January 22, 2018
The Epiphany 4B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 1:21-28 from the Lectionary Gospel; Deuteronomy 18:15-20 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 111 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Old Testament Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 25 (Lord’s Day 8)
Author: Scott Hoezee
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, the Jews of Capernaum went to the synagogue.
Some of them went sleepily, others went with a great weariness following a busy week of work. Still others trekked over in a rather irritable mood for who knows why–maybe it had been no more than that they were out of cream cheese back at the house and the bagel at breakfast that morning just wasn’t as good without it. In any event, something set them off and so they weren’t in the best of moods as they approached synagogue. Still others arrived having bickered with their kids on the way over. “We’re going to God’s house, for pity sake! Shape up, you kids!”
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
From various paths, emerging from a variety of experiences in the week gone by, awash in a welter of differing emotions and mental states, they came. They came because, among other things, it was frankly their pious habit to do so. For as long as many of them could remember they had gone to synagogue on Sabbath morning. It was the thing to do. It was what was expected of you. You went to the synagogue, moved your way through the fairly staid and predictable liturgy, listened as the scribes read a portion of the Torah, sang a hallel doxology, and then you went home for the feast day meal at noon.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
But on that particular morning, Jesus of Nazareth was there, and his presence would create a worship service no one would ever forget. This Jesus stood up as some kind of guest pastor that day. Few, if any, had ever heard of him before and once they looked into the bulletin and saw he was from Nazareth originally, not a few perhaps groaned inwardly. But then he started to teach and although he was no John the Baptist full of theatrics and arm-waving fire-and-brimstone rhetoric (“Why can’t HE be our guest pastor some week!?”), there was something striking in the very way this Jesus spoke.
It wasn’t just that his ideas and vocabulary were fresh and innovative and it wasn’t simply that he was a better orator than they at first guessed. Rather, there was something in the very presence of the man that made you want to sit up straighter. Even the teenagers, who had worked so hard at perfecting a bored-stiff look on their faces, couldn’t help perking up, slouching a bit less and listening more closely than they’d care to admit.
This man had authority. He had a moral gravity, a weightiness and substance to him that people found difficult to explain. Somehow they sensed that this man and the message about God’s kingdom he was talking about were one and the same thing. This man’s impact had nothing to do with any seminary diplomas he had hanging on his wall. It did not stem from his once having been ordained and it wasn’t just because he had clearly done his homework, had practiced his sermon, and so was able to preach without distracting stutters. No, this man was the very message he was proclaiming. They couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but this man packed a wallop just by virtue of being there at all.
A few folks were starting to whisper their amazement even as others scrawled a furtive “Wow!” on the bulletin and then showed it to the person next to them. They were just starting to realize that something extraordinary was happening when suddenly and from the back pew a shriek went up.
People’s blood ran cold.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH US, Jesus of Nazareth?! Have you come to wipe us out already!? I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!”
Well, this didn’t happen every week in worship, either!
“Be quiet!” Jesus commanded. And everyone there was glad he said it because it was on the tip of their tongues, too. You can’t tolerate that kind of thing in church. The only thing for such an interruption is to tell the person to hush and then hope the ushers get over there fast to bring this sadly crazed person to the narthex. Everyone in the synagogue was thinking “Be quiet!” and so they were glad Jesus said it out loud on their mutual behalf.
But then Jesus said something that no one else had had in mind: “Come out of him!” And no sooner were those words out of Jesus’ mouth and the man convulsed! He shook like a leaf in a violent wind before shrieking one last time and then collapsing into a heap. But then the hapless fellow was better. The fire had gone out of his eyes and a look of calm came over him.
At that precise moment, however, he was the only calm-looking one in the whole place! Everyone else was scraping their jaws off the floor! This just didn’t happen every week at church! By that late in the service on a typical Sabbath people’s thoughts usually began to drift to other vital things, like will they get home on-time enough to keep the pot roast from drying out and is little Martin is behaving himself in worship center. But not today! No one’s mind wandered, no one turned his thoughts to the mundane or the typical. They had encountered Jesus, and he was all they could talk about for a long time to come.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to the Synagogue.
But on that particular day, by the time they returned home from the Synagogue, the people had the overwhelming sense they had been in the very presence of God in a way that was anything but typical. But then, what they didn’t know, was that the very Son of God would be present that day, too.
The thing is, however, that we Christians go to church each week and we do know that the Son of God will be present via the Holy Spirit. But do we expect that this living presence of Almighty God will shake us up, make us exclaim over the power in our midst? We shouldn’t need to see the kind of razzle-dazzle the people of Capernaum saw that day nevertheless to know that we have encountered something wonderful. Maybe we should even expect it. Because when you gather for worship and Jesus is truly there, anything can happen but something life-giving will happen.
We should expect no less.
As we’ve noted before in other sermon starter postings on Mark, this is one gospel where everything happens IMMEDIATELY as Mark peppers the early texts of this gospel with the Greek word euthus. In fact, the first of 3 uses of that word in this text from Mark 1:21-28 is rather intriguing. If we translated verse 21 literally, it would say, “And coming into Capernaum, immediately the Sabbath arrived and he taught in the synagogue.” Mark is no doubt signaling a mere temporal linkage here but it almost sounds as though when Jesus shows up, the Sabbath follows him immediately as does the teaching that comes as a result. Similarly in verse 23 no sooner had Jesus immediately arrived to teach on the Sabbath and immediately this spirit-possessed man crops up. Later in verse 28 after Jesus had both taught the people and driven out the demon IMMEDIATELY his fame spread throughout the region. This triplet of uses of euthus seems to have a sense far more interesting than some temporal sequencing along the lines of “First this happened and then this happened and then this happened . . . “ No, Mark seems to say that it is the very presence of Jesus himself that more or less causes or in some deep sense leads to these other things happening. It all has a kind of holy inevitability, which is just what you’d expect when the Son of God is near!
A while ago I read a charming anecdote involving the great Pope John XXIII. One day the pontiff was having an audience with a group of people, one of whom was the mother of several children. At one point the pope said to this woman, “Would you please tell me the names of your children. I realize that anyone in this room could tell me their names, but something very special happens when a mother speaks the names of her own children.”
I suspect we know what the pope meant. And maybe it was something like this that the people sensed about Jesus. Maybe this is what they meant when they said he had an authority others seemed to lack. The teachers of the law were good at teaching about God. They drew off their book learning and seminary training, they employed their various gifts of oratory and enunciation. And good though they were at this, there always seemed to be a bit of a remove between a given scribe and the God he was talking about. But not so with Jesus. There was an intimacy to his knowledge about God. He spoke as though he had spent a long time personally being with God. Oddly enough, it almost seemed at times like he was speaking as God. Probably no one in Capernaum that day went quite so far as to conclude this was God in the flesh, but when this Jesus fellow talked about God, it was like hearing a mother intone the names of her own children–the love and the personal involvement Jesus had with his subject matter made it clear that this was not coming out of his head so much as his heart.
Author: Doug Bratt
Those who take a deep enough whiff of Deuteronomy 18 may detect at least a hint of death clinging to it. In fact, we might even say that the scent of death both lingers within and bookends the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday.
The lesson begins innocently enough, though (again!) right in the middle of what modern translators structure as a paragraph. Deuteronomy 18 begins with Moses’ promise to Israel: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers” (15).
However, this implies that Moses will at some point no longer be Israel’s prophet through whom the Lord graciously speaks. When, in fact, God’s Israelite sons and daughters cross the Jordan and into the land of promise, they will leave their prophet behind. God, after all, told Moses that he would not lead the Israelites “into the land [God] gave them” (Numbers 20:11).
It is perhaps deeply ironic that Moses must remind God’s people to listen to God (15). After all, the reason God’s prophet won’t join the stubborn Israelites he has led for so long in the land of promise is that he didn’t listen to the Lord. When God told him to Kadesh’s rock, Moses instead struck it twice with his staff.
Of course, Israel herself, at least at her best, recognizes that she not only needs to listen to the Lord, but also that she needs someone to speak for God to her. Already in Exodus 20, after all, we read that not only God’s Ten Words but also God’s actions at Sinai scared her to death. When she heard those words, thunder and trumpet, as well as saw the lightning and Sinai quake, our text’s Moses quotes the Israelites as saying, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die (italics added)” (16). (There’s that whiff of death again!).
The verses just preceding those the Lectionary selects, however, show that God too recognizes that Israel desperately needs someone to speak on God’s behalf to her. Israel’s new Canaanite neighbors, after all, depend on “sorcery” and “divination” to ascertain the divine will (14). God knows better than anyone how tempted Israel will be to adopt that practice of her new neighbors.
Yet Robert W. Jenson (The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts, p. 133) suggests that it’s very important that Moses doesn’t identify his successor in our text. It’s, after all, God’s way of promising that there will not just always be someone to speak on God’s behalf, but also that there will always be people for God to speak to.
Of course, Moses warns that some people will falsely claim to speak on God’s behalf to God’s children. He implies that some will claim God said something they’ve actually simply made up. Or, more ominously, that some people will speak on behalf of not the living God, but other gods. They, insists Moses, must be put to death (20). (There’s that whiff of death again!).
What’s more, however, the stakes of God’s children listening to God’s spokespeople are also very high. Twice (15, 19), in fact, God insists God’s people listen to God’s prophet. Listening to God is, in fact, a matter of life and death. Those who do not listen to God, God warns, God himself “will … call to account” (19).
Deuteronomy 18 is not the kind of passage that easily translates into a stand-alone text. Those who proclaim it may be wise to, for example, pair it with another Lectionary text such as the Markan account of Jesus’ prophetic authority.
Yet by the power of the Holy Spirit, Deuteronomy 18 remains a relevant text, though perhaps in a largely derivative way. After all, as David Bartlett notes (Christian Century, January 23, 1991, p. 74), its first Christian readers interpreted it in the light of what they knew about Jesus Christ.
The recognized that Jesus was the kind of prophet about whom Moses talked. He was, in fact, a kind of “Moses on steroids.” God put God’s words in Jesus’ mouth and expected people to listen to and obey him. When Jesus spoke, his words had power.
What’s more, in Lord’s Day 10 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Reformed Christians profess that God anoints all of God’s adopted sons and daughters to share in Moses and Jesus’ prophetic ministry. In that understanding, not just teachers and preachers, but also all of God’s people are Moses’ successors.
God calls all those whom God continues to raise up to both speak for God to God’s people and listen for God’s word that they should relay to God’s people. Israel’s prophets such as Moses, as well as her greatest prophet, Jesus Christ, have come and gone. But God doesn’t leave God’s people without prophets.
Deuteronomy 18 reminds us that that ministry is a matter of life and death. Those who refuse to listen to God’s word through prophets still subject themselves to God’s wrath. All who claim to be prophets but speak for anyone (or thing) but God continue as well to endanger themselves.
Those who proclaim Deuteronomy 18 may also want to seize the opportunity to explore with hearers how God’s people can know which prophets speak on behalf of the living God. Preachers and teachers may even want to stretch the prescribed Scripture reading to include verses 21 and 22. There, after all, Moses gives the Israelites criteria for identifying true prophets whom God raises up.
In her Dear Working Preacher, February 1, 2015 Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Luther Seminary professor Kathryn Schifferdecker writes about teaching while on sabbatical at the Mekane Yesus Seminary in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She says her students there raised questions her American seminary students had never raised.
Among other things, they asked about prophets. For Schifferdecker’s students, after all, it was a real and urgent issue. Since many people in Ethiopian churches claim to be prophets, those around them needed to know if God had raised them up or not.
One wise, middle-aged pastor told Schifferdecker and her seminary class a story. He recounted how when he was young, a man who claimed to be a prophet told a young woman and him that God wanted them to marry each other. If they didn’t, the self-proclaimed prophet insisted, the young man and woman would die.
“We looked at each other,” the future pastor reported, “and we said, ‘No, we’re not going to get married’.” “We married other people,” he continued, “and both of us are still alive.” “The whole class laughed,” Schifferdecker reports.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 111 is the first of several Hallel Psalms, so named because they begin with the Hebrew words, Hallel (praise) and Yah (a shortened version of Yahweh). Again and again, God’s people are called to praise their covenant making and keeping God. But there are times in life when the Hallel’s get stuck in your throat and you can’t even call God’s name.
As I write this sermon starter, I’m in one of those moments because of my grandchildren. Molly is a sweet, super athletic 14 year old who has just been told that she needs a pacemaker. Yes, a pacemaker! It seems that her heart has an electrical problem that will need constant regulation for the rest of her life!! She is, understandably, sad and frightened and confused. And in spite of her strong adolescent faith in Christ, she is not exactly shouting, “Hallelujah,” these days. Neither am I.
Owen is a brilliant, sports loving 12 year old who is currently playing 7th grade basketball. However, during or after his game last week, some prankster/enemy stole his team warm up jacket. He is devastated, thinking that he has an enemy who hates him enough to do a mean thing like that, maybe even a whole team that secretly despises him. He is, understandably, sad and angry and feeling desperately alone. The thought of praising the Lord hasn’t even crossed his mind this week. It has crossed mine, but the Hallelujahs are sticking in my throat.
I tell you those two stories not to win your sympathy, but to remind you that your congregation will be full of such stories this Fourth Sunday of the Epiphany season. They are not seeing the glory of Christ in their lives and the Hallelujahs are stuck in their throats. Our Psalm for today ends with the joyful exclamation, “To him belongs eternal praise.” But in the everyday struggles of life it can be almost impossible to “extol the Lord with all my heart,” because you find yourself not in “the council of the upright and in the assembly,” but in the sterile coldness of an operating room or in the sweat soaked chaos of a locker room.
Psalm 111 is designed to “tune our hearts to sing [his] praise,” as the old hymn puts it (“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”). It is carefully constructed so that we can sing again. That’s true of its form as well as its content. In form, it is an acrostic, a poem organized by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each half line begins with successive letters of that alphabet. That sounds kind of artificial, I know, but think of it the way Walter Brueggemann does. According to Brueggemann, Psalm 111 is one of those Psalms of “Orientation” in which the Psalmist is sure that everything is all right in the world. “The world is ruled by God with moral symmetry. That symmetry in the world is reflected in the disciplined acrostic structure of Psalm 111.”
That formal way of conveying the message that everything is all right is matched by the actual content of the Psalm. That content can be summed up in the word “righteousness.” God is righteous in all he does and “his righteousness endures forever (verse 3).” It may seem as though everything is all wrong, but Psalm 111 assures us that appearances are not reality. God is the ultimate reality, and he is altogether righteous.
That kind of simple assertion is not going to help the Mollys and Owens of the world, so the Psalm goes to great lengths to expand our vision of God. And not just God in some generic sense, but Yahweh, the God who made himself known to Israel and who sent his own Son to the world. So, Psalm 111 reminds us that Yahweh is not only righteous, but also “gracious and compassionate (verse 4), faithful and just (verse 7), trustworthy (verse 7), holy and awesome (verse 9).” Now, simply repeating those words to your congregation will not move them to praise the Lord. You’ll have to define the words carefully, so that they get a sense of the sheer goodness of God.
But defining words will not convince my hurting grandchildren. I can hear them say, “But how do you know, Grandpa? How do you know that God is all those things? It sure doesn’t’ seem that way to us. I mean, look at the world. Look at our lives right now. How do we know that what you are saying is anything more than what you think?”
To that kind of postmodernism skepticism, Psalm 111 replies that its vision of God is not just what the Jews thought. It is the way God acted in the world. The focus on Psalm 111 is on the historical actions of Yahweh: “great are the works of Yahweh (verse 2); glorious and majestic are his deeds (verse 3); he caused his wonders to be remembered (verse 4); he provides food for those who fear him (verse 5); he has shown the power of his works, giving his people the lands of the nations (verse 6); he provided redemption for his people (verse 9).”
A careful and creative parsing of those assertions reveals a mini-history of Israel from the Ten Plagues (“works of Yahweh”) to the Exodus (“provided redemption”) to the provision of manna and quail in the wilderness to the conquest of the Promised Land. All of those historical deeds are rooted in God’s covenant with Israel; “he ordained his covenant forever….” God kept his covenant promises made long ago to Abraham by acting in history to make a great nation with its own land and a name that is famous. We know that God is who Psalm 111 says he is, because he has shown himself to be that in his deeds.
There is one more historical act of Yahweh mentioned in Psalm 111, namely, the giving of his Law. If verses 3-6 focus on the way God kept his promises in history, then verses 7-10 remind us of the precepts God gave his people so that they would know how to live in history. From our New Testament, and particularly our Pauline, perspective we don’t always remember that God’s law is a tremendous gift. Paul rails against the misuse of the Torah by those Judaizers who wanted to justify themselves by their works. But God gave his law as a blessed guide for living in a world that is often confusing, dangerous, and downright wicked. The mere presence of such a guide for right, fruitful and happy living in this kind of world is a huge blessing. And even more proof that God is good.
I’m not sure that all of this talk about God’s goodness demonstrated in ancient historical acts and in a set of antiquated precepts will convince my grandchildren and your congregation that they ought to “praise the Lord.” It will help if you tell the story of Israel’s “redemption” in terms that parallel the situations in their lives today. For example, being in Egypt was like being trapped by your enemy’s posse. And receiving the Law was like getting a guide through the dark forest of your confusion. But in the end, I think you’ll have to put a face on this historical God. Which, of course, is exactly what God did in Jesus. God “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (II Cor. 4:6).”
Hurting people don’t become praising people until they are convinced that God is good. And only God’s gift of Jesus will convince them of that when their lives seem to be hell. Tell the story of Jesus using the words of Psalm 111. Jesus redeemed us from slavery to evil. Jesus performed wonders as he demonstrated that a new kingdom had come. Jesus is the bread of life who enables us to live forever. Jesus gives us a whole new place in the world, because all authority has been given to him and we are to claim the whole world for him. Jesus shows us the way to a life that is true. Jesus fulfilled all the covenant promises and kept the covenant law. In him, we are blessed beyond our imagining. “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).” If you preach Psalm 111 that way, you’ll give your hurting people a little Epiphany of Christ’s glory, even in their dark times.
One more word calls for comment here, and it might just put the bow on the gift. Verse 10 talks about the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom. Whenever we read about the fear of the Lord, we get involved in a discussion about which emotion that is—terror or awe? We always come down on the side of awe, because our heavenly Father couldn’t want us to be afraid of him, could he? But Psalm 111 gives us a different take on the fear of the Lord. The next words in verse 11 are typical Hebrew parallelism; “all who follow his precepts have good understanding.”
What if the fear of the Lord isn’t first of all an emotion, but an action, or a set of actions? Fearing the Lord means simply living by his precepts, putting his will at the center of our lives and acting accordingly. Being wise, understanding how to live in the world, begins with being obedient. Life would be so much simpler, so much richer, so much happier, so much easier if we would just follow Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life.
Of course, we can’t do that perfectly; that’s why Jesus died for our sins. And we can’t do it by ourselves; that’s why Jesus gives us his Spirit. But there is a way to live that will enable us to “praise the Lord.” Focus not on the circumstances, but on the Christ. I know, easy to say, hard to do, especially if you are in Molly or Owen’s shoes. But at least Psalm 111 gives us a way to shine the light of the glory of God in the face of Christ into the lives of all who live in darkness.
Tim Keller has written another brilliant book titled Making Sense of God. In my humble opinion, it is the best apologetic for the Christian faith since Lewis’ Mere Christianity. It doesn’t approach the faith with the same imaginative whimsy as Lewis. Rather, Keller’s book is a powerful engagement with the cultural currents of our society and the philosophical underpinnings that make it what it is. He shows that religion in general meets the needs of human beings better than the secular alternatives and, then, that the Christian faith does that better than any other religion, because of the person of Jesus. I recommend it to everyone, especially to the “cultured despisers.”
But Psalm 111 reminds us of a stern truth. If people don’t do God’s will, if they stubbornly do their own will, it will be impossible for them to understand the Gospel. They won’t be wise enough to discern its truth. Thank God for the strong truth proclaimed in Psalm 111. The Lord “provides redemption” by breaking into history, by interrupting human sin, by becoming incarnate in Jesus. And by the foolishness of preaching, he saves many. So, preach it, sister and brother. And praise the Lord.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Author: Scott Hoezee
A few years back a colleague of mine was a pastor in the Greater Toronto Area. The Lectionary called for a sermon on 1 Corinthians 8 and so my friend did his level best to translate these ancient words into a contemporary setting. Mostly he worked hard to take the “food sacrificed to idols” line of thought and find modern-day analogies since (he reasoned) this specific topic does not come up in people’s lives much (if ever). So he hit on a few analogies, talked about them in the context of the bottom line of Paul’s advice here to be mindful of weaker folks who may take offense at this or that, and said “Amen.”
Afterwards while shaking hands at the church door, a young college-aged woman from his congregation came up and said. “So, thanks for the sermon and all. But I was just wondering: I am dating this Hindu guy and go with him sometimes to the Temple on Friday nights. They have all this food laid out on a kind of table in front of pictures of Vishnu and stuff and after dedicating it all to the gods, they then have a potluck. So I was just wondering: is it OK that I eat that food or not? I mean, a lot of it is pretty tasty but . . .”
Perhaps some things need less modern-day translation than we think!
It is pretty common knowledge that 1 Corinthians is Paul’s letter of reply to a long-ish letter he had received from Corinth. Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter, we can discern the laundry list of issues, questions, and controversies that the Corinthian Christians asked their founding pastor to weigh in on. A lot of their questions resonate readily enough yet today: what about spiritual gifts? What is the best way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper? What about people who seem to want to spiritualize the meaning of the resurrection? What about issues related to sexual morality and practices?
A few other issues start, however, to stray out of our usual zones of thinking in the church. Is marriage a good idea just generally or should we abstain? Is it OK to take our disagreements about worship and file lawsuits against each other in Federal District Court? And then there is this one about food sacrificed to idols in chapter 8. Despite my friend’s experience in Toronto, the truth is that the question that vexed the Corinthians enough to bring it before the Apostle Paul is probably not foremost in anyone’s mind in our congregations at any given moment.
But in that polytheistic Greek culture 2,000 years ago it really was an issue. Any number of members of the small Corinthian congregation were no doubt related to people who still went to pagan temples where gifts of food and drink were offered up to the gods who, presumably, blessed that food and so sanctified its eating to the worshipers. And some Corinthian church members went along with their friends and relatives but wondered about the propriety of it all given their firm belief now in Jesus as the only true Lord. But if some of the congregation’s members had not turned over this question in their minds on their own initiative, soon enough they were assailed by fellow church members who were scandalized by this. “Eat Aphrodite’s feta cheese salad and you are as good as worshiping her! Consume that spanakopita offered up to Zeus and you may as well be Zeus’s lackey!”
“Oh come on,” some folks tried to say in response. “There is no such being as Zeus, Hermes, or Aphrodite so chill out! Offering up these foods to these non-existent gods means no more than offering up food to a blank wall. Food’s food. Jesus is Lord of my heart and that’s all I need to know. Whatever I put in my mouth does not affect what’s true in my heart.”
Well, that didn’t sit so well with many in the congregation and so the question got kicked clear up to Pastor Paul. And as a good pastor, Paul tried to see the issue from all sides. Yes, on the one hand, all those Greek gods really were nothing. And if you know that and accept that, then you are not likely to be spiritually harmed by eating a lamb shank offered up to Dionysius. And if just KNOWING the right stuff and acting accordingly were the only thing to consider here, then that is the end of the conversation.
But on the other hand . . . what if LOVE and not heady spiritual knowledge is the main thing in the Body of Christ? And if so, what if love tells you to stop rolling your eyes over the sister or brother who is so shaken up by your eating food offered to idols and instead just stop eating the food?
“This kind of food will neither bring you closer to Jesus nor drive you farther from him, true enough” Paul as much as says. “But if it is tripping up someone else and affecting their own walk with Christ, then knock it off for their sake. It’s not always the most important thing in life to be right. Most of the time the most important thing is to be loving. And considerate. So go buy some souvlaki from a neutral street vendor and leave the temple stuff alone for the sake of unity in the Body.”
Paul ultimately invokes here language that he speaks of also elsewhere in his letters, referring to those scandalized by this food business as “weaker.” Maybe he could use “immature” or “ignorant” but the problem with that language is: no one ever wants to be labeled as “weaker.” And that is particularly true when the person doing the labeling is thereby implying “I am the stronger, more mature Christian here.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found that to go over very well.
And probably we should indeed not say that overtly to anyone. Nor ought we stay silent but yet walk around with a smug look on our faces and with puffed-out chests as much as to convey this to the “weaker” brother after all. No, Paul says, you do anything like that and you are sinning. Oh, and by the way: you are sinning AGAINST CHRIST. So put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Whether the issue is something many of us find arcane like food sacrificed to idols or more contemporary issues like consuming alcohol or not, smoking or not, going to certain movies or not, eating out or shopping on Sundays or not—fill in the blank—let’s admit this is both a delicate and a hard subject area. And let’s admit it is difficult because those who take a more progressive point-of-view are powerfully tempted to feel superior to those who “just can’t handle” this or that. And let’s admit further that the idea that in certain situations I should sacrifice myself by abstaining from some practice that I just KNOW is perfectly acceptable is also powerfully difficult to do. And while we’re at it, let’s double-down on the difficulty factor here by pointing out that sometimes those “weaker” folks toward whom Paul calls us to be so deferential are not infrequently on their own moralistic high horses casting down judgment on others from on high. And THAT does not always sit so well, either, and–if anything–tempts some of us to engage in some practice just to spite those legalistic Pharisee types! “You think it’s wrong for me to have a martini!!?? Well, I’ll drink to that! (Boo-Yah!)”
There may be no easy answers here. So what it may all boil down to his Paul’s bottom line question that he would have each of us—the offended and the offender in any given situation—ask of ourselves: What is the loving thing to do here in Christ? We may or may not find the answer to that question terribly obvious in any given circumstance.
But it is at least the right question to ask in the Body of Christ.
The luminous film Babette’s Feast gives the viewer a curious reversal on traditional ways of thinking about “weaker” and “stronger” members in the Body of Christ. My colleague Roy Anker has been publishing a lot of wonderful “Movies for Preaching” pieces on the CEP website. He has three on this film, of which this particular one may be most apt to look at in this connection.
In the film, a tiny, vaguely sectarian-like band of Christians on a remote Danish island have, of late, fallen on hard times of bickering and even some animosity among the congregation’s small flock of believers. The head of the community are two sisters, the daughters of the now-deceased founding pastor. Early in the film they take in a bedraggled French woman who had fled from violence in Paris, a violence that killed her husband and child. Babette, it turns out, is a gourmet chef who once wowed Europe with her culinary creations at the famed Café Anglais. But in her exile, she becomes the chief cook and bottle-washer to the two sisters, reduced to making the thin gruel and other ascetic, bland culinary fare to which the sisters are accustomed.
Years later, Babette discovers she won a lottery in France, netting her a small fortune. But she decides (secretly initially) to expend the entire sum cooking a lavish dinner for the sisters and their entire tiny congregation out of gratitude for all they had done for her. Through a comedy of errors, the sisters conclude that there is something spiritually amiss—almost devilish—about this fancy feast, and these fears only deepen as the ingredients start to arrive in Babette’s kitchen: a live turtle, live quails, exotic mushrooms. But the sisters cannot deny how much they love Babette and so take counsel with the entire congregation. In the end, they decide that out of love for Babette, they will consume the multi-course feast but not enjoy it at all. They will be as people without tastebuds for one evening to avoid any spiritual pitfalls yet honor the French woman they care for.
Well and of course the food—and no small volume of alcohol—works its magic on the church members after all and by evening’s end, they somehow find their fractured fellowship restored, singing a doxology hand-in-hand under the stars. They sacrificed their scruples out of love, Christ-like love. And unity is the result. And when the sisters soon learn that Babette spent her entire fortune out of her love for THEM, the circle of fellowship widens still more.
Among many luminous things, it is all in all a fine example of what can happen when love for the “weaker” sister—or the “stronger” sister as the case may be—leads to something downright God-glorifying.