came out a few years ago with a book that supplies the answer. It’s got a very long title. It’s called The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries [HarperSanFrancisco, 1997]. Do you want to know what was the secret to the Christian movement’s success, according to Rodney Stark? It was its ethic of service.

This was something the Romans had never seen before. In the Roman world, you achieved honor by taking care of your own: the members of your own family. The blind beggar outside your gate was an unfortunate fellow, but you had no obligation to look after him. If a woman became a widow, with no children to support her, and if she had no sisters or brothers to take her in, there was nothing she could do but to try to scratch a living on the mean streets, or sell herself into slavery.

The Christians, by contrast, saw themselves as servants of their fellow human beings. They had this order of ministry called deacons, a word which, in the Greek, is diakonos, or servant. The role of these deacons, according to the book of Acts, was to keep a common purse for the community, and from that stock of money put on daily meals. They ran a continuous daily soup kitchen. Around those tables, with the deacons hovering around wearing aprons, the guests of honor were the very same blind beggars and lonely widows who would otherwise have slipped through the cracks of that hard and cruel society. No one had ever seen the like of it. And no one had ever seen the pagan priests, in particular, take that sort of role.

Here’s what Rodney Stark says: “The simple phrase, ‘For God so loved the world,’ would have puzzled an educated pagan…. The notion that the gods care how we treat one another would have been dismissed as patently absurd.”

In the eyes of Greeks and Romans, Stark explains, mercy was a character flaw; justice was the ideal to which they all aspired. According to the justice standard, everybody got what they deserved, what they’d earned through their ethical (or unethical) behavior. Justice was propped up by strength: the strength of the world’s mightiest army.

At the heart of Christianity, by contrast, was this revolutionary idea that God has mercy on sinners, for the sake of Jesus Christ — and that Christians are called to show a similar mercy to others. Mercy is made manifest by weakness, by putting your own interests aside to see to the needs of others, especially the poor.

When the Greeks and Romans saw the surging crowds of people who were filling the Christian churches, and saw those people glowing with joy as they performed menial tasks, they began to realize that this Christian church offered something very wonderful and different. It was a servant way. That servant way was slowly transforming the entire society, from the bottom up. No, it wasn’t eloquent oratory that grew the early church. It had more to do with feeding lonely widows and washing their dishes.

So, that’s the first thing Paul means when he says he’s striving to be “all things to all people.” He’s stepping away from the highest seat at the banquet and taking the lowliest spot, just as Jesus taught his disciples to do.

*****

The second thing Paul surely did, on the way to being all things to all people, was to practice the fine art of listening. You won’t read about this in the Bible, because listening is not something that’s in any way flashy or even notable, but it just had to be a big part of Paul’s missionary work. How can you be all things to all people if you don’t first listen to them and find out who they are, if you don’t understand their hopes and frustrations and dreams?

Notice this is different from that other way of being all things to all people, the path so many deride as pandering. That way of being all things to all people is about telling stories to make yourself look good. It’s all about you, not the other person.

I was with a group of pastors discussing this text, and one of them, my friend Jim Thyren, told us a story. It was about his late father, who’d been a successful salesman. Now, one of his father’s clients was an avid golfer. He lived, ate and breathed that sport. Jim’s father had never picked up a golf club in his life. It didn’t interest him. But whenever he went to see that particular client, he always started the conversation by asking a golf question.

In being all things to all people in this way, Jim’s father wasn’t being false to who he was. True, he didn’t much care for golf, but what he cared about deeply was people, especially those he was serving, as a salesman. The golf question was not really about golf at all. It was about the man he was talking to, and what brought him the most joy. The best salespeople have a way of being truly present to the people they’re talking with. It’s not fake or manipulative because they really do care: and that communicates, resulting sooner or later in orders for the product.

*****

The final thing I’d like to say about being all things to all people is that you must go on, then, to offer them something they genuinely need. It’s not enough simply to take the servant role, not enough to listen well. You’ve also got to respond to what you’re hearing, by matching up something you have to give with something the others need to receive. In the world of sales, it has to be something they’re willing to pay for. In the realm of Christian witness, there’s no exchange of money. When the gift offered is salvation in Jesus Christ — a gift already paid for, in full, by his blood on the cross — it can only be perfectly free.

The world — now, as then — is hungry for such salvation. The church of Jesus Christ will continue to grow just as long as you and I follow this apostolic way of being all things to all people.

I say you AND I, but the greater emphasis is — and can only be — on you. Sure, as pastor of a church, I can come alongside others and practice this sort of servant listening. I know how to do it. I’ve been formally trained in active listening, in the pastoral counseling courses I’ve had in seminary. But that’s not what wins people for Christ and brings them into the church.

You see, everyone out there — once they find out I’m a pastor — knows it’s my job to do that sort of thing. They know I receive a salary, and that if more people come into the church it looks good for me, professionally. It can be hard for some to see my presence, my focused listening, as being for them alone.

This is exactly why the best evangelists, in any Christian church, are not the pastors. It’s the members, the folks who don’t stand at the pulpit but sit in the pews — and wait on tables. Our job, for Linda and me, is to coach you in how to be all things to all people, for the sake of Christ. You, after all, are the ones who go out there, week after week, and interact with people outside the church. By the very nature of my job, I spend more time inside the church than any of you do.

We, as a church, can put up the best directional signs. We can issue the most captivating press releases. We can work hard to develop music programs that astound with their creativity and beauty, and educational offerings that give kids (and adults alike) just what they need to prepare them for life. All these things bring people through the church doors, it’s true, but they’re not what keeps them here. Far more effective, as a means of sharing the good news, is mission that takes the form of a servant — as our friends from Abington Presbyterian are doing this weekend, helping Sandy survivors recover — and attentive listening, that shows others we care.

I call this the power of us: not “us and them,” that highlights the things that make us different, the things that place us in competition with one another. Just us: two people together, being there for one another — talking, sharing, serving and being served. Us and them is a powerful force in the world today, fanning the fires of bitterness, conflict and jealousy. Yet, when that other, gentler force — the power of us — is truly deployed, it is infinitely stronger. The power of us seeks out the best within the human heart, and brings it out so it may be useful to others.

And all for the sake of Jesus Christ. All for the sake of Jesus Christ!

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.