Sunday, January 31, 2021
Building with Love
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
Jan 31, 2021
Paul’s letters to the churches in Corinth are without a doubt the book of the bible that speaks the loudest to our current world, be it our local city or our country. Today’s epistle is just such an example of Paul talking to the church as a whole, but with some very specific thoughts to the leadership.
What does ancient Corinth have to do with our world today? Much! Corinth was a cosmopolitan city, a hub of shipping and commerce. Corinth was crossroads filled with ships and people from all over the world. Being a good port city there was a large military presence including probably a fair number of retired military men and their families. The city was filled with temples from the Greek and Roman pantheons as well as those from the east. The mystery religions like the cult of Mithras would have had a strong presence. Idols and gods abounded from every corner of the globe. Corinth was about as cosmopolitan as you could get in that time, sort of like Houston today.
The small but growing Christian community in the early 50s CE would probably have drawn heavily from the local Greek and Roman population with some Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Rome by the emperor. The church in Corinth was not just one church. They were several small house churches run by people like Lydia, Chloe, Apollos and others. This small community was surrounded by a predominantly pagan culture with their cultic practices of idol worship and temple prostitution. Many of their members had probably worshipped at those temples or been members of one of the cults that were so common. They were a powerful cultural force against the new Christian practices taught by Paul. This is the setting from which the concerns in today’s passage arise.
One thing to note is that in this letter we have the second half of a communication. When reading Corinthians, we must realize that we are seeing the answer to a letter or series of letters that had been sent to Paul. It is possible that even a small deputation from Chloe has visited Paul in Ephesus to complain about what was going on in Corinth. This means we know the answer, but we do not know for sure what the question is or the exact nature of the problem. We must guess at what the issue is. The crisis though is clearly is a crisis of leadership in many respects. This was a do as I say, not as I do world.
The specific problem addressed in today’s passage is one of eating food connected with temple worship. Now we might think that this would be an easy thing to avoid. However, in Corinth as much as 80% of the meat available for purchase and or consumption had been offered at one of the temples. The temples had a rotating series of feasts and celebrations and if one wanted to eat out in Corinth, you did not go to a restaurant. A person would find which temple was having a service and they would attend the meal afterward. The temples were where people went to socialize and do business. The meal would be made using some of the offering to that particular god or idol. If a wealthy person, and only the wealthy could buy meat on a regular basis, wanted meat for their home they would go to the temple meat market, purchase meat that had been sacrificed and bring it home to be cooked. Finding meat that had not been offered to a pagan god was nearly impossible.
That is the situation that Paul is addressing. What appears to be the problem is that members of the leadership in particular are buying from, eating at, or going to these temples to eat and being seen by other members of their community and of the general population. Paul says that they are puffed up by their knowledge. This is human knowledge “gnosis,” as opposed to “sophia” which is Godly knowledge. Paul warns them that what builds up a community is love, agape in Greek, which is Godly love.
The leadership is self-centered and prideful in Paul’s mind. They know and Paul knows that these idols or pagan gods have no power over them. Paul’s concern however is for the weaker, newer members of their churches. Some of these people may be recent converts who might hold in the back of their minds that while the leaders say these idols have no power I’m not sure. It is possible that some of the weaker members may even be hedging their bets so to speak. Thinking, well I know that this does not make any difference, but what harm can it be to just partake of the festival just in case. That hold may be something like superstitions in our world.
Then the action of the leaders becomes a stumbling block for the young church. There is implied throughout the letter an arrogance by the leadership. They have great knowledge but are not looking out for their flock in the sense of Christian love.
It is clear there are strong factions. Unfortunately, church fights are not anything new and this is just another parallel between Corinth and today. In the text some of the sentences or phrases are in quotes as if Paul is quoting slogans of the various churches. Each faction seems to think they are right and the others are wrong. The standard they use to judge however is human knowledge rather than the love of God.
One could imply that several of these factions may have written Paul and he has consolidated all of these into one blast to all of them where he basically says, what builds up your community is love and I’m not feeling the love here baby! Time and again he says to the leaders, stop it, you are not setting the example that I want. You are not living as Jesus taught us to live or love as the case may be.
The parallels should be fairly obvious by now. One of the primary issues was that people were thinking all about me first. If it’s allowed for me to do something no matter what effect the action has on others, I’m going to do whatever and too bad for others. Even worse I disagree with whatever and it is my right to act in a certain way, even if the effect is detrimental to others. There are many ways to look at this in today’s world. Our actions can be “right” but also be sinful because of what the actions do to others.
Richard Rohr, like Paul seems to grasp that knowledge used properly in a mature manner builds up the body. It does not puff up the ego or pride of the individual. It also does not tear down or cause harm to the other. That kind of knowledge Paul labels as sinful because it causes harm to the body. Remember sin is the breaking of relationship between ourselves and God, another person or creation. Sin is about acting from a point that does not begin with love. We can have all the knowledge in the world, be right and still do great harm if we don’t come from a stance of love for the other.
When confronted with a conflict between actions based on law or love, knowledge or compassion, I try erring on the side of love and compassion. When making decisions based on love or knowledge remind yourself that the two great commandments are love God and love your neighbor as yourself. This is the standard for judgment on all decisions. This is what Jesus did and taught. This is what Paul wants.
I follow this model because when the time comes for me to answer for the choices I have made in my time on earth, I would rather explain to God why I loved too much and too freely rather than explain why I loved too little. I believe if we all acted and treated everybody with the love Jesus taught, we would all be better off and the world would be better off.
St. Francis De Sales said, “He who preaches with love, preaches effectively.” St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times, use words only when necessary.” These two saints give us what we need in this world today. First of all preach the Gospel of Jesus by our actions. Treat all people with the love of Christ. Then with our words let us proclaim the love the Jesus has for us. That is the “knowledge” that builds up the body. Living with regard for others is something our world desperately needs.