I want to begin with some reflections on language. There are many words and phrases in English that are broadly evaluative. To apply one of these expressions to a person or to a thing is not just to describe that person or that thing, but to offer an evaluation of some kind too. And we can divide these expressions into two broad categories: there are the positive ones, the ones that are used to commend; and there are the negative ones, the ones that are used to disparage.
Here are some terms of commendation: ‘kind’, ‘compassionate’, ‘easy on the eye’, ‘delicious’, ‘soothing’. And here are some terms of disparagement: ‘selfish’, ‘callous’, ‘a real eyesore’, ‘disgusting’, ‘annoying’.
But there are puzzling cases too—cases that are not so straightforward to classify. For instance, what about ‘nice’? I don’t mean in its sense of ‘precise’ or ‘subtle’, as when we talk about a nice distinction—although there might be some puzzlement about that case too! I mean in the sense it has when we describe a person as nice. Most of us, I think, regard this as a compliment. But it can also be used in a rather damning way, to suggest a kind of feebleness. Football pundits often use it to criticize a player who is not up for the metaphorical fight—or possibly even not up for the literal fight!
Or what about the word ‘photogenic’? It’s never been entirely clear to me whether or not describing someone as ‘photogenic’ is complimentary. On the one hand, it is nearly always taken as such. On the other hand, it can be heard as a way of saying that photographs of the person flatter them.
Or what about the expression ‘like a child’? The English language nicely—note my use of the word ‘nicely’, by the way!—the English language nicely gets round that equivocation by giving us two separate alternatives: ‘childlike’ to commend; ‘childish’ to condemn.
Or what about the phrase ‘doesn’t suffer fools gladly’? You’ll often hear this said of people, particularly in the past tense in obituaries, with a tone of respect and admiration. But if suffering fools gladly means treating stupid people with patience and kindness, then the Gospels abound with examples of our Lord doing precisely that.
The phrase ‘suffer fools gladly’, as many of you will know, comes from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. And if you’re interested, after this morning’s service, it’s worth going back and having a look at what exactly Paul is doing with the phrase. But, be that as it may, it’s a familiar phrase from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that has prompted these reflections of mine—a phrase that occurred in the epistle reading from this morning’s lectionary. I am talking about ‘being all things to all people’, a description that Paul willingly confers on himself.
I say ‘willingly’. A more hostile way of putting it would be to say ‘smugly’. At any rate Paul obviously feels no shame in applying this phrase to himself. Yet for many of us, particularly when we think of the phrase being used in connection with politicians, it has negative connotations. It calls to mind that wonderful Groucho Marx line: ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them... well, I have others.’
Do these negative connotations apply in Paul’s case? Is Paul compromising his principles in an effort to please? I am sure we would all agree that he isn’t. There is a kind of pragmatism at work here, but only to ensure success in getting a vital message across. Instead of flaunting his freedom from Jewish law, Paul has conformed to it when among Jews, in order to get his message across to the Jews. Conversely, when among Gentiles, he has stressed the irrelevance of Jewish law—though of course he remains only too conscious that a Christian must live under some law, the law of Christ. In short, he has been prepared to accommodate himself to everybody, in an effort to connect with them and to put them in touch with what really matters.
It’s not particularly mysterious. Admittedly, in practice, there may be difficult decisions about how much accommodation of this kind is possible without some compromise of principles, and I dare say that we all occasionally succumb to the temptation to conform to other people’s ways of doing things as a way of trying to win them over when it is not the right thing to do. But the idea that Paul can describe himself as all things to all people and feel no shame is not, as I say, particularly mysterious.
But I think there’s a more interesting and related question in the background. In what ways might God be said to be all things to all people? Here I’m reminded of some things that Helen said in her wonderful sermon last week. And I hope you will forgive me if some of what follows repeats things that she said then—but I think they bear repetition.
In what ways, then, is God all things to all people?
In what ways was Jesus all things to all people? Let us reconsider the passage from Mark that was read earlier. Here, very early in Mark’s gospel, we see Jesus engaged in many acts of healing. We are told that everyone in Capernaum was gathered around his door, and that all those who were physically or mentally ill were brought to him to be cured. It seems relentless and exhausting. It is perhaps not surprising that Jesus wanted some time to himself early the following morning, when he could be alone to pray.
But the passage begins with some contrasting intimacy. In verses 29 – 31, one of Jesus’s many acts of healing is described in more detail. This time the invalid is identified: it is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. And we are told how Jesus took her by the hand and lifted her up, to the point that she was well enough to act as their hostess.
The juxtaposition of this story with the subsequent account of Jesus curing so many others puts us in mind of that familiar point—a point that has become all too familiar in recent times—that whereas one death is a tragedy, a hundred thousand deaths are a statistic. But there is of course a happier variant too: whereas the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was a cause for special joy and celebration, the curing of the many others was a blended backdrop to the Gospel narrative in which Jesus went about doing good.
The third lectionary reading gives us something similar. In Isaiah Chapter 40, verse 26, we find a reference to Him who brings out their host and numbers them juxtaposed with His calling them all by name; not one, we are told, is missing.
God is all things to all people. God can meet each one of us, in our own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention. Absolute. Undivided. God focuses all of God’s attentive love on each and every one of us; all of it. There is no need for any sharing of resources here. Moreover, God is infinitely adaptable to the unique contours of each and every one of us; God is all things to each and every one of us.
I am reminded of a sermon that our former minister Susan once preached at St Columba’s, in which she memorably and beautifully described God as both utterly faithful and utterly promiscuous. For, at the same time as God is meeting you, in your own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention, God is meeting me, in my own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention, and is meeting hundreds of thousands of others, in their own particular circumstances, with absolute undivided attention. That gives hope to each of us as individuals. But it also gives hope to all of us as a community. We can know that God cares as much for each of our brothers and sisters as God cares for us; and we must also know that God is calling us into solidarity with our brothers and sisters for that very reason, so that, with God’s help, we can respond together to the challenges that we confront. This not only gives hope, it gives the kind of hope that is of course so crucial in the particular circumstances in which we have found ourselves over the past year. Thanks be to God.