Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
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. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
There are some songs that immediately bring us back to a certain point in our lives. All it takes for me to go straight back to middle school is a couple of chords and a soft, “uh-huh, uh-huh, life’s like this, uh-huh-uh-huh, that’s the way it is.”
Avril Lavigne’s debut hit was called “Complicated.” It came out at the end of my sixth grade year and if there’s anything that will speak directly to the heart of an angsty preteen finding her way in life, it’s a song about faking it to try to fit in. The lyrics complain that a friend talks differently, dresses differently, even walks and stands differently depending on who they’re trying to impress. “I like you the way you are,” Avril sings, “promise me I’m never gonna find you faking it.”
Avril is on record saying that it bothers her when people aren’t “real and how they’re just, like, putting on a face and being two-faced.”
But her frustration may not have been just with other people, but with how she herself was expected to be somebody she wasn’t. When Avril was first signed, her record label wanted her to record folks songs, music with a sort of soft, ballady, vaguely country feel. Hoping they had the next Faith Hill in their pocket, the record label pushed songs on her she didn’t want to record, and they found themselves at a stalemate.
After two years of getting nowhere, Avril started working with a group called The Matrix. After about an hour together, they realized that Avril’s vibe was nowhere near Faith Hill; everything about her screamed punk rock leanings. The next day they wrote the first draft of Complicated, which was an immediate hit. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first song Avril wrote with people who were willing to actually listen to who she was was about the importance of not pretending to be someone else.
It’s probably no surprise that the chorus to Complicated was the first thing that popped into my mind when I read this ninth chapter Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this week, with it’s most famous line: “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” Immediately I heard Avril in my head “way you’re acting like you’re somebody else/ Gets me frustrated.”
I’ll admit I bristle at Paul’s words; I’ve worked hard, since those middle school days, to learn to value authenticity over fitting in; worked hard to find peace with the fact that I simply can’t be all things to all people. Paul’s words don’t just feel challenging; this call to pretend to be someone other than who God made me to be feels downright icky. There’s something manipulative to it, the idea of pretending to be someone else in order to convert others to your cause.
This is a particularly tricky bit of scripture: what I read this morning really doesn’t tell the whole story, and in fact we can only guess what the whole story might have been. It appears that the Corinthians were second-guessing the integrity of Paul’s spiritual leadership. We have today part of his self-defense.
It seems like one of the concerns of the Corinthians is that Paul is too much of a chameleon, too willing to mimic other groups, to quick to ingratiate himself with whatever group he happens to be with. I sympathize with that concern. It’s hard to trust somebody who changes depending on the crowd they’re hanging with; hard to follow someone whose very identity changes with the wind. If the Corinthians have heard Paul preach that they don’t need to keep kosher, yet watch him adopt a kosher diet when he visits Jewish communities; if they’ve heard him preach that there’s only one true God, yet listen to him engage with debates about pagan gods with Gentiles as if the debate was valid; if they’ve been admonished not to be weak but seen Paul watering things down to folks outside the church; well, then, of course they’re going to be suspicious.
So Paul does some explaining. It’s a feature of my leadership, he says, not a flaw. I’m doing this on purpose, becoming like the people I’m with so that I can recruit them for Christ. I have the right to ignore them all, and only work with people who are already like me, but I choose to go to other groups to share the blessings of the gospel.
To be honest, I wish Paul had been a little more nuanced, but as I let my own defensiveness down, I do understand his point. Because as much as I value authenticity and integrity, there’s also something to meeting people where they are.
Two different colleagues I talked to this week about this passage brought up the concept of code switching. The term code switching initially referred to multilingual people switching between languages based on who they were speaking to, but it has broadened to mean anytime we change our way of speaking, our appearance, our demeanor to more smoothly move through different social settings.
Most all of us code switch to some degree or another. I was talking to a group of local friends a few weeks ago about my family back home, and they laughed at how I slowly slid into the deeper southern accent that I use back home. I double my natural energy level when I work with kids or youth. When I was traveling in the Middle East, I wrapped my hair and shoulders in a scarf in Islamic holy spaces. I have a suit jacket I bring out when I need to prove to strangers than I’m a valid professional. And as much as it kills me, I know I have a preacher’s voice when I’m up here behind the pulpit.
Some of these code switches are teeny, barely noticeable. Others are wider swings. But none of these ways I present myself feel fake. They just feel like dialing up and back parts of who I am to meet the needs of the people around me.
There’s a difference between code switching and putting on a false front, although it can be hard to tell just where the line is. I think we know it when we see it, though. There’s a difference between someone who’s tapping into the energy and enthusiasm of their inner kid to connect with young people and someone who’s trying too hard to be someone they’re not. Kids can sniff that out in a second, and they won’t trust the latter at all.
To switch between two codes, you have to actually know them both; otherwise you are just faking it.
Paul says he became a Jew, a Gentile, a weak person. And I can imagine him tapping into the parts of him that knew what it was like to be weak, to be Jewish, to live in the Roman world. I can imagine him adapting his vocabulary, his manners, his arguments to best reach the various people he came in contact with. And I imagine it did make him way more effective. We trust people who we understand, who we think understand us.
Paul’s goal was always to remove barriers to the gospel—to make it accessible and compelling. In his own words, he wanted to make the good news of Jesus Christ “free of charge.”
Adapting to the norms of other social groups was part of that work. It allowed him to speak directly to their experiences, their needs, their hopes.
Now there are churches out there who take this passage very seriously, and they will try to be all things to all people—at least on the surface. I have more than one friend who was in a congregation for years—years—before they learned they could not lead as a woman, or a divorcee, or a single parent. The church seemed hip and cool and welcoming, but at the end there was a bait and switch. The goal of acting like other people was, in the end, to get those other people to act like them.
That kind of manipulation is in direct contrast to Paul’s dedication to making the gospel free of charge. Infiltrating someone else’s culture with the goal of conforming it to our own is like putting a hidden fee in the fine print, and everyone hates hidden fees. Eventually we won’t pass the smell test, and we’ll be outed as posers.
But if we can truly tap into the parts of our story that resonates with others; if we have the skill and the self-awareness to see other peoples’ needs and respond with the gifts we have to offer; then we can share the blessings of the gospel just like Paul dreamed we could.
Sometimes that looks like being gentler than we would usually be with someone who’s undergone trauma; sometimes it looks like being more outgoing than we naturally are to befriend someone lonely; sometimes it looks like dredging up a native southern accent to put someone anxious at ease. It’s not changing who God made us to be, but using parts of our God-written story to connect with others.
This is not easy stuff, and the cost of getting it wrong is high. And we can’t control whether other people will see our efforts and be appreciative or distrustful. But in a world where so many of us are drawing lines in stone and digging in our heels about our political, religious, social, and cultural identities, the idea of how best to reach across cultures to share the good news of God’s love is one worth some consideration.
Avril, you didn’t know how complicated it could be.
Finding your authentic voice is important. But figuring out how to use that voice to speak to people who aren’t just like you is important too.
Because two thousand years later, the blessings of the gospel still need to be shared.
 Avril Lavigne (14 October 2008). Avril Lavigne talking about COMPLICATED (Streaming video). Event occurs at 0:15.