4th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2021
Old Testament - Deuteronomy 18:15-20
New Testament - 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
INTRODUCTION: Churches, as we all know, can be funny places.
After all, while they are supposed to be places of fellowship, love, and grace, they can often be anything but that, right? There is the ideal that churches are supposed to embody, and then there is the reality.
What’s that old bit about the church? “Jesus ran around the Galilee preaching the kingdom of God,” goes the line, “only to have the church show up instead.”
And if we haven’t lived through some of the silly issues and fights churches can get embroiled in ourselves, we’ve certainly heard about them. Churches can get to fighting over whether the preacher should have a beard or not. They can argue and fuss over what color the carpet should be in the sanctuary. And, of course, let’s not forget the music wars. We love to fight over music, don’t we?
A Southern Baptist preacher friend of mine loves to claim the preferred method of Baptists for planting new churches is through congregational splits! Rather than start a brand new congregation with new members, half of a congregation usually just heads off down the road a few miles to start all over.
And while it’s much harder for Presbyterians to go about splitting and starting new congregations, we are not exempt from our own fights and disputes. Sometimes, for better or worse, that’s just the nature of church life.
ONE: And the church in Corinth...well, it really wasn’t all that different. While we tend to imagine the earliest churches being places of harmony and unity with congregants blissfully singing “Kumbaya,” they really weren’t all that different from churches in our day.
You see, the church in Corinth was in the midst of a pretty nasty dispute when Paul wrote to them. Turns out, there were those believers who were eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols during pagan worship services. Since sacrificing animals during pagan services was an almost daily custom in Corinth, the practice had developed to sell the leftover remains in the marketplace. After all, why let good meat simply go to waste?
But there were also those early believers who felt eating such meat was far from appropriate. For them, to eat meat used in pagan services violated the commandment to worship the God of Israel alone and no others.
But to such concerns, those who ate sacrificed meat liked to reply a bit snootily with lines like, “Everyone knows there is only one God,” and “Idols are just that, idols.” Those who ate such meat, in other words, felt the answer to such a theological quandary was obvious and that those who disagreed with them, well, they were, shall we say, a bit empty between the ears.
Sure that they had a handle on the truth, positive that they were right and those who disagreed with them simply needed to see the light, those who ate meat were none too shy about sharing their opinions. “Only a fool thinks there are other gods beside the one true God.” And, “What kind of simpleton thinks idols are actually alive and that sacrificing meat to them means anything at all?”
TWO: But what’s interesting, of course, is Paul’s counsel to those who felt sure it was okay to eat sacrificed meat.
For even though Paul agrees their position is actually the correct one, that eating meat sacrificed to idols is perfectly okay, he reminds them there is actually something more important than knowledge - and that more important thing is love.
Paul, as strange as it sounds, seems to be telling his fellow believers that being certain of what is right and wrong, having knowledge of what is appropriate and inappropriate, isn’t the end-all and be-all of faith. Love, Paul seems to be saying, is actually greater than being right.
Or as he likes to put it, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That’s why later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul can utter those famous words from chapter 13 about love.
Sure, we like to have chapter 13 read at weddings, which is fine, but we should also be mindful that Paul’s famous little treatise on love was originally written for a church split wide open with division because people all on sides were pretty darn sure they were right and everyone else was wrong.
“Love is patient,” wrote Paul as people glared at each other across the aisle during morning worship services. “Love is kind,” wrote Paul as folks refused to greet each other warmly in the name of Christ. “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,” declared Paul as fellow believers mumbled about each other in huddled circles in the narthex. And finally, “Love does not insist on its own way,” all while people were doing just that - insisting it was their way or the highway.
Why Paul is so concerned with love, he even goes so far as to declare that if eating meat sacrificed to idols offends some then he’ll gladly become a vegetarian. Even though he personally believes eating such meat is a perfectly fine thing to do, Paul declares he’ll give it all up in the name of love.
And while such a claim is surely laced with some rhetorical hyperbole, we get the point. While being right is undoubtedly important, love, at least as far as Paul is concerned, is sometimes even more important.
THREE: More years ago than I care to remember, I started my first call at a small church just on the western edge of the Appalachian region outside of Knoxville.
Young and full of knowledge after graduating from Vanderbilt Divinity School, I was pretty sure I was right about most things. And those who happened to disagree with me, well, beware of my wrath.
Not long after starting, I got a call one day from the matriarch of the church. Apparently, some folks in the congregation were abuzz and offended after I had been seen buying a six pack of beer at the gas station in town. Preachers, apparently, weren't supposed to do that.
I, of course, was offended right back. And so after informing the church matriarch that I was well past the legal drinking age, and that unless they found me at the town square drunk and naked trying to preach, and that there was nothing more to discuss as far as I was concerned, I hung up the phone with a clang.
Good thing we Presbyterians are into confession. Because that, obviously, I will confess, was not one of my more stellar moments.
Needless to say, I shudder to think what Paul might have said in response to my behavior. For even though I believed I was in the right at the time (and still do!), I clearly did not handle the matter well.
Or, as Paul might counsel me: “Stephen, Stephen, don’t you know knowledge puffs up, but love builds up?”
FOUR: So no wonder later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul can also write, “‘All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.”
You see, I think, for Paul, to be a person of faith is to struggle with the tension that comes anytime people seek to live in community. Namely, how do we live together with those who might have different views from our own? And Paul, for better or worse, seems convinced the answer is, finally, to love despite our differences.
After all, as Paul likes to point out, we never really know as much as we like to assume we do. Eugene Peterson in his translation of the Bible into everyday language puts part of Paul’s reading for this morning like this: “We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know...but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.”
It’s the pastoral way of saying, I think, that none of us, when cast against the vastness and grandeur of life, can claim to be intellectual giants.
There is a story about Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist. Apparently, during a trip through America one year he ended up visiting a Taos Pueblo medicine man in New Mexico named Mountain Lake.
Since Jung believed there was a collective consciousness within every society and culture that kind of undergirded and held them together, Jung was eager to speak to Mountain Lake about Pueblo culture and the things that united them.
But after a while, Mountain Lake ended up making a comment that gave Jung pause. “We think the whites are mad,” said Mountain Lake. Jung, asking why, then got the following reply, “They say the whites think with their heads.” “Why, of course, they do” replied Jung. “What else would they think with?” “Well,” said Mountain Lake “we like to think from here” as he pointed to his heart.
CONCLUSION: Well, living in community with others is hard, isn’t it?
Anytime folks start gathering together, it’s only natural for there to be tension and disagreements - especially when it comes to communities of faith.
After all, when being properly faithful, we tend to wrestle with, discuss, and think about pretty important topics, right? So it’s only natural for there to be friction and disputes.
But while thinking with the head is surely an important and a big part of faith, we can’t forget about the need to also think with our hearts.
For sometimes, being loving is actually more important than just being right.
And now to the Ruler of all worlds, undying, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever! Amen.