By Charles K. Robertson
“People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” These familiar words come from legendary adventurer and leader Theodore Roosevelt…but it is a safe bet to say that a certain first-century adventurer and leader named Paul would nod his head in agreement. In many ways, it is exactly what Paul was constantly trying to tell the Christians in Corinth, and certainly similar to his opening comment in today’s reading: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” What is our goal: to be right-minded…or big-hearted?
Now we live in a different time, a different place, speak a different language, face different problems, from what Paul describes in First Corinthians. And for these reasons we may be tempted to skip over readings like today’s. After all, the issue of meat offered to idols is quite foreign to most of us. We are probably more likely to be sensitive about providing vegetarian or vegan alternatives when hosting a barbeque. But if we move beyond the surface, we might well discover that the situation described by the apostle is far more relatable than we first imagined.
Let’s take a closer look.
Corinth in Paul’s time was already centuries old. And whether always accurate or not, it had quite a reputation. The Roman poet Horace once said, “Not everyone can afford to go Corinth,” or “It is not everyone’s lot to go to Corinth,” depending on the translation of the original Greek. Some argue that he was speaking of the difficulty of getting to a city that was strategically placed on a narrow strip of land known as the Isthmus of Corinth, linking the Peloponnese peninsula with Greece’s mainland. Many more, however, understood Horace to be speaking of the high costs of life in Corinth, especially when it came to the price of certain…enticements like the famed courtesans at the temple of Aphrodite. “Sin City” is a modern term that has often been applied to first-century Corinth.
Corinth was most certainly a cosmopolitan city. During the period of classical Greece, it was one of the wealthiest and most influential, due to the buoyant commerce that permeated the city. Given its ports on the Gulf of Corinth and the Gulf of Aegina, just about anything a person could imagine made its way through the city. It is no surprise that the Romans chose to invade Corinth, only to destroy it in the process and end up creating a new Roman colony in its place, though still retaining so much of the character of the old city. It is likewise little wonder that Paul would choose to set up a series of house churches in this bustling site, now a provincial capital that also had a large Jewish population. According to Acts, it was in Corinth that Paul first met Aquila and his wife Priscilla, fellow Jews who shared the apostle’s secular trade of leatherworking or tent-making.
The city’s diversity was mirrored in Corinth’s Christian community and, not surprisingly, there were numerous instances of both contentions and cliques. Some were based on personal affiliations with particular church leaders, like Peter the Rock or charismatic Apollos or Paul himself. Some were based on the ethnic or socio-economic differences between members. But many of the difficulties arose simply because some Christians put their own spiritual knowledge or certainties above their relationship with one another. Take note again of what we just heard in today’s reading: “So by your knowledge these weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.”
Now Paul didn’t dispute the argument used by some of the so-called wise ones among the Corinthian Christians, that because there really are no such things as other gods, then it doesn’t matter at all if you eat food that has been sacrificed to one of these idols. In many ways, he actually agreed with them. But Paul disagreed with their desire to be right trumping any concern for those who might be less enlightened in their approach to food offered to idols. As he said, “If food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” Again, because we no longer have to deal with this particular situation, we might miss the crucial point that the apostle is making – that my fellow believers matter far more than my need to be right or wise or “in the know.”
It is interesting that the first great heresy that faced the Church – Gnosticism – is the one that has plagued us ever since. While it has taken various forms throughout the centuries, at its core is a certainty that I know more, have experienced more in the spiritual life than others around me…and that somehow makes me more special. It is particularly seductive because it feeds on our desire to be insiders. While Gnosticism in its full-blown form did not yet exist at the time Paul wrote First Corinthians, we can see him addressing a similar kind of spiritual arrogance throughout his letter. For instance, when he later speaks to those who are determined to show off their ability to speak in strange ecstatic tongues, he again acknowledges that he shares this ability, but once more eschews this for the sake of others, specifically those newcomers in the congregation who will be totally confused by these tongues if there is no interpretation of what is being said. As Paul puts it, “I would rather speak five words intelligently than a thousand in tongues.”
No, we don’t have to deal with idol meat or, probably, strange tongues, but the fact remains that we Christians today still often put our need to be wise or impressive above the needs of others around us. How many times have I mentioned to lay and ordained leaders in Episcopal and other mainline Christian congregations that we speak in tongues more than we like to admit–it may not be glossolalia, but it is “inside speak.” We need to invite a “mystery shopper” to come visit our church some weekend and then report back to the church leaders what they saw and heard and experienced. Did they feel welcome…did they feel they were a part of, or apart from, everything that was happening? I still recall visiting a historic, well-known church once and found that while they did everything right in terms of the beauty of the service, I left the same way I entered the church, feeling like an outsider! Yes, there is much that we as church members can learn from Paul.
But there is something else we can take away from today’s reading, and that concerns how we as individual Christians treat each other. From Christianity’s earliest days, one of the most powerful arguments for the power of the gospel was the deeply caring, genuinely respectful way in which believers approached one another. Signs of power are impressive, great preaching is impressive, beautiful liturgy is impressive…but as Paul goes on to say later in First Corinthians, “if I have not love, then I am no more than a clanging gong or a noisy cymbal.” That famous list of love’s attributes in chapter 13, usually read at weddings, was originally meant not for couples but for church members to try to get along better. Imagine starting each day for the next month by re-reading 1 Corinthians 13, replacing the word “love” with the pronoun “I”–“I am patient, I am kind,” or even “Today I will be patient, today I will be kind, today I will not be jealous,” and so on.
Now, let’s make our way back to today’s reading and how it offers one powerful way to show our love. There are so many Christians today – Lord help us, sometimes I’m one of them – who are so convinced that they know what is right, so convinced that they are more spiritually correct, more spiritually wise, that they look down on their fellow Christians who are clearly in the wrong. Let’s face it: historically, our track record is pretty poor. Instead of people knowing that we are Christians by our love for one another, all too often through the centuries they have looked at us and shaken their heads as we have killed each other over differences in theology, threatened one another with excommunications, condemned each other for not being right-minded…all because we are right and the other is wrong. I still recall a friend staring at me with incredulity when I asked him why he didn’t go to church: “Sorry,” he replied, “but most Christians I’ve met are more concerned with being right than being pleasant.”
How we treat one another is the single best evangelistic tool we can share with a world as divided as we often are. But, I am reminded, it means daring to let go of my own infallibility for a moment, not worrying about being right or wise or spiritually impressive, and instead looking out for the person next to me, whether it’s a long-time fellow church member or a newcomer or someone who has never before given Christianity a second thought. As Paul tried to tell the Corinthians all those years ago, being intentionally big-hearted means a whole lot more than being right-minded!
Let us pray. Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
The Rev. Canon C. K. Robertson is canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond the Episcopal Church. This sermon was first preached on February 1, 2015 for Day 1, an audio and video ministry that calls itself “the voice of the mainline churches.” You can hear an audio version of the sermon here.