Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:21–31 | Psalm 147:1–11, 20c | 1 Corinthians 9:16–23 | Mark 1:29–39
“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”
What does it mean to become all things to all people? And in what ways are these words being directed to us today?
We are living in a society which cares a lot about identity. For many, it seems, the highest purpose in life is all about figuring out, or perhaps even crafting, ‘who it is we really are’… the journey of self-discovery, summed up well in these famous words from the play Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” For many, being authentic, ‘being yourself’, has become the greatest goal.
And yet… at the very same time there’s the crushing pressure to find acceptance… to receive approval and welcome from the people we value in life. No one wants to be shunned, to be rejected or excluded, and one of the easiest ways to avoid that seems to be to try and fit in… to adjust aspects about ourselves to blend in with the group… or as the marketing slogan goes: “Give the people what they want.” Even if this means we have to put on a bit of an act.
“Be yourself”, and “be like us”. “Be unique” and “be sure to fit in.” These two conflicting messages are pulling on us all. And into this mix, we hear the words from St. Paul’s letter this morning, speaking about how he became “all things to all people.” Though it may at first seem like St. Paul has simply chosen his side… that is, ‘fitting in’, even at the cost of authenticity… there’s actually something in his words and life which moves us far beyond our culture’s quests for self-discovery, or finding community. But to better understand what St. Paul is calling for, I think we would do well to turn again to today’s Gospel text: to the first Chapter of Mark, and his story of Christ’s first healing.
Our Gospel reading today takes place right after last week’s encounter in Capernaum, between the man with the unclean spirit and Jesus of Nazareth. We heard last week how with a word, Christ cast the unclean spirit out, powerfully revealing His clear spiritual authority. And so today, we heard that right after this amazing event in the synagogue, Jesus and His first disciples went to the house of Simon Peter and Andrew (probably to enjoy their own version of Hymn Tortons), and there they find Peter’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. Even today, with modern medicine, this could have been quite dangerous. Back then, this could have easily been a matter of life and death.
But easily, and astonishingly, Jesus takes her hand and raises her up from her sick bed, and she’s completely healed. Word spreads, and once the Sabbath was over at sunset, the whole town had gathered at the door, bringing to Jesus everyone who was sick, or was suffering at the hands of an unclean spirit. And Jesus brought to them God’s healing and rescuing power; restoring their bodies, minds, and spirits, working well into the night in order to bring them rest at last.
So far, so good. Everything seems to be going smoothly. Jesus has a chance to do some real good in this community, building up his base of support, at the same time. But in the morning, we heard Jesus was nowhere to be found. And when the disciples tracked Him down and tried to explain that “everyone is searching for you”, Jesus replies: “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also” (Mark 1:38).
Why go so soon? Why would He leave, when there’s still so much to do? The people of Capernaum, not to mention His own disciples, wanted Him to stick around. The crowds saw His power to bring them spiritual and physical freedom beyond their deepest hopes. The disciples saw how the people were all being powerfully drawn to Him. They saw the beginnings of a movement with real momentum. Their new Rabbi had the potential of becoming an influential leader, and no doubt, as His apprentices they’d rise in status along with Him.
But despite the expectations of the people, and His followers, Jesus was looking elsewhere for His sense of direction. That is, in His connection with the Living God, His Father. Despite the outside pressure, Christ knew His mission meant moving on from Capernaum. The New Testament scholar, R.T. France puts it all this way: “The disciples assume, and the people are demanding, that things should continue as they have so impressively begun. But Jesus has other priorities; his primary mission is not to be a wonder-worker but to proclaim the kingdom of God.” To spread the word… proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom everywhere. “For that is what” Jesus said, He “came out to do.”
France drives home the point by stating that: “Here for the first time we meet a recurrent theme of the gospel, that of the difference between Jesus’ programme and his disciples’ (and still more other people’s) expectation…his whole conception of how God’s kingship is to be made effective is quite different from theirs. While they would naturally pursue the normal human policy of taking advantage of popularity and building on success on their own home ground, following Jesus will increasingly involve them in having to learn a new orientation.” Jesus understood His mission, what His whole life was about, in a way that constantly challenged the assumptions of the people around Him. He was not seeking to fit in with the expectations of others, but neither was He simply seeking after His own path. No, Christ was constantly committed to the will of His heavenly Father. He was bent on accomplishing what He was sent to do: to announce and enact the Kingdom of God. And to follow Him means having our lives reoriented too. Not by our search for self, or our quest for acceptance, but by the rescuing love of the Living God… for all people.
Which leads us back to where we started with the words of St. Paul: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” As a follower of Jesus, His Apostle, sent out to the peoples of the earth, St. Paul was not simply seeking to ‘give the people what they want’. He was so focused on what was most important, on what was essential, that he was able to be flexible for the sake of his mission: bringing the Good News of Jesus, the Risen Lord to all people… that they may come to know and trust in His powerful, saving love, and share along with him the blessings of New Life in God’s Kingdom.
Like Jesus before him, St. Paul did not go along with what everyone wanted. Rather, he learned to let go of any obstacle that got in the way of the Gospel… including his own freedoms, plans, and advantages… so that, as far as possible, he could help people from every walk of life, and every nation, hear and receive the Good News of Jesus Christ. N.T. Wright summarizes St. Paul’s point like this: “Paul’s rights, his freedoms, are as nothing; what matters is whether people are being won for God, being saved from the corrupting wickedness around and within them, being rescued from darkness and brought into the light.” His whole identity was being reoriented around the Gospel: above all else, being true to His loving Saviour, who gave His life to rescue and welcome us all.
In becoming “all things to all people”, St. Paul was walking in the way of Christ’s self-emptying love. He was imitating the One who is the Eternal Son of God, yet who humbled Himself completely, and took on all of our weakness, dying on the cross to save us. Though we are not all called like St. Paul to be Apostles, we all have been invited into Christ’s Kingdom mission: to share, in our own ways the saving love of God… with all people. People in our households. People in our communities. People we may never meet in person. People everywhere.
If we the Church are to be true to this calling on our lives, what are the ways we need to be re-oriented again? Are we content to try and keep God close at hand? To keep to ourselves the gifts of His healing, comfort, and freedom?
Are we mostly concerned with keeping our own community intact? For the growth of our Parish? The success of our ministries? For own sense of security and identity as Christians?
All of these things have their own place within the Kingdom of God. We know Christ heals, frees, and raises up a community bound to Him in love, and it is not wrong for us to look for these blessings from His hands.
But as the Christians, as the Church, there is much more to our story: we are to be the means by which these blessings are shared with all people, the voice by which the word of God’s Good News is spread to everyone.
So, may we learn to be true above all to Christ our Saviour; finding our true identity as His own beloved people; flexible enough to be open to all people, so that they too may come to know and trust in His saving love, and share with us in the New Life of God’s blessed Kingdom. Amen.
 William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d.), 45.
 “Hymn Tortons” is what we at St. Luke’s Gondola Point call our pot luck fellowship meal, which before the pandemic began, we shared together after service each week.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 112.
 Ibid., 111.
 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 117.