A More Excellent Way
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, January 31st, 2021
Nicknames can be endearing, such as when a lover whispers gently “My Dear” to her beloved. Nicknames can also be defining. In my youth, if anyone mentioned “the King,” everyone immediately saw a vision of a rocking, twisting star from Memphis. Nicknames can also be demeaning. As a child, I was quite overweight, so on any given day, I’d hear at least fifty times in the hallways and neighborhood, “Hey, Rotund One.”
Classification by nickname enjoys a long history. The congregation in Corinth tossed about a destructive nickname at each other. In Corinth, the church was divided into “the knowing” and “the ignorant,” with each side labeling the other with the “ignorant” nickname. In chapter 8 of his first letter to Corinth, the Apostle Paul addresses the behavior of the self-acclaimed “knowing” Christians in the congregation. The issue of which Paul writes is whether a Christian should eat food sacrificed to idols. Pardon the pun, but that is hardly a consuming issue in American life, or church life, today. And, it was not a consuming issue for the “knowing” group in ancient Corinth either.
The self-proclaimed “knowing” group pronounced proudly, “Food sacrificed to idols is irrelevant to us. We know there is only one God and so it does not matter what we eat or to which idol the food was sacrificed. We can eat barbequed spare ribs sacrificed to Athena and it makes absolutely no difference.”
The “knowing” Christians in Corinth defend their pompous behavior on the principle of gnosis, a Greek word for knowledge. Gnostics carved the world into those “in the know” and those who were “not,” into the wise and ignorant. Paul feared that this divisive disease had infected the Corinthian congregation. So, he speaks bluntly, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Paul realized that in one respect the “knowing” Christians in Corinth were right; idols do not exist, so why worry about food offered to them. Yet, writes Paul, “it is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge.” So, he tells the gifted, the proud, the “knowing” Christians in Corinth that “love beats knowledge every time.”
Knowledge without love lets the tongue wag or the emails fly or the twitter tweet. Knowledge without love derides the other, saying: “You fools! You should know better than to hold such a naïve view of God and the world.” Knowledge without love barks, “I’m free in Christ to eat anything I want, because the food I eat does not make me a Christian.”
Knowledge with love says, “If my eating food sacrificed to idols will cause another Christian to fall from faith, I will never eat that food again.” Love with knowledge says, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (I Cor. 13:4; NRSV).
Over the years, I have heard people cite I Corinthians 8 as a reason for Christians to tiptoe through life, never taking a stand on tough issues, never challenging myopic views, lest they offend another member of the Christian family. “For example,” writes Duke New Testament scholar Richard Hays, “it is argued that if drinking alcohol or dancing or dressing in certain ways might cause offense to more scrupulous church members, we are obligated to avoid such behaviors for the sake of the `weaker brother’s conscience’. The effect of such reasoning is to hold the entire Christian community hostage to the standards of the most narrow-minded and legalistic members of the church. Clearly this is not what Paul intended” (Interpretation Series, I Corinthians, 145). Well, if Dr. Hays is right, and I believe he is, what did Paul intend with these seemingly obscure words to the church in Corinth?
Most every summer our family vacations for a week at Smith Mountain Lake near Roanoke, Virginia. Each time we go, we stay in the same house at one end of a little cove and each morning I swim out to the markers that warn boats and jet-skis that they must slow to a crawl, that they must take responsibility for their wakes. That is what Paul wants “the knowing” group in Corinth to keep in mind. They are responsible for how they use their “knowledge.” For being a Christian, argues Paul, is not just to be right; it is to be set free to love, as he will later say: “love is not . . . boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way . . . Now we see in a mirror dimly” (I Cor. 13; NRSV). William Sloane Coffin puts it this way, “The wise don’t pretend to know it all. They know that you don’t have to think alike to love alike. The message they read from the Star is that only love makes sense, and not much else makes any difference” (The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin, p. 499).
Paul refuses to congratulate those in Corinth who are technically right and have their church doctrine in good order, but who behave in ways that demean others and use their theological knowledge as a wedge to separate those “in the know” from those who are “not.” He refuses to congratulate them in their knowledge of God, because he “knows” that you and I have one name that finally matters. It is not the nickname that our theological or political foes use to deride us or our neighbors use to humiliate us or even the endearing name friends or lovers use to engage us. It is not even the name given to us by our parents at birth.
Paul reminds those in Corinth, and through them, reminds us of the name we are given in baptism, “Beloved Child of God.” That is no nickname. It is our God given name by which we are known not only by God but by each other. Because of that name you and I are responsible not only to God, but to each other. What matters to you I cannot casually ignore and what matters to me, you had best not simply dismiss. For you and I share the name of the One who is Love and in whose life we come “to know” what finally matters.
There is way too much mean and arrogant name-calling in our nation today and in the church today. And, I stand guilty of being such a name-caller, at times. Too many churches and Christians divide into theological camps, with each camp “knowing” itself to be more enlightened about the mind of God than the other “ignorant,” camp, as we use scathing rhetoric to belittle each other. What is even worse is that those who consider themselves “right” or “in the know” feel entitled to write that article, make that call, preach that sermon, or send that email, as if their “knowledge” justifies such demeaning, divisive, and hurtful behavior. Amid all of these church battles, Paul shouts across the centuries, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That leads him to urge all in Christ at all times to find “a still more excellent way.”
Don’t misunderstand what Paul or I am saying. I want us to know everything we possibly can about the Bible, so that we can stop treating Scripture like some fragile piece of china that will shatter if we handle it too much or some mindless piece of self-help advice or worse, as a daily horoscope. I want us to know how good theology helps us understand God and how God would have us live in this world. I want us to know the intricacies of Christian ethics so we can base our moral choices on far more than simplistic moralisms cherry-picked from the Bible. But more than all that, I want us to know that in our baptism, you and I are welcomed into a community shaped by the love of Christ and when we use our “knowledge” to live in anything other than that love, we are grossly out of shape.
So, whenever we are tempted to demean the “less knowing” and to exclude those we deem “ignorant” from our theological community, I invite us to recall this often ignored and out of the way chapter in First Corinthians. Whenever our “knowing” moves us into the camp of the arrogant rather than into the community of the loving, I invite us to remember the wise words of Coffin: “that only love makes sense, and not much else makes any difference.”