Sunday, January 28, 2018

Christ, Conflict, and Community: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 - Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

1Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.
4Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8“Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess 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? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. (NRSV)
Temple of Apollo by ClixYou.  Creative commons image on flickr.

You know how they always say, “no matter how good you get, there will always be someone better?”

I attended a Christian college—and I was amazed at strict rules my classmates followed.

I had one friend who prayed aloud for God to forgive him for eating a tiny piece of birthday cake…

Another was forbidden to sleep more than five hours a night, because it is written in Proverbs, “a little slumber; a little sleep, and poverty will come upon you like a thief.”

And still another believed that scented laundry detergent was sinful…

Personally, I think they took Christian morality to the extreme.  But that’s not to say that your conduct as a Christian is inconsequential.

Jesus said: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength; and, love your neighbor as yourself.  These two commandments fulfill the Law and the prophets.  But what happens when a law does not bring you closer to God and gives no benefit to your neighbor?

This was a question faced by the young church in Corinth; a church that was rife with bitter conflicts and divisions over all sorts of things.  In our second reading for today, Paul addresses a major controversy: is it lawful for a Christian to eat food sacrificed to idols?

In Corinth, much of the meat sold in the markets came from animals that were sacrificed in pagan rituals.  For many devout Jews and Christians, you didn’t dare touch this stuff.  In fact, the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 forbade the eating of meat sacrificed to idols!  And—the author of Revelation strictly forbade this practice. 

Paul, on the other hand, argues that there is only one God and that idols are nothing.  Therefore, eating meat sacrificed to idols does not dishonor God. 

But that didn’t change people’s behavior—or their feelings about the matter.  Those who exercised their freedom to eat the meat were scandalizing those who didn’t.  Those who ate called those who didn’t “weak” and “ignorant;” while those who didn’t believed those who did were blaspheming God. 

Paul is crystal clear about what he believes.  But for Paul, One’s obedience to any moral law is nullified if one fails to obey the law of love.  Therefore, if a Christian who eats meat causes one who doesn’t to stumble in their faith; that Christian is obligated out of love to abstain. 

The eating of food sacrificed to idols is hardly a controversy for us today (though sometimes, I wonder…)

Controversy is nothing new to the Church.  We’ve always had it—and we always will.  But what happens when there’s a controversy?  Factions rise up and make the controversy a battle between good and evil.  People will always fight back against change and protect the status quo.  Anyone or anything that fails to conform to the powerful majority is demonized. Fear and greed take over—and the Gospel is silent.

If, as a Christian, you conspicuously exhibit your freedom or godliness in a way that shocks, belittles, or silences your fellow Christian, you are not fulfilling the law of love.  This is the sin of being “holier-than-thou.”  You sacrifice your neighbor at the altar of your self-righteousness. You sacrifice the Gospel at the altar of security, dominance, and privilege.  You sacrifice Jesus at the altar of your own aggrandizement. 

But here’s the truth: as Christians, you bear responsibility for each other’s faith. No Christian lives in a vacuum.  Faith is communal.  It is relational.  It thrives in mutuality and interdependence.  This is good news.

In fact, your faith was created in community.  It was your family of faith that presented you to Christ in baptism.  It is your family of faith who taught and modeled the faith.  It is your family of faith that nurtures your spiritual gifts and empowers you to exercise them for the good of God’s kingdom.  It is your family of faith who make God’s promises real to you.

Sin, death, and the perils of this life can quickly overwhelm your faith.  But when you cannot go on believing, your sisters and brothers will help you carry the weight—through their prayers; their presence; and their support. 

If you see someone who doesn’t share your faith or beliefs, you can do far more to influence them by your love and graciousness rather than by winning arguments. 

We’re diverse in many ways.  We have different backgrounds, different beliefs, different ways of living faithfully—and that’s okay.  Diversity enriches the Christian community. 

When there’s a quarrel or controversy, love and graciousness give room for the Holy Spirit to move.  Conflict can lead to greater understandings of each other.  Disagreements about morals and doctrine can bind us together in a common pursuit of truth. 

God’s ultimately not going to give you heavenly rewards for abstaining from meat or scented detergent. God's not going to reward you for being on the right side of an argument. You can only cling to Christ for your righteousness.

Your sister or brother in Christ ought to be worth more to you than cheap meat—and certainly worth more to you than parading your faith around like the ultimate trophy.  We all need to learn that people, even strangers, are a greater treasure than not having to change or learn new things.  We all need to learn that conflict plus love leads to growth.  We all need to learn that managing controversy is about witness and not winning.  We all need to learn that the only demons to fear are those that would divide us from each other and increase the distance between ourselves and the God who loves us.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Christ Comes Calling: Mark 1:14-20 - Third Sunday after Epiphany

14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Abandoned fishing boat by Jim Makos.  Creative commons image on flickr.
Which of the following did God NOT command: (Answer at the end)

  1. The prophet Isaiah to walk around naked for three years
  2. The prophet Hosea to marry a wife of ill repute
  3. Ezekiel to bake bread for himself over flaming cow patties
  4. King David to build the temple in Jerusalem
  5. John of Patmos (the author of Revelation) to eat a scroll

Did you get this morning’s Bible trivia?

God has a way of appearing at the most inopportune times and calling them to do difficult and even bizarre tasks.

Jesus kept that up in his ministry, right out of the gate: he walks along the shoreline and sees Simon Peter and Andrew, two fishermen, casting their nets into the sea.  Jesus says, “follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately, they leave their nets and follow him.  He goes a little farther and sees James and John in their fishing boat, mending the nets.  He calls them, and they also leave their nets and their father, and follow him.

Now I can’t imagine these four individuals knew what Jesus was getting them into.  And yet, in an instant, they leave behind their jobs, their income, their father, and the life they’d always known.  How could they do such a thing?  Do you think they knew how they would fish for people?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I could do such a thing—to drop everything in a split second and follow Jesus to who-knows-where.  It’s tempting to think, these are “exceptional men” whom Jesus called because they had exceptional faith.  But as the Gospel narrative progresses, they will not prove worthy of such adulation.  Ultimately, the discipleship vocation ends in spectacular failure.  But they don’t get fired.  Instead, after Jesus is raised from the dead, he gives them an even bigger task: build my church.

Make no mistake: Jesus doesn’t call these folks because they’re the worthiest or the most qualified.  It’s not because they’ll have the most faith (because they won’t).  And they don’t follow Jesus because they have nothing to lose. 

They leave their nets and their father because Jesus calls them.  They will fish for people because Jesus sends them.  And they will build the church because Jesus is with them

When Jesus shows up, he gets people involved in the ministry of God’s kingdom. 

The message of today’s Gospel is that Jesus is going to show up in your life—unexpectedly, by surprise, and call you too.  And if that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, it should

Following Jesus is the riskiest and most uncomfortable thing you will ever do.  You’re giving up control over your life.  You are staking your security on a promise.  You are purposely getting in over your head.

When Jesus called the four disciples, they were busy working.  Many of you have jobs, too—as well as commitments and obligations that occupy you from early in the morning until late at night (or even 24/7).  There’s laundry, cleaning, bills to pay; doctor’s appointments; school activities and sports.  When you’re busy, exhaustion is never far behind.

If all that wasn’t enough, we live in a culture values winning and success above all else—and wealth to buy the nicest possessions.  Very few get to live the good life you see on TV.

And there’s so much fear and stress: of nuclear war; recession; pollution; chaos in Washington and Harrisburg; drugs on the streets; bullies in the schools; and the always-present chance that everything you’ve built your life upon will all go up in flames in an instant.

There’s even church-related stress: Are we still going to be here in ten years?  Why aren’t people coming?  What’s going to happen of “so-and-so” can’t do “this or that” for us anymore?

But Jesus’ presence is nothing to speculate. 

God’s kingdom is arising just beyond behind the worldly realities that consume your time and attention.  And Jesus is definitely going to call you to be a part of it, I guarantee you.  When Jesus shows up, he gets people involved.  He’s going to surprise you at work or at school; at home or on the go; whenever and wherever you least expect him.  When he says, “follow me,” you will have a million good reasons to say “no.”

Yet here’s why you should say “yes”: spiritual transformation happens when you take risks, give up control, accept vulnerability, embrace discomfort and let God be in control. It happens when you walk in the way of his death and resurrection.

You must know that Jesus’ call marks the beginning of the saving grace that God wants you experience to the utmost in your life as a disciple.  Jesus doesn’t call you to do stuff “for him.”  Jesus calls you to minister “with him.”  God’s call begins with the gift of relationship.  And it’s not a private relationship.  Jesus builds a Body upon himself which we know as the Church.  In that body you welcome the stranger as we would Jesus himself.  In that body we bring out each other’s God-given best.  We bring out each other’s faith.

As part of that Body, Jesus sends you to where God is tearing open everything that binds people into poverty, alienation, and fear.  Together, you go out to see his love for you reflected in the faces of people for whom God’s love is an unknown and a mystery.  You are the voice to say to others what God has spoken to you: that you are beloved.

So if you don’t know what God’s purpose is for your life; if you’re fed up with the ways of this world; if you’re nervous of what tomorrow holds; don’t be afraid.  Be prepared: Jesus will be calling you to be the fulfillment of God’s will on earth as in heaven.  Sometimes his call is to immediate and drastic transformation.  Most of the time, Jesus will call you amid the ordinariness of daily life; to transform everything you do from completing tasks to praising God and sharing in his love for the good of those around you.  God’s kingdom is arising just beyond behind the worldly realities that consume your time and attention.  Heed Jesus’ call not as a duty but as a promise and invitation into the life of God’s kingdom.  The present order of things is passing away.  A new reality is dawning.
Which of the following did God NOT command:
  1. The prophet Isaiah to walk around naked for three years (Isaiah 20:1-6)
  2. The prophet Hosea to marry a wife of ill repute (Hosea 1:2-4)
  3. Ezekiel to bake bread for himself over flaming cow patties (Ezekiel 4:9-15)
  4. King David to build the temple in Jerusalem (No!  Solomon built the Temple 2 Samuel 7:4-17)
  5. John of Patmos (the author of Revelation) to eat a scroll (Revelation 10:8-10)