While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Meeting the Need
“I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some.”
When I was a teenager, the Moonies were a powerful force in religious life. They were called the Unification Church and were considered a dangerous cult by many people.
One of the accusations levelled against them was that they followed a doctrine of Heavenly Deception which permitted a follower to lie to others to lead them to conversion, and a greater truth. That idea scared a lot of people and soon similar accusations were being made against Evangelical branches of many Eastern Religions.
I remember reading these words of Paul and wondering about them: Was Paul doing the same thing: being a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, under the law and free from the law? How should we understand this?
We even have that clever section of the book of Acts where Paul speaks in the Areopagus in Athens and introduces his teachings about Jesus by remarking on the temple to the unknown God the Athenians had erected, to make sure they didn’t unknowingly offend any deity and then telling them that he would reveal that God to them in the person of the God of Israel.
We know that Paul was a firm monotheist. Monotheism is the foundational belief of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God is one God.” And if you look at what Paul is recorded as saying, he never pretends to be anything else. He merely acknowledges that the pagan crowd he is addressing believes in many gods, not that he does himself.
I think that gives us a handle on what Paul was really doing: he was putting himself in a position of understanding his audience.
Paul was Jewish, and very well trained. So when he was being a Jew to the Jews it was simply part of who he was. What it meant for him was that he was prepared to make an argument following the principles of the law of Moses, even though he didn’t feel bound by that law anymore.
Paul had grown up among the Greeks and so speaking in their cultural terms would have been easy for him. It would have included talking comfortably about many gods without giving up his own belief in only one God.
Paul was not trying to deceive anyone; he was trying to speak in their own language. Paul was listening to people and engaging with them in their world instead of trying to impose his world on them.
Paul’s vision of the universe left no room for other gods or idols. Our lesson from Isaiah is one expression of faith Paul believed. Paul would have considered the gods of the Greeks to be petty, soap-opera characters, humans writ large rather than the all-supreme God Isaiah describes. And Paul would have taken great comfort in Isaiah’s description which combines the supreme power of God with the promise of God’s love and help.
What Paul was trying to do would have taken a great deal of listening, of understanding, of putting himself into the shoes of others. We know very well that Paul understood the challenges Jesus raised for Jewish people. A lot of the book of Romans is devoted to unpacking all of that.
And we also know that Paul had an appreciation for what the Gentile Christians wanted. He took a forcible stand against James, brother of Jesus and Peter in Jerusalem, to allow non-Jews to become followers of Christ without circumcision. He was prepared to challenge the Jewish dietary laws that early Jewish Christians still followed. And he even wrestled with the issue of meat offered to pagan idols and whether Christians should be allowed to eat that.
His conclusions are amazing: he comes down on the side of freedom, for the most part, but also puts the onus on people of faith not to let their freedom damage the faith of another. Once again, he was thinking of the needs of others and insisting that as people of faith, we are called to put the needs of others ahead of our liberties.
Paul was able to think critically and deeply about what mattered most in the gospel; not only to interpret it in traditional ways but to discover its core value and present it to new people and cultures with as little baggage as possible.
During the age when missionaries were being sent out from Britain, France, Spain and Portugal, they brought all kinds of cultural assumptions and taught them as if they were the will of God. They taught people what clothing they should wear to be “decent” and challenged all kinds of cultural practices, not because they had studied them and saw them as harmful but because they didn’t match the dominant culture. They even interfered with their sex lives, insisting that the “missionary position” was the only way to have sex that was approved by God.
How different would life be now if the missionaries had come to listen; had developed relationships with the people of the land; had learned their way of seeing the world and had offered the teachings of Jesus as a gift instead of as a set of rules to be enforced to keep people from Hell?
Some did try: Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit Missionary, is renowned for writing the Huron Carol. The English translation is full of problems but the original uses the Huron/Wendat language not just for words but also for the spiritual understanding shared by those people.
Brébeuf lived with the Wendat people for years, learning their ways and culture before writing this hymn. He had a lasting impact on their lives.
As a student, I took a course in missions at the Jesuit college in Toronto. The ethical position they were taking at that time was that if we want to ask other people to consider sharing our beliefs, we have to put ourselves into a vulnerable position. We have to risk being convinced to share their beliefs, or we have no right to try to convince them of anything.
Imagine if we had come here with that attitude? There certainly would have been no Residential Schools if we had remembered that we could share a gift of love without having to destroy a culture.
Paul tried to be all things to all people and we should make that effort too: to connect, to build relationships, to understand where people are coming from.
This isn’t just about missionary work, either. Our culture is becoming remarkably intolerant these days about all kinds of things and is often determined to ignore the context that produced a person, an opinion, a piece of art.
An “us vs. them” mentality has become prevalent today and in some ways we can even look more Victorian than the Victorians themselves did.
People take stands quickly these days: making pronouncements about what is right and wrong and it might be tempting to do this since we’ve had centuries of practise.
But before we give in to that temptation, we are called to be all things to all people: to build relationships, to develop understanding, to build bridges based on mutual respect – the kind of respect that is earned – by doing the work of getting to know actual people and letting them change us as we grow to appreciate what they have to teach us and as they add to the richness of our spiritual journey.