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 9:23
This is one of those passages I've done a lot of wrestling with. Because spent most of my twenties learning the hard way that it's impossible to be all things to all people. Being raised to be a people pleaser, I got myself in all kinds of trouble in my younger years by doing just that. Paul describes how he's become a slave to all and has become all things to all people - what is he trying to get at?
Paul writes that to the Jews he became as a Jew, in order to connect with Jews. To those under the law he became as one under the law (though he did not consider himself to be under the law) so that he might connect with those under the law. To those outside the law he became as one outside the law (though he knew himself to be under Christ's law) so that he might connect with those outside the law. To the weak he became weak, so that he might connect with the weak.
I think that while Paul may sound like he's being a self-denying chameleon or a martyred doormat, I hear Paul trying to say is that the most natural thing to do is to connect with them - because we are already connected in our common humanity. Paul came to understand that no one is superior to anyone else - that we are all one under God. That there is no such thing as Greek nor Jew, male or femaie, slave or free.
As I read this passage now, I no longer hear Paul saying that he has to twist himself into uncomfortable molds to win over others. Rather, he is simply stating a simple truth - that everyone belongs to the same body. I've begun to see this passage, not as a description of Paul giving himself away until there's nothing left, but Paul celebrating the core of who he really is. He knew that his deepest identity was that he belonged to Christ. As he wrote elsewhere, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."
If you trust completely in God's love for you, you can be fully present to others, whoever they are - whether insider or outsider, weak or strong. And if you surrender yourself into God, you never need to worry about giving too much of yourself away, for there is no way to lose God's infinite presence in and around you. As Paul says, if you surrender yourself and live for the sake of the Christ's gospel, you will find that you will also share in all its blessings.
Paul sure gets a bad rap sometimes for what he says and how he says it, but it's really hard it is to talk about the huge and mysterious things of God for which there are no adequate words. I'm grateful that our lectionary gives us repeated chances to come back and wrestle with tough bible passages in order to uncover the deeper truths they are pointing to, and then to share in its blessings.