SJF • Epiphany 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.+
At the retreat I attended the week before last, the gathering reflected on the tension between the works of charity — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and so on — and the works of justice — seeking to transform society by getting down to the roots of what causes hunger, poverty, and an inefficient health care system. One thing with which I came away from this discussion was how, for the church, it is a “both / and” situation. We are called to help the individuals who come across our path with food, clothing, and care — like the Good Samaritan. But we are also called to work for the good of the whole society in which we live, to help fight the causes of hunger and poverty. I also noted that Jesus, in his own ministry, takes part of both aspects — immediate charity and systemic change — he heals those who come before him, but also — on the cross, and through his blood — heals and saves the whole world.
Many who have no belief in God, even a few atheists down through history, have said that while they can accept Jesus as a good and wise man, even if they don’t accept him as the Son of God; they can see he taught good things, did good things, even healed the sick — though they ascribe his ability to heal to his persuasive personality acting on suggestible individuals, rather than to supernatural power acting on disease and demons.
And it is easy to see how a shallow reading of the Gospel might lead to this assessment. Jesus does spend a good deal of his time preaching and teaching and especially healing.
Our gospel today is a good example. Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law. Word spreads and the sick and possessed of Capernaum gather at the doorstep come sundown, and he cures many of them. Even Peter sees Jesus in this light, as a great healer, and chases after him when he leaves in the early morning, to bring him back to the village to continue the healing work.
What Peter fails to understand, and what the non-believers are even further from understanding, is that Jesus does not see himself primarily as a healer of the sick, but as the bearer of a message. Jesus does do the exhausting work of healing in response to the crowds who seek his touch, and we know it was exhausting from the story of the woman with the hemorrhage; you recall, she crept up behind Jesus and said, if I only touch the hem of his garment, I’ll be healed. And she did so, and what did Jesus feel? He felt the power drain out of him, as that healing took place. So we know it was exhausting to him.
So when morning comes he slips away in the pre-dawn darkness so he can have a little rest and to collect himself, and most importantly, to pray. And when Peter comes after him, to drag him back because “everyone is searching” for him, Jesus tells him that it is time to move on to other towns, time to move on to proclaim the message, for that is what he came to do.
Jesus did not come to earth to set up a clinic, to settle down as a Galilean country doctor, but to spread the good news of salvation — which is the healing of the whole person, body and soul, from the deadly effects of living in this fallen world of ours. He came to save that world itself, from the effects of its fallenness.
Jesus did not want to be everything to everybody, a jack of all trades but master of none! Jesus came to reveal himself not as everything to everybody but as One for all, the master of God’s household, come to set that house in order. He is even more than the bearer of a message — he the message itself: he is the Word of God.
Jesus came to earth not simply to heal a few Palestinian Israelites of their maladies, but to heal all of fallen humanity from its enslavement to sin. Jesus came to earth not simply to teach some basic principles of good behavior, justice and fairness, but to be the source of light and life for the world. Jesus did not come to earth simply to spread the good news, this gospel: he was the good news. Jesus only had to be himself to be the living presence of God — the Word of God made flesh — for that is what he was. After all, there were dozens of preachers and teachers and healers in first century Israel. But there was only one Son of God.
Ultimately, the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t about all his good deeds as teacher or healer, but about who he was, and who he is: the Son of God, the savior of the world. This is the heart of the gospel truth.
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Saint Paul, on the other hand, knew very well that he was not the message, he was not the Word of God, but the messenger, one who delivered the Word of God. Preaching the gospel was no source of pride or boasting, it was an obligation, a commission, a duty. In his preaching Paul worked every angle, taking every opportunity to make the gospel accessible to as many different sorts and conditions of people as he could, always with that goal of winning them to Christ, always with the goal of bringing them to salvation.
Because Paul was the messenger, he knew how important it was that his message be understood. And so he took on many roles to reach many people, to meet people “where they were” and to speak to them in a language they could understand, so that the precious message wouldn’t pass them by. To his fellow Jews Paul emphasized his own background in Judaism, as a disciple of the great Rabbi Gamaliel, whose teachings are recorded in the Talmud and studied by pious Jews even to this day. Paul would argue the Torah with the best of them, as well as making use of the different traditions withing Judaism, between the Sadducees from Pharisees, for instance.
To Gentiles outside the Jewish covenant, Paul moved with the ease and liberty of a Roman citizen of no mean city, a man acquainted with the latest trends in Greek philosophy, and able to quote the classical poets to Greeks and Romans as well as he was to quote Moses to his fellow Jews.
Paul did want to be everything to everybody, but only so that he could lead them to the One for all, Jesus Christ.
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So where does the church today find itself? Are we everything to everybody? One for all? Some of the leading experts on church growth point to the booming megachurches of the South and the West. These are huge building complexes with worship auditoriums ranged with rows of reclining padded seats. Instead of hymnals and prayer books, the texts are projected on giant screens during services. And those services are accompanied by orchestras, and you won’t find a child in the congregation, because the have full nursery service in a separate space; breakfast and lunch are served before and after worship, there’s a Starbucks in the lobby, you can pay your pledge with a credit card, and during the week you can attend classes not just in Bible Study but weight-loss and aerobics. These are the churches of one-stop-shopping; and if Saint James Church is a boutique, they must be the Mall of America; and they appear at first glance to be very successful. The question is, do they have members or customers?
What has happened to the gospel that Paul wanted to make “free of charge.” In the effort to be everything to everybody, is proclaiming the gospel taking second place to meet the carefully targeted needs of a consumer market?
Saint Paul always had a very clear sense about why he was being so flexible and accommodating to those he met — so that he might by all means save some. “By all means” — in whatever way he could: the goal was to save. Certainly a church needs to be willing to be open and flexible, ready to welcome all regardless of nationality or background, their culture or class. The church also is charged to provide for basic human needs. And I think we do a good job of that here at Saint James, with our efforts to help the Carpenters’ Kids; and I trust we will do even better when we complete our work on restoring the parish hall, and now that the basement office is brand-spanking new, and when we move our financial operations into that space, we will be able to start up our food pantry and thrift shop.
We are called to be more than welcoming and accommodating. We are called to provide those we welcome and accommodate with the Gospel, not just with comfortable seats and nice music, with child care and yoga classes — even with food and clothing itself — but with that message that doesn’t just reassure but challenges; not something that merely entertains, but transforms.
We can learn from Paul and his willingness to be everything to everybody, learn to be open and welcoming, and flexible and ready to adapt to the needs of a changing world. But we can also learn from Paul and from our Lord how important it is to concentrate on the message of salvation revealed in Jesus Christ.
Jesus healed, but then he moved on to proclaim the message, and finally to Jerusalem and Calvary, to the cross and the tomb, and then on to glory. The church gathers here and everywhere it gathers to meet that same Jesus, the Jesus who healed, but also the Jesus who died for us and rose again; the Jesus who shed his blood upon the cross for our salvation: which is not merely the healing of our bodies but of our souls and spirits — he is the “One for all” to whom all of our “everything to everybody” evangelism leads.
May we never tire of the daily tasks of charity, but also be not so wearied that we fail in the tasks of justice. May we welcome all, to guide them to the One. May we be strengthened to remain true to the obligation and commission that we share with Saint Paul, to proclaim the gospel, so that by all means — in every way we can — we might save some.+