When I was searching the internet for images for the bulletin cover this week, I plugged in “all things to all people.” I got the picture that appears on your bulletins today, of course, and some others that quote this passage from 1 Corinthians. But far more of the images that came up on my search were prefaced with “You can’t be.” As in, “You can’t be all things to all people.” Their point was one that I’ve heard a lot and that I’ve even made myself more than once. If you want to accomplish things, or even just a person of principle, you can’t try to meet everyone’s expectations all the time. You have to know who you are and what you intend, and realize that not everyone is going to like it.
Taken out of context, and pulled as a single phrase into the 21st century, the author Paul’s instructions to be “all things to all people” sound wishy-washy and inauthentic, not to mention a recipe for perfectionism-driven anxiety attacks. On the face of it, Paul comes off looking like a chameleon at best and a glad-handing suck-up at worst, someone who will do or say anything to ingratiate himself to the people around him, someone without integrity. We all know people like this. And mostly, we don’t much care for them. Out of context, it seems like pretty poor advice, especially for those of us who may already be prone to some people-pleasing tendencies.
But I don’t think Paul is encouraging Christians to be fake or pretend to be something we’re not just for the sake of looking better to others. Given Paul’s other writings, I think he’d actually agree that you have to know who you are and stand strong in your intent and not flip-flop around. There’s something else going on here. So let’s look at this in context and see what he might really have meant.
The context that we don’t get in this short reading is that there is an argument happening in the early church around whether or not Christians should or shouldn’t consume food that has been sacrificed to idols. In the culture of the day, much of the meat that could be bought in the marketplace was sold after it had been sacrificed to Roman gods. Banquets and other large gatherings were also held in the temples in Corinth, because those were the places that had enough space. But eating at the temple meant eating food that had been offered in celebration of the patron deity, and possibly also participating in rituals that honored the gods.
The congregation at Corinth was divided over this question. Some believed that it was fine to eat food sacrificed to false gods, because the idols mean nothing. They believed they could go through the motions without really honoring the idols as gods, because they honored only one God. Others witnessed this behavior and worried about whether it meant that it was acceptable to honor other gods alongside the one God and alongside Christ. For them, the rituals still held power, even if offered to false gods. Some of them were recent converts who used to worship these Roman gods; would their participation in their former religious practices lead them back to their previous beliefs? How does participation in the rites of a Roman temple affect the church’s witness to the singular God of Israel, who is described as a jealous God who commands people to worship this God, and this God alone? These questions drove the debate in the Corinthian church.
It’s important for us to know also that the divisions in the church were not just about knowledge, or idols, or freedom. The new, less knowledgeable, and weak members of the community were likely those who were seldom invited to a banquet at the temple, because they didn’t have the economic means to reciprocate or contribute. They were less educated, less influential, and frankly, less able to afford meat at all. So you can imagine that the appearance of the wealthier, better educated, socially connected members of the church blithely continuing to participate in the banquets and festivals of their city might have rubbed the members with fewer resources the wrong way.
The argument of the pro-meat faction is that they are free in Christ to eat anything. The old law that governed God’s people before Christ is abolished – Paul himself has preached that over and over. The idols don’t matter; they’re not alive, they have no influence. Christians are supposed to live freely and joyfully within the grace of Christ, not worry about minutiae of who should eat what.
It’s a good argument! And it’s a page they’ve taken right out of Paul’s own writings, and out of Acts, and out of a good share of the things Jesus says.
But in this case, Paul says, it’s a good argument that falls short. Having the correct knowledge and the correct doctrine in this situation is not enough. It’s not enough because they’re not just dealing with an abstract theological question, and they’re also not just dealing with a question about their own private behavior. This question is about how doctrine works out in practice, in community, with other people.
Can you have a big sandwich of idol meat in your kitchen at home, guilt-free? By all means!
Should you eat the same idol meat sandwich out in the street and wave it around in front of people who just decided that they wanted to follow Jesus instead of sacrifice to Roman gods? Probably not! Should you go hang out at a banquet and feast on idol meat while other siblings in Christ are excluded and can’t buy meat at all? Also, probably not!
It’s not about the meat, or the inherent goodness or badness of eating it. It’s about whether they cared more about the meat – and their own freedom – or about how their actions affected the other members of their community. Paul encourages the knowledgeable, influential, and financially secure in the Corinthian church to consider their siblings in Christ and be willing to renounce their rights and privileges for their good. He urges them to ask themselves not just what is permissable for them, but what is beneficial for all.
This turns out not to be wishy-washy at all; it is simply a different priority than merely being “true to yourself.” It involves clarity about the tremendous freedom that is available to us within the love of God, but also a desire for others to experience that love – a desire so strong that you set aside your own freedoms to serve the needs of others.
The ideal in contemporary leadership and the ideal in the Roman world were much the same: strength, self-sufficiency, and self-expression are virtues; weakness and dependence are not. But Paul invites them to a different set of values, in which the powerful walk alongside the weak, and even make themselves weak, in order to live out God’s good news fully with all.
Obviously sacrificial meat isn’t a pressing question for us today, but what we do share with the Corinthian church is a range of perspectives, experiences, and advantages that may lead us to very different conclusions about exactly what we believe and how we practice that belief. I’m not the only person in this room with a theological degree. Some of us have taken years of our lives to study biblical interpretation and ethics. Some of you grew up in churches that encouraged you to have a thorough knowledge of Scripture, to memorize it and meditate on it daily. On the other end of the spectrum, some of you are probably wondering, what’s a Corinthian, and who is this Paul guy you keep talking about? We all come from different backgrounds, and the language and behavior that is second nature to one person is the thing that someone else always heard they should never do.
And it would be easy to just say, “That’s how I am, I’m being authentic.” And maybe that would be true. But Paul invites us to think beyond our own authenticity, to how we might accommodate to someone else, so that they might better experience God’s grace.
If this sounds a little strange to you, I want to suggest that we actually do this all the time when we care about people. Even the most authentic person doesn’t just let their entire personality hang out all the time with everyone in their life. We learn who can handle us at full strength, and we dial it back with people who are overwhelmed by our intensity. With a partner, we might wisely choose not to engage in a behavior that makes us hard to love. With a young child, we change our language and our tone so that they can understand our ideas. This isn’t fake. It’s not wishy-washy. It’s love. It’s just a question of who we love enough to moderate ourselves for their benefit.
And we have the ultimate example of this in the God whose love we emulate, who has constantly accommodated to human beings in all of our limitations. John Calvin wrote a great deal about God accommodating Godself to human understanding – descending to us the way a nurse speaks to a child, “prattling to us in a rough and popular style.” God accommodated to humans by sending prophets who spoke the message of God in the common speech of the people of the day. God accommodated to humans by inspiring the words of Scripture, endlessly re-translated and interpreted to speak into our lives wherever we may be. God accommodated to humans in becoming one of us and allowing us to see the divine in human form in Jesus. And God continues to accommodate to us by choosing to be known in ordinary, daily things: in the joining of voices in song, in bread and cup, the meal shared at the table, in the gathered community of faith, in looking one another in the eyes and extending peace. In these things God becomes for us what we need, where we are.
In the same way, God invites us to care for each other by being what we need, where we are. We become all things to all people, so that as many as possible may experience the love and grace of the God who is known to us.