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We’ve been reading in First Corinthians for a couple weeks, and will continue. I just love reading this book. It’s so great because it’s this reminder that even the early church had struggles. When I read about the congregation at Corinth, and hear Paul trying to encourage them into healthier and more faithful living, I see real people and real congregations that have been a part of my own life. Sure, many things about the way we live and practice faith are different. But that fact that we all bring our own stuff- our issues, our needs, our personalities- into the congregation is nothing new. Most relevant is the constant struggle, or delicate dance, of living a Christian life in a non-Christian world.
People refer to the time period we’re living in, and have been living in for a while, as “Post Christendom.” This means that for many hundreds of years, Christianity was a given, an assumption for Western Civilization. Public life favored Christians.
Clues that we aren’t living in Christendom any more are found in many of the complaints I hear from church people. “Sports events are scheduled on Sundays and my kids will be punished if they skip.” “Stores should be closed on Sunday.” “People used to get off work for Good Friday.” “School shouldn’t give homework on Wednesdays, that’s church day.” All of these come from a belief that everyone else is Christian or at least our culture should make it easier for us to practice Christianity.
The reality is that culture isn’t bending to make Christian living any easier. And I don’t really see any reason it should. Yes, you may have to make difficult decisions and weigh your priorities when you find a conflict between Christianity and the world. You will have to learn more about your faith so that you can explain your choices to others. As the church, we need to find ways to reach out and welcome people in that make sense in their lives.
To find insights into how we might go about all this, we can look to First Corinthians, because they lived in the same type of world, with a diversity of cultural practices, religious options, and sometimes rejection from non Christians. This book becomes more real and more relevant because of the times in which we live.
So, even though we might initially scratch our heads at today’s reading, it really does have a lot to say to us, as we figure out how we live as individuals and together as the church.
The big issue, in both the First Corinthians and Mark texts, is authority. For Corinthians, this authority is most connected to knowledge and power. Having knowledge, understanding, forms the basis for authority, which can be manifest as power over one’s own choices and over others’ perceptions and choices. For Mark, authority resides in Jesus through his identification with God, and is shown in Jesus’ teaching and power over evil.
Let’s travel first to Corinth. Corinth was a busy city, a crossroads of trade and culture. There’s a Christian congregation there. Paul founded it and left it to the local leadership when he moved on to another mission field. Paul continues to be connected through messengers and letters.
The big thing about becoming a Christian is that it means stepping into a whole new way of life. These people haven’t grown up Christian or Jewish, and it’s hard for them to discern what practices or assumptions about relating to other people need to change in order for them to leave behind their pagan life and live faithfully. Simple things in daily life are wrapped up in religious overtones.
For example: food. The example Paul picks up is about what’s for supper. And not the Lord’s Supper- that’s another chapter- but just regular, old, dinnertime with the family. If you were someone who had to purchase meat for supper, you likely bought a lamb chop that had come from a sheep that had been involved in the worship of another god. The temple down the street, dedicated to say, Zeus, would have an altar on which animals would be sacrificed. Later on, some of that meat would be sold.
The problem for the Corinthian church is that some people are offended, to the point of being close to rejecting Christianity, because they think that when their fellow Christians are purchasing and then enjoying their lamb chops, they are really participating in the worship of the gods they’ve left behind when they were baptized into Jesus Christ.
Can you imagine an awkward dinner party? Everyone is seated, drinks have been poured, the soup course is over, and then the main dish is brought out. When the lamb chops are uncovered and the smell wafts up, one guest, Alexander, remembers worshipping at Zeus’ temple, and he remembers all the sacrifices he’s offered there. He’s brought back to his old life. And he’s confused. He’s afraid that if he eats this meat, he’ll be sliding back into that old way of worship. He feels like his hosts must not be the faithful Christians he thought they were, if they’ve recently been hanging out at the temple of another god.
If he’s bold enough to say something, his hosts just laugh. “What can we say, we love our lamb!” they say. “And besides, there’s no such thing as other gods. Who’d be stupid enough to believe that?”
The hosts are right, there are no other gods but the one true God they worship through Jesus Christ. So if someone else has mistakenly thought they were dedicating this animal to Zeus or whomever, well, too bad for them, maybe they’ll see the light and become Christian sooner or later. In the meantime, why give up what they enjoy? It’s not a conflict of faith for them.
The hosts possess the correct knowledge, and they have the freedom to eat and live as they will, since it is not harming their faith. But the freedom of the gospel isn’t meant for oneself. It places us under a different kind of yoke: love. Through Christ, the Christian enters into a relationship of love between herself and God, as well as a relationship of love that binds her in service to all believers.
So even though the gospel frees her to eat as she will, in love she should not, because her eating troubles her brother in Christ, poor Alexander who wishes he would have said he was washing his hair rather than ending up confused at the table.
Knowledge leads to one kind of authority, in which right practice is apparent to the knowledgeable. That knowledgeable authority has the power to declare the right way to do things, and depending on the strength of his authority, people, even those who don’t possess the same knowledge, will do things in this right way.
But that might not always be the most loving. To act in love can mean setting aside knowledge. It means setting aside authority that has power to make someone act before they are ready. It means coming to the other’s level, meeting them where they are, and walking with them into shared knowledge. Maybe together they’ll come up with a new right way to do things.
As your pastor, this is one of the most difficult and confusing aspects of my call. Sometimes I get caught between this knowledge and love tension. There are practices, ways of doing things, and beliefs that are peculiar to this congregation, and even to some of you as individuals. Some of those don’t match the knowledge I was taught or the beliefs that I hold. What does it mean to lead with authority, with knowledge and with love? There are some things I easily let go of, for the sake of love. There are others that are so central to my understanding of the gospel and the ways that we meet Jesus, that I cannot set aside. I long to work in love to come to my place together, but I also can be impatient to tear down barriers to experiencing God.
I don’t think I’m the only one who can find herself caught up in the struggle to use authority in the Christian community well. You each have influence over other people in this congregation. Your words and your actions are being watched. Your presence and your participation speak to your valuing of what is going on, and that affects how others perceive the work of the church.
In the church, we sometimes avoid claiming authority. We want to do everything by consensus. We want everyone to feel happy, and feel like their opinions matter. Consensus can be the death of innovation and progress.
I was listening to a radio program on NPR that was about what made effective groups. Instead of consensus, they sought buy-in. What that means is that it might not be my idea that the group goes with, or even something I really want to do, but I can get on board with the plan. It’s not so against my beliefs or priorities that I absolutely cannot go there. For the sake of the group, for the sake of accomplishing some work together, I can get on board and do my part.
You each have this power in the church. We can see our community come to a decision or go down a path we didn’t choose. There are three major options at that point. It’s up to you to decide if you need to get out and be a part of another community, or if you can get on board and be an active participant and see what good comes out of it, or if you’re going to stick around and weigh everything down by sabotaging things. It’s that last one that so often plays out in communities of faith, and that path is the path of destruction.
Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” As we try to live as faithful Christians in a changing world, Paul calls down the centuries to remind us to do everything in love.
While Corinthians doesn’t use the language of “authority,” in Mark we can hardly miss it. Jesus enters the synagogue. He teaches with authority. He speaks to the unclean spirit and casts him out, so that there is no longer a place for this evil. The people recognize his authority. Jesus has the power to make the words of scripture matter in their lives. He has the power to break the hold of evil. He is named powerful in his identification with the Most Holy God.
Yet we who know Jesus know that he both used and set aside this power for the sake of loving the whole creation. Jesus kneels at the feet of his disciples to wash their feet. Jesus is bound to the cross, and sealed in the tomb. Jesus gives up power. His authority is overcome by others who would control him.
But then, from under the crushing, life destroying power of those other forces, Jesus breaks free. Jesus’ resurrection is his assertion of power over death, sin, and all evil.
Jesus’ willingness to set aside power and authority is good news for us. It shows us that Jesus, as he takes up authority again, does so for our sake. Jesus’ power over death is not just for himself, but for you. Jesus spreads this authority over you, so that death and sin would not have ultimate control over you.
We who follow Jesus are called to live as Paul advises: according to love. We set aside authority for the sake of love. Giving up our own freedoms and rights in order to strengthen the faith of others, we lay down our power as an act of love. We pick up authority for the sake of love. Casting out evil, toxic forces, and all that would prevent us from living and sharing the gospel, we take on Jesus’ authority.
We may never achieve the perfect balance of claiming and releasing authority, but we can rejoice in Jesus who is the ultimate authority over our lives. His authority inspires our response, our attempt to replicate, but in the end, his power to give us life is not dependent on anything we can do. You are lovingly held under the power of God. God is using this power to free you from death and evil and bring you into joyful life.