Living Beyond the “Self”: Being All Things to All People
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Epiphany 5, Year B
February 7, 2021
There may be two images that capture me as a young child. One is me tending the fire at the deer camp while others go hunting early in the morning. I didn’t want to hunt; I wanted to keep the fire going. It gave me time to be alone with a book or with my thoughts, lots of silent time to sit and watch the flames and wonder.
The second image is linked to this one, perhaps. I can see myself as a young child, sitting in my grandmother’s recliner close to the fireplace. I would curl up there, chew on my fingernails, and think. Too much. Meme would always come through the living room, see me there, walk over and rub or tap my head and say, “Penny for your thoughts.” It would always help break the spell of too many thoughts that fell over me far too often. She would bring a moment of spaciousness. “Nickle for a kiss,” I would tell her.
While my childhood was full of good, Southern family and friends, let’s just say it had its fair share of pressure, pain, and strangeness. Whose hasn’t, right? The drama of my family led me to develop the diplomatic skills of a seasoned State Department negotiator by age eight. The great Southern gothic ethos, while fascinating to read, is painful to actually live.
This memory of my own childhood was very present to me when I, once again, explored today’s text from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth. From the first time I really explored this text in seminary, I loathed it.
I have become all things to all people.
For so long, I struggled with St. Paul’s message, even as I thought I could spy what he was up to. There has to be something there when he says:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.
Simply put, the image of being all things to all people felt like a terrible idea to me. How do I possibly manage the expectations of others with my own tendency to “fix?”
Also, it is difficult to study this text now, a year into this season of our lives, and not associate it with so many conversations at complex moments in our common life. At so many points when we faced challenges this past year, I felt enormous pressure to fix a problem, to find some solution to a tense and impossible situation, to offer guidance in times of confusion–even when I felt aimless and confused myself. No one likes uncertainty, and everyone wants answers–especially the answers they already think they have in their minds.
At particularly stressful moments when I struggled to find a solution to a problem (notice how I phrase that, that I felt I needed to find a solution…) I could see myself bunched up in my grandmother’s recliner being pulled into the chief negotiator role for my family as I weighed the competing interests. “Penny for your thoughts,” I could hear her say.
One of the imaginative ways to enter into the text is to see what resonates with us in our time, in terms of how we struggle to be available to others. Maybe this translation or adaptation will open the text a bit more–and lay out the tension we may feel as we take a glance at it:
To the Republicans I became as a Republican, in order to win Republicans. To those who consider themselves Democrats I became as a Democrat (though I myself am not a Democrat) so that I might win those Democrats. To those who demand not to wear masks I became as one who sought to understand this (though I myself see wearing a mask as a sign of grace) so that I might win those who despise masks. To those who demand to meet in person now, I seek to be open to that opinion while trying to explain that we cannot do so. I have become all things to all people…
Maybe the pressure and tension feels more real now.
I have become all things to all people…
No thank you. I don’t want any part of it.
What could St. Paul mean when he writes this to the Church in Corinth, who, as Cynthia mentioned last week in her sermon, lived in a multicultural society with so many perspectives and opinions to weigh? How is this even possible, to be all things to all people?
Here’s my claim: if we’re going to explore what St. Paul means by I have become all things to all people, then we must first ask this question: What is the “I” that is becoming all things to all people? What is the “I” he is speaking about here? Because, if the “I” we hold to is rooted in a strict sense of an autonomous self, over and against others, an “I” that claims our agenda, an “I” that is ego-driven and focused on grasping and winning–if this is our framework, then it is an impossible claim that St. Paul is making here.
Put in theological terms, we must engage in deep theological anthropology here to unpack just what we understand ourselves to actually be. Then, perhaps we can explore St. Paul’s teaching.
So, we look again at how St. Paul describes human identity, and we see that over and over again he encourages self-denial. Just prior to this verse, he asserts his own “rights” as an apostle only to then yield them. “Nevertheless” he says, “we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (I Cor. 9:12b).
And we think of other letters, like to the Church at Philippi, where St. Paul tells them that, to live as Christ lived, to pattern our life after Christ’s, we must humble and empty ourselves (Phil. 2).
And we think of the letter to the Colossians where Jesus is described as “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).
And we look again at the Letter to the Galatians where, when we ask ourselves just what this “I” is that St. Paul is speaking of that is becoming all things to all people: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives within me” (Gal. 2:19-20).
My friends, what is right in front of us is this: if we hold to this strict sense of a separate self, a radically autonomous self, then what St. Paul describes is impossible, ridiculous, even. “I” cannot become all things to all people in this way, because I always see myself over and against them. Rather, St. Paul constantly invites us to see our human identity in terms of union.
The wisdom of Christian practice shows us that our identity is inseparable from the identity of our brother and sister, because all is held in union with God in Christ. There is not a strict sense of a separate self. Instead, we find spaciousness and inter-relatedness at the heart of our identity. I am only me in relation to you, and you are you in relation to me.
I’m going pause and let this set here for a minute: There is no strict sense of a separate self in Christian practice. All is held in union, all is understood in union.
When we allow ourselves to sit here in this awareness, suddenly St. Paul’s teaching to the Church at Corinth opens up in the space of our hearts and we are transformed by the insight we have. When we hold this strict sense of a separate self, then we grasp onto the need to fix. “I” must fix “you.” But when we are aware of and living out of our union, the tone or ethos or posture changes to one of being present to and with others.
Perhaps it sounds and feels like this:
To the Jews I can be present in their understanding of their Jewish identity.
To those under the law I can be present in their understanding of the situation.
To those who are weak I can be present in their weakness.
To the Republicans, I can be present to them in their understanding of their situation.
To the Democrats, I can be present to them.
I can be present…
Can you feel the enormous shift that takes place when we pause and do this level of work with our theological anthropology? When we truly reflect on just what we understand the “I” to be that is “becoming all things to all people?”
Now I want to make another claim, that we have circled for years together: when we look at our society, in terms of politics and economics and basic existence, until we live and approach each other from the awareness of our union, we will continue to repeat the same mistakes. We will continue to suffer. Politics will be a zero-sum game, and we will experience injustice, economic disparity. As you know, one definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result. Put another way, as Einstein once said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.” We must learn to see the world through the reality of our union if we are going to break the cycles of suffering that plague us.
Interestingly, to return to the image of my childhood, my grandmother knew this and was teaching it to me. When she would find me curled in the chair wrestling with the family problems of the day, she would simply remain present with me. She would walk up, scrunch my hair, and bring me back to an awareness that she was present with me in my pain and suffering. “Penny for your thoughts,” she would tell me. “Nickel for your kiss,” I would reply, and in that moment I realized that we were united in bonds of love that broke through so much confusion and stress. In that moment, I experienced peace.