By Paul Koch –
It is an interesting thing that the beginnings of the Lutheran Reformation are not found in arguments among bishops or disagreements at church councils but it is set in the curious environment of a university. Martin Luther had studied the law before entering the monastery but it wasn’t until he was a professor at the new Wittenberg University that things really began to move. He wrote academic treatises in Latin and argued with the greatest Renaissance thinkers of his day. His most dedicated supporters were students that flocked to his lectures and took notes even when they were invited over for dinner. Our faith is a faith that is not just felt in the heart but is confessed with the head as well. We want to know what it is we believe and why we believe it.
I remember when I began my first classes at the seminary. It was clear this was not simply a Bible college seeking to just make sure I was acquainted with stories of Scripture. I was learning Greek and studying Hebrew. I was studying theories off interpretation and was never allowed to simply rest on my previous knowledge. Everything was being challenged and exposed and my conclusions were always being second guessed. I remember turning in my first study of a particular text from John’s Gospel. When I received it back it looked as if was bleeding; the red ink revealed laziness in my thinking and pushed me to try harder. “This was graduate school,” my professor said, “and I expect graduate level work.”
The demands of the academy which were there at the beginning, in the early work of Luther and the other reformers, still continue in our church. While the academic prowess of our church is something that we should be proud of, there is a certain danger that comes with the acquiring of knowledge. Knowledge, as St. Paul reminds us, puffs up. Those who acquire knowledge have a greater danger of looking down on others, looking down on those who do not know what we know. When I was living in Georgia, this was a real problem. As a church we would snicker and poke fun at the other little country churches that were scattered across our county. They weren’t built on strong traditions and lasting arguments, but on petty differences and the whims of certain key leaders. Glaring holes in their theology were simple to spot for any catechized Lutheran. It was easy for Bible Studies or even sermons to make fun of them, rather than build them up as brothers and sisters in Christ.
In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul takes up this danger that comes with knowledge. The issue at hand deals with food that had been sacrificed to idols. Now this may be a bit difficult for us to get our minds around, but in Paul’s day and in his part of the world there were temples dedicated to all sorts of different gods. These idols were frequently offered sacrifices, including meat that would then be eaten either in social situations in the sanctuary or even at private homes. Meat sacrificed to idols was a common part of their society. It would be found in the markets and in your neighbor’s home. The question was should a Christian eat such meat?
Well, there were some in the church who had the good and true knowledge that there was really no such thing as an idol. They knew that is there is no God but the one true God: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who became flesh, suffered and died for our sins. So if you know that there is only one God then you would know that idols amount to nothing. Meat sacrificed to an empty thing is of no harm. Since they knew that food wouldn’t condemn you anyway, eating the right food didn’t gain you glory before God nor did eating bad food make you unworthy before his eyes. So you could, with a good clean conscience, eat the meat sacrificed to an idol. In fact, you could probably make a good argument for eating it. It kept you in a position within society to continue to be in conversation with unbelievers and hopefully over time witness to them about the true faith.
The problem is that not all in the church possessed this knowledge and not all had this wisdom. In fact, there were many in the church who had firm ties to idol worship before their conversion. So, it was difficult, if not impossible, for them to see things as those with the knowledge saw it. These, who Paul calls his weaker brothers, would be scandalized by eating food sacrificed to idols. In fact, they would believe that by doing so they are falling into grave sin. For those with the knowledge to keep doing what they are doing, though they have every right to do it, they would become a stumbling block for their weaker brother. Their freedom can become a cause of sin for someone else.
Paul’s concern for us in this text is not about who is right or wrong. It is not about who possesses the correct understanding or who has the best knowledge. The point of Paul’s word is to direct us to know one thing above all else: to know love. Love is the trump card. Love is the way through this situation. Love is the corrective to a knowledge that puffs up. For love seeks not its own glory but the care and building up of one another. There are far too many pastors, far too many churches, far too many people that will die on the hill of knowing they are right rather than reaching out to one another in love.
In all of the reading of Luther that I have done throughout my career there is a common theme that still delights me. Here, this incredible man of untouchable acumen and great knowledge throughout his writings, whether he is arguing with Erasmus or Rotterdam or writing a letter to his barber, he seems to be especially concerned with the conscience of the people. His concern isn’t with inflating his own reputation but with caring for and building up the common person. He seemed to find ways to continue to love his brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter how great or small their knowledge.
Love is often put on the back burner in the church. Oh we know love, we’ve received love. We’ve received the Love of Christ: a love that passes all understanding a love that finds us in our brokenness and hurt. We have a love that dwells beside us in the dirt and grime of everyday live and whispers to us again and again that we are forgiven; we are not forsaken and never forgotten. But we tend to forget to turn over that same love we’ve received to one another. The opportunities to love abound. Here in this place there are children that need to be spoiled and parents that need a break. There are homes that need repair and loneliness that needs friends. There are hardships that are never spoken and hurts that won’t seem to heal. There is uncertainty and fear and confusion. It is here in the body of Christ as firm today as it was in the church in Corinth in Paul’s day. It is not knowledge that is the remedy, but love. Your love that builds up.
As a pastor, my failures within the body of Christ are usually quite spectacular. It can end with someone leaving the church or being hurt in profound ways leading to a deep distrust of our Lord and His gifts. Such failures would have long ago run me out of this vocation all together if our Lord hadn’t continued to called me to hand over His love. There is something truly wonderful about the countless times I have arrived at the home of a shut-in only to be reminded that they do not desire my knowledge or understanding but long for the gift that I carry in my hand. The little bread and sip of wine that I place in their mouth at the command of my Lord binds us together in the love of Christ. The words, “I forgive you” on the lips of a brother or sister in Christ can change a life.
So, our Lord picks us up again in His love. He heals and forgives yet again. And He turns you to each other. He turns you to love as you have been loved.