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Freedom to be Ourselves: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 40:21-31
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

The other day I stumbled upon a movie from a few decades ago, about the power dynamics and inner politics of the New York Theatre scene.

…It was called Muppets Take Manhattan.

And in it, there’s a memorable scene, where Kermit, in trying to pitch his musical to a big-shot Broadway producer, tries to weasel his way into a meeting by putting on a stylish pink suit, a curly wig, and a pair of sunglasses, hoping to pass as a someone from the entertainment industry.

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… so that I might win those outside the law.

Is Paul advocating for the kind of thing that Kermit was up to? I hope not, because it took that Broadway producer about two seconds to catch on and realize that standing before him was just a frog with an afro wig.

Though our initial response to Paul’s advice might be one of caution, there’s no denying that for a lot of people, it has its place in talking about evangelism (or basically, spreading the message of the Jesus and his Church). For the mission-minded, Paul is to be commended. He’s giving us a pattern of how we might do evangelism. He’s adapting to the different situations he finds himself in, to appeal to whomever he’s dealing with.

Taking inspiration from this are some aspects of what’s called the “Fresh Expressions” movement in the Anglican and other churches, which is especially big in England. The premise is that there’s an inner core of the Gospel, but it’s enveloped by an outer shell that can take on different ‘expressions.’

So if we were an old church in downtown London, England, and we realized that each Friday and Saturday night nearby dance clubs filled up with people who are part of the ‘goth’ subculture — wearing all black, black makeup, etc. — we might create a fresh expression of church that appeals to them. So we’d play up that we have an old, gothic-looking building, hold a service in the evening (just before they head out to the clubs), and we’d put the lights low, light lots of flickering candles, use incense, and sing solemn chants (maybe even in Latin); not “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” The idea is that by meeting them where they’re at, and appealing to their aesthetic tastes, and also emphasizing how our two traditions have significant overlap, we’re better able to communicate that inner core of the Gospel. That’s one way in which that reading has impacted church life today. And that’s just one example.

Or, there might be some who are a little wary of St. Paul, and Kermit, for that matter. A little concerned of what seems to be a chameleon-like nature. As people who respect integrity and honesty, Paul’s following of the Mosaic Law one day, and shirking of it the next, might seem a bit contrived. Is he inauthentic, and manipulative, trading in one costume for another, just to be accepted by whatever group he happens to be with at the time?

What I’m going to suggest is that Paul was probably coming from a different starting point altogether. Just a little bit earlier in the letter he addresses an issue that seems to be happening in Corinth: that in coming to faith and joining the Church, some are trying to undo their Jewishness (in some cases by surgical procedure), while others are trying to become like a Jew (in some cases, by surgical procedure). And while part of me admires their high threshold for pain(!), Paul has trouble with this [1 Cor 7:17-19]. Because for him, being called as a follower of Jesus means that you’ve been called at the very deepest level of your identity and existence. And your calling embraces your identity as a Jew or a Gentile, or as a fan of goth music. But it also transcends it.

For Paul the issue isn’t that we need to put on different costumes like Kermit in his pink suit, to trick people into joining the Church. For Paul the question is about our primary identity. For him, we’ve all been recreated. We’ve died and risen with Jesus. The purpose and destiny of the Church isn’t to be one sect among others. Instead, it’s ultimately to reveal the unity of the whole human family. And this foundational unity gives Paul the freedom to live like a Jew, with Jews, and like a Gentile with Gentiles.

Because his identity as a baptized follower of Jesus gives him the freedom to live in a state of, to use a term usually associated with Buddhism, non-attachment. But paradoxically, it’s his commitment and attachment to his calling as a follower of Jesus that opens up this way of freedom. So Paul’s not saying that we need to be burdened by having to appeal to everybody, and change who we are, given the situation, like Kermit in his pink suit. He’s saying that there’s freedom in the Gospel. Freedom not to obsess over our masks, or costumes; just like last week Paul wrote that they were free not to worry themselves over the question of meat sacrificed to idols.

And so for us today, we might reflect on all of this coming as it does just a little over a week from Lent. Think about Lent as a season in which we’re given the opportunity to re-centre ourselves, and come more fully to our primary identities as Christians. Through worship and study gatherings, and your own personal Lenten practices, aim to come back to who you are as someone created in the image of God, and called to bring a message of compassion to the world around you.

But those Lenten practices aren’t ends in themselves, where success in a certain discipline wins us points. Our lives are already crammed and confused with distractions and obligations. So think instead of a Lenten observance that helps you get back to your foundational self, and to let go of those lesser things that might be holding us back from the people we were created to be.

© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter