A disagreement arose between two prominent pastors, and it caught the attention of numerous onlookers. The renowned preacher Charles Spurgeon had heard that his colleague, Joseph Parker, had criticized the condition of Spurgeon’s orphanage, but that was based on a mishearing: Parker had actually commented on the poor condition of the children upon their arrival at the orphanage. Spurgeon felt betrayed by his friend and blasted him from his pulpit. Both men led large congregations in London, and after Spurgeon’s sermon, it became the talk of the town. Articles were written about the disagreement, and when interviewed, Parker said that he would respond on Sunday. That week, Charles Spurgeon became ill, and when Sunday arrived, hundreds were packed into Parker’s church to hear his answer. Everyone was quiet as he entered the pulpit, and he began with these words: “Brother Spurgeon is sick today and cannot preach. This is the day when he takes up an offering for his orphans. May I suggest that we take up that offering for him in our church, for he’s doing a great work, and I know all of us would like to have a part in it.” On Tuesday, Spurgeon went to Parker and said, “You know Parker, you have practiced grace on me. You have given me not what I deserved, you have given me what I needed.” Here is an example of Christians building up the community in love. This building up in love does not need to be as big and bold as this episode to be inspiring. It can happen in a simple act of forgiveness, or choosing to respond with kindness wherever we may be.
In Paul’s passage today, his encouragement may appear outdated, but it becomes relevant when we consider the context. Paul was writing to believers who were still situated in a pagan environment, and there was a disagreement about cultural customs. Animal sacrifice in pagan ceremonies was still common in Corinth, and the meat of those animals was often sold in the marketplace or shared among neighbors. There was one group that believed that it didn’t matter if the meat was eaten, because they viewed these pagan idols as powerless in light of their Christian faith. However, there was another group that saw this meat as mixed with idolatry, and they wanted to avoid it altogether. While Paul agreed with the first group and their theology, he urged the believers to remember that they belong to one another as the body of Christ. While their claim may be logical, Paul called them to reflect on what is ethical. No matter who was correct in this matter, it was vital that they remain kind and committed to their fellow believers.
However, it is not a message of mildness that Paul is preaching here. Rather, he is saying that Christ is not in the camp of either party. He does not support the legalists in being severe or the live-and-let-live crowd in being slack. Christ stands at the center of their community, and we can draw no conclusions as a Church without being drawn together through worship, study, or service. Paul is not calling them to abandon any of their theological positions, but he’s telling them that those positions do not put us above anyone else in the Church. If we sense that we are superior to our fellow believers, we have separated ourselves from caring or connecting with them, and that course of action runs counter to Christian community. Knowledge is power, as the saying goes, but it’s not meant to be used as a weapon. It is designed to be an instrument of love, and when we use it in that way, we build up the body of Christ. “Religion is like a knife,” observed Archbishop Tutu, “because it can be used to stab a man…or it can be used to cut bread and feed the hungry.” Divorced from love, knowledge has no worth.
The knowledge referenced in Paul’s letter is not found as a collection of facts. It is knowledge born from being together as brothers and sisters of God’s family. It is knowledge that comes from prayer, study, and service to the Lord. That kind of knowledge is vulnerable and humble. C.S. Lewis remarked that “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one…Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” Knowledge in the Christian life emerges from our union with Christ in his life, death, and resurrection, and that knowledge is not intended to puff up but to produce compassion. It’s exactly when we think we know the answers that Paul asks us to think again, and it’s important to see where Paul leads us at this point: He writes, “anyone who loves God is known by him.” He is saying that we are able to love because God first loved us, and it is this grace that upholds us and informs our life together. Our pursuit of knowledge ultimately aims to draw us toward truth, closer to God and our neighbor.
When we draw near to listen and look after one another, especially those in need, we draw near God, according to Paul, because we are all bound together in our Lord Jesus Christ, “through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” It’s tempting to frame matters of faith in terms of “who is right in this situation?,” but Paul points out that this method is misguided. It’s better to ask, “in this situation, “how might Christ’s righteousness look?” As we’re spread abroad due to social distancing guidelines, we can feel distant and disconnected at times, but Paul reminds us that we are created for a purpose and that we are connected as members of Christ. Practice grace toward someone, including yourself, because it is in giving love that we receive it all the more. Amen.
The Reverend Alex Allain +