‘Knowing’ and Community: Sermon 28/1/18
This fourth Sunday of the Epiphany raises the issues of knowing and community. Paul says that having knowledge is not about individual freedom and rights. A lived faith means not freedom from, but freedom for community where people love one another as Christ loves. Paul insists that what we do affects others. Our duty is not just to ourselves but to the Body of Christ. Knowledge alone risks pride, but knowledge combined with love builds the reign of God–a community of the weak and strong, in which all are equally important and known by God.
Mark also deals with knowledge that “puffs up.” The scribes were powerful because of their knowledge. But lacking love, their knowledge was wielded as a weapon of judgment rather than liberation; it was used to destroy rather than build. Jesus, however, with knowledge and love, takes on evil and demons that possess individuals and the community. In silencing and expelling the demons, Jesus frees the man and the entire community from forces that seek to limit God’s grace and mercy.
Having called his first disciples, Jesus begin teaching in a Capernaum synagogue. Confronted by evil Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man, and it obeys, though not without dramatic theatrics. The people there are understandably amazed. And, not surprisingly, the reputation of Jesus spread.
No sooner had the disciples been called by Jesus to be his followers than they witness the opposition Jesus faces. Later they will encounter similar opposition themselves. We too will encounter evil if we follow Jesus.
This story is set in a world where the common understanding was that world was under the power of Satan. The Jews looked to God to put an end to this world and bring in a new world under God’s authority. But before this new kingdom can come the evil powers must be overcome. After Jesus overcomes the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, he shows that Satan can be overcome by this event in the synagogue.
It may be hard to believe that Satan has been defeated in these times of terrorism and nuclear threat but the Christian faith proclaims that the gracious love of God is now present in this world; God’s kingdom is in progress. Mark’s Gospel will go on the speak of God’s reign in terms of small things like seeds and yeast saying that small things have life energy and can grow. Such small things may not make the news headlines and can be overlooked but this week look around you. Look for the seeds; look for signs of God present in your life.
Paul’s letter deals with a problem which may seem remote to us but was intensely real to the Christians in Corinth. Sacrifice to the gods was an integral part of life in the ancient world. In the Roman world there were also ceremonies honouring the emperor and for reconciling relationships in the hierarchical strata of patronage in imperial Roman society. Some people felt that the meat was contaminated by being offered to an idol. But it was almost impossible to buy meat which hadn’t been sacrificed to a god. Paul lays down a principle that however safe the strong and enlightened Christian may feel they must do nothing which will hurt or bewilder a fellow Christian.
Paul responded to a local controversy. Should Christians eat the perfectly good meat left over from sacrifices to pagan gods and idols? He sees no problem with eating the leftovers, because those gods are meaningless to Christians. However, because there are some over scrupulous Christians, and some new converts, who might not understand, Paul will not personally eat that meat. Paul writes that the more crucial dynamic is “anyone who loves God is known by God.” There is no gap or barrier to be overcome by sacrifices. A Christian should not seek to emphasize “knowledge”. Good Christians are humble, deeply moved and inclined to loving others, because they have discovered how much God loves them!
There may be more here too. This was not just about diet and Jewish, Greek and Roman customs. Jesus taught radical abandonment of self-interest in every circumstance of life, personal, social, familial and political. People failed to grasp that Jesus’ definition of the realm of God included fairness, justice and compassion with no retribution or payback or exchange of mutual favours to the detriment of others.
Christians must to let go of civilisation’s definitions of what is necessary for abundant life. The Christian vision may seem impossible, idiotic and absurd but neither Roman society nor our 21st century society truly embrace justice and fairness. To get ahead or even just stay safe in Roman society sacrifices had to be made to patrons and rulers and so on. To get ahead today people make sacrifices for the coveted job, house, gadgets, clothes and so on, not caring about the consequences… exploited workers, down trodden colleagues, plastics polluting planet…
Paul’s point to the Corinthians is that in Christian community there is no need to participate in ritual sacrifices to build relationships, with gods, emperors, the aristocracy or anyone else. Jesus eliminated the need for that. With God, in fellowship with Jesus, in the Body of Christ, that is the Christian community, there is no male or female, no slave or free, but all are one and share equally on a level playing field.
So Paul is telling them nothing ought to be judged solely from the point of knowledge; everything should be judged from the point of view of love. So if your friend insists on participating in the cultic sacrifices, Paul says, for the love of Jesus, don’t you go along with it. Perhaps your friend is wavering in commitment to the ways of the world or the ways of Jesus. Even if you know the ritual is ineffective, don’t go as it could be interpreted as support for the Roman society of inequality that perpetuates imperial theology and victory by force.
Paul says that although he agreed that the popular Greek and Roman gods did not exist, he felt certain that evil spirits and demons did exist and they could seduce people from relationship with the true God. Even if a thing is harmless for you, if it hurts someone else it must be given up. Christians must never do anything which causes someone else to stumble. Should I gamble, drink, break road rules…whatever?
In every family, every neighbourhood and every church there are inevitable power struggles. We hold our convictions dearly, and we want others to see things as we do and to honour our view. Also, people grow fearful that the views and needs and power of others may rob them of things they hold dear. Somehow we have come to believe that sharing power diminishes it, when, in fact, it does the opposite. Even in what some may call “spiritual warfare” – the “fight” against evil – they have framed the scene in terms of “power over” – Jesus proving stronger than demons. Yet, when we put Jesus’ teaching in the context of Jesus’ life, we discover that for Jesus, fighting evil required a cross, not a sword, and drove him to service and sacrifice, not violence or conquest.
What this means is that we are called, firstly, to embrace and experience Jesus’ liberation for ourselves – the release of those things that would bind us, which often stem from fear or self-interest – and then to engage with others as Christ did, sharing power, serving and freedom. Sharing power does not diminish power. Sharing love does not diminish love.
This may mean learning, as parents, to collaborate with children on their own values and ways of discipline. It may mean, as partners, learning the art of collaboration in everything from finances to sex. It may mean as leaders learning to free others to find their own leadership, and serving them in the process, without fearing the loss of our own power or prestige.
It may mean, as Paul teaches, releasing our own “rights” and “freedoms” in order to ensure that we do not cause others to stumble. It may mean working alongside those we disagree with if it will help to bring justice or grace to people in our community. If we long for God’s glory and authority to be seen in us, it certainly won’t happen if we constantly strive for things to be done “our” way or if we constantly fight for control. Rather, when we embody Christ’s liberating grace, then the glory and authority of Jesus is most clearly seen in us. Be compassionate as God is compassionate.
The Collect: God of compassion you have shown us in Christ that your love is never ending: enable us both to love you with all our heart and to love one another as Christ loved us … Amen.
Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
The Rev’d Robyn Fry