1 Corinthians 9.16-23
How many of you have ever played the game “North Pole, South Pole?” It is a favorite of youth groups, and while you may not have called it that, you might have played some version. Basically, the game is played like this…
Everyone stands up and the leader asks a question with two possible answers, and you choose which side of the room to stand on, depending on your answer: north pole or south pole. It usually starts pretty simple and even silly:
You put your left sock on first…you put your right sock on first.
You are a morning person…or a night owl.
Patriots… or Eagles.
But before long, the questions get a little more complex:
Stricter gun legislation…or weaker gun legislation.
Path to citizenship…build a wall.
Each time, you have to decide which side you will stand on.
Now, this is a fun game, and it can lead to some great conversations in youth groups. The problem, of course, is when we start to live that way. I would suggest that most of our society today is playing a massive game of “North Pole, South Pole.” We love to put people in categories, do we not? Look on social media, or really in many kinds of media, and in more and more of our personal relationships, and instead of dialogue or conversation, we find this massive game of “North Pole, South Pole.” Which side are you on? Do you agree or disagree? Are you right or wrong? Are you good or evil?
Psychologists have long warned that this type of thinking is actually really unhealthy and rather immature. Not surprisingly, they call this kind of thinking “polarized thinking” or “black and white thinking,” and it is an example of what is often called a cognitive distortion. Unhealthy thinking. “All of life can be summed up in what is right and what is wrong. People and situations can simply be placed in either/or categories, with no room for complexity or conversation.” Cognitive distortion.
Ironically, I think this is exactly why we see so much polarization and oversimplification of people and issues. I think a lot of us are so unsure of ourselves that we think that if we scream louder, then people will not notice the insecurity within. So many of us are terrified just under the surface that if we don’t fit one category or the other, then we must be broken. If I do one thing wrong, if I think one thing differently, then I am in category of THE WRONG, the bad, the evil, the broken. It leads to an unhealthy quest for perfection, and for clarity that simply doesn’t match reality.
And, it isn’t just a symptom of our society today. In fact, the book from which we read this morning is filled with Paul’s attempt to correct this polarized thinking. It was like the whole church of Corinth stood up and played this game together:
- I belong to Cephas…or I belong to Apollos.
- You are rich because you are good and God has blessed you…or you are poor because you are bad and God is punishing you.
- Eat food sacrificed to idols…or don’t eat food sacrificed to idols.
- North pole…or south pole.
And this polarized thinking is causing major disruption in the church. People are angry at each other. They are threatening to leave the church, or accusing each other of not being good enough Christians. Relationships are broken. There are divisions and schisms and alliances and a great, big mess, simply because people are seeking and applying these polarized overgeneralizations to one another.
But look what Paul does, in the face of these divisions. He gives them a new way. He gives them the antidote to this divided way of thinking. They are used to divisions and disagreements: Jew, Gentile…those who follow of Hebrew regulations, and those who don’t…weak, strong. But instead of deepening these divides, Paul proclaims that he has in fact broken down those artificial distinctions. To the Jews, he is as a Jew. To those who reject the law, he is as one who rejects the law. To the weak, he is weak.
“I have become all things to all people.”
Now, for those of you who heard Michaela’s sermon last week, you heard a masterful and memorable description of “Martha,” someone who was so unsure of herself that she simply blended in with whomever she was with. She didn’t know herself well enough to be who she was really called to be.
But what Paul is talking about is different. This is not just a façade like “Martha” – it is much more foundational than that. The word that Paul uses for “become” is “ginomai,” from the same root that genesis or genealogy come from: I come into being or I am born or I am recreated in a new way. I have become – been re-created – as all things to all people. Paul is so sure of who he is in Christ, that he can identify with each pole and understand them for who they are, because deep down he knows who he is!
“I have become a slave to all.”
I wade into the troubled language of slavery in this country carefully. Plenty of preachers, especially white male preachers, have told Christians that they need to become slaves. Often times, the result is disastrous. But perhaps we could use a different metaphor… from the world of trains. Of course, I am going to really oversimplify this for people who really know what they are talking about. But perhaps you have watched a freight train and noticed two or more engines working together to pull a train. You might have wondered, as I have, how the two engines go exactly the same speed. The technology is called slave technology, in which the second and following engines are slaved to the first, so that they connect and respond to the other perfectly. They become two or three or four…into one. Unity. Power.
And for Paul, this changes everything. Instead of a church that is at each other’s throats, calling each other names and throwing around generalizations, he gives them a new way to be.
And I would suggest that the same is true for us. This life of self-giving, slaving ourselves to the “other,” it is a different way of living. But it is the healthiest way of living. Instead of trying to run around living a distorted life, playing the polarization game, pointing at that “dimwitted pro-lifer,” or “fascist trying to take my guns,” or a “dangerous immigrant,” freedom in Christ means that you can reach into the lives of all of God’s children, and tell the story of hope and grace. Even if they disagree with you on significant issues. You can be “all things to all people.” And in that way lies peace. Inner peace, as you stop trying to force people into the polarized categories you make for them, and shared communal peace, as we understand as a Church that that is what we are supposed to be about.
Bruce Rigdon summarizes Paul’s argument like this:
“It’s all about relationships. Freedom in Christ means precisely the radical freedom to identify with ‘others’ in their otherness, Jews and Greeks, the strong and the weak…. For Paul, his vocation as an apostle involves the recapitulation of Christ’s own sacrifice in giving his life for the poor and the weak. Nor is this calling and pattern unique to apostles. It is the calling and vocation of all who are baptized into Christ. The church is, therefore, not a community of volunteers, but is itself a part of the gospel, the good news. By living out this pattern of self-giving, the church is an eschatological sign of what God is bringing about for the whole cosmos, the new creation.”
In other words, this is what God has been about from the beginning. Breaking down distinctions and differences. Tearing apart polarized thinking. I would add that even the reality of the Trinity itself – Creator, Christ, and Spirit – is an example of how in the midst of differentness, the nature of God is to be unified. “It’s all about relationships.” So, if this is the nature of God, if this is the reason that Christ came to earth, why then do we go back to these distorted ways of thinking? Sticking people in categories and playing the polarization game? If the Church is to be the Church, then this is who we have to be!
“By living out this pattern of self-giving, the church is an eschatological sign of what God is bringing about for the whole cosmos”!
Living this pattern of self-giving: being “all things to all people”
But it is hard, isn’t it? Brian McLaren consults and works with churches that struggle to face these difficult issues together. He tells one story of a preacher who asked some difficult questions about how we are to love our enemies, especially if they mean us harm. He didn’t even make it out of the building, before an elder accosted him in the hallway: “How dare you talk about this, when our country is at war with violent Islamic terrorists?!” In response, the preacher offered, “I was just preaching what Jesus said.” The man would not be undeterred. “Well, I’ve always considered that a weak spot in Jesus’ preaching.” The man didn’t get the point…nor did he get Jesus.
But McLaren also has wonderful stories to tell about congregations who tackle difficult issues. One such congregation did the unthinkable. They created a panel of Republican-leaning Christians and Democratic-leaning Christians to come together at election time. They were asked pointed and clear questions about how they were voting and why. And then, the audience was invited to ask questions. It was a challenge at times to keep everyone civil, but at the end of the experience, it is an event that participants will always remember. They came together from polar opposites, they heard the other and were able to understand her and him better. And they left unified in the presence of the Spirit. They got the point…and they got Jesus.
May we learn in new ways what it means to become all things to all people, and to truly understand what it means to be the body of Christ.