Sunday, February 1, 2015

Insecure, Jealous: the Body of Christ - Sermon for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany 2015

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one." Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. "Food will not bring us close to God." We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 

Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, 

I will never eat meat, 

so that I may not cause one of them to fall. 

- 1 Corinthians 8:1-13


Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth have always been some of my favorites.

As difficult as they can sometimes 
be to read, 

and as objectionable as some of Paul’s advice would be to us, 
if we simply took him out of the first century 
and plopped him down here, 
in the twenty-first, 

for me, 
what I see and what I hear when I read Paul’s letters, 

is a snapshot 
the first century church, 

chaotic and confused, 
and in formation—

a little church community 
still in the midst of figuring out what it means 
to be followers 
of Christ, 

what it means 
to be baptized 
“into” Christ, 

what it means 
to partake in communion, 
in communion with one another,

A small community struggling with what it means for them
to be Christ’s 
in this world. 

When we read these letters, 
“first” and “second” Corinthians, 

It’s helpful to envision Paul pacing back and forth—
from a prison cell, or a library,
or from some-other-Christian-community he had planted somewhere else 
in the Mediterranean world, 
just like he planted the church in Corinth, 
hoping, when he left, it would continue to grow and evolve into something even better and brighter. 

As Paul paces, back and forth,
from wherever he is,  
Paul dictates. 

That is, Paul speaks out loud whatever he wants the letter to say,  
and as a scribe listens to him from his chair, 
the scribe writes it down. 

This is why you get such amazing tangents 
and digressions in Paul’s letters
as well as some super-long run-on sentences. 
—they are written, somewhat as a stream-of-consciousness. Paul’s talking, or ranting, or screaming, or lovingly emoting,  
someone else, writing it down into a letter;
a letter, by the way, I’m sure Paul never thought would be one day called “scripture” or “The Bible.” 

It was just: 
a letter 
from a missionary 
to his sisters and brothers in Corinth.

Paul dictates. Someone writes. 

This is also why some of Paul’s letters end with something like, 
See what large letters I use 
as I write to you with my own hand (Gal 6:11)!” 

That is, “See! I’m even signing this one myself. 
So you don’t think someone else sent it.



These letters, would then be hand delivered to the communities to which Paul was writing, 
and probably, 
they would have been opened and read 
in front of the whole church.

The letter we call “First” Corinthians 
(because it is the first letter to Corinth included in the Bible—
not because it was the first letter Paul ever wrote to Corinth), starts like many ancient letters, 

really nicely, with a “greeting,” and with “thanksgiving”:

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, 
and our brother Sosthenes, 
To the church of God that is in Corinth, 
to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, 
called to be saints, 
together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 
both their Lord and ours: 
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

He goes on:

“I give thanks to my God always for you 
because of the grace of God  that has been given you 
in Christ Jesus, 
for in every way you have been enriched in him, 
in speech and knowledge of every kind-- 
just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-- 
so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift 
as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

He will also strengthen you to the end, 
so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 
God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

To the church of God. To the saints. 

Grace. Peace. Knowledge. 

Enrichment. Sanctified. Sisters. And brothers. 

Paul says hello very nicely. 
But suddenly, Paul takes on another tone:

(1 Cor 1:10) “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, 
by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 
that all of you be in agreement and 
that there be no divisions among you, 
but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 

[Paul says to the church in Corinth, “Can’t we all just get along?”]

“For it has been reported to me 
by Chloe's people,” He goes on, 

“that there are quarrels among you, 
my brothers and sisters.  

What I mean is that each of you says, 
"I belong to Paul," or 
"I belong to Apollos," or 
"I belong to Cephas," or 
"I belong to Christ." 

Has Christ been divided? 
Was Paul crucified for you? 
Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 
so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” 


Paul says hello nicely. 

But then he gets pretty much right down to the occasion for the writing.

That is, he’s writing, or rather, shouting at a scribe, 
because he’s heard some not-so-great things 
have been going on in Corinth. 

To begin with,

there’s a bunch of insecure Christians 
arguing about which of them 
is better or best…

arguing with one another 
based on which apostle baptized each of them. 

“Well I was baptized by Paul!”, one would say. 

“Oh yeah? Well I once had lunch with St. Peter.”

“Ha! I was around before Jesus was even crucified!”

Well… Well… Well… I saw Apollos at the post office, and he let me take a selfie with him!”

A bunch of insecure, self-absorbed
trying to prove who is better
because of who they know, 
who they’ve met, 
whose autograph they were able to finagle 

that is:

basing their value on someone else’s reputation, 
someone else's work, 

Basing their own value on someone else,

rather than on the beautiful reality to which they were just waking up—that they each of them is a child of God, a sister, a brother, the family of Christ—each of them is beautiful and cared for and has deep value by virtue of their existence. 

Celebrity, selfies, and status in contrast don’t matter all. 

This is the Body of Christ in Corinth. 

Insecure. Jealous. And in competition. 

As Paul dictates, and the scribe writes, 

in response to reports about Corinth 

that he has received from “Chloe’s people,” 

We learn that the conflicts go beyond

“Who did your baptism?”

We find out, as the letter unfolds, that members of the community also fight over romanic relationships. 

There is one instance which deeply disturbs Paul in which a young man is competing with his father for the love of his mother-in-law.

Paul, in his frustration (and perhaps in his single hood)

simply wishes that they were all single—or acted as if they were single. 

He actually advises churches to “just be like me.” 

This is one of the reasons it is sometimes difficult to read Paul. He means well, but his ego can swell when he “knows” he is “right.”

In another pocket of the community, members are sewing other members—over what, the epistle doesn’t reveal, but the very fact that brothers and sisters can not settle their conflicts in-house, to Paul, is frustrating. 

“Don’t you know you are all children of God?”

“Really, people?” 

Perhaps the most telling rant from Paul, 

about the problem in Corinth, 

is Paul’s frustration (to put it lightly) 
about the way Holy Communion was happening. 

He says to them in Chapter 11:

“When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you;”

[Again, the recurring issue…divisions…fighting…positioning…]

“and to some extent I believe it,” he says. 

Indeed… when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” 

[Some people were poor, and had nothing, and when they came to communion, the people who got their early ante all the food and drank all the wine, and so they were drunk, and there was no food was left for the people who needed and relied on it.]. 

Conflict after conflict, competition after competition. Fighting, sewing, romantic positioning… And greed around the communion table. 

PLUS the one we read about today in our second reading. 

Those of you who were at Bible Study Tuesday went over this a bit more in depth, 

but basically the issue at hand in Corinth is this:

If idols aren’t real gods, 

then food sacrificed to idols should be fine to eat. 

On top of that, as Christians, we can eat whatever we want. 

Paul said so. 

However, some new Christians (so, like all of them)
but perhaps especially for those who had left the cult of Apollo
were not quite ready yet 
to eat a hamburger that was cooked as a burnt offering to Apollo,
whom they had traded in for Christ. 

Too many flashbacks. To Apollo. 

To the religion of Rome, to the empirical cult. 

Too many flashbacks.To the religion of Caesar and Caesar’s Reign of oppression—the one that was persecuting their sisters and brothers in Christ.

Too many flashbacks,  rather than flash forwards to the faith of Christ and the Kingdom of God. 

“Phoebe doesn’t like it when I eat Apollo burgers!” says Marcus. 

“Well then cut it out! Quit bugging your sister,” responds Paul. 

“But you said I could do whatever I wanted with my freedom,” Marcus replies. 

“Go to your room!” Says Paul. 

But no.

Paul doesn’t say “go to your room.” 

But, rather, “You’re asking the wrong questions.”

Yes there is great joy in having freedom. And for Paul’s communities, freedom in Christ was a big thing—for many, real restrictions were lifted.

But once freedom happened—when folks became governed by Christ, rather than this or that religious rule, the question changed.

It became not, “Which rule should I follow?” 
or “Which rule is it okay to break?” 
or “What can I get away with?” 

Rather, freedom in Christ is freedom to.
And freedom in Christ is freedom to love.

The question becomes “How may I best love and build up my brother or sister who is struggling.”

In the case of food… In the case of baptism… In the case of lawsuits… In the case of relationships…

“How may I best love and build up my brother or sister who is struggling.”

Practically, in my experience, by the way, in case you are imaging those people you might help or care for, it is generally better just to say:

“Let me know if or how I can help.” “I’m here for you.”

(rather than imagining what folks might struggle with, and how we might help). 

Paul, as the church emerges as a new thing, 

gathered around a new Lord, and Kingdom quite different than the kingdoms of the world, 

creates an ethical framework. 

Sometime his conclusions are awful,

at least to the contemporary ear, 

but that’s no reason to not pay attention,

to listen to the conversation, 

to eves drop on the letter we now cal “scripture” 

that he dictated to a scribe, 

for a struggling and conflicted church, 

still in the midst of figuring out what it means 
to be followers 
of Christ, 

what it means 
to be baptized 
“into” Christ, 

what it means 
to partake in communion, 
in communion with one another,

and to be Christ’s 
in this world. 


There’s no reason not to eves drop 

on a community discovering

that in freely loving others, 

we become our better selves.

That in serving others, 
we discover the ground of our very being—

That in welcoming the stranger in Love, 
we meet ourselves again,
and, indeed, we meet God in Christ. 

It can’t hurt to listen. 

You never know what we might hear. 


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