2/1/2015 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany The text for today is 1 Cor. 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Scribes and rabbis of Jesus’ time observed a custom which is still common among us today – the custom of quoting other authorities to support their own opinions. All you have to do is to listen to all the reporting over “deflate-gate” and you can see how prevalent it is today. From former quarterbacks to current sports gurus, everyone is offering an opinion.
For the Jewish religious leaders, the opinions that mattered were the words spoken by “rabbi so and so, or rabbi such and such.” For us Lutherans, it isn’t so much what bishop so and so says, or the words of today’s most prominent theologians, but it’s Luther’s Small Catechism and the Augsburg Confession that provide the authoritative word for our understanding of the Bible and what it means to be part of God’s family. These writings have been the nemesis of many a confirmation student as they are studied and memorized in much the same way as the Talmud has been studied by Jewish scholars.
This is tradition, but traditional ways of looking at things sometimes become sacred to the point of blinding our vision and hindering our understanding. For how often have the “seven last words of the church” – “we have always done it this way” – been the motto of a congregation?
Apparently, Jesus’ teaching was different from what was customary in his time. His teaching possessed an inner conviction of its own. It’s “A new teaching in the spirit of authority,” exclaimed the onlookers in today’s gospel story. It was a teaching that asked people to stretch their understanding of the law and to open their eyes to God and what God was all about. For, in Jesus Christ, God was improvising on the law. God was stretching it and redefining it and giving it new meaning as God was binding it, not in the heroes and understanding of the past, but in the love of a living Christ.
If we live in this love and follow Jesus’ example, we need not fear change. We need not be wary of the new or the unfamiliar. We need not be bound by tradition for tradition’s sake. For, faith improvises on the law. It stretches it and binds it in Christ’s love and frees us to live in the present.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, writes to a people who know the freedom that they have in Christ. And Paul confirms that they are indeed a people set free. They are free to improvise on their lives, but their freedom is not to be misused. It is to be guided by a single principle – that is “faith active in love.”
It is this principle which serves as a foundation to Jesus’ new teaching, the principle of love. It is this principle which provides a guide for living in harmony with God and all creation. Whatever we know of the law – the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the list of do’s and don’ts written throughout the old and new testaments – the law’s demands are always to be tempered and, within limits, modified and adapted by the faithful love active in our specific circumstances, in our particular situations. Sometimes, what is customary is appropriate. For such things as an annual pancake breakfast in honor of Jeryl Anderson helps us to remember the faithful life lived by one special person, and also focuses our attention on a devastating illness, pancreatic cancer, and the need to find effective ways to treat it and to support its victims. But there are also customs that need to change so that our faith becomes active in love. In Christ we have the freedom to break the shackles of the past. In Christ we have the freedom to bind ourselves to tradition. But, whatever we do, it is to be guided by what it means to bear Christ’s love to the world.
Faith active in love has two responsibilities in terms of ethical issues: first, we are to respect any “weakness” of conscience or scruples that another person may have so that we do not hinder the person or entice the person to sin. Obviously, if a person has a problem with stealing, we don’t leave loose cash around. If a person has a weight problem and is dieting, we don’t put a scrumptious desert on the table. And if a person has an issue regarding meat sacrificed to idols, we don’t invite a person to dinner and serve them a meal made with that meat.
While that meat issue may seem far-fetched in today’s world, during the time of Paul it was a major concern – for the sacrificing of animals to other gods was a common practice and it was common practice for the left-over meat to be sold to people who would take it home, prepare it, and serve it to family and friends. At that time, it was believed that the eating of such meat bestowed the blessings of that god on the people who ate it.
Now, we know that no one is saved by eating food given to an idol. Salvation does not come from what we eat or drink but through the sacrifice Christ made for us on the cross. People of strong faith during the time of Paul knew this and because of this knowledge they were free to eat the meat without it being sacrilegious. Yet, there were Christian brothers and sisters among them who did not possess such a strong faith. To them, this meat and idol worship could not be separated. The eating of this meat was a stumbling block, much in the same way a pastor drinking a beer would be in a Norwegian congregation in the Midwest. It was something to be avoided. Freedom through faith in Jesus Christ made the eating of such meat possible. Faith active in love made the eating of such meat unethical – for it hindered the faith of another and could cause someone else to sin.
The second responsibility for a faith active in love is to strengthen the conscience of the “weak” so they’re not “weak” any more. Listening, caring, teaching, reaching out, helping, inviting, encouraging, challenging and motivating, these are all signs of a faith active in love. Love comes before knowledge because love builds community. It comes before total freedom because love does not destroy. Love treads a different path to a different destination. It is not afraid to improvise or live in the present or right a wrong. Yet, love is willing to forego all freedom and privilege for the good of another. Love relies on one authority and one teaching – the authority and new teaching of Jesus Christ, the one who cast out demons, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, and who gave up his privilege and freedom as God’s begotten son for our sake. It is in Christ’s name that we serve. It is for the sake of others that we forego certain freedoms. And we follow the example of Jesus who loved us unto death.
May we live in his love and in the shadow of his cross. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.