The themes of knowledge, power, authority, wisdom and love, do seem to run through our RCL readings this week (Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Mark 1:21-28). Or we might say Love builds up, while Knowledge puffs up.
From Deuteronomy, the book of law, is the promise to raise up a prophet “like God” and the warning that speaking the word of God is such a powerful business that God will judge the people on whether they follow the words of the true prophets or not. But if a prophet speaks a word that is not from God then the prophet themselves will die.
And in Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we have acts of power. Jesus teaches with such power that those who heard him marvel at his authority. And he heals the man with an unclean spirit with such power that the unclean spirit recognises him as the Holy One of God. But Jesus does not want to be acknowledged as powerful. It is a reoccurring theme in Mark’s gospel. Some writers have speculated all sorts of curious theories about this but maybe we have a hint in Paul’s writing. Knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Jesus did not need to be acknowledged as knowledgeable or powerful; his purpose was to point to the kingdom or reign of God who loves. His knowledge and power were servants to love.
Paul discusses the pros and cons of eating food that may have been offered to idols, which along with whether or not one had to be circumcised a Jew before one could become a Christian, was one of the big dividing issues in the early Christian communities. The meeting in Jerusalem between Paul and Peter had in part been about these matters and Paul is reminding the people of Corinth what the compromise was that they came to – that all food in itself is clean but that in order to not cause new Christians who had previously worshipped idols to stumble back into their old ways, food that had been offered to idols would be abstained from by all believers. And no, one didn’t need to become a circumcised Jew before becoming a Christian.
Paul is arguing something very difficult but very important. We no longer tend to debate what foods are OK to eat – except from a health perspective – nor do we argue about circumcision – except from a health perspective or to do with other religions. But we Christians do argue about women priests, gay bishops, lay presidency etc – and that is only in the Australia Anglican church. What does your tradition argue about? And locally we argue about church furniture or which hymns are politically correct.
But it is not only in churches that we have these arguments. Think of your family. At times we keep our peace or bite our tongues to avoid repeat arguments. But in real relationships – whether in the church or our families or among true friends - we cannot always just “not speak” about those things we differ on. We need to find a way of sharing our deeply held convictions in the respectful knowledge that other Godly people have different experiences, needs and views. This is advanced Christian community citizenship!!!
Now I have to confess that I have often struggled with this reading as it is often used to suggest that those of us at the more liberal end of interpretation as to what is OK should hold back and sacrifice our liberation for the sake of the weaker brother who might fall over the issues at hand. The argument seems to go something like this: I am sure that you who want to change things in the church are wrong, but even if you are not, you are not to force your liberated thinking on us because you would cause my faith to stumble. It’s a tails you lose, heads I win, sort of an argument.
Now I do believe that there is a deep and inconvenient truth that in a community, in the body of Christ, we are deeply bound together and we must each act with care and reverence for how our behaviour impacts on others. But we must each act with such care and reverence, not just one side or group. Paul is not auguring that change does not take place, indeed in this and most matters of his day he was on the side of radical change, he is arguing that people stick with the compromise worked out in Jerusalem and avoid eating food offered to idols because it might confuse or distract new Gentile converts (not because there was anything wrong with the food by the way!!).
The other thing worth noting in our contemporary church situation is that Paul was arguing for the sacrificing to be done by those of established faith for the sake of the newly converted. So often in recent years this argument has been put forward by the most conservative and entrenched members of the church to keep new or different elements out of the church altogether or at least out of the priesthood or episcopacy. This is the opposite of what Paul was advocating. Paul seems to have assumed that the deeper and longer your faith was the greater your liberation and he was asking those of deep faith to sacrifice some of their liberty for the sake of their newer brothers and sisters.
All of us, wherever we are along the various theological and political spectrums of our times, are challenged that knowledge tends to puff up, but that love builds up. If we are children of God, if we are the offspring of love and the followers of the Lord of life and love, then we are to tend toward building up the whole rather than building around our favourite pet hobby horse which is about caring for the some at the expense of others, we are to be very mindful of our impact – for better and for worse – on others.
A quote from Mother Theresa seems to speak to this:
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway. If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway. What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway. If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway. ~Mother Teresa”
Any action for change, any attempts at building up, are likely to be a bit risky. But inaction is not necessarily loving or faithful either. So let us be guided by the principle of love and act with goodwill and courage being tender-hearted to those who are different to ourselves, generously inclusive in our prayers and lives, and committed to building up the body of Christ until it is a reflection of God’s unending love for us all. And if we follow this, even a little, we will have contributed toward healing in our churches, our families, and our community.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ.