I have become all things to all people

1 Corinthians 9.22

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

I think it is not usually a compliment to say that somebody is 'all things to all men' (as it is usually put). It means that you can't really trust them at al; they're just superficially agreeable - whatever is put to them.

Needless to say, Paul the apostle, tough bruiser that he could be, did not mean quite what he seems to mean. What he meant was that he would adapt himself and his way of putting the gospel message to the audience in view - so that they could see it and grasp it. It's what any decent teacher or preacher tries to do. If you don't, what is the point of opening your mouth? And for Paul, being an apostle meant that you certainly had to open your mouth. It was his vocation, his commission from Christ. 'An obligation is laid on me', he wrote. 'Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.'

There is another feature of the passage we heard, perhaps odder to our ears and raising the earthy matter of finance: 'I make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel'.

Earlier in the passage, Paul had quoted Jesus as teaching that a preacher of the good news had a right to be paid by his hearers and converts. 'The Lord commanded', Paul put, 'that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.' Now, as it happens, all your priests at this church are, in this respect at least, like Paul: we do not get paid for this work - though it does not mean that we are destitute. We live on pensions and such, or, in the case of the Vicar, he lives by caring for me and the other lovely people who live at the Court!

Paul's reason was different and a bit more interesting: he was determined not to become the poodle of the richer members of the Christian congregation in Corinth. It can after all happen to a priest; it is always a danger if you are, for example, the chaplain to an institution and paid for doing it. If you are chaplain to a regiment or a school or a hospital, how readily do you blow the whistle? Those in power will rarely thank you, and you are never quite sure whether you are absolutely right. Paul would not run the risk: he held to his freedom and independence - or rather his dependence on Christ, his only master. And he earned his own living with his own hands. I dare say (in fact it is pretty clear) his people felt that they were not really trusted: it's not easy.

Now all this has been about the strategy and the nuts and bolts of being an apostle, one who stands for the gospel of Christ. Or, you could say, it has been about church affairs, as they were in the earliest days, and, you could say, in their elementary form; though, in different ways, the problems and the risks are still with us.

In the Gospel reading, the feeling was quite different. Apart from the brief story of the healing of Simon Peter's mother-in-law, we had a general account of Jesus' ministry - of healing and preaching the good news of God's kingdom. It was, I guess you felt, beautiful and moving; lovely to listen to, stirring to the heart. Quite different from Paul's down-to-earth, nitty-gritty arguing; which was candid and on the edge of being awkward, for all his single-minded faith and devotion.

I just want to make one point: both approaches, both moods, are valid and necessary parts of being a Christian. Our natural tendencies differ from one person to another. Some of us are practical Christians, like doing jobs, keeping the church going, helping people; not so keen on the life of prayer or growing in faith and facing the call of God to deepen and widen our love. Others of us have a yen for spiritual things and are keen to grow in faith and devotion; less keen on the down-to-earth decisions of church life or the practical needs of those around us. Some, saints we call them, are both together.

Well, both are genuine and valid parts of the God-given Christian package, and so it has always been. We need to play to our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses. We are to be true and faithful to the vision - in the real world, which is God's own good gift.

The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden


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