Cross Carrying Fools
"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.... I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some."
- Paul, from his first letter to the church at Corinth.
I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a follower of Christ this week.
There are a hundred or more wisecracks that I am sure could be made at this point.
Yes, I am a Christian pastor, and yes, thinking about what it means to be a follower of Christ is sort of in my job description (or at least it should be...I might have to have that added, actually).
But there are things that get moved to fore sometimes. Like, for example, disputes over the copier contract, icky staffing decisions, editing the worship bulletin and creating, printing and cutting bulletin inserts that were brought in at the last minute--conveniently when I have no administrative support. I realize that I am whining. Just give me a minute. I have one more stack of bulletin inserts to cut. There. I'm good now.
So this week, despite all of the other schtuff, I found myself really grappling with the whole concept of being a Christ-follower, especially when I began to read, re-read and then proceed to seriously dig in to the lectionary passage for this week from I Corinthians chapter 9. The verses that I included in the prologue to this essay are directly from this chapter. They are, I am pretty convinced, the central thesis (for lack of a better word) of Paul's theology of the discipleship--a theology that is both formed and informed by the Incarnation.
I used to think that this passage of Scripture was just about evangelism. You know, get to know someone, find common ground, discover that you went to the same middle school, or that you both wore parachute pants and went to see Wham! in the 80's... and then POW! You nail them with the Gospel. Game. Set. Match. So there's probably variations on a theme here, but I get the sense that for most Christians that's pretty much the general consensus on what Paul is pushing in I Corinthians 9.
It couldn't be further from the truth.
Paul isn't talking about being amiable. He's talking about radical discipleship, dying to self, becoming less, and so completely embracing a new identity in Christ that all of the old allegiances, loyalties, traditions, what-have-you are null and void.
The people Paul is writing to in I Corinthians were from the city of Corinth---a wealthy sea port that was near Athens and directly across the Aegean Sea from Ephesus, where Paul happened to be when he wrote the letter. The ekklesia or "church" at Corinth was struggling with divisions, strife over power and who held it, ill will between the "haves" and the "have-nots," and pretty much all of the other things that affect communities of faith. Not much has changed in 2000 years. That doesn't cheer me, by the way.
Paul's approach to the problem is to help the Corinthian believers begin to see themselves differently, to understand that they were no longer divided in the way the world, their culture had tried to divide them. They were "new in Christ." In fact, because of Christ they were able to more clearly see how they could become more completely human as God had intended them to be. These were (and are) radical notions.
Paul's understanding of how radical this all is begins with his own heritage and his own traditions. "To the Jews, I became as a Jew," Paul writes. Think about that for a moment. First, Paul was a Jew. There was no becoming as a Jew if he, in fact, happened to already be Jewish. And second, Paul wasn't just Jewish, as he let his readers on more than one occasion, he was Jewish. He was born of the tribe of Benjamin (a really good family) a Pharisee among Pharisees (he kept the rules and regulations of his religion quite well) and he studied under the greatest Hebrew scholar and teacher of his day, Gamaliel. Not too shabby.
So with all of that pedigree, and all of that reason to be triumphant in his Jewishness, Paul abjures it in favor of his new life in Christ. New life, new identity in Christ first, Jewishness second.
Then he goes on to break it down even further. "To the Gentiles," he writes, "I became as a Gentile." For a really good ancient rabbi like Paul, it would be impossible to be in community with non-Jews without defiling himself. Every moment that he spent with new Gentile converts would have driven him to repentance, and the need for cleansing. But, again, Paul sets all that aside and declares that these "former things," as he called them once, had no place in his new identity.
As if that wasn't enough, Paul then busts out with this challenging phrase. "To the weak," he says, "I became weak." I love this. Paul doesn't say, "I became as a weak person," he proclaims that he became weak. And weak here doesn't refer to someone who is ill, or who can't lift a finger. It's powerful. It means those who have been left out, marginalized, who have no voice of their own. He called them the "nothings," in the first chapter of the letter. This is the extent that Paul is willing to go to in order to be a follower of what was called "The Way." Becoming nothing in order to win "some" to Christ.
And the reason why Paul desperately wanted to become nothing for the sake of the Gospel is because he understood what the Incarnation meant. The "Incarnation" is a word that essentially means "in the flesh." God became flesh through the power of the Spirit in Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus we know what God says, feels, and how much God loves. Because Jesus, in the words of Paul, "being of the very nature of God, humbled himself and became a servant, who was obedient even to the point of death on a cross," we can know the kind of radical new life that we now have as a result.
I don't think that the Church fully gets this, to be honest. The truth of the Incarnation is too radical, too messy for most Christians, who have grown complacent hearing about how they can have their best life now, if only they are purpose driven enough, and are born in the right country.
What will it take for us to let go of the old loyalties we cling to that keep us from becoming "all things to all people?" What will it take for us to realize that as Christians who make up the Church, we can't go on any longer just going through the motions, never really committing to the new life we are called to live in Christ. We can't keep structuring our lives and our church ministries around the preservation of the status quo. The Church does not exist for itself and neither should those who call themselves Christians. For Paul, it wasn't acceptable to simply say you were a believer, and then keep living life the same old way. It was about living a new life, with a new identity and new instructions on how to be human. It was about God becoming flesh--the Incarnation---and showing us who we really are.
When the truth of the Incarnation becomes like mother's milk to the Church we will see revival. We will see the re-birth of a band of "Cross Carrying Fools," who understand that becoming weak for the sake of Christ requires strength that none of us have. And then, to steal a beautiful poetic phrase from Maya Angelou, "We will come to it."