Sermon for Epiphany 4 (1 February 2009)
1 Corinthians 8.1-13
A confession. I began writing a sermon for today about six times; I just couldn’t get into it. All sorts of things flew into my head, and then flew away just as quickly. It didn’t help that I had a head cold.
Yesterday, I was sitting in my study and wondering what I could say. One of the things that kept flying in—and out—was that phrase of St Paul’s: “Knowledge puffs up”. Or, knowledge inflates. I didn’t feel like I knew a lot, and I certainly felt deflated.
What Paul was saying of course was that knowledge without love inflates our egos. Knowledge without love brings pride, and a sense of being ‘in the know’. There were people at Corinth who were in the know: their little group had it together, and they looked down on those pathetic losers who weren’t in the know.
There are many things that are death to Christian fellowship; being in the know can be one. Being part of an in-group that has it together, being one of the cognoscenti, having all the right answers while others wander around like lost sheep. Or race around like headless chooks.
St Paul wants us to understand that knowledge is for something. In the Christian community, those who know are meant to use their knowledge to serve others.
Why was he talking about the dangers of the wrong kind of knowledge? We need to understand a bit about first-century life to understand why. It’s been said, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
That’s not wrong.
Most of us eat meat pretty well every day. A main meal without meat seems to be lacking something. But an ordinary person in first-century Corinth would not often eat red meat. Their staple diet would be made up of grains, vegetables, fruit and fish.
Most of the meat—certainly the very best meat—was slaughtered in pagan temples, and then offered to pagan gods. Some of that meat was sold on to the market, but while you or I could afford to look, we couldn’t afford to buy.
The people in the know in Corinth could afford to buy meat in the market place. It didn’t bother them because they knew that there is only one God, and the gods of the pagan temples do not exist. And they were secure in their knowledge.
The ones who weren’t in the know, those known as ‘the weak ones’ had a different story. If they had ever eaten meat before they were Christians, it was most likely as guests at a banquet given by a well-heeled person in honour of a god. And they couldn’t eat meat without remembering that the two went together. Eat meat—give honour to a god.
So, ‘the strong ones’ act on their knowledge that there is only one true God; while ‘the weak ones’ can’t forget the power of the old gods.
Who wins? Wrong question.
Paul doesn’t want to pit one side against another; but—just as hard—he wants those in the know to serve the others with love.
Knowledge without love leads to pride. What then should we look for? Love without knowledge? I’d prefer it if we went for knowledge with love.
As far as the Bible is concerned, you can’t have true knowledge without love. Knowledge isn’t just an intellectual thing, a mind thing.
To know something is to care about it. I’m writing a PhD thesis on ordination liturgies. Most people’s eyes glaze over when they find that out, and they think, Sounds boring—I hope he isn’t going to try to explain it to me! Yet the more I know about this topic, the more I care about it. Yeah, I know, still sounds boring…
So let me try again… For the Christian, to know something is to care about it, to have a relationship with it. The Bible uses the word ‘know’ for sex, for heaven’s sake! Genesis 4.1:
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived…
To know God is to care about God, to love God, to be in a right relationship with God. To know anything about God is to care about what God would want us to do with that knowledge.
How do we gain that kind of knowledge? We feed the head, and the heart. We feed the head: we read the scriptures, we read books that inform our faith, some of us study theology. And love it! And we do that to be more and more in tune with God and God’s Word and God’s world.
We feed the heart: we read the scriptures prayerfully, we listen as well as speak to God in our prayer, we let our hearts and our wills be shaped by the Word and the Spirit of God.
We have opportunities to do these things in the life of the congregation: in home groups, Lenten studies, in the quiet day on 21 February.
In these ways, we gain true knowledge, knowledge that is aligned with love. No longer ‘in the know’, no longer ‘know it alls’, we realise who much we don’t know. We learn to be humble before God. We follow Jesus in the company of the sisters and brothers he has given us.
Surely that’s St Paul’s own position. He had to have knowledge. He wasn’t an Aussie anti-intellectual, sucking a tube while pouring over the form guide. He was an intellectual. He was educated, as are all of us. Yes, I said all. In global terms, in terms of the history of the human race, every one of us is highly educated.
And we need to use our knowledge to serve others in love.
Knowledge puffs up—at least knowledge without love does. Love builds up. But knowledge with love—knowledge of the heart as well as the head—that’s what we want!