To Speak of Truth and Love
A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash.)
I am going to start out by just being honest that I struggled with my sermon this week.It’s not that I struggled with the message I was being called to proclaim. As sometimes happens, the Holy Spirit unequivocally grabbed me with one particular phrase my first time reading through today’s texts. I immediately knew that was my message. That was what I needed to make sure you all heard this week.
And to make sure that you do, I am NOT going to tell you what it is just yet. Nothing like a little suspense to hold attention.
My struggle was with the process of actually getting a sermon written. I used to have a process. I had a weekly rhythm of reading, reflecting, crafting, and finally writing that was the consistent through-line of my week every week… until pandemic. More than 10 months in, and I still haven’t figured out how to recreate a sense of order and predictability in my new life of 24/7 with my family.
In the grand scheme of pandemic disruptions, I recognize that the disruption of my sermon-writing rhythm is pretty minor, but it is still frustrating. And so, Thursday night found me on a zoom call with our Faithful Innovation Guiding Team with nothing done for my sermon other than that one key phrase (which I am still not going to tell you yet).
And so, I decided to ask for help. I gave the team a little bit of context, and told them I wanted to pick their brains, and then – as the opening reflection for our time together – I read them today’s second reading. Yes, that’s right, the reading from 1 Corinthians about eating meat sacrificed to idols. It’s not a topic that might seem automatically relevant to a 21st C. American Lutheran church…but wouldn’t you know. I finished reading, and our coach asked me to repeat that same phrase that had grabbed my attention:
(So, finally, here it is) “Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up.” (1 Cor. 8:1b). Or, as the translation we read this morning puts it: “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Paul was making a point about a highly contextual conflict arising in a particular church, that connects to practices and theological questions that have no connection to our lives. And yet… and yet, this brief phrase stands out to our ears as shockingly relevant.
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
It’s a deceptively simple contrast, but as our Guiding Team unpacked it on Thursday, we explored layer after layer of questions and applications that engage powerfully with the particular challenges of our place and time.
The first clear question was what is meant by knowledge? Or, to put it another way what is truth? It’s hardly a new question. As we will hear on Good Friday, Pilate asks that same question as a way of deflecting his responsibility in Jesus’ trial. And yet, this question has become newly contentious in our ever-increasingly divided society, where we curate our own news feeds to hear the “truth” that aligns with our worldviews, and where basic social institutions are distrusted by large swaths of the population. And each group believes that they are the ones with the truth. They are the ones with the knowledge of what is really going on. And everyone who disagrees with them is either deceived or lying.
In this divided context, knowledge can operate as a mechanism of control. If you can convince someone that you are a trustworthy source of information, you can control their perception of reality. And because of that power, claims to truth, to knowledge have precisely the effect that Paul describes: knowledge puffs up; it makes people arrogant. When we are focused on knowledge as our good, our egos are automatically on the line. So, when our understanding or perception gets questioned, it triggers deep defensiveness. It feels like an attempt to control us, and so we resist. Even we are not being directly confronted. When we, instead, feel empowered to confront. To interject our opinions or our censure, assuming that everything we encounter is “for us,” subject to our assessment if it challenges our worldview. It makes for the anger, even hatred as we will be discussing in our forum conversation following worship.
But what’s the solution to this mess? We can’t just abandon our commitment to truth. Both our first reading and our gospel today make that plain. The reading from Deuteronomy promises a prophet of God to lead the people – to direct them according to God’s truth. And God promises punishment to those who claim to speak truth apart from God’s direction. Clearly, truth is NOT relative. And the gospel story revolves around Jesus’s authority – not only in casting out the demon, but also in his teaching… in his claims to knowledge.
So, there is a place for speaking with authority, and defending truth. The key – to borrow the insight of one of our Guiding Team members – is context: how are we using our knowledge. Are we using it to puff ourselves up? Or are we using it in love to build up our community.
Which brings us to the second half of the key phrase, and the question of what exactly do we mean by love?
Paul famously offers a descriptive definition of love a few chapters later on in 1 Corinthians. You know the one:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”
(1 Cor. 13:4-8a).
It’s a familiar, and beautiful, and idealistic description. And it can be really hard to put into practice in our real lives (especially 10 months into our pandemic lives, where basically everyone is functioning at some level of clinical depression and anxiety).
I experienced my own glaring failure to love like Paul commends in a stupid, defensive online exchange this week. I had made a comment in a parenting group that others took offense at, and I got defensive when I was challenged. I was speaking from my own “knowledge,” and when I got told my language was hurtful, I insisted on my own way. I got irritable and resentful. And I missed a chance to love my neighbor. I missed a chance to listen and learn. I missed a chance to build up, because I was too puffed up by the assumption that I already had all the knowledge I needed.
I know there can be a lot of friction around the culture of political correctness and language policing, and I understand the reactions. I did not like being called on the carpet for using phrasing that I had thought were right but someone else tells me is hurtful. And there can certainly be a performative aspect to p.c. culture that’s more about virtue signaling than it is about truth or compassion.
But that’s the point of contrasting knowledge that puffs up, with love that builds up: If we struggle to let go of our attachment to knowledge, because truth does matter, and if we struggle to know how to act with love because who can be patient, kind, un-envious and all the rest of it in the middle of a pandemic... we can at least ask ourselves if our speech and our actions is about feeding our own egos or about building up our community.
Because that is what Paul’s teaching clarifies so simply. Love is about service, rather than self-centeredness. It’s about recognizing that my “freedom” does not justify another person’s harm. It’s about actually believing that we are responsible for taking care of each other. Love does not put itself first. That’s what makes it so strong.
Strong, but not simple. The thoughtful, faithful conversation of our Guiding Team Thursday night wouldn’t let me resolve all the tension in this teaching. There are still weighty questions that we just couldn’t answer:
· How do we not drive ourselves to insanity trying to anticipate and account for other people’s reactions?
· What about when people know better, or should know better? When they cling to untruths that do harm to others?
· What are we really trying to accomplish in the negotiation of knowledge and love? Is it unity at all costs, or does truth still matter?
Much like trying to write a sermon while also homeschooling during a pandemic… there is no simple, predictable rhythm for dealing with all the what-iffs of living in community with people who deeply disagree about truth. While “knowledge puffs up,” the alternative of turning off our brains or our commitment to truth can have pretty dire consequences too.
But as we negotiate these challenges, we can at least ground ourselves in the question: “am I being motivated by love?”
In some contexts, being motivated by love will look like suspending our own freedoms in order to protect those who are weaker.
In others it will look like working passionately for the defense of truth so that lies do not continue to do harm.
It will look like hard conversations to seek understanding, and listening as much as we speak, and being willing to face the possibility that even when we are right, we might be doing wrong.
But if we are motivated by love, there is one thing we will not do. We WILL NOT discount the harm we do to others with the excuse of pursuing our own truth. We will not shrug our shoulders. We will not write people off. We ARE responsible for the ways that our freedoms can hurt others.
And while that makes living in community a lot more complicated. It also makes living in community an experience of being built up in love. Thanks be to God.