Consider the following: each of three people is holding a small block of pine wood in his or her hand. The first person lets go of the block and it falls to the ground. However, when the second person lets go of her block, it moves upward. And then the third person does the same; except in this case, the block remains in exactly the same place! Now, I’m guessing that our first response to such a scenario would be, well, that’s impossible… certainly, the first wooden block falling to the ground, that’s what you’d expect it to do; but the second moving upward? That would go against the laws of gravity; and as for the third block just floating there… well, that’s just bizarre!
Like I said before, it’s an impossible scenario; or at least it is until we realize that while the first person letting go of the block might have been standing right here — and so the block would drop just the way we’d expect — it turns out that the second person just happens to be standing underwater; so when she lets go of her block, quite naturally the wood floats upward, which is perfectly normal and logical given the situation! And, in case you haven’t yet figured it out, the third person is a crewmember aboard an orbiting spacecraft in zero gravity, which would explain how his pine block stays where it was let go.
As the saying goes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially when it involves what we think we know! For what we think we know is not always that which is true; and even what we do know to be true varies widely given the particular circumstance, or depending on the experience in which we received that knowledge.
For some strange reason, when I think about this I always remember this man who was a contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” This was years ago, back when the show was just starting and Regis Philbin was the host: and there was this one contestant who came on and ended up getting hung up on the $200 question, which, if you remember the show, was always one of the easiest questions of the night; and which, in this instance, was about what color you get when you combine yellow and blue. But this man honestly did not know the answer, and even after using his lifelines, still got the question wrong and was gone from the “hot seat” as quickly as he’d arrived.
What I remember about this, however, was how everybody reacted to this: the studio audience laughed at him and even Regis looked shocked at what had happened. And over the next couple of days, just about every radio DJ, talk-show host and stand up comic in the country was making fun of this guy, calling him an idiot and a moron; instead of becoming a millionaire, overnight he’d become this national joke. Eventually, however, the man was interviewed about what had happened, and come to find out, he was color blind; he’d been that way all his life, and having no concept of color combinations at all, he’d really had no real way to answer the question! Needless to say, that revelation changed everyone’s perception of things!
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing indeed… but most especially so when that knowledge proceeds out of the absence of love.
And that’s what this morning’s scripture reading is all about; in which the Apostle Paul addresses a matter that had become a hot-bed of controversy among Christians in the Greek city of Corinth: the question of whether or not it was alright to eat meat that had previously been sacrificed to idols. To give a little background here, Corinth was not only a busy seaport city it was also well known for its diversity where religion was concerned; basically, just about any “god” or idol you could name was being worshiped by some group or another, with a great number of shrines and temples having been built to honor these so-called deities. There were also a lot of animal sacrifices, and these sacrifices would often end up being sold to vendors on the street who in turn would make it available to the public. Bottom line is that the vast majority of all meat that was sold and served in the city had more than likely first been sacrificed to idols.
And for these new Christians in Corinth, therein was a moral dilemma: to wit, if they were to eat this meat that had been previously sacrificed to pagan gods and idols, were they in essence worshiping those gods and idols in the process, turning their back on Christ in doing so? Or, on the other hand, did it even matter since all those idols and gods never existed in the first place?
The question sparked great debate, and as was typical of the Corinthians, it had created a great deal of division among them. One faction claimed to be “strong” Christians, whose strength was rooted in their belief that now since that they had been saved through Jesus Christ, they were blessed with the “knowledge of the truth” that there is only one God; that all the other idols out there in the city amounted to just so much stone and wood; and so, eating any food offered up to these lifeless statues could not possibly harm or endanger their salvation. In fact, so great was their knowledge in these matters that they also made it clear that anyone who disagreed with this understanding were just “weak” Christians who were simply being silly and superstitious about it all.
And in truth, the reasoning of these “strong” Christians did kind of make sense; it was logical, their way of thinking; even theologically sound. And when you know what you know, that’s kind of the end of the discussion, isn’t it? Which makes it all the more interesting that when they ask Paul what he thinks about this issue, the first thing he writes to them is that yes, “we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge,’” but don’t be so self-assured about it. Because, he says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
In other words, there’s more to this matter of eating sacrificial meat than mere logic and theological posturing. What about how our knowledge and conviction, and likewise, the choices we make because of that knowledge affect others? And what about those so-called “weak” Christians, who might just be struggling in their faith and for whom the act of indulging in pagan rituals might keep them from truly living as Christians? What about our oneness and unity with them in the Body of Christ?
Head knowledge, you see, is one thing; and those “strong” Christians had that in abundance. But for all their huffing and puffing about what they knew was true and right and permissable, they’d neglected something of equal if not greater importance for a believer; and that’s heart knowledge.
Ultimately, Paul says, food doesn’t bring us closer to God; we’re no better off where God is concerned whether we eat sacrificial meat or we don’t. In Christ, we are free to do what we want, but Paul says, “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” As The Message translates it, “isn’t there great danger if someone still struggling on this issue, someone who looks up to you as knowledgeable and mature, sees you go into that banquet,” thus“getting mixed up himself in what his conscience tells him is wrong.” In other words, by faith we are free, but we must not use our freedom, either knowingly or unknowingly, to undermine others in their faith. And if food is going to be the source of their falling, Paul concludes, then I won’t eat meat “so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”
In the end, you see, it’s not about our being right or wrong in our opinions or our posturing; ultimately — and this is true of whatever it is we believe to be real about our Christian faith — it always has to be about the care and the LOVE in which it is expressed, acted upon and shared. Anything less than that ends up meaningless if not downright detrimental.
But here’s the thing; when love does factor in, faith becomes all the deeper, and more relevant, for it.
For many years in high school confirmation classes, I did this thing with the kids that I used to call, “Sin… or No Sin.” It was (speaking of old game shows!) a take-off on “Deal or No Deal,” and basically what I would do is write on the blackboard all these different kinds of actions or behaviors, and then asked them to decide as a group whether those behaviors represented “sin, or no sin.” And friends, we covered the gamut of human experience, everything from little white lies, swearing, and cheating on a math test, to some of the more adult concerns of drinking, doing drugs or engaging in casual sex. It served as a good way of getting into a discussion of Christian morality and ethics; but what was always interesting is how those kids would work out some of their answers.
For instance: buying a lottery ticket; sin or no sin? Well, that’s no sin: there’s nothing wrong with buying a lottery ticket; it’s just a game, and you can win money! It’s not hurting anybody and my parents buy them all the time, and they say if they win the megabucks they’re going to give lots of money to the church! Okay, then (and say thanks to your mom and dad for me!); but what if someone is spending so much money on lottery tickets that they’re not able to pay all their bills or put food on their family’s table? Well, that’s a little different; but everybody can afford to buy at least couple of tickets once in awhile? But what if they can’t? What if they are addicted to gambling; what if this is just one thing they do that has caused problems for their families? I guess then we’d have to get that person some help, and then do whatever we can to make sure that family has enough food…
Friends, that’s how every one of those discussions seemed to go; understanding on the one hand how we are free to do pretty much anything we want, sinful or not; but how on the other hand, not all things are good, nor do they build up. The challenge of living faithfully and of following Christ in our walk of life always to choose that which brings ourselves, and others along with us, closer to God.
Am I saying to you this morning that the depth of your faith is contingent on whether or not you buy a Powerball ticket this week? No; but what I am suggesting is that each one of us need to look at what we know in the strength of our faith to be good and acceptable about our lives and living, and then ask ourselves how that knowledge touches the hearts of others. What does our behavior tell our children about who Jesus is, and what it means to be a Christian? Will what we do create a stumbling block for others struggling to live their lives as followers of Christ; or will it build up hearts and lives for the sake of God’s kingdom?
Our answer to that question, yours and mine, comes down to love. I’m reminded here of something that Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers back in the 1960’s, was once quoted as saying, “there are plenty of coaches with good ball clubs who know the fundamentals and have plenty of discipline but still don’t win the game. Then you come to the third ingredient: if you’re going to play together as a team, you’ve got to care about each other. You’ve got to love each other… the difference between mediocrity and greatness is the feeling these guys have for each other.”
Well, it’s true; the difference is always to be found in the love; the love that creates an entirely new kind of ethic for our lives, the love that resets our priorities and builds up relationships with others as builds up a relationship with God in Jesus Christ. It’s knowledge of the heart that will not only nurture our relationship with the Lord, but that which will also bind the church together in it’s shared ministry of healing and reconciliation. And without it; well, as Paul would later write to the Corinthians,“If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
I hope and pray, beloved, that in wherever our faith takes us we do have the love to move mountains. Truly, may our knowledge and wisdom will be that of the heart as we walk together though this journey of faith that is life; and may we be girded by love that comes from the “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.”
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry