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, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:20-23)
Paul seems to be describing a kind of undercover evangelical strategy here: putting on the appearance of Jewishness to evangelize Jews, and the appearance of being pagan to evangelize pagans, etc. A cynical reading would suggest that Paul is doing nothing more than listing the tricks of an Amway salesman. But I have slowly been getting to know Paul, and what I now hear him saying is this: All the religious and cultural packaging and baggage people carry around is just that - packaging and baggage. It's a container that can be filled with clutter and bullshit, or it can be filled with gold. Paul is after the gold. He is done fretting over non-essentials. He has caught hold of something essential that he wants to share with everyone he meets.
The kids in the front row of the Sunday School class are pumping their hands up in the air. They know, they know! It's JESUS!
Paul is excited about Jesus, no doubt. But two thousand years after writing his letter to the Corinthians, the name of Jesus is as encrusted with religious and cultural baggage as anything else on offer, then or now. What would Paul get excited about now? Where would he see and celebrate the "good news"?
I keep thinking back to something that got me excited this week. I keep telling people about this conversation I listened in on between Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Imam Abdullah Antepli, hosted by Krista Tippett in an episode of On Being. The episode, entitled "Holy Envy" celebrated the surprising friendships being built between Jews and Muslims in North America over the last several years.
The rabbi and the imam were funny, they were candid, they were self-critical, they were affectionate towards their own tribe and the tribe of the other. The term "holy envy" came from the experience they described that comes with the mystery of genuine encounter with a person of a different faith - the gifts that are carried by that tradition make such an impression that one finds oneself thinking, "I wish we had more of that."
And the imam confessed the toxic anti-Semitism he is trying to get out of his system, and the rabbi confessed the Islamophobia that poisons her community. They named the powerful mystery that in meeting with the other, one can meet with God, especially when the other has been one's scapegoat.
What else does the Incarnation entail?
I have to be careful here. Overlaying a Christian category onto the spiritual genius of a rabbi and an imam can easily morph into a colonizing micro-aggression. A respectful engagement must leave intact the Jewishness of the Jew and the Islam of the Muslim.
But of course, my respectful engagement has to proceed from the particular tradition in which I stand, which is Christian. And as a Christian, I have Paul's voice in my head, trying to explain something odd about how a Christian engages with religious plurality: With a Jew, become as a Jew. With a Muslim, become as a Muslim. In his terms, Circumcision/uncircumcision is nothing. The new creation is everything!
When I listened to Rabbi Bassin and Imam Antepli, my heart was in my throat. In their friendship, the real thing was happening! What is that real thing? All the words that I have to point at it with are Christian words. Their words are Jewish and Muslim words. But in them, I heard the good news and said, "Amen!"
Reading Paul this Sunday, I think he was saying, "Amen!" too.