January 25, 2021
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 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: Stan Mast
A couple of weeks before the Presidential election in the US, Pat Robertson gave another of his fantastic prophecies: President Trump would win the election, widespread civil discontent would follow, and five years later a huge asteroid would hit the world. Robertson has been giving spectacular prophecies for years now. He has predicted the exact date the world would end at least two times, which, obviously, didn’t happen. So, why should anyone listen to his pre-election prophecy?
I doubt that many took Robertson seriously, but he raised again the age-old question. How do we know when a prophecy is genuinely from God? Or more broadly, how do we find the will of God in confusing times? Or to put it in Epiphany terms, how does God reveal his will to us? Our Old Testament reading for this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany is one of the definitive answers to that question.
These words were spoken to Israel as they waited on the east side of the Jordan River preparing to enter the Promised Land. Moses had been their leader all the way from their Exodus from Egypt and through the wilderness wanderings, where all the old folks had died. Moses knew that he himself would soon die, leaving the younger folks who were now in middle age without a leader. More seriously, they would be left without a prophet, someone who could speak to them from God, someone who could tell them God’s will in a brave new world.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminds Israel of the revealed will of God. In chapter after chapter, Moses clearly outlines all the “statutes and ordinances” God had revealed on Mt. Sinai, so that they would know God’s will after Moses, The Prophet, was gone. But Moses knew that they would need on-going revelation as they encountered new situations. How would they find the will of God in the future?
Moses knew that in the Promised Land Israel would be surrounded by people who would seek guidance from other sources than the one true God. Canaan was filled with witches and sorcerers and necromancers and mediums and spiritualists, people who would practice black magic and consult the dead and the spirits for counsel. Moses tells Israel that those who practice such darks arts are “detestable” to God. This is not where you will learn the will of God. “The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so (verse 14).”
That is the setting in which Moses issues this major prophecy about prophecy. How will this new generation and all subsequent generations know God’s will for their new day? Well, of course, there is this large body of revelation that Moses has summarized in Deuteronomy. But there will also be another prophet, indeed, a succession of them. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” You must get your revelation not from the dead, but from the living God who will appoint a prophet like Moses.
What would a prophet like Moses be like? Well, Moses spoke to God face to face, as a man speaks to a friend. And this happened not just once, but again and again. Moses got his words directly from God, so that he could say, “Thus saith the Lord,” rather than, “I think this is what God is saying.” Moses had a deeply personal relationship with God in which God spoke to him directly. This new prophet would be just like that.
And, significantly, this prophet with a direct connection with God will come “from among your own brothers.” That is, he would not drop down out of heaven or rise up from the earth in some supernatural way (like those sorcerers and diviners), but will be one of you, a fellow Jew, a simple, ordinary human being. I will reveal my will through a man.
Why wouldn’t God reveal his will to each and every Israelite in such a direct, face to face way? Because that is not what Israel wanted. The only time God spoke directly to them on Mt. Sinai/Horeb, they were scared nearly to death (cf. Exodus 20:18-19). They responded with these words: “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God, nor see this great fire or we will die.” That’s something to consider today, when people often say, “If I could just see or hear God directly, it would be so much easier to believe.” Such requests underestimate the awesomeness of God. So, in his grace, God listened to Israel’s plea and said to Moses, “What they say is good.”
Indeed, looking back to Sinai, God says, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers.” Though this sounds like a promise of one prophet, it turned out to be a succession of prophets, until The One Like Moses finally came. Until that time, I will continually raise up prophets like Moses.
“I will put my words in his mouth and he will tell them everything I command him.” What wonderful news for ancient Israel as they were about to lose their prophet! God would continue to speak to them through a prophet and they would know exactly what God wanted them to do in the Promised Land. They would not be wandering without guidance. God would tell them exactly how to live. Hallelujah!
But how did that work out? Not so well. Oh, God raised up a number of prophets like Moses—Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah and Amos, Jeremiah and Jonah, Ezekiel and Habakkuk, and others. But two persistent problems kept plaguing this promise of a prophet like Moses, both of them anticipated and warned against in verses 19-20.
Verse 19 says, “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.” That’s exactly what happened. Instead of listening to the prophets and obeying what God said through them, Israel persecuted them and disobeyed the revealed will of God. So, as he promised, God “called them to account” and expelled them from the Land into Exile.
And as verse 20 warns, a host of false prophets sprang up in Israel. Some prophesied in the name of Yahweh, even though the Lord had not spoken to them. And others prophesied in the name of other gods (think of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel). God had no patience with such false prophets, as exemplified by Elijah’s slaughter of those prophets, in obedience to God’s word in verse 20. Prophesy is a deadly serious thing to the living God, because ignoring it or misrepresenting it can ruin the lives of God’s people.
All of which is to say that the institution of prophecy was frustrated in Israel with false prophets aplenty and disobedience all the time. Thus, Israel was always ripe for the ultimate fulfillment of this great promise. Finally, the Prophet like Moses arrived. He spoke to God and listened to God all the time. The Word of God was in his mouth and mind all the time. Indeed, he had the closest possible relationship with God, since he was God, the Word made flesh. And as he genealogies at the beginning of Matthew and Luke show, he was “from among your own brothers,” an ordinary human, a fellow Jew, not supernaturally dropped from heaven, but born of a simple Jewish girl.
It is fascinating to see how this promise of Deuteronomy winds through the story of Jesus. Take the Gospel of John, for example. In John 1:21, the priests and Levites are interrogating John the Baptist about his identity. Among their questions, “Are you the Prophet?” “No.” Later in that chapter, one of Jesus first disciples, Philip, goes to tell his friend Nathaniel, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the law… Jesus of Nazareth (verse 45).” After watching one miracle after another the common people began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world (John 6:14, and cf. 7:40).”
In his explanation of the healing of the crippled beggar in Acts 3:22-26, Peter quotes this old promise. “For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for a prophet like me from among your people; you must listen to everything he tells you.’”
How do we know the will of God? We listen to God as he has revealed himself in Scripture and in the Savior. The prophets who heard God speak and the Prophet who was God speaking—these are our sure guide in a confusing world. But best of all, Jesus was not simply the prophet whose word we must heed or we “will be completely cut off from among his people (Acts 3:23).” Jesus is also our Priest, who offered his body as the sacrifice for our sins, and our King, who rules and protects us in this brave and broken new world.
Only Jesus Christ completely fulfills this prophecy, and all prophecy. As Paul says in II Corinthians 1:20, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”
The “detestable ways of the nations” referred to in Deut. 18:9-14 are not just the superstitions of primitive people in biblical times. Seeking guidance from the dead, the practice of witchcraft, consulting spiritualists, and the like are still popular not only in Third World countries, but also in sophisticated North America. Even Christian young people play with Ouija boards and Tarot cards, as though they were harmless parlor games. As people move away from orthodox Christianity in their quest for spirituality, they wander into dark places. This text gives us opportunity to call them back to the True Prophet, Priest, and King.
At an excellent seminar on Coaching, the other participants and I were encouraged to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we coached pastors and churches. But we were asked, “How do you know it is the Spirit speaking? When do you recognize the Spirit voice?” We all agreed that this is a very hard question. Our text gives us one sure test. “If it doesn’t take place or come to pass, that is a message the Lord has not spoken (verse 23).” But, of course, we won’t know that until later, sometimes much later. How can we be sure in the moment? The fulfilment of our text in the person of Jesus gives us a more immediate guide. Does “the voice of the Spirit” fit in with the will of God revealed in Scripture and in the Savior? Is this new word consistent with the Word once for all delivered through the prophets and through the Word made flesh?
Author: Scott Hoezee
Psalm 111 is a shook-up bottle of champagne when the cork flies off: it is effervescent, effusive, and thus it is delightfully over the top in most every way. It’s one of those poems that tempts one to plant tongue firmly in cheek to ask the psalmist, “Don’t hold back: tell us what you really think!” From first to last the psalm jumps up and down with enthusiasm for God, for God’s character, for God’s works.
It is a great psalm to read but maybe it is a little tough to preach on. Once you have noted the enthusiasm and the scope of what causes all that excitement and wonder, what is there left to say? What might be a preaching angle on this particular poem or song? Perhaps there are several avenues one could travel to find that angle but I will suggest one that occurs to me.
After all, it seems like a lot of the time we live in a world—and this seeps into even the church—in which we are more likely to hear questions about God’s character—or about the very existence of God—than a joyful litany of wonder over God’s nature and works. It seems to be easier to look at the problems in this world or the scandals involving the church and question how a good God could allow that or tolerate that than it is to develop a keen eye and ear to see and listen for the greatness of God and of God’s works. Sometimes it seems like we spend more time defending God than praising God. Sometimes it seems we spend more time trying to enlist God’s endorsement for the causes we are passionate about than in trying to see what God is passionate about and then thanking and praising God for all that. And then proclaiming all of that to other people too.
One line that jumped out at me when reading Psalm 111 comes in verse 4 when the psalmist says of God, “He has caused his deeds to be remembered.” There may be multiple ways to interpret that verse, and most if not all of them may be correct simultaneously. One idea would be that God causes God’s deeds to be remembered by inspiring the Scriptures, which we now believe includes this psalm itself (whether or not the psalmist was conscious of the fact that these words would one day be part of sacred Scripture). God has preserved God’s works by getting people to write them down for future generations. That seems right.
But a second idea is that God causes God’s deeds to be remembered when God’s people talk about such things, pass them along to the next generation. This reminds us perhaps of those lines in Deuteronomy where Moses tells the people of Israel—and particularly the parents of children in Israel—to talk about and rehearse God’s deeds all over the place. Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house. Share God’s goodness and actions with your kids morning, noon, and night. Talk about them when you are on the road and when you are around the dinner table. God’s Word should be all-but inscribed on your forehead and written on your hands (a verse that led to the practice of wearing phylacteries, little leather boxes with Hebrew letters from the Bible inside them that people literally strapped to their foreheads and hands now and then). God’s Word should be that pervasive.
God causes God’s deeds to be remembered through us, in short, and through our own familiarity with and enthusiasm for God’s Word. And that of course forces the question: does this characterize our lives? Do our children or neighbors have a chance to see that we lean into the effervescent enthusiasm of a Psalm 111 on a regular basis? Related to this is another question: do we train our eyes to look for signs of God’s goodness in the world?
I have noted in other sermon starters over the years the fact that at Calvin Theological Seminary where I teach preaching, we use Paul Scott Wilson’s “Four Pages” template for preaching. Anyone familiar with this knows that Wilson’s model focuses on both Trouble and Grace and as part of that, one part of the sermon always focuses on what Wilson calls “Trouble in the World.” What is going on in the world or in the church today that makes us ask painful questions or encounter doubt or that causes other difficulties? But then later in the sermon this Trouble needs to be matched with “Grace in the World.” Where is God active today via God’s Spirit? Where do we see signs that God is active and on the move right now?
Alas, most of our students and most preachers will admit that it is always far easier to find examples of Trouble in this world of ours—and often right smack inside the church—than it is to find shining vignettes of Grace. But I sometimes wonder if part of the reason for this is we have not trained our eyes to look for the evidence of God’s abiding work that are incessantly all around us. And that is true not just of the big things. I often tell students to not limit “Grace in the World” to Mother Theresa of Calcutta or dramatic miracles. Look for God and for the activity of God’s Grace among what St. Theresa of Avila called “the pots and pans.” Look for ordinary, mundane, quotidian works of God because when you do, you will find them and then can help God’s people celebrate these everyday instances of God’s presence in our lives.
Yes, Psalm 111:4 is correct: God has caused God’s deeds to be remembered. But an ongoing calling in our lives is to do everything we can to let the Holy Spirit jog our memories every day.
Full-time scientists may have the luxury of having a vocation that actually gets devoted to studying the natural world. Most of us do not have that opportunity so readily. But there are times and seasons when we can soak up ocean vistas, mountains, meadows, streams, and other wonders. And when we do—perhaps on vacation or on weekends—we can do our best to study the works of the Lord. Oh, we may not be professional scientists or anything—we may feel like we are at best amateurs. But as Tom Long once pointed out, that’s OK because “amateur” really means in one sense being a lover of something.
The first and great commandment tells us to love the Lord our God with everything we’ve got. We are called to be lovers of God. But when you love someone, you love what that person loves, you are invested in what brings your lover joy. If your spouse is an artist, then you as a lover take a keen interest in your spouse’s artwork, gladly go with that person to art museums and then listen carefully to how your spouse describes the works of art you encounter there.
Good lovers take an interest in each other’s work and so listen attentively at the end of any given workday when the events of that day at the office or wherever are described. We are all called to be amateur students of God’s creation, studying the works of the Lord because the Bible tells us that God himself takes delight in those things. Why would any of us who claim to love the Lord above all take anything other than also a keen delight in all the works of the Lord? And when we do, as Psalm 111 reminds us, we find an ever-expanding list of reasons to praise the Lord our God!
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Author: Doug Bratt
If last Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s call to “those who have wives [to] live as if they have none” seemed daunting to proclaim, this Sunday’s Lesson’s treatment of the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols may seem nearly overwhelming. It may, after all, feel as though Paul is speaking more to African or Asian churches than those led by most of those who read this Starter.
In the apostle’s day, however, one could hardly live in a Greek city without having to deal with meat that people had already sacrificed to idols. Religious leaders often sold to markets the “leftover” meat that had already been sacrificed. So even when Christians bought their meat from a merchant, it might already have been sacrificed.
What’s more, nearly all of Paul’s contemporaries believed that demons and devils entered people through the food they ate. So they assumed that they could avoid such contamination by dedicating all of their food to some god who was powerful enough to protect them from those evil forces.
Since Christians knew such gods don’t actually exist, some assumed sacrificed meat carried no stigma. They didn’t see eating meat that people had sacrificed to gods as any kind of concession to faith in false gods. This practice of eating food that had already been sacrificed to false gods, however, deeply bothered other Christians. They assumed that it represented a kind of compromise with the false religions from which God had freed them.
Yet while eating what people have sacrificed to idols isn’t an issue for most North American Christians, it points to an issue that should concern Jesus’ modern followers. How do those whose faith is strong live in the Christian community with those whose faith is weak?
The story a colleague tells of a more contemporary issue may help us think about it. One congregation had a transparent picture of Jesus that was lit from behind with a neon light. It was a butt of many jokes. At the end of church events, people would often call someone to turn off the light by asking her to “Turn off Jesus.”
Eventually, however, the church removed the picture over the objections of many people who appreciated it. So was that an act of Christian freedom or love? Did it build up or tear down the church community?
Today some of the issues that most deeply divide North American Christians revolve around politics. So when some people advocate certain political stances but other people resist, how do we negotiate a resolution?
1 Corinthians 8 reminds us that Christians need to remain concerned about the relationship between those who are “strong in their faith” and those who are “weak.” Of course, it first it may seem as if Paul brushes off this issue as almost trivial. He, after all, strings together slogans, a form of which even lower school students may know: “We all possess knowledge.” “There is no god but one.” Yet Paul also knew that Christians who “knew” these things were tempted to look down on people who worried about eating food people had sacrificed to an idol.
I’ll never forget the extended family Christmas party that my distant cousin soured with condescension. This formally educated person made a condescending remark about my formally uneducated cousin’s work as a refuse hauler. George’s knowledge at least seemed to puff him up in a way that deflated Dave so much that Dave never returned to our family Christmas parties.
Some Christians “know” that, for instance, God took more than six twenty-four hour days to create the world and everything in it. So it’s very easy to look down on those for whom this is a basic part of their Christian faith.
Or consider how some of Jesus’ followers “know” that things like eating out on Sunday and drinking alcohol are matters of Christian freedom. It’s tempting to be smug toward those “fundamentalists” who think they’re sins.
Paul, however, didn’t look down on what he called his “weaker” Christian brothers and sisters. After all, once he seems to dismiss their worries about eating food sacrificed to idols, he takes their concerns very seriously. The apostle puts those concerns in a distinctly Christian context.
Paul, after all, says to the strong, “Be careful that your wisdom or Christian freedom doesn’t cause a problem for others’ Christian faith.” It’s, after all, wonderful to be sure of what Christians believe and aware of what we don’t know. It’s great if we’ve arrived at the point where relatively non-essential issues no longer trouble us.
However, God’s adopted sons and daughters who consider ourselves wise or strong must be careful. Christ gives us a responsibility to those who are weaker in their faith. Strong people possess much knowledge. Since the living God is God alone, we “know” that, for example, it’s not a particularly big deal whether or not we eat food sacrificed to idols.
In our strength, however, Christians must be very careful not to become a “stumbling block” to the weak. Our strength, after all, becomes a curse if it harms those who are weaker in their Christian faith.
Those who are “weak” in their faith are those for whom our Savior graciously lived, died and rose again from the dead. By our arrogance we may be in danger of damaging their faith. By showing a lack of concern for those whose Christian faith is battered by certain issues, we may be in danger of tearing down their faith.
Paul, however, challenges our conventional ideas of precisely who’s strong and who’s weak. Christians often think of strong people as those who have strong opinions about what it means to be a Christian. The truth, however, may be just the opposite. Those who are weakest in their faith may be precisely the people who hold the strongest opinions about its implementation.
However, one theologian also notes that we may also need to change our views of the strength of those who claim to be self-sufficient. Perhaps we need to rethink how we categorize people who expect others to steadily stand on their own two feet.
Christians generally think of such people as “strong.” Perhaps, however, we need to think of them as “weak.” They may, after all, have fallen into the hands of the “look out for number one” attitude that infects our culture.
Paul reminds us that to be strong in our faith is to be able to bend, by God’s grace, to others’ limitations. As a colleague points out, those who are strong concern ourselves not just with cultivating our own little spiritual gardens, but also do all we can to help others’ flourish as well.
Love is Paul’s solution to the arrogance that sometimes comes with strength, knowledge and self-confidence. God graciously loves all of God’s adopted children, from the tiniest baby to the Ph.D. astronomer. When Jesus’ followers genuinely acknowledge that, we can look at both strong and weak Christians as equal Christian brothers and sisters.
Then, of course, since there is no God but the living God, we may choose to eat meat that people have already sacrificed to idols without sinning or do things like go out to eat on Sunday and drink alcohol. We can support one style of worship or one political standpoint. Yet if doing those things somehow causes another to fall from faith, Jesus’ adopted siblings lovingly refuse to do those things.
Of course, this isn’t the way we usually look at debates. Even Christians generally ask ourselves first and last what’s best for us. We expect the maximum freedom to do as we choose as long as we don’t somehow crash into each other while doing it.
So perhaps especially twenty-first century North American Christians naturally expect Paul to say, “Go ahead and do what you think is right. Go ahead and do whatever Christian freedom allows you to do without worrying about how other people will react!”
Paul, however, says, “Of course God has given you much Christian freedom. However, since it may deal with issues that are big for people who aren’t as strong in their faith as you are, be willing to tailor your Christian freedom and responsibility to their needs.”
I don’t know if Paul has answers about issues like political perspectives. But he does offer a principial question: what would be most helpful to Christian brothers and sisters in the community? What action is motivated by Christian love? The apostle wouldn’t be concerned about which side “wins.”
Perhaps we can begin dealing with those hard issues by constantly reminding ourselves that we’re dealing with those for whom Christ also graciously died. Instead of taking votes on contentious issues, Christians might search for a process to work out our difference together. Of course, even the most loving processes don’t always end in complete agreement or avoid hurt feelings. They do, however, deal with sensitive, important issues with Christian love.
However, it’s not always easy to know how to apply this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. If, after all, a particular course of action is plainly right, it’s wrong to avoid it just because some don’t approve. What’s more, quite candidly, not all offense is a stumbling block to someone’s faith. Sometimes those who are weak in the faith don’t act in love but hold the strong hostage with their threats of taking offense.
Quite frankly, after nearly 35 years in Christian ministry, I’m no longer sure who’s strong in their faith anymore. Sometimes I’m not even sure if Paul would consider me strong or weak in my Christian faith. So Jesus’ followers pray for the grace to act on what we do know: God’s adopted children always act with loving thoughtfulness toward those with whom God surrounds us.
Someone I’ll call “Ed” held the strongest opinions about the Christian life of anyone I’ve ever met. He fiercely clung to views about things like Sunday observance and the role of women in the church. Ed sometimes battered me with his strong convictions about some of the things the church I pastored and he attended was trying to do.
I’d always thought of Ed as one of those people whom Paul would call “strong.” However, I’ve come to at least suspect that he was what Paul would think of as “weak,” not morally, but in his faith. After all, Ed seemed to almost perpetually take great offense at things I’d always considered as part of Christian freedom. I constantly had to pray for the grace not to look down my sometimes long and snooty nose at Ed.