This sermon was prepared for Wesley United’s Sunday service on January 28, 2018 (Year B Epiphany 4, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13).
When first approaching this text, the obvious thing is to preach a sermon about the idols we have in our lives. Since there’s ample fodder there for conversation.
We could talk about the devices that distract us… concerns that seem all-too-important in the short-term… We could talk about how social media puts us in an infinite loop of comparison, leading to depression and anxiety… We could also talk about how, sometimes, we get more caught up in the institutional church than the communion of believers (since last week was the Week for Christian Unity). Yes, there are lots of idols, big and small, we could talk about.
But, then would we be missing the point?
This epistle has a lot more to say about mature Christians supporting their immature siblings than it does about meat or idols. Paul assumes his readers know what to do when it comes to that issue—he’s not worried about diets.
You see, there was no confusion for this community of believers about what was an idol. There were Roman temples where people would go and worship local and national Gods, and their idols. Now, we remember in the Hebrew scriptures that Yahweh made it very clear—there would be no idols, representing pagans Gods or the Israelite god. To Yahweh, the Israelite people were his representatives on earth–He didn’t need statues of wood or stone when he had idols made of flesh and blood.
This early Christian community knew all of this–they knew they weren’t supposed to worship other gods or idols. The issue, which it seems they wrote to Paul about in a previous letter we no longer have, was whether it was acceptable to eat meat which was bought from the local market and had been sacrificed at one of these Roman temples.
For Paul, though, this isn’t a question of whether eating that meat is problematic–it is the question of whether the house church in Corinth is caring for one-another in community.
This is one part of a longer section where he offers them instructions on how to worship together in Christian community. It culminates with the oh-so-famous section, which has been read at every wedding I’ve ever attended:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
This text is not a prescription for marital bliss, but for healthy community. Paul, actually, isn’t a huge fan of marriage, he sort-of relents and says if you have to it’s better than falling into sexual immorality but he really wishes you’d just commit your entire life to evangelization and mission work. But I digress…
Returning to our text for today: “‘[All] of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
This is a love that has empathy for where each of us is starting from, and the faith journeys we are taking in community.
Can you reflect on a time when you were “immature” in the faith? A time before you learned that idol meat was just meat?
Do you remember what a painful process it can be to work through the theology that’s been embedded inside of you, passed down by well-meaning family members and Sunday School teachers?
I remember—and it makes me feel embarrassed just to think about it. But, before I ever came to terms with my own sexuality, I was a homophobe. I grew up in a community that was certain about how Jesus, and God, felt about gay people (bisexual people weren’t even on the radar then)—and they passed those beliefs onto the children in the community—onto me.
Eventually, I met amazing people whose lives were inspirational, and they happened to be gay. They tricked me, by having me fall in love with who they were as people, as loving partners, as mentors to me in my own faith journey. That changed stuff for me, but it took a couple years and a lot of thinking before I became affirming. And, then it wasn’t until I was affirming that I could think about my own sexuality and come to terms with my orientation.
Thinking back makes me uncomfortable. I don’t have a lot of grace for that version of myself, and so I don’t have a lot of patience for people who are still in that place. I forget how hard it was to get from there to here. But, that means I sometimes make it harder for folks to work out their own feelings on the subject. I push them in my own arrogance and anger, and they push back, entrenching themselves further.
Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge one another and speak out against harmful ideas. But, I do think Paul speaks to a responsibility we have—to support one another on our journeys with love. It is an orientation of its own, to allow each of us to take the journey at our own speed, from our own starting point. It is a caution against arrogance; and, a call to patience, kindness and self-control. We want to support others, in their theological dilemmas and wonderings, so that they draw closer to God, instead of pushing them father into polarized factions.
We’re working to dissolve the boundaries of us and them—to make space within the we of Christian community. It is an exercise in seeing Christ within the other, and recognizing that their faith journey won’t look like our own.
The Creator made our world expansive, vibrant and diverse—God’s children, are just as varied; and God speaks to them all in different ways, according to their personalities and needs. What’s good for your journey may not be good for mine, and vice versa. We have an opportunity to support one another and to engage one another in conversation. What a gift to learn the different ways God is speaking and moving in creation. What a gift to have community members who share their struggles with one another.
May the experience of supporting one-another help you find a better way of journeying with God. Amen.