1 Corinthians 8:1-13. There is an audio file below, listen as you read along.
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God. Amen.
I received a postcard recently that said “This piece of mail could change your story forever.” It was advertising a new church “launching” in Denver called the Storyline Church. It invited would-be worshippers to come “find out the greatest story ever told” and “find out what could change YOUR story” at this church. I texted a picture of this thing to my good friend (and our former vicar) Alex, saying “just passing along an awesome idea for your new church” Alex responded, “I am totally going to do the same thing except advertise, ‘this piece of mail could change your life forever, with an asterisk: only if you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior and follow a rigid moral code.’” I then crowd-sourced other questionable church marketing ideas. They ranged from Afterlife scare tactics, to throwing other churches under the bus. Basically invitations to be part of the “in crowd” that gets to party with Jesus. We, the ELCA, the denomination to which House belongs, fall into this trap too, with the slogan, “God’s Work. Our Hands”, which implies that we have some monopoly on knowing and doing God’s work in the world. My dear friend Steve Ludwig refers to this as “Junk Mail from Jesus.”
As I prepared this sermon and reflected upon this portion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, I wondered what the marketing campaign of the church in first century Corinth would be. Something along the lines of, “You can now eat the meat left in the Temple!” or “Your food no longer has to first be sacrificed to idols!” I am not sure about you, but this campaign totally works for me. The sense of grace and liberation here is…palpable.
Not quite working for you? What is going on here? Paul is writing to a congregation in the city of Corinth. This was a large and prosperous city, home to a variety of philosophical and religious movements. The church there had splintered into a bunch of small factions, each thinking that they had an exclusive monopoly on truth and had special knowledge about God. There was arrogance associated with possessing correct knowledge about spiritual and religious matters.
It is easy to dismiss today’s text as being irrelevant to us. We don’t offer meat on our altar. We never have. Nobody here (I hope) has ever felt compelled to sacrifice a young sheep in the middle of everything to prove their devotion to God. And I am going to guess that most of us want to eat meat that has been sitting out for days. The conflict that Paul’s letter is addressing is that the gentile converts who filled the church in Corinth, were saying that they should be free to eat the meat that has been left in the Temple as a sacrifice to other gods. Those who belonged to the church were being pragmatic: they were hungry, meat was hard to come by, and this meat was essentially going to waste. And they KNEW they had “special knowledge” that good works and devotion don’t earn us a special place in God’s heart and in heaven. Because these sacrifices don’t earn us bonus points, and grace is a gift from God, it follows that they should be able to eat that meat. Simple enough, right? Paul doesn’t think so. Paul agrees you cannot “earn” God’s righteousness through meat sacrifices. But, Paul says that even though the Corinthians have this knowledge of grace that others do not, what they do still matters.
I dismissed this text when I first read it. It tends to fall into the category of “biblical stuff we don’t read because it doesn’t matter to us now.” It’s a lot of discussion about meat. I am not sure about you, but I don’t actually care that much about meat. But then again, I don’t eat Paleo. And the idea of eating meat that has been left out for awhile makes me feel sick. But the verse, “Food will not bring us close to God”, caught my attention.
What if we took literal food out of this verse? What if food represents a set of rigid norms, standards and laws. What about, “Doing the right things will not bring us closer to God” or “Being a good Christian will not bring us closer to God” or “a robust devotional life will not bring us closer to God” Would that get our attention? Or perhaps most painfully true, “Knowledge will not bring us closer to God.”
Paul writes, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Thinking you have special knowledge makes you arrogant, but loving your fellow human beings builds everyone up. But Paul falls into his own trap when he tells the Corinthians that they shouldn’t let their knowledge of God be a stumbling block to others who don’t have that same knowledge. Which amounts to, “don’t let people who don’t know what you know see you eating the meat left in the temple, you will cause them to sin because they could think its okay to eat the meat sacrificed to idols. You know its okay, but they might not.”
As Christians today, we may not be that concerned with meat left on altars, but we are terribly concerned with special knowledge about God. Like “junk mail from Jesus” most evangelism tends to center around “look what we have, don’t you want to have this thing too?” We have an express ticket to heaven, we have freedom from our sins, we know something that you don’t know, and once you know what WE know, you’ll be special too.
This is not confined to door knocking evangelism and the sinner’s prayer. Mainline Protestants and progressive Christians and the emergent church are just as guilty. When we say that we are more welcoming or more innovative or we don’t take scripture literally, we are advertising that same exceptionalism. Once you know what WE know, you’ll be special too.
But what if it’s not what you know, but how you love that makes you a Christian and brings you closer to God? I am struggling lately with the idea of knowing anything about God. Holding onto the promise of God’s love is about all that gets me through. My work as a hospital chaplain is messing up all of my conceptions of who God is, what God is capable of, and how God shows up. I struggle with knowing some kind of good news, because most days I don’t see any. Last Tuesday I held the hand of a man my own age as he died from a massive infection, my iTunes playing Mumford and Sons to drown out the sounds of everyone in the hallway. Yesterday I prayed with a family during a death vigil that God would hurry up and hasten the peaceful death of their loved one and stop her suffering. I would love more than anything to be able tell you with full knowledge that God is present all the time and is constantly working for good and working for life and healing, but my experience makes me question that on a regular basis. And I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not the only one here with those questions.
I’ve been to seminary and can kick ass in Bible trivia and know how to differentiate between Martin Luther and Phillip Melanchthon and I know Greek and Hebrew, the original languages of scripture. Yet I don’t know much at all. I don’t know why there is suffering. I don’t know why it feels like God doesn’t come to the Intensive Care Unit very often. I don’t know why teenagers are shot dead by police officers in alleys. I don’t know why most of humanity seems hell-bent on killing each other, either with words or with guns. I don’t know what to say a lot of the time. I am called in to speak a word of comfort and I am constantly asked, “what do you know about God and what God is doing here?” I don’t have much knowledge, and all I can do is try my best to love the beautiful and broken people of God. And I think this what we all do because we are first loved by God.
It’s not what you know, but it’s how you love. This is not a muted Hallmark kind of love. It’s not “love the sinner, hate the sin”, it’s not about feeling good or altruism. It’s about getting your hands dirty. It’s about being present in the world now, not saving yourself for the hereafter. It’s about me as a chaplain handing someone a barf bucket instead of praying that God would heal them in their sickness because I know God is capable. It’s not about telling people what we know about the Gospel, it’s about reflecting the Gospel in how we live and how we love.
What would it be like if we stop trying to draw closer to God by expanding our knowledge and instead relax into the deep knowing that God is already in and among us because of love? God came to earth to live among us in the person of Jesus, and God continues to live in us. It relieves us of the huge burden of knowing/believing/doing/saying the right thing to save ourselves. Or someone else. Our own work will never draw us closer to God, because God is already in us. We are loved deeply by God, and that love is liberation from the burden of knowledge.