The sermon for week January 29, 2012
KNOWLEDGE GAP, I Corinthians 8:1-13
There is a prayer that we would all do well to memorize and probably pray every day. It is brief and to the point. It goes, “Lord, where I am wrong, make me willing to change; where I am right, make me easy to live with.”
Who hasn’t stood in need of this prayer, especially the second half of it, “...where I am right, make me easy to live with.” Sometimes it is in the little things that barely matter at all, we find the greatest need for this prayer, such as your confidence over against your spouse or friend who is equally assured of the name of an actor who stared in a particular movie. Or, the day of the week you went to see that movie, or the entree they served at the restaurant where you ate before the movie, and whose fault was it the garage door was left open while you were at the movie, and in what zone you parked the car as you look for it following the movie.
So many ways to be right. It is important, however, I add to the example I just gave. It was all made up. It never happened in any conversation Sharon and I ever had. Trust me, or I could be in trouble, but this is not to say, Sharon and I have never had similar discussions where we each were so sure we were right, and stubbornly so.
We have all had these experiences of feeling ourselves to be right in what are incidental matters, but there are also issues that matter. They matter regarding our stance toward the world, in how we see the world. They come from convictions we have hard fought in arriving at. They reflect our beliefs. They derive from our faith. They come from the pursuit of knowledge sought and knowledge gained, and we can’t simply say, everything is relative and dismiss both sides by saying we are both right. The knowledge gained is too precious, the conviction too deep, existing at the very core of how we define ourselves and our world, and thus it is in matters related to our religion, our sexuality and our politics.
We have convictions and we feel right about them, but not everybody agrees with us, and this was the issue in the Corinthian Church, and it raises the question of how far our knowledge can take us and is there any hope beyond the em pass of competing ideologies and beliefs.
Before we consider these questions, however, I want to say a few good words about the church of Corinth where these questions have been raised to the fore by situations that had developed in the church. The church of Corinth is mostly known by its problems, and there are plenty, not just the issue addressed by Paul about whether or not it was right to eat meat which had been offered to idols. This church had problems with people lining up on the side of different leaders. They had problems regarding an issue of the sexual conduct of one of its members. It had a problem with some members getting drunk at communion.
This was a church filled with issues, and yes, conflict, but when Paul sat down to write his letter to them he begins with the words, “To the church of God that is in Corinth,”...and the words, “I give thanks to God always for you...” (1:2,4)
This church was a miracle in the making, a miracle of God’s grace and though there were problems, those problems could not extinguish the magnificent nature of the miracle, and what was that miracle? It was this, that in that one church alone, were members from every walk of life in Corinth. People were together in a way that had never before been done. Prior to this time all of life was segregated by race and gender and social class. You lived your life in the company of your own kind. Jews and Gentiles were segregated from one another, and for the most part, despised one another. Men ate with men, while women ate in the kitchen. Social life was found in the many guilds, carpenters socializing with carpenters, weavers socialized with other weavers, and government bureaucrats hung out with other government bureaucrats.
But not in the church of Corinth. For the first time, practically in all of human history, Jews and Gentiles sat at each other’s tables, the elite of the city and the members of the guilds prayed together, and positions of leadership in the church were shared by both men and women. It was radical. It was revolutionary. It was a miracle brought by Jesus Christ. It was a New Reality.
It is the same kind of reality we see in this congregation. We are a diversified group of people. Where else, but in the church and in families, do you see such a mixture of generations, sharing a common purpose and mission. We have baby boomers and millennialist and post millennialists. We are of various ethnic and social backgrounds, we represent different family groupings. We approach the authority of Scripture from different vantage points. Our educational and work experiences vary widely, as does our incomes, and, as well, the liberalism or conservatism of our political and religious persuasion and our life styles. But, here we are together, worshipping God and following Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
It is a miracle, but it is a miracle that sometimes outpaces the convictions with which we were raised. Our thinking has not caught up to the new way God has put us together. Our mind is still harboring thoughts born when the world in which we were raised was divided by class, by gender and by race, a world of “us” and “them.” And so it was in the church of Corinth. Many of the conflicts in that church arose because they were different kinds of people, now made one in Jesus Christ, but still imprinted upon their minds were learnings and convictions, many inherited from their past, that divided them, and one of these was the issue we read about in the Scripture lesson this morning, the issue of meat offered to idols.
The background was that in the pagan temples there were animal sacrifices and the meat from the sacrifices was both used for feasts at the temple to which the populace were invited or the meat was sold and then used for dinner parties in homes. One group within the church said we are free in Christ, we are no longer under dietary restrictions and there is no such thing as another god, so we can participate in these feasts and dinner parties.
The other group within the church was not so sure and they felt it was wrong to be so liberal and if they tried to copy their more liberal brothers and sisters and eat the meat, they felt guilty and their faith was weakened. This division was intensified because it was not just a matter of liberal and conservative, but had overtones of class division and education.
Both groups asked Paul, who is right? Curiously, Paul sided with the more liberal members. Strike one up for the enlightenment. He said, you are right, there is no reality in other gods and Christ has set us free.
Oh, to know that freedom. We are not under the law. As a young man it seemed to take me forever to realize my freedom in Jesus Christ, that it was God’s grace, not God’s judgment that enveloped me. God didn’t ask me to be an aesthetic or forbid me from a life of joyous participation in the blessings of God’s creative order. God didn’t ask me to conform to someone else’s standard. God asked me to become myself, to be me, and out of that me, find my purpose in the world.
It was liberating. I could develop my own life style. I could have my own thoughts. I crossed barriers, I wrestled with the angels, I read widely. I discovered what brought me joy. I began to grow into myself and the journey continues.
And Paul addresses those liberated Christians and says, “You’re right,” but then he applies the breaks. He says, but wait a minute. He says, “You’re knowledge is correct, but it is only partial. There is a greater reality than the knowledge you have achieved, and that reality is love,” and the word he uses for love is the word, “agape,” the highest form of love, the self giving type of love, the same love God has for us.
He says, “Knowledge puffs us, but love builds up.” In verse two he even goes further. He says, “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.”
What is going on here? We are either free or we are not. We either have knowledge or we don’t. What of all our hard fought awareness of self which we wrestled to gain? What about all our deep and abiding convictions that are expressed in everything from our values to our political persuasion, to our lifestyle? Paul doesn’t say, “You are wrong.” He says instead, there is yet a higher reality, the reality of Love that your knowledge will never fully be able to articulate or in truth, be able to lead you to your deepest self. Only love can take you there. So, we add to our prayer, “Lord, where I am wrong, make me willing to change; where I am right, make me easy to live with; Lord, teach me how to love.”
The last time I preached I began with these words, “God always calls us by name...God calls us as the person we are, the person inside of us to be...And that call is not only a recognition of the person we are in this moment, but all that God sees in us yet to become, not by becoming different than who we are, but by becoming all that we are...”
And, today, what I hear Paul saying in his counsel to the Corinthian church is that you can’t get there without love in your heart and the more love that is there, the more you come to yourself and the more you realize God’s love for you, and contrary to what our culture esteems, sometimes this means great sacrifice, not exclusively materialistically, but as well, a willingness to bracket convictions you might have on religion or politics or lifestyle, so you can be truly present to the one who is so different from you in every way, but who stands before you.
So, Paul tells the liberated Corinthian Christians, Don’t eat the meat, even though you are free to do so, but instead of your knowledge of what you are free to do, let love guide you. In your sacrifice for the other, you find the highest expression of the deepest self, the self created in the image of God. He says, addressing the church, you have all come together in this great mixture of humanity and what constitutes the Corinthian church, or what it means to be the Sylvania United Church of Christ, now care for one another, be respectful of one another, hear each others stories, walk in each other’s shoes, accept one another, find the person beneath the label or stereotype - liberal, conservative, laborer, academic, straight, gay, baby-boomer, millennialist, post millennialist - love one another. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
A long time ago I read a book by Anne Tyler that though there are many parts of it I can’t remember, I do remember how it haunted me and how it has figured in my own struggle of what it means to know yourself and come to yourself and become the person God sees in you to be.
The novel concerned a young man filled with potential and promise. He enters college, he is destined for good grades, a fulfilling career and has a bright future ahead of him, but tragedy occurs that leaves his younger sibling parentless. It means the young man must chose. Does he remain in college and find another way for his siblings to be cared for or does he quit college and return home. When I read the book I cheered for him to remain in college. I thought, he has to actualize his potential. He can’t ignore his giftedness.
Instead, he quit college, I grieved, and he returned home. The rest of his life was spent in that home, having a job but not a career, parenting his younger siblings, enabling them to have a future different than his own. At first reading the book depressed me. I thought, this isn’t fair. I thought of all that had been lost to him, but how horribly wrong I was. This man, in looking back on his life, could only affirm how blessed had been his life. In his sacrifices he came to truly know himself and God.
Knowledge of self can only lead so far, knowledge of the world will always remain fragmented, knowledge of one another will always be tainted by our prejudices. It takes love to make our knowledge complete. Without love, no matter how right we may be, we will only know in part. In the end, without love, we become a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal, but with love, that other reality, we will know as we are known by God. It leads us to ourselves, it leads us to one another, and it leads home where all will be known, all knowledge complete, and love all that is.