Liberty and the Neighbor - Sermon for Advent 4B
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Patrick Henry issued the rallying cry of the American Revolution: “Give me liberty, or give me death.” In the early days of the Republic, many citizens embraced the message of liberty by moving into the frontier, which is where our Disciples movement got its start. In true democratic fashion, we rebelled against hierarchy and tossed away the creeds. Disciples took up the cause of religious freedom, not only from government but also from religious authorities. Liberty is great, but as Paul reminded the Corinthians on several occasions, not everything is beneficial.
This morning we again find Paul dealing with the dysfunctions that mark the Corinthian church. He takes up another issue that is dividing the congregation. While it might seem like the issue is food, the real issue is the socioeconomic differences that marked the congregation. These differences were expressed through a debate about whether it was permissible to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols.
Back then, only the wealthy ate meat on a regular basis, and if you wanted a good steak you had to go to the temples. Apparently, some church members who claimed to have “knowledge,” had been dining at the local pagan temples. They decided this was permissible, because “no idol in the world really exists.” Besides, in the words of those Arby’s commercials, the temples proclaimed: “We have the meat!”
While Paul might agree that the idols didn’t really exist, and that there is only one God, he also knew that not everyone in the church was on the same page. Even if there is but one God, there is a spiritual realm that can’t be ignored. Not every spirit is a benevolent one. Besides, while knowledge by itself only puffs up, love builds up.
Paul asks these wealthy, knowledgeable, church members to consider the concerns of those whom Paul calls “The Weak.” When these sisters and brothers in the faith, who are likely poor, see their wealthier sisters and brothers eating meals at the temples that they can’t afford, they might begin to question their faith. In fact, they might even decide to abandon Jesus and return to their previous commitments.
There is a word in use today that speaks to this division in the church. We call it privilege. Paul speaks of knowledge, but it’s really privilege. Paul wants these “knowledgeable” Christians to acknowledge their privilege and consider the needs of the entire body of Christ. Let love be the guide. Choose a path that builds up rather than tears down. In other words, don’t let a steak dinner cause the spiritual downfall of another sister or brother in Christ. Paul puts it this way in verse nine, where he draws on Jewish understandings of the covenant community: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
These wealthy knowledgeable Christians had a blind spot. It wasn’t the meat. It was the belief that they had this special knowledge or gnōsis. They thought they understood the spiritual realm, but they may have missed something important. While there is only one God, Scripture does speak of spiritual opposition to God’s purposes.
We see this played out in the temptation stories, where Jesus is confronted by Satan and offered a quick path to power and glory. All Jesus had to do was sign-on with Satan’s plan. In other words, all he had to do was switch teams and he could rule the world. But, as Bruce Epperly points out: “the demonic represents that which inspires humankind to choose death rather than life” (Angels, Mysteries, and Miracles, p. 51). In the case of Jesus, he chose the realm of God over the realm of Satan. He chose life rather than death. Paul wanted these knowledgeable Corinthians to understand that there are spiritual forces that will exploit our desire for freedom to destroy the covenant community. He wants these knowledgeable brothers and sisters, to let love be the guide, because love builds up.
Now, there is a flip side to this. It’s possible to exploit this call to “love” to limit discussion of important issues in the life of the church. So, in the name of love and unity, we’re told not to talk about divisive issues like immigration, refugees, racism, or Islamophobia, because they’re too hot to handle! What if these are the kinds of issues that the Gospel addresses? What then does love require of us?
Cheryl and I recently saw The Post, which tells the story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish “The Pentagon Papers.” “The Pentagon Papers” was a government report that revealed that the government had been lying for years about the war in Vietnam. The Post decided to publish these papers despite government efforts to quash the news. When Katherine Graham, the publisher of the paper, asked her editor whether it was worth destroying the paper in order to publish the truth, Ben Bradlee responded: “If the government is telling us what to print, then the Washington Post has already ceased to exist.”
My friend Brett Younger wrote a column about the movie and what it has to say to the church. He points out:
This would be an unpopular movie if Graham did not find her footing, courage, and voice. Putting the good of the country before your own financial interest sounds corny, but it shouldn’t. The mission of a newspaper is the welfare of the people. The Post chose its mission over its security. [“If the Post was a Church, I would join.” Baptist Global News.]
Brett then suggested that the same should be true of the church. “The church, like the board of the Post, is tempted to focus on survival. When well-meaning, frightened Christians worry only about the budget, the church ceases to be the church. Institutional Christianity, like a bad newspaper, is organized, conventional, and uninteresting.”
I realize this is a dangerous statement to share on the day we receive the church budget for 2018, which includes my salary, but Brett has a point. Sometimes in the name of love, which builds up, we must take risks, so that we can remain faithful to God’s mission.
As we hear this word from Paul, I hear a word about finding that pathway that is rooted in love. In this particular instance, the challenge was the arrogance of those who claimed to have “knowledge.” It’s a problem that gets played out time and again in this letter, which is why Paul inserts a hymn about love in the middle of his discussion of spiritual gifts.
If I speak in tongues of human beings and of angels but I don’t have love, I’m a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and I know all the mysteries and everything else, and if I have such complete faith that I can move mountains but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. 3 If I give away everything that I have and hand over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done but I don’t have love, I receive no benefit whatsoever. [1 Corinthians 13:1-3].
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. So, what does love require of us? If I may return to Brett Younger’s reflection on the movie, perhaps we might have some direction:
The church has to tell the truth, be a voice for peace, and make it clear that our culture’s values are upside down. Every community has a story which tells them who they are, offers a sense of what made them great, and guides them in their decisions. Americans have the Constitution. Christians have the story of Jesus.
On this day, when we gather after the service to receive a church budget, which could be considered a moral document, what does it say about what we value? There is value in surviving. Kay Graham is right about that. But, if we survive only by denying Jesus’ call to be a people of love and justice, a people who welcome strangers and reach out to those on the margins, then is survival enough?
Paul is willing to forgo meat if that will solve the problem. But the problem isn’t the meat. The problem in Corinth is a lack of love. We Disciples prize our freedoms. As Sharon Watkins said once, “We don’t do hierarchy well.” At the same time, we have discerned a mission, a sense of identity that goes beyond mere freedom. The Disciples identity statement declares: “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” This, I believe, is true knowledge, which is rooted in love that builds up rather than destroys.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
January 28, 2018