January 28, 2018 The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

 

Deuteronomy 18:15–20, Psalm 11, 1 Corinthians 8:1–13, Mark 1:21–28

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the name of Jesus, the Light of the world. Amen.

So, the epicenter of my theology, if you have not already discerned it, is love. I have and continue repeatedly to drive home three main points: God’s very essence is love, therefore, God’s will for the creation is love, therefore, Jesus’ disciples are to be agents of love in the world—to choose behaviors that communicate love to God and others. But how? How do we do this?

First a couple of preliminary remarks. Love in the sense in which I understand it here is not a feeling but an action. To act lovingly as we are bidden by God to do does not necessarily mean we will feel affection for the recipient or recipients of our love; rather, it simply means that we will act toward the other in ways that have their best interests at heart. Further, to do this, our best interests may need to take a back seat. In a culture in which prides itself on the primacy of individual rights, this may feel like a foreign concept.

The apostle Paul dealt with the concept of love in his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul, like me, argues that love reveals God’s authority. In the Corinthian community, there were those who reveled in their freedom in the Gospel. They knew that in Christ, nothing could separate them from the love of God and that they were free from restrictive religious laws based on this knowledge. The problem is that these folks pushed their freedom too far, particularly toward sexual immorality and, most importantly for our consideration here, lack of sensitivity for the whole community of faith. To the latter point, some in the community were turning their agape (or love) feasts into parties in which those who had much gorged themselves on food and wine while those who had little went hungry. Further, much of the food used during those meals came from animals that were sacrificed to other gods.

Now, in their freedom, these folks knew that there was only one God who created the heavens and the earth, and thus that idols do not exist. To sacrifice animals to such idols, therefore, was meaningless, and thus the food prepared from these sacrifices was no worse or no better than any other food. Here Paul agrees with those who possessed such knowledge, however, he goes on to say that such knowledge is not enough. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” says Paul. “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge…” He then goes on to explain what he means. Some newer members of the Christian community do not yet possess the knowledge that idols do not exist, and so they understand food sacrificed to such idols as food that has been defiled and so to be avoided. Thus, when such food is brought to the community agape feasts and these younger, weaker members of the community see others indulging in such food, their consciences are peaked. “For if others see you, who possess such knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?” asks Paul. “So, by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.” Paul concludes that by using one’s knowledge in such a way, though the knowledge is correct, is a sin against the community and thus a sin against Christ. In short, “eat the food if it is an act of love to eat it; refrain from eating if refraining is an act of love.” (Jan Schnell Rippentrop, “January 28, 2018, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: From a Scholar” in Sundays and Seasons Preaching: Year B 2018, p. 71.) The important thing here is love for the other, that is, concern for their well-being and best interests, which may require the setting aside of one’s own well-being and best interests.

But what happens if the knowledge one possesses is also endowed with the authority of God and needs to be heard by others even if they aren’t ready or don’t want to hear it? Our scriptures for today also deal with such authority. In the first reading from Deuteronomy, God affirms to Moses that after he is gone, God would raise up other prophets who would speak with authority in God’s Name, and that when the prophets speak thus, and people do not listen to them, God would hold the people accountable for disobeying God. In other words, is love ever trumped by God’s Word spoken whether one wants to hear it or not, or whether one is ready or mature enough to hear it or not? After all, Paul’s argument is predicated on the fact that some in the community were not strong enough to tolerate the truth and needed time to mature in the faith and into understanding. The difference seems to be in how one’s knowledge is used.

In the Corinthian community, those with knowledge used that knowledge for their own sake and edification and not that of the community. They knew that food offered to idols is just food because idols do not exist, and they used that knowledge to gorge themselves and, it seems, to revel in the insight they had about their freedom in the Gospel of Jesus. But here’s the thing, any Word of God that is not spoken in love—indeed, any Word of God that is not love—is like speaking a word in the name of other gods, as the writer of Deuteronomy puts it. Perhaps more to the point and poignant for our day, any word that is spoken in the name of God and is not love is a false word, and the consequences for such a prophet are very dire indeed.

In our time, such false prophets are those who, in the name of God, promote “chauvinistic nationalism, growing economic inequality, deeply embedded misogyny, destabilizing climate change, unprecedented forced migration, and increasing militarization and violence.” (Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, “Who is Jesus for Us Today,” in Sojourners, February 2018, p. 21.) In our time, false prophets are those who claim in the light of the latest school shooting in Kentucky (actually, there have been 11 since 2018 began) and in the name of the God who calls us to beat our spears into pruning hooks and declares, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” that this God has given them an inalienable right to bear whatever arms they wish while our children die all around us. In our time, false prophets are those who turn their backs on those who are poor and who are “other” all while piously attending church and proclaiming with the scriptures (for one cannot get around God’s heart for the poor and concern for all in the scriptures) that God loves everyone, no exceptions. In our time, false prophets are those who pass judgment on anyone—the divorced, LGBTQ persons, those who have had abortions or are considering one, the unchurched, non-Christians (particularly Muslims), and others (you fill in the blank)—who do not fit into their religious worldviews, though in the very act of judgment their idea of who God is and what God demands is hopelessly flawed. Each of these examples has one thing in common: Love—God’s nature and language—is nowhere present in word or deed.

To live lovingly in the world can be very difficult to do because it forces us to rethink everything for the sake of the other; for love only thrives in relationship to the other—love only thrives in community. That was finally Paul’s point in our reading from First Corinthians—indeed, this point runs throughout the letter. Love is the authoritative word of God and is always exercised for the sake of the community. Any talk of rights over love, or of knowledge over love, or of truth over love, or of power over love elevates the individual over the community and misses God’s intention for the creation and misrepresents God in the world.

To choose behaviors that communicate love of God and others is the choice we as people of faith need to make to be true to our call as people of faith. Do we understand the world depends on our choice? Amen.

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