A Sermon for the 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

Year B – 8 February 2015

John Edward Miller, Rector

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.          – 1 Corinthians 9:16-23


The Collect

Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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.

Were it not for Paul’s explanation that he was doing this deliberately, his inclination to “become all things to all people” sounds as though he could use a good therapist. The diagnosis might have been “weak ego center,” or a personality disorder of some kind. Woody Allen, who is himself no stranger to therapy, and who loves to incorporate psychiatric themes into his screenplays, wrote and produced a humdinger of that sort in his 1983 mock-documentary, Zelig. The movie contains black-and-white footage of scenes supposedly filmed in the 1920s. The subject of these clips, and of the commentary of modern analysts, is a fictitious personality named Leonard Zelig. The consensus of the interpreters is that Zelig’s ego is almost non-existent, so that he needs to take on the characteristics of the people around him in order to be. If he is among thugs, he looks like a thug; if he is with an African American jazz group, he becomes an African American; if he is among the socialites, he becomes a socialite. Zelig’s quest to fit in and be accepted enables him to become a virtual carbon copy of the people with whom he associates. However, his own self in effect does not exist.

Zelig’s flaw was that he had to assume the identity of someone else in order to become somebody at all.

Anyone who reads the letters of Paul knows that he was clearly no Zelig. Paul’s sense of self was highly pronounced and often proclaimed. He knew that he was somebody – he knew his pedigree, and he celebrated his credentials. Listen to what he wrote to the Philippians:

If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.[1]

Paul, as my friend Holt Souder used to say, was “a right positive person.” He had few doubts about his worth or his vocation. And yet his certainty about life and faith proved to be both an asset and a liability. In his early years Paul was certain that the Jesus movement was illegal, and he pressed hard against it. His persecution of Christians ceased only when he was thrown off his high horse and onto his keister by the intervening presence of the risen Christ. Paul’s ego had blinded his view of Jesus and his followers; on the Damascus Road the light of truth blinded him physically. This humbled him, and his recovery of sight convinced him to pursue with renewed zeal the way of Christ Jesus. Fortunately, though, he was given the grace to restrain himself. With his ego in check, Paul was able to reach out to those with whom he differed. Although he could still get angry with his detractors, Paul was significantly changed. He was no longer exclusive and intolerant, because he was convinced that there is a better way to live than that. As he explained to the Corinthians,

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.[2]

Someone who has the presence of mind and spirit to write such words as those is not lacking a sense of self. The Paul we know through his letters is a still a force to be reckoned with; however, the power that drives him now is the grace of God, rather than the need to be right, subduing everyone who does not share his views. This has happened because Paul knows the love of Christ firsthand; it has opened his eyes and transformed his vision. “Whatever gain I had,” said Paul, “I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”[3]

If it is not the desire to be somebody that defines Paul’s will to be “all things to all people,” then why does he feel the need to accommodate the ways of others? Why not simply be himself, and let the chips fall as they may? Or was the new Paul made suddenly shy – timid about what he’d done in the past, and anxious about being a newcomer among strangers?

Years ago, my son John was cast in short film entitled, Chameleon Man. Produced by a Japanese artist named Daisuke Kato, the project was a mythical fantasy that described a means of coping with pain and loss. John played the film’s title role, portraying a homeless man who receives an extraordinary gift from an unlikely source. John’s character was that of a drifter who was subsisting on the streets of an urban wasteland. The cause of the man’s homelessness was psychological torment. He was in despair over the loss of his young son, and he could not see beyond the dark pit of grief in which he lived.

One day, as he lay in misery, the man looked up and realized that he was staring into the eyes of a chameleon. The small lizard mesmerized him into a hypnotic trance, and in that altered consciousness, the man was given the chameleon’s power to blend into his surroundings.

The upshot of that bizarre meeting of minds is that the man could virtually disappear whenever he felt threatened, or was harassed, or hurt by malicious people. The way that the movie depicted the transformation was to show the character in a skin-tight, silver-colored bodysuit covering him head-to-toe. (It was a good thing that John was fit and slim!) When the “chameleon man” summoned his power, he could move undetected through crowds of people. No one could see him; it was as if he were invisible, like a stealth fighter that cannot be spotted on Radar. The character of the “chameleon man” did not want to be seen; he just wanted to be left alone. His loss was all the pain that he could bear.

This was not Paul’s motive in becoming like the people that he was meeting on his missionary journeys. A chameleon wants the safety of blending in with the environment. That is its cloaking device. Paul’s approach to all sorts and conditions of people was just the opposite of veiling himself in order not to be noticed. The apostle wanted to so identify with the people he encountered that they could see him, trust him, and be open to the gospel message that he would proclaim to them. “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings,” he said. His approach to everyone was neither manipulative, nor patronizing, nor deceptive. Paul simply preached the gospel of love in the language of the hearer.

Paul’s purpose was to connect to others. He wanted to open channels of communication where there had been none. His “all things to all people” strategy was made possible because of love. It was based on the Christian virtue of mutual respect. We stated that core value in the baptismal covenant moments ago. Eleanor asked, “Will you respect the dignity of every human being?” And we answered, “I will with God’s help.” Exactly. With God’s help, we can see the value of another even though we differ from him or her in creed, race, ethnicity, political ideology, or orientation. With God’s help, we can not only “seek and serve Christ in all persons,”[4] and love our neighbor (though he is new to us), but also follow Jesus’ lead in loving our enemy, and praying for those who persecute us.[5] God’s help is powerful; it can bridge the chasms of difference that divide and separate us.

The first time I met the Reverend Edward Meeks Gregory was at Union Seminary in 1972. His dress and style were different from anything I had experienced at the seminary. He had a white full beard, and wore his white hair long, almost touching his collar – which, I might add, was white, and round, and attached to the neckband of his black clerical shirt. His glasses were perched on his head, and he characteristically wore a tweed jacket and charcoal slacks, making a natty fashion statement as he walked Union’s campus. This man, I was told, was nicknamed “Pope” Gregory because of his religious inclinations. Pope was a priest of the Episcopal Church, and he stood out among the many southern Presbyterians who taught at Union or who were studying for the ordained ministry. His was the only clerical collar I saw there for the nine years I was a student. In those days Episcopalians were rare birds in those hallowed Calvinist halls.

Pope visited the seminary to confer with two of my teachers – Donald Dawe and Ross Mackenzie (the Scottish historian, not the esteemed editor). I learned that my professors were attending services at St. Peter’s, Church Hill, where Pope was rector. That kind of crossover, between Presbyterians and Episcopalians, was also uncommon then (but I can personally vouch that it’s not so now!). The meetings were about establishing connections between the seminary, which served a predominantly white student body and a parish church that was predominantly African American. And they were also about establishing a new ministry on Church Hill – the one that has become the Peter-Paul Development Center, place where love transforms hopelessness.

After I was ordained, I came to know Pope more closely. I visited St. Peter’s and heard him preach, and I co-officiated services with him. His voice was distinctive – it was classically Virginian, but so breathy that I had to listen carefully to understand him. His background was one of privilege, and he had the advantages of not only family name but sophistication to give him entrees into circles that he could draw upon for help. You see, Pope was a Christian activist who believed that we have an obligation to break down barriers. He was a champion of ministries that affirm and connect people.

Whether it was raising funds to educate privately students in Prince Edward County during Massive Resistance in the 1950s, or founding the Daily Planet in Richmond, serving the homeless and the hungry, or serving as president of the Richmond-Petersburg Council on Human Relations, where he tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to add sexual orientation to the cities’ code of non-discrimination, or being the chaplain to Richmond’s branch of Dignity/Integrity, which promoted the rights of LGBT members of the Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches, or working to improve lives in the poorest neighborhoods of Church Hill, or supporting the spiritual life of boarding and day students at Christchurch School, Pope was there, losing his life for others and finding his life in Christ.

When Pope died in 1995, the funeral procession from St. Paul’s Church entered the gates of Hollywood Cemetery and wound its way to a gravesite marked with a stone that he had designed. On its granite surface is inscribed a Latin word: Pontificeamus, which means, “Let us build bridges.” The word summed up Pope’s life and vocation. He was a cultured Christian man who served everyman by becoming all things to all people. The bridges he built were costly, but were worth every ounce of effort poured out for the sake of love. And love never ends.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.



[1] Philippians 3:4b-6.

[2] I Corinthians 13:4-8a.

[3] Philippians 3:7.

[4] This reference, and the preceding, are excerpts from the “Baptismal Covenant,” the Book of Common Prayer, p. 305.

[5] Matthew 5:44.