love builds up

Sermon @ Peace Covenant CoB, 1-31-2021

1 Corinthians 8

I saw my friends Meredith and Mike at the end of December. They were driving through Roanoke and stopped to visit with me at an outdoor picnic table near my parents’ house. All three of us wore masks, and Meredith even gave me a new, hand-sewn mask – with jellyfish on it! – that perfectly matches my winter coat.

Mike runs a lab in Indianapolis where he studies pulmonary medicine – how our lungs work. Because of his previous work on lung cells, his lab started researching a treatment for COVID-19 way back in the spring. They had live COVID-19 virus SHIPPED to their lab, suited up in space-suit-like PPE and tested a treatment that they’d previously developed for other lung issues to see if it was successful in treating COVID infections.

Since Mike and his team were working directly with the virus, he was top of the list to receive the vaccine when it arrived at his university. By the time I saw him in late December, he’d already received his second dose and was very likely immune to COVID. He still wore a mask.

But the story is even better than that: Mike had participated in a vaccine trial at the hospital attached to his university, early last fall. He had received two doses of – something – either a trial vaccine or a placebo, and learned a few weeks later when the study was unblinded that he had received the actual vaccine in the trial.

All of that means that Mike has been vaccinated against COVID-19 TWICE OVER, that he has known about his own near-certain immunity since the fall. “There is NO WAY,” he said to me, “that I’m getting COVID!”

And still – even double-vaccinated, months-immune – Mike was wearing a mask the entire time we were together.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “of course I wear a mask everywhere I go, and I still suit up in the lab. Can you imagine how hateful it would be, not to? I’m not gonna be a punk!”

The mask isn’t protecting Mike; the double-dose of vaccine is. He knows that he doesn’t NEED the mask – even the science behind whether or not vaccinated people can spread the virus is becoming very clear that the answer is, almost certainly, no – but he knows that wearing the mask is an act of care and love for everyone around him. Even though it isn’t functioning as protective gear, it is functioning as solidarity, mutuality, a sign that we are all still in this together.

Believe it or not, this is exactly what Paul was talking about when he wrote to the congregation in Corinth to address their conflict over eating meat sacrificed to idols.

Wearing masks and eating meat might sound light-years apart, but in our Christian commitment to following Jesus, the decision-making behind them is exactly the same.

In Corinth, followers of Jesus were in the minority but they were a diverse bunch. Some of the folks in the Corinthian church were high society, friends with the movers and shakers, educated and well-off. They were people who hadn’t ever really gotten into the whole “sacrificing animals to pagans” thing – they were people who profited off the practices of the local religion, instead. These folks went to dinner parties where the meat that was served came from local temple sacrifices. The well-to-do folks didn’t really consider those rituals to be sacred, and the meat was perfectly good, so shouldn’t it be eaten?

Other people in the Corinthian church were much less well-off and had joined the church as legit converts: people who had, until recently, been the people sacrificing those animals at those temples. These were folks who never had much meat to eat, and so to surrender an animal to the temple was a serious sacrifice. For them, eating the meat sacrificed to pagan gods was not only offensive, it was also a reminder of the culture and habits that they had so recently decided to leave in order to follow Jesus.

Paul is writing to a diverse congregation, some of whom want to insist that since there’s only one God, that those temples are not homes of real deities and the meat isn’t tainted and can’t hurt them, they should be allowed to exercise their freedom found in Christ and eat it without a second thought. Others in the congregation aren’t so sure that eating meat sacrificed to other gods is safe – it’s not just the meat itself, it’s the connection to other kinds of religious practice and communities that they are still extricating themselves from.

Paul doesn’t side with one group or another. He says to the first folks, who want to stand firm on their intellectual conviction that eating meat sacrificed to idols is just fine: “Yes, of course that’s right. There is only one God, the idols are not real, and so the meat that was sacrificed to them isn’t cursed or spoiled. Of course there’s nothing wrong with eating the meat itself.”

Except, Paul says, you have chosen to make your argument and base your actions on the wrong kind of commitment. You’re choosing to act based on intellectual conviction alone, and in your insistence that you are right and the meat is fine, you’ve totally ignored the concerns of others in your community. Your sisters and brothers see you eating that meat and they feel ignored. It feels to them like you’ve brushed off their deep concern entirely. You’re flaunting your freedom in ways that hurt your siblings, caring only for your individual rights and not our mutual well-being.

This is sort of an obscure passage from Paul. Who cares, these days, about meat sacrificed to idols? That is never a decision that we will be faced with, unless y’all know of pagan animal farms around Durham that I’m not aware of.

But the message that Paul is sharing is so much larger than the particular question at stake: Paul is instructing the Corinthians, and us, to choose love as a guide for our decisions over and above intellectual knowledge.

“Knowledge,” he says, “puffs up. But love builds up.”

Here’s Paul, explaining to the Corinthians why love is a better barometer than knowledge:

So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Paul was willing to give up meat entirely if it meant that by doing so he could avoid wounding his siblings in Christ. Paul is super into hyperbole, so let’s not hear him instructing us to give up all our convictions for fear of hurting anyone’s feelings; that’s not what this is about. He is saying that LOVE ought to be the surest guide for our actions, not necessarily perfect knowledge. He is insisting that LOVE of one another is what we live by and not a selfish insistence on individual rights.

I know people, as I’m sure you do, who are very convinced that wearing a mask or moving their worship services online is a gross violation of their constitutional rights. People have shared their pastors’ sermons explaining the intricacies of these violations and their refusal to go along with them on social media. This stubborn, selfish behavior has infuriated me for almost a year, now, and it is still going on.

So it’s helpful to read Paul and remember that this conflict between individual freedoms and mutual upbuilding has been part of Christian life since the beginning. And it is helpful to read Paul and be reminded that LOVE is always the right choice, that our freedom is always subject to the common good, that knowledge and self-righteousness never gets us closer to God or to one another.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols if it will hurt your community. Wear a mask for the good of all, even if you’re free not to. And prioritize LOVE of others in every decision, large or small. What a simple, helpful, trustworthy guide for how to live in this weird, chaotic world of ours. Amen.

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