Fourth Sunday of Epiphany - This Liberty of Yours
Today we are going to explore how Epiphany offers us the gift of common ground. When we realize the truth of the Incarnation---that God became one of us in order to rescue all of us... it has the power to change how we see one another... in spite of our differences.
As we reflect on this past year and the tumultuous election, and the aftermath, we have to face facts. There are some deep divisions within our society, and they seem to grow deeper all of the time.
What do we do when it feels like the divisions between us are too great to overcome? I don't know about you, but when I peruse my social media pages, I get more and more disheartened.
It feels sometimes like I don't even recognize some of the people I thought I knew. What do we do when we feel disappointment in our friends, who seem so far away from us with their beliefs, and their pronouncements about those beliefs? Or worse yet, when our family members are so far away from us in the way they view the world?
I have found myself reeling at times from things that I've seen my friends and family members share on social media. It feels incongruous with what I believed to be true about them.
We have a choice to make in those moments. We can unfriend them. That's one way to solve it. Or we can unfollow them so we don't have to see their posts any longer. We can ignore it. We can fight with them. There's all kinds of ways to go with it.
Or... and this is what many of us long for even though it seems like an impossibility in the moment... we can try to find something to unite us---some way toward common ground.
Sometimes common ground is found in the most interesting ways...
Bernie Sanders and his mittens...
For a moment we all came together on something even if it was just for a little while. We all laughed. We shared the images. We discovered some common ground.
What was it about this crazy meme that softened things ever so slightly?
It all comes down to the places where we found Bernie. Movies, albums, landmarks, historic paintings... they remind us that even though we might have deep disagreements on some things, there are more things that unite us. It's hard to be mad at someone when they post Bernie on the cover of one of your favorite albums. Or in a place, you remember fondly. Or a movie you love.
If we are willing to let it---something as simple as Bernie Sanders and his mittens can remind us that we have more in common than we don't.
Today we are going to learn about how a first-century church dispute over eating idol-sacrificed meat is a metaphor for our current situation... and how the Apostle Paul used some plain old common sense to help those early Christians find some common ground.
And here's what we're going to be focused on today: You Have To Move To Find Common Ground
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
So let's talk a bit about the context here. What is at stake? No pun intended.
There were people in the church at Corinth who went to the market and bought meat to eat that had been sold to the vendors by the local pagan temples. And there were other people in the church who condemned them for it.
You see, when someone came to make a sacrifice to Aphrodite, who had the largest temple in the city, or to Poseidon god of the sea, or any number of other gods... they would bring a goat, a sheep, or even an ox if they were asking for something really big.
But the temple wouldn't use all of the animal, just certain parts of it. In fact, many of the priests of these ancient temples, including the temple in Jerusalem, were trained butchers more than they were anything else. The sale of unused sacrificial meat was big business and was the easiest way to buy it in most cities.
So naturally, Christians got sideways with one another over it. Some saw no reason to get uptight, but others were like, "You're eating tainted meat!"
Paul weighs in on this argument in an unusual way. First, he declares that idols are meaningless, and not worthy of being upset over. Paul was like, "idols are fake... meat is meat. Get over it."
But then he takes aim at those who have the knowledge of this, and feel the freedom that comes with it by saying, "You need to not be so in-your-face about your beliefs." In fact, the key phrase that Paul uses here is perhaps the pivotal moment in this entire passage:
"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."
In the end, Paul asserts that this is not about being right, it's about finding common ground. He exhorts the church at Corinth to be easy with what they believe to be right and to demonstrate humility because they don't know everything--neither side.
He even goes so far as to say that even though he believes it to be kind of a non-issue to be divided over, he'd be willing to give up eating meat altogether if it meant finding common ground with people he cares about.
Granted, he takes the argument to its furthest extent to make a point. But what he's basically arguing is... "You Corinthians... you're majoring on the minors and minoring on the majors."
In other words: If at all possible on non-essentials... if you have to choose between being loving and being right, be loving.
So what does this mean for us in our current context both in our society and in our own church?
First, when we say "Love God and Love Everybody" do we mean it?
We get our church vision from the Great Commandment where Jesus told his followers to love the Lord your God with all their heart, mind, and strength, and love their neighbor as themselves.
If you love your neighbor as yourself---what does that look like? It looks like giving the same respect and care that you would want to receive. It means listening and learning. It means being willing to meet someone where they are even if where they are is not someplace you are all that comfortable sitting in even for a bit.
But it also means establishing good boundaries, which are acts of love. And it means not abandoning the essentials of being a Jesus follower. It means staying true to values that are not just important to you, but those that are close to the heart of God.
We have to ask ourselves an important question if we are going to pursue our vision as a church: Can we be faithful to our deepest convictions without "Othering" one another?
Listen---one of the core values that we have as a congregation is to set a bigger table where more of us can gather. But sometimes when we start to put in an extender and make the table bigger, there are some folks who start to feel like they don't have a place at the table anymore. Or the place where they used to sit changed, and they don't like it.
The purpose of widening the table is so more people can come and eat. And just because there are more spaces being created doesn't mean that everyone who was here before isn't welcomed---far from it. In fact, we need you to be hosts, and help set the table---even if you are out of your comfort zone a bit by the new folks who finally feel like they have a place.
Second, one of the things that we need to embrace is that speaking truth to power and speaking the truth in love are not mutually exclusive.
The Apostle Paul wanted the folks at Corinth to know that they didn't know everything, and so this should lead them to practice more forbearance in disputes over non-essential things.
Humility is a value that we all need to embrace during times of deep division.
We all have an enormous capacity to fall into error, but how aware are we of just how enormous that capacity really is? It should drive us to be kinder in our responses to one another.
I've discovered something about my friends who love to post ridiculous things on social media. They don't like to be told that what they just posted is ridiculous. Even when it's a link to a bogus news website.
And they especially don't like it when I do that kind of thing publicly.
I recently read that the way forward through this morass of division is not to call people out but to call people in. This looks a lot different depending on who you are talking to, but it just might include something other than a rebuke.
The story about a young woman who disagreed with me in seminary. "I'd love to have a conversation with you and find out why you believe what you say you believe. Over soup."
I suck at this. Most of us do.
But if we are going to make a difference and not just a point we need to be willing to move a bit.
You have to move to find common ground.