Our scripture passages are rich this week. And, for at least this preacher who falls victim to the lure of pleasing people, a bit confusing:
Paul, in his letter to the church in Corinth, talks of how he meets all people where they are, on their own grounds. He says he has "become all things to all people," for the sake of the gospel. The first thing I hear here is an expectation that I should do whatever it takes to meet the needs around me in a way that takes care of everyone.
That's a lot of work.
Then, Jesus, in the first chapter of Mark's gospel, has this weird encounter with the disciples. First, he heals this throng of people who'd come to be healed by him. Then, he takes off, early in the morning, without telling anyone. The disciples sound worried as the "hunt" for him, asking why he took off; they invite him back, because there are more people wanting to see him. But Jesus points them in a different direction: toward the neighboring towns, where he is called to take the gospel.
To me, it feels as if Paul is telling me to meet the whole world's needs, and Jesus is modeling a way of boundary-setting as he moves on, before everything's taken care of.
I wonder if, perhaps, one of the differences here is that Paul is speaking to (and teaching) a community. And, even more, a community of free people, accustomed to enjoying their own personal rights and liberties. Perhaps his claim to be "all things to all people" is an invitation to choose to do things that serve others, rather than doing what we're free to do, for our own selves. A kind of freely chosen obligation to one another.
Clearly, Paul is saying these things because he wants others to try them too: he doesn't mean to be the only person seeking to serve others' needs. Which, I suppose, is one of the tricks of servant ministry--it is most glorious and powerful when shared in community.
(I mean, have you ever been with a group of people who are trying to outdo each other in caring for one another, where no one is left to do the big pile of dishes alone, and folks share in other labor, too? It's good stuff...)
The passage we read today ends with this line: "I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings." The footnote in my New Interpreter's Study Bible tells me that this "sharing in blessings" is a legal term of Paul's time, meaning something like "to be a partner."
So, perhaps, Paul is inviting us to be partners in his firm. People who work together in service, and get a taste of God's kingdom.
I suppose that this work, just as Jesus modeled, often sends us out on new paths--refusing to let us settle for pleasing people in one place as we seek to meet the needs of a hurting, isolated world.