“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
If anyone had ever told me that I would be preaching on a lesson about sacrifices offered to idols, I would have thought they were talking about someone else! But here I am getting ready to do just that. Sometimes the Holy Spirit does do unexpected things and this morning, the epistle is the lesson that has spoken to me.
Paul’s letters were generally written to address concrete situations that had occurred in the Christian communities that he had established. The issue in this morning’s passage is seemingly irrelevant to us who live in the western world in the 21st century. Food that has been sacrificed to idols does not play an important part in our day-to-day life. But I think we can learn from this long ago situation in Corinth and Paul’s approach to the argument that those early followers of Christ were having.
First some background. Corinth was a cosmopolitan place in the mid first century Roman Empire. It was a busy hub of eastern and western trade and the center of Roman culture in Greece at the time. There was a mix of people living there who followed very different religious traditions. There was also disparity in economic situations; some were very wealthy and others were so poor that having enough to eat regularly was a problem.
Some were very well-learned and others had little to no education. There was a wide range of people on many fronts. For the well-educated and well-to-do, there was an active social scene. There were many lavish parties with excesses of food and drink. It was a city with lots going on.
Corinth was one of the very first places that Paul brought the message of Christ. He lived there for about a year and a half establishing house churches which regularly came together to share the Lord’s Supper. When Paul moved on to bring the good news of Christ to other places, the new community of believers in Corinth continued to grow.
Today’s passage comes in response to questions the Corinthians had about eating food that had previously been used in pagan worship. Animals would be sacrificed as a part of those ceremonies and afterwards, the meat would be sold in the local markets.
For those who were well off the meat would be cooked for their parties and feasts. For those who were poorer they probably could not afford to eat much meat so it was not something they consumed regularly. However, they might be offered some at a gathering. The arguments arose from how the meat had come to the market and whether or not Christian believers should consume it.
When Paul wrote his response to the arguments, he was aware that in the world surrounding him there were many pagan gods and lords. However he did not give meaning to them. He knew that there is only one God, with a capital G, the Father, and one Lord, with a capital L, Jesus Christ. So these other pagan gods are not the true God. Paul gave testimony to that each and every day. And therefore anything that had been dedicated to those gods had no meaning. Paul, with his level of education and theological understanding, comprehended that anyone may eat this meat and do no harm to God or to themselves. His knowledge gave him this certainty.
However, this is where it becomes interesting. Paul does not say that this knowledge is the ultimate criterion to decide how to behave. Even though he intellectually felt those arguing for eating the meat were right, Paul places the community’s needs above an independent individual choice.
How certain behaviors would affect others in the community is what is most important. So, personally whether Paul ate this meat or not, is of no consequence.
Rather, for Paul the relationships that connected the group of believers were the ultimate basis on which to make decisions. Putting others first is how to demonstrate and model the love of Christ. This love for the community and those in it, is what should guide one’s actions.
For Paul, loving others in the community does not mean that one necessarily has to like the other people, or that one has to agree with what they decide or how they understand the world. Rather it has to do with how to make choices that protects others and their faith in God. Paul mentions elsewhere in this letter that while all things are permitted, not all things are beneficial. His measure of how to determine if something is beneficial is how it will affect the other members of the community.
Being right, having the correct knowledge is not enough to decide what to do. Having a deep concern, a true love for others and understanding how one’s behavior will affect them, is how to choose.
Knowledge can exalt the individual. It is not the ultimate standard. This was a somewhat shocking statement then in Corinth as well as now in a major university town. Rather, love, understood as care of others and their well-being, is what strengthens the community.
To quote Paul from this morning’s translation, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. Or to use Eugene Peterson’s words for this same verse, “We sometimes think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—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.”
Our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds.
So, how do we in this modern world use this lesson originally written for the Corinthians? In what situations might we profit from thinking about Paul’s words?
A small example comes to my mind about when our son was in late elementary school. He had a close friend in the neighborhood and the boys played often in each other’s homes. The friend’s family was and is faithful Christians who belong to a church with literal Bible beliefs. We were and are faithful Christians belonging to a different tradition. Each set of parents had high respect for the other.
However, our differing beliefs caused some interesting conflicts. Cowboys and shoot-em-ups were part of play in his friend’s home while in our home we did not want the boys to play with guns. We had taught Matt that guns were meant to hurt others and that loving our neighbor did not include shooting.
In his friend’s home there were no toys that were supernatural as they were interpreted as against God and his created world. Space ships and super-heroes were a part of toys in the Hopkins household, just with no guns.
The friend’s father and I had a discussion about how to handle this. We did not question each other’s faith; we acknowledged that both of us were believers in Christ and his love. We did not try to convince the other that we were right. We recognized we were on the same side, so to speak! Eventually we decided to allow each house to set the rules for that place. So at their house the guns were ok and at our house space ships and Incredible Hulk were fine. We felt this decision would respect the integrity of the households.
Interesting though, neither boy was comfortable with this. They each felt they were doing something wrong when at the other’s house, and so their decision was to honor their beliefs by playing something entirely different than what was forbidden at either home. Again there was mutual respect and loving concern going on in their decision making process. Never was it a matter of who was “right” and who was “wrong” in the discussions. Caring for the other, loving and respecting the other was what was important. The result was in this situation that both boys learned that what their parents professed of loving God and loving neighbor was also carried out in action!
While today we don’t have disagreements over animal sacrifice the fact that we are in community with each other and that we are human beings means we will at some time have conflict. It is inevitable. Conflict itself is not bad or good. It just is. We do not all agree on all issues all the time. It is not possible. Looking at our method of handling disagreements is how we can profit from Paul’s thoughts this morning.
Certainly, using our intellect is important to reason our own position on a question. However, today’s lesson reminds us that important as that is, realizing how our decisions might affect others and their belief in Christ is more important.
On some of the bigger issues of our day and time, the arguments that have gone on are off-putting, to state it mildly, for those who may be exploring the faith or seeking to find a way to a deeper relationship with God. Why would anyone be attracted to a hateful discussion? Often labeling one “right” or labeling one “wrong”, only results in breaking down the community. And when that happens, the main center of the Good News of Jesus Christ is lost.
Asking ourselves the question, “How would I act if I loved these people?” is a way to keep the focus on Christ and his love, rather than on what we know or have learned or been taught. Perhaps explaining our reasoning is what is called for, if done in a loving manner. There is a place for our minds and learning for sure. But Paul cautions us that it is not always at the top of the decision making process.
In any discussion, Paul calls us to think first, how would I respond if I loved this person or this group of people? And he reminds us to not become a stumbling block to anyone in their life in Christ.
This last part means that for us in the world today, our actions towards others speak at least as much as our words. Those who are not yet believers watch us. They are curious. Do we really mean what we profess? How do we demonstrate our love of God and our love of neighbor?
How we deal with our disagreements carries an important message of what we truly believe about the worth of the other person.
So, today, I give thanks for St. Paul’s example of responding to disagreement with a loving heart. And for reminding us always to put our love of God and his people at the center of all that we do.
May it be so. Amen.