Only Love Makes Sense
I Corinthians 8:1-13
On this All Saints’ Sunday on the eve of Election Day, I would like to focus on saints now gone and saints still living, but my heart and mind are elsewhere. On this holy day and in this sacred season, I am deeply saddened by what I see as a hardening of the American heart, when people think it is okay to laugh about a brutal attack on the husband of the Speaker of the House. And I fear the growing media echo chambers in which we live, all of them feeding self-righteousness certainty about the way we view the world and feeding hateful disdain for those who view it differently. And, in full disclosure, if ever there has been a sermon that I am preaching first and foremost to myself, it is this one. So, I have invited a friend to help me move forward and to refocus. I have never met this friend, but I have read everything he wrote. At least, everything that has survived the tumults of time. Paul lived centuries ago, but that hardly matters for division is not something new to human life. Paul lived in fear that the church he had started in Corinth was splitting at the seams. They were divided on almost every issue imaginable, largely divided into “the knowing” and all others who “the knowing” considered “the ignorant.” Sounds remarkably similar to our social, political, and religious landscape today. In chapter 8, Paul is writing about a seemingly arcane topic – whether a Christian should or shout not eat food sacrificed to idols. The “knowing” group in Corinth proudly pronounced, “Food sacrificed to idols is a non-issue. We know that 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 pork or barbequed spare ribs sacrificed to Athena or Zeus and it will make absolutely no difference, for there is only one God and all other gods are cardboard idols.” The “knowing” Christians in Corinth defend their behavior on the principle of gnosis, a Greek word for knowledge. Gnosticism was a lively philosophy in Paul’s day. The Gnostics carved the world into two groups: “those in the know” and “those not in the know.” Paul feared that this divisive disease was creeping into the Corinthian congregation, causing hurt and schism. So, the Apostle speaks bluntly to his friends, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul has no argument with what the “knowing” Christians in Corinth believe, that idols do not exist and there is only one God. Yet, writes Paul, “it is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge.” So, he tells the gifted, the proud, the “knowing,” that “love surpasses knowledge every time.” Paul warns that knowledge without love lets the tongue wag or the harsh email fly or the caustic message be sent. Knowledge without love derides those who thinking differently, saying: “You fools! Did you flunk Sunday School? You should know better than to hold such a naïve view of God and the world!” Knowledge with love says, “If food sacrificed to idols is a cause of another Christian falling from faith, I will never eat that food, no matter how delicious it is.” Knowledge without love barks, “I’m free in Christ to eat anything I want, because food does not make me a believer.” 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).
I have often heard people cite I Corinthians 8 as a reason for Christians to tiptoe through life, never take a stand on tough issues, never challenge 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 [siblings’] 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, what did Paul intend by his words to “the knowing”? One week of almost every summer, our family vacations at Smith Mountain Lake near Roanoke, Virginia. Each time we go, we stay in the same rental house at one end of a little cove and each morning I swim out to the markers. The markers are in place to warn boats and jet-skis that they must slow to a crawl before they enter the cove, that they are responsible for the wakes they make. Paul wants the “the knowing” group in Corinth to keep in mind that they are responsible for the wakes they make with their words, their actions, their attitudes. They are responsible for how they use their “knowledge.” For being a Christian, argues Paul, is not just to be set free to live as we deem wise, but to be set free to love, and as Paul 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). The late Reverend Dr. William Sloane Coffin put it this way, “The wise don’t pretend to know it all . . . 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 who scored 100% on the test, who are technically correct, but who behave in ways that demean and diminish others. He refuses to let faith be used as a wedge to separate those “in the know” from those who are “not.” What Paul “knows” is that you and I are united whether we recognize that unity or whether we live into that unity. In our baptism, we are washed clean and given the name “Christian.” By that name we are united not only to God, but to each other – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer. Because we share the same Christian name, I cannot casually ignore what matters to you and you had best not simply dismiss what matters to me. On this All Saints’ Sunday and on the eve of another election, there is way too much mean and arrogant name-calling going on across the American landscape. And, like the rest of society, churches still imitate Corinth, dividing into several camps, each self-identifying as “the knowing,” each camp “knowing” itself to be more enlightened about the mind of God than the others and each camp using scathing rhetoric to belittle the others and excusing the damning rhetoric as righteous. Those who consider themselves “right” or “in the know” feel entitled to write that hateful article, to make that belittling call, to post that dismissive tweet, to send that thorny email, as if their “knowledge” justifies such demeaning communication and behavior. To those in or outside the church, Paul shouts across the centuries, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” and what he later urges for Corinthian believers, is to follow the “more excellent way” which is the way of love embodied in Jesus.
Do not misunderstand me. By living in the light of the love of Jesus, I have no desire for us to relish in ignorance, in conspiracy theories, or in fiction posing as fact. 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 with all the value of a fortune cookie.
I want us to know how sound biblical knowledge and good theology can help us understand God, ourselves, and the world around us. I want us to know the intricacies of Christian ethics so we can base our moral choices on far more than simplistic biblical moralisms. But more than all that, I want us to know that in our baptism, you and I are united and welcomed into Christ’s community of love and when we use our “knowledge” to live in anything other than in that love, we are grossly out of shape.
So, whenever you and I are tempted to demean those we deem “the ignorant” from our company, I invite us to recall this seemingly obscure 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 who invites us to this table, to remember that you and I are summoned by the One who “knows” that knowledge without love is dangerous and divisive, who knows, as Coffin said so well, “that only love makes sense, and not much else makes any difference.”
If that is the case – and I believe it is – then in honor of saints gone and saints among us, may we live into the love that claims us and names us and makes us one.