January 28, 2018 – Rev. Debbie Allen
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
What on earth, you may be thinking to yourself, does eating or not eating meat sacrificed to idols have to do with us in the 21st century? It would be easy to skip over this passage of scripture, assuming that it is irrelevant in today’s world.
But Paul is not only addressing an issue that was specific to the church at Corinth in 60 CE. His point has to do with a much more pervasive and destructive tendency that is, in fact, present in the world we live in today.
The so-called “strong,” who were also the better educated, wealthy, and status-conscious residents of Corinth were making the assumption that their knowledge freed them to do as they pleased, in this case to eat meat that was sacrificed to idols. The idols represented false gods, they said, so eating the meat that was sacrificed to them was not problematic.
Paul agreed with them about the significance of idols, but claimed that these more knowledgeable people lacked regard for their “weaker” brothers and sisters who feared defilement from idol meat. Rather than caring for one another, the strong were puffed up with intellectual arrogance. My guess is that Paul’s suggestion that they restrict their freedom out of love for the “weak” was not well-received.
Paul raises a fundamental question. If we belong to Christ, how should we relate, not only to our fellow Christians, but to the pluralistic, diverse world in which we live – a world divided by race, class, gender, religion, and extremes of poverty and wealth. When do our ideas and beliefs, the knowledge we think we have about the world and each other, become a stumbling block, a wall that keeps us separated and prevents reconciliation, understanding, and peace? Knowledge, says Paul, makes people arrogant, but love builds people up.
In my own family, I recently learned something about the way in which love surpasses knowledge. This learning took place on the day of my ordination and had to do with my sister’s presence on that occasion.
My sister is 14 months older than me, so when we were growing up, there was a lot of comparison. We always shared a room, but we were not close. In fact, over the years, a lot of tension and competition developed between us. We grew up with the same parents in the same household, but we desperately needed our own space and identity.
I took a more conventional path in life – marrying, raising children, joining a church. It was by no means without its ups and downs, but it was the more acceptable choice in the eyes of my parents. My sister rebelled against many of the family values and suffered because of it.
At some point, she became involved with what might be described as New Age spiritual groups and finally, she found her home in a spiritual movement that has become the center of her life and work. Her choice conflicted with my parents’ beliefs and caused distance between them. I too was skeptical, because the group was quite secretive. When my sister told me that she believed it was wrong to cross racial and cultural boundaries, I became alarmed. There was no question in my mind that that belief was misguided and, for many months after she made that comment, I did not speak to her.
But gradually, I came to appreciate how happy and loving my sister was. I wanted her to come to my ordination, but I felt some dis-ease about inviting her. I wondered whether I would be uncomfortable thinking that she was judging the path I had chosen. And I wondered whether she would be uncomfortable, immersed in a spiritual setting that probably conflicted with what she held to be the truth.
As it turned out, my sister responded to my invitation by immediately making plane, hotel, and car reservations. There was never any question in her mind that she wanted to share this experience with me. And when I actually saw her for the first time right before the service began, she gave me a big hug and said she was there to support me. I felt the sincerity of her words.
After the service, I was uncertain how we would spend the evening together. She generously offered to take my children, grandchildren, and me out to dinner. It was the first time she had met any of my grandchildren, two of whom are biracial. But once again, my sister was gracious, loving, interested in what everyone was doing, and very happy that we were all together. She has since read my ordination paper and responded with enthusiastic appreciation.
I was humbled by my sister’s love for me, in spite of all the difficulties we have experienced over the years. I doubt that her beliefs have changed because of anything that happened at my ordination and I am still committed to my spiritual path, but something new was revealed to me that day. It became clear that the bond between us is the priority in our relationship, and not whatever knowledge I think I have. Now, my heart is open to her in a new way.
We have all experienced discord in relationships. In today’s world, we are more divided than ever around a host of issues and sometimes find it hard to be in the same room with people who hold opinions that conflict with ours. Love, for Paul, was the only thing that could overcome these divisions.
Just a few chapters later in his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes one of the most beautiful and powerful passages ever written about love, describing it as the greatest gift. Notice the word ‘gift.’ Love, unlike knowledge, is not something we acquire through our own efforts. When we love God, says Paul, we are known by God. In other words, when we open our hearts to God’s love, Love, which is the very essence of God, is revealed to us.
In Ithaca, we have a tendency toward making an idol of knowledge. Academic degrees can easily become a process of acquiring knowledge, and being knowledgeable is seen as the gateway to being and doing whatever we desire.
It has been encouraging to see a shift in colleges and universities toward spending time in other cultures and requiring volunteer work in the community that opens students to real needs. Often experiences gained through travel and engagement outside our known worlds deeply influence the choices we make.
But the idea of restricting one’s freedom out of love for others is still a pretty alien concept in our culture. The church is no less vulnerable to participating in the materialistic, individualistic outlook that is prevalent in America.
Paul was quite clear about the way in which this freedom of yours, as he calls it, can lead to problems for the weak. He speaks of the hurt that it can cause their consciences, leading to their downfall.
Like Paul, German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had a lot to say about the nature of freedom for Christians. He grew up in a well-to-do, well-educated household and at first, took for granted many of the privileges he enjoyed. His awareness of human suffering changed on a trip to the United States where he frequently attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City and learned about racial inequality as he traveled around the country. He was encouraged to stay in America where he would have been protected from the horrors that were unfolding in Nazi Germany, but he chose to return to his native land and engage in the heart of controversy. For this, he paid the ultimate price of his life.
Here’s what Bonhoeffer wrote about freedom:
To be free does not mean to be great in the world, to be free against our brethren, to be free against God; but it means to be free from ourselves, from our untruth… as if I were the center of the world; to be free from the hatred with which I destroy God’s creation; to be free from myself in order to be free for others. God’s truth alone allows me to see others.
He then goes on to say that:
God’s truth is God’s love, and God’s love frees us from ourselves to be free for others. To be free means nothing else than to be in this love.
Like Paul, Bonhoeffer believed that freedom could not be separated from love. It was never freedom from, but always freedom for. Bonhoeffer came to the realization of this truth gradually as he was confronted by the complicity of the German Lutheran Church. At some point, there was no going back for him, only a sense of obedience to the call he had received.
In a recent issue of Sojourners magazine, the provocative question is posed: Is this a Bonhoeffer moment? There is an urgency to this question that invites us to embrace the path of freedom that is rooted in God’s love for all.
It turns out that the path of the person who loves, who has been freed in Christ, is a revolutionary path because it upsets values and disturbs the peace of those who are slaves to themselves. Love expands our consciousness beyond the limits of knowledge and opens us to the realm of transformation. Love allows something new and surprising to enter our lives. Sometimes I wonder whether I really want to be transformed. It seems much easier to maintain the status quo until I realize that the status quo is driven by fear rather than love.
What helps and inspires me to reach beyond the illusions of security we all carry are the stories of people like Daryl Davis. Davis is an African American musician who felt called to engage with members of the Ku Klux Klan, not to condemn them, but to listen to them, to build relationships with them. I don’t know what, if any, spiritual affiliation Davis would claim. All I know from reading about him and watching a documentary called “Accidental Courtesy” is that he has something to teach us all about the way we relate to each other, something that the Apostle Paul and Bonhoeffer would have supported.
His basic question is, How can you hate someone if you don’t know him or her? With that question in mind he sat down with grand wizards and dragons and allowed them to air their views, no matter how repugnant their beliefs were to him. I did not respect what [they] had to say, says Davis, but I respected [their] right to say it. As a result of engaging with KKK members, dozens of them left the Klan and gave him their robes which he keeps in his garage.
What Daryl Davis discovered was that people can change if they are given a chance to be heard. His approach was not to convert people, but to treat them the way he wanted to be treated, to listen to them the way he wanted them to listen to him. In most cases, no one had ever approached them this way before.
This is a radical and much-needed form of engagement in today’s world. It is the way we are called to show love for our neighbor regardless of their views. Davis had no doubt in his mind that the beliefs of the KKK were dangerous to blacks and to all of society, but he made a priority of relationship, of concern for the other.
It is interesting to note that his most intense opposition has come from young black activists who believe that white supremacists can’t change and that Davis is selling out his people by engaging with members of the KKK. It turns out that treating enemies with respect and kindness in the hope of greater understanding and the letting go of hateful views is very controversial in our country. Many would say that is going too far.
Paul’s sense of the church at Corinth was that of a family and he frequently referred to members of the congregation as brothers and sisters in the faith, whether they were “weak” or “strong.” We should do nothing, he said, that might cause the downfall of our brothers and sisters, nothing to tempt their consciences, nothing to demean them, nothing to cause them to stumble. This sense of equality often rubs people the wrong way, but it is the challenge that we are called to, and if we can accept that our knowledge is limited, our hearts will open and God’s love will bring about change in the world. May we have the faith and courage to put our trust in love over knowledge. Amen.