Deuteronomy 18:15-20, I Corinthians 8:1-13
January 29, 2006
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That is the quote of Paul that you see on the bottom of the bulletin.
Paul is dealing with quite a controversy. It was of course in the very early days of the church. And in those days, they were coming out of the Jewish tradition where they had religious animal sacrifices. But please understand that when they offered up animals for “burnt offerings” they didn’t burn the whole animal. They just burned the inedible parts. The edible parts – they ate. Or they donated parts to the temple for the priests to eat. You see, their whole food system, their whole means of sustenance, was tied to their faith.
That’s all well and good. The problem was that the Jews weren’t the only ones who had animal sacrifices. That practice took place in the pagan world as well. So in the market places there was meat for sale that came from animals which had been sacrificed to pagan gods. And some of God’s people felt it was wrong to eat that meat for food. That was the controversy.
We can just imagine what our version of that might be. In some churches, card playing, or dancing, or going to the movies were thought of in the same way. Some of you might have been raised that way. I don’t want to argue how good or bad that was. Let’s just say it was part of that culture, and you have to honor it for the time. And this business of meat offered to idols was a part of the culture of Paul’s time. But as I said, it was controversial. So Paul tried to offer some guidance.
In this passage, and in a number of other places, Paul made it clear how he felt about this. And I believe his understanding makes for a good spiritual principle. He made it clear that certain practices – like this one – though they were not a problem for him, were a problem for others! And he said here and in other passages that we should avoid doing something that would cause another person “to stumble.” That is, we should avoid certain things when we’re around people for whom those things could be that could be a big problem. At one point he told how “all things were lawful for him” but that “not all things are profitable.”
Listen to how he said it in today’s scripture. “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat it, and no better off if we do.” “But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” In other words, “It’s just food!” “However…” It’s not a simple as that. Just knowing things is not the only consideration. If we have that understanding, but we flaunt it in front of a “weaker brother” who does not understand, or who does not see it that way, we could cause that person confusion and even discouragement. He finished that thought saying, “Thus sinning against your brethren and ‘wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.”
In other words, you may be right, but you have caused a brother to fall in some way. So your own desire to be right has become a problem. So now, this leads to a greater principle of faith, which tells us that, instead of “choosing to be right all the time,” we should “choose the way of Love.”
That’s what I want us to think about today. And that’s not easy. We humans tend to want to see things only our own way. When we come up against someone who differs, it seems important to us to “set them straight.” That’s human nature. Paul is calling us to go “against the tide” of human nature. He is telling us that it is important for us to be able to love others with whom we don’t agree. And he’s telling us that sometimes we also have to choose the right time to express what we believe to be right. We have to try to see when it’s more important simply to love another person, and not worry whether we happen to agree with them.
Sometimes we have raised “speaking our mind” to a virtue of some kind. But it is sometimes more of a virtue to keep still, knowing that words are powerful, and that just blurting things out, or speaking without thinking, can cause worse problems we can never fully heal. The tongue is amazing, says James. It is so powerful that no person can tame it. It can bless and it can curse. It can help. And it can say the wrong thing at the wrong time.
My mother used to say, “Always be sure to put your brain in gear before you put your mouth in motion.” Or I’ve also heard it said “God gave you two ears and one mouth because listening is more important than talking.” So Paul tells us that we are to consider carefully how we are love others who we don’t happen to agree with. He’s telling us that we often need to choose to love a person first, rather than simply launching right into trying to convince them when we think we’re right.
That’s tough, isn’t it? But in saying that Paul has expressed an idea that I’ve heard before that makes good sense when you think about it. It’s reflected in my sermon title for today, “Would you rather be right or happy?” Some people always want to be right, don’t they? As I said before, that’s human nature. And sometimes in following that desire, people sacrifice a great deal of happiness in their relationships with others. Thinking they are always right, they are always in discord over one point of truth or another. Some people are so concerned with being right that they have lost the ability to connect with others. And they have lost so much of what this life is about!
“We see in a mirror dimly.” Paul would write those words five chapters later – after spending a lot of time trying to iron out a lot of these controversies in the first 12 chapters of this letter. He told them that we can be so spiritual that we can speak in the language if angels, we could be so smart that we could have all the knowledge in the world, we could even be so sacrificial in our living that we go to the point of giving our bodies away in a burnt offering, but in all that, if we have not love, we are nothing!
I had Donna put this verse at the bottom of your bulletins. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That’s true isn’t it? Showing others what we know builds us up. But showing others how we love them builds them up. Trying to be right shows others how much we know. Loving others helps our relationship with them, and so builds up the kingdom of God.
I’m not saying there aren’t times we should take a stand. But I am suggesting that those times might be not as frequent as we might think. And that we should strive more to love and less to correct. That can often be the way to reach people more quickly. But it is definitely the way to further the peace, unity, and purity of the Church! That’s what I pledged to further. That’s what many of you pledged to further as well when you became deacons and elders. Let’s do that!
We might not always get to be right. We might not always get to have our way. Our own opinion may not always prevail. Our understanding of how people should live this life might not be the one that gets followed. But may see that such things don’t always matter. May we grow in the way we show the love of Jesus as it’s expressed in this sacrament before us. This is not so much about teaching us anything. It is purely about love. Like I said last week, John 3:16 doesn’t say simply that God sent his only Son… and all that “everlasting life” stuff. It starts out, “For God so loved the world!”
Let us love the people of this world, too. In fact, let us love others lavishly. Let us love enthusiastically Let us even err on the side of love. Let us follow the advice of one pastor who said, “We aren’t to browbeat people into the kingdom. We are to love them into the kingdom!” And once we are here at last in God’s kingdom, let us strive to love one another in big ways!
Do we want to be right? Or do we want the peace, unity, and purity of the Church? Would we rather be right? Or would we rather live in the glory and peace of God that passed all human understanding?
Let us pray
Eternal God, we cannot begin to imagine your infinite love. We can only express it in our limited human ways. But help us to know your love. Help us to have the passion to share your love with others, even people we don’t know. Save us from the temptation always to be right. Instead, use us to share your love with the world. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.