Tuesday, March 03, 2015

At Any Cost

At Any Cost
1 Peter 3:18-22[1]
From my perspective, I’d have to say we are a people who don’t like to suffer. Most of us prefer our lives to be as comfortable and as pain-free as possible. And we expend huge amounts of money to secure for ourselves a life that is as free from suffering as possible. From medications, to entertainment, to other less healthy forms of relief, we find all kinds of ways to try to free ourselves from the pain of suffering. And yet this presents a curious paradox for those of us who profess to be Christians. We follow a Savior whose life was defined by suffering, and who called us to follow him in a life of suffering. I wonder how we who spare no expense to avoid pain can really claim to follow a Savior who gave himself for us at any cost.
In my opinion, this is a question that American Christians in general have not given enough attention. As we enter the season of Lent, I think it is no coincidence that many of our Scripture lessons for this season have to do with suffering—both on the part of Jesus and on our part. The fact of the matter is that the suffering of God’s love permeates the Bible. And suffering is a very real part of life that we all have to face at one point or another. We may try to avoid it by any means possible, but we will not succeed. We need a better hope than our various means of escape to sustain us in the face of suffering.
Our lesson from St. Peter for today addresses this, although in a very curious way. This text is one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament, with its talk of preaching to “spirits in prison”[2] and Baptism being likened to Noah’s ark. And yet, despite those thorny interpretation difficulties, this passage begins with suffering and ends with victory. St. Peter makes a declaration that Jesus suffered for our sakes, saying that “Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). And at the end of this lesson, he affirms that in his resurrection Jesus won the victory over all the powers in this world that would try to inflict suffering on us (3:22).[3]
Elsewhere in Peter’s letter, he talks about the lengths to which Jesus was willing to go to suffer on our behalf (1 Pet. 2:21-24).[4] He speaks about Jesus’ experience of being insulted and yet not insulting back. He speaks of Jesus suffering and not retaliating in anger or with violence of any kind. Rather he was willing to suffer for our sakes at any cost to himself. Peter says it this way, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” and  “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). He accepted the cup of suffering that was placed before him. And in doing so, he made it clear that God’s love is a love that seeks to redeem us at any cost.
This is a very different approach to suffering than what we’re used to. Instead of avoiding it at any cost, the love of God in Jesus Christ sought us out and spared no expense to set us free from all the forces that can turn our lives into a living hell. What an incredible display of love. I think sometimes we may take all this for granted. But if you really think about it, who in this world would do something like that for you? We may have a handful of people who might seriously consider it. But at the end of the day, it really is amazing that someone would seek us out and embrace suffering at any cost in order to rescue us from the dark places into which we wander.
Perhaps the most difficult thing Peter says about all this is that we have been called to follow Jesus in this same kind of life![5] In fact, Peter says that Jesus suffered in this way to “leave you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).  How could it be different for those of us who follow a Savior who was executed in a most de-humanizing way?  Jesus himself told his disciples that his path, the path of obedience to God’s will, the path of seeking God’s kingdom and God’s justice, was going to lead him to suffer and die. He was willing to accept that ultimate suffering in order to “bring us back to God.” He was so intent on that goal that we was willing to see it through at any cost. And he warned his disciples that if they followed him, they would have to be prepared for the same kind of suffering.
I’m not sure we’re ready to hear that. We think of those who passively accept suffering as in some way weak or powerless. But if you look at the way Jesus suffered, there was nothing weak or powerless about it at all. His willingness to suffer for us at any cost was a demonstration of a level of strength that is hard to imagine. And his suffering was not simply a passive surrender to the forces that oppress us. In fact, his willingness to accept suffering and even death on our behalf was the most powerful response possible. He allowed them to do their worst, and then he rose up from the grave to show them that they had failed to defeat him.[6]
I think there’s a dimension of our suffering that’s like that. When we follow Jesus’ example and accept our suffering—whether it makes sense or not—it becomes a kind of witness to those around us.[7] In a very real sense, when we embrace the suffering that may come our way, or even go the extra mile and take on the suffering of others, by our very lives we make a powerful statement to the world.[8] We are saying that we are not afraid of the powers in this world that may try to inflict suffering on us. We are saying that we trust in the one who paid the ultimate cost and won the victory over all suffering to deliver us safely in the end.  We are saying that we are willing to follow Christ at any cost.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/22/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 149, where he comments on this difficult text, “We are not told how that can come about, whether the dead hear the gospel of Christ and, like the living, can arrive at faith. For us, it is enough, after all, to know that death can set no limits to the saving gospel of Christ, and that in faith in Christ there is hope for the dead too.”
[3] Cf. David L. Bartlett, “The First Letter of Peter,” New Interpreters Bible XII:297, where he says, “To be sure, Christ suffered as Christians suffer, but in his resurrection he not only overcame suffering but he also raised his flag of victory over the evil forces that bring suffering on the just and the faithful.”  Cf. also Paul J. Achtemeier, 1 Peter: A commentary on First Peter, 251, where he says that the point of this passage is to emphasize “the objective ground and cause of salvation that is the basis of the readers’ confidence that despite any unjust suffering which might seem to point to the contrary, Christ by his passion and resurrection has emerged victorious over all opposing powers, a victory in which faithful Christians will also share.” Cf. similarly Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.2:211.
[4] Cf. Mary H. Schertz, “Radical Trust in the Just Judge: The Easter Texts of 1 Peter,” Word & World 24 (Fall 2004): 232: “For the communities to whom this letter was written, the crucial meaning of the cross is Jesus' two-step decision, articulated in 2:23. His first decision is not to retaliate, not to revile in return for reviling. But his second decision is even more important because it grounds his first decision. His second decision is to entrust himself to the just Judge.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 97: “The whole church lives from Christ’s self-giving and in self-giving for the reconciliation of the world.”  See also ibid., 284: “The way of life of the messianic era is stamped by messianic suffering.”  See also Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3.2:636-40, where he talks about this in terms of suffering “under the shadow” of Jesus’ cross.
[6] Cf. Schertz, “Radical Trust,” 232, 234: “This is not suffering for the sake of suffering. This is not condoning suffering. This is not giving up to suffering. This is not God making Jesus suffer. Rather, the life and ministry of Jesus, what he has been moving toward since at least the temptations, culminates in this testimony that reconciliation—between God and people as well as among people—is not a matter of containing evil but of transforming evil. It is a freely chosen, decisive action. It is a simple but powerful decision to break the cycle of violence.”
[7] Cf. David L. Tiede, “An Easter Catechesis: The Lessons of 1 Peter,” Word & World 4 (Spring 1984): 198, where he suggests that 1 Peter 3:14-15 “may sound the keynote for the passage: ‘Have no fear of them nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.’” The idea is that when they do that they will be able to bear witness to the new life they have experienced through their faith in Christ. Cf. also Bartlett, “The First Letter of Peter,” NIB XII:296, where he says that when Christians suffer for their faith, “They join the struggle against oppression by speaking honestly and powerfully of what they hold dear, making their defense unapologetically.”
[8] Cf. Schertz, “Radical Trust,” 240, where she says that when we follow Christ’s example in this way, “there is an indestructible theological power in this obedience.”

Monday, February 23, 2015

Seeing Jesus

Seeing Jesus
2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6[1]
One of the key concepts of our faith is that when we commit their lives to Christ, our lives are fundamentally changed. We no longer live the way we once did, but rather we become “new” through our encounter with Jesus. Unfortunately, however, there have been a number of studies that have shown that we Christians don’t differ significantly from the general population in the way we live our lives.[2] This is not a new problem. One of Christianity’s most famous critics once said that Jesus’ disciples should “look more redeemed” if he were to believe. [3] There’s something to be said for that. If we claim to be people who have undergone a significant change, there ought to be some evidence of it in our lives. You would think that people could see Jesus in those of us who claim to follow him.
Over the last few weeks we’ve been talking about the life of the Spirit. The life of the Spirit goes hand-in-hand with seeking to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Both affirm our true selves and at the same time challenge us in ways that we may never have dreamed. Both call for all the courage and faith we can muster, because we may never know where our path will take us when we decide to follow Jesus and live the life of the Spirit. Both fundamentally question some of the principles and expectations on which we may have based our lives, because both call us to give ourselves away unselfishly in service to others.
As daunting as all that may sound, however, St. Paul reminds us that living the life of the Spirit is the only way to find true freedom, true meaning, and true joy in life. It is the only way we can hope to experience the kind of transformation that can actually result in our looking “more redeemed.” In a very real sense, the language of our lesson from St. Paul reminds us of the amazing way in which Jesus was transfigured before his disciples. Paul speaks of that event as the experience of seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). The idea is that God himself was present in Jesus on that mountain, and this astounding truth was revealed to the disciples in an unforgettable way.
Paul assures us that all who turn to Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord have the opportunity to witness the same vision. We have the opportunity to see the “light of the glory of God” reflected in Jesus. But more than that, he insists that when we do turn in faith to Jesus Christ and witness the life and the love and the power of God at work in him, we are fundamentally changed. In fact, he says it this way: we are being “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). I like the way one translation puts it: “as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him and reflect his glory even more” (2 Cor. 3:18, NLT). Paul proclaims the good news that when we open our hearts to Jesus, the Spirit is at work in our lives transforming us to become more like Christ. When that happens, people see Jesus through us.[4]
This way of framing the life of the Spirit is a major theme in Paul’s letters.[5] In the letter to the Galatians, he says that “living by the Spirit” produces in us the “fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:16, 22-23). Many speak of  the “fruit of the Spirit” as a description of the character of Jesus, so the idea is that the Spirit produces in us the qualities that reflect Jesus. In fact, elsewhere Paul can say that the whole reason God is at work in us, forgiving our sins, restoring our humanity, calling us to a new life in relationship with him, is to fulfill his intention that we might be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). In other words, God’s plan is that when people look at us they see Jesus. [6]
So why do we not “look more redeemed?” I think in part it has to do with the fact that many of us have our own ideas about what our lives are supposed to look like. And rather than opening ourselves to God’s Spirit, we take our own ideas and turn them into expectations and demands that we impose on ourselves and those around us.[7] While we may think this is the way to get what we want out of life, often the end result is tragedy.
I know this from personal experience. I once lived that way myself. I thought I knew what my life should look like, including my career, my marriage, and my family. In reality what was driving the illusion that I had the power to control the outcomes in my life was the haunting fear that if I didn’t work hard enough, I might not get what I wanted out of life.[8] But in reality, that fear is a poison that can infect us and can destroy us. I know, because it’s happened to me twice. I would have to say in retrospect that my personal tragedies happened not in spite of everything I was doing to “make” things come out right, but precisely because of what I was doing.
I’ve learned that the life of the Spirit means letting go of our expectations and letting life be what it is.[9] The path to becoming more like Jesus leads us not to tighten our grasp on life, but rather to let it go into the hands of our loving God, who promises never to let us down. When we can let go our demands and expectations, we’re in a much better position to open our hearts to the presence and power of the Spirit.[10] And when we let the Spirit of God into our lives—really let the Spirit in—that’s when we begin to be transformed. That’s when we begin to “look more redeemed.” That’s when we live in such a way that the people around us can look at us and see Jesus.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/15/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] The Barna Group, “Faith Has a Limited Effect on Most People’s Behavior,” 24 May 2004; accessed at https://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/188-faith-has-a-limited-effect-on-most-peoples-behavior. The study quotes George Barna as saying, “The ultimate aim of belief in Jesus is not simply to possess divergent theological ideas but to become a transformed person. These statistics highlight the fact that millions of people who rely on Jesus Christ for their eternal destiny have problems translating their religious beliefs into action beyond Sunday mornings.”
[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part Two “On Priests,” 71.
[4] R. P. Martin, 2 Corinthians, 80: “The God who brought light to birth in creation and in the new creation has made his light … to shine in human hearts. The purpose of such illumination is to impart knowledge … . The knowledge of God’s glory is what the Pauline Gospel is all about. And for him it is focused “in the face” (ἐν προσώπῳ) or “person” of Christ. The risen Lord is the subject who both illumines his servants and summons them to his service (again, Paul’s own experience is in view; cf. Gal 1:15, 16; 1 Cor 9:16; 15:8–10) and the object whom Paul and his associates are charged to make known and so to bring saving truth to light.”
[5] Cf. Ernest Best, Second Corinthians, 35.
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 101-2: “As representative of the coming, redeeming rule of God, Jesus is also the representative of the true human existence that is to come. For that reason he is also called ‘the image of God’ (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; Phil. 3:21; 2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15), the one whom believers are made like to” in order that they may become truly human. Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1:204-5.
[7] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 6: “What the ego hates more than anything else in the world is change ... . Instead, we do more and more of what does not work ....”
[8] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 18: “The real enemies of our lives are the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs.’ They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future. But real life takes place in the here and now.”
[9] Cf. Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, 77-78, where he says that instead of asking “What’s wrong?” we should learn to ask “What’s not wrong?” He continues, “There are so many elements in the world …, feelings, perceptions, and consciousness that are wholesome, refreshing, and healing.” He urges that we should seek to be in touch with these elements of our lives rather than those what create suffering, anger, depression, and sorrow. “Life is filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby.” “Elements like these are within us and all around us. In each second of our lives we can enjoy them.”
[10] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 8-14, where he describes the process of opening up three inner spaces: our minds, our hearts, and our bodies.  He says (p. 8), “To finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us—and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.”

Monday, February 16, 2015

Truly Free

Truly Free
1 Corinthians 9:16-23[1]
A recent column in the local paper bemoaned the sad state of affairs in the generation of people born between 1980 and 2000, known as the “Millenials.”[2] In it, the author complains about the fact that they are more interested in the number of their Facebook friends than in actually working for a living. While I realize the column was meant to be somewhat tongue in cheek, I also know that much of what was said there is repeated over and over by those of us with grey in our hair. It’s true that many young people have a different outlook on life than people in my generation. But then my generation had a different outlook than those who preceded us. It seems every generation has challenges with their children and grandchildren.
Often the complaint that we level against younger generations is that they are narcissistic or self-absorbed. The common gripe these days is that they have a sense of entitlement. They think they “deserve” a spot on the team or a good grade or a job with a good salary. And yet, I’m not so sure that those of us criticizing them have a better attitude in this respect.[3] I would say we all have some sense of entitlement. We all believe we have certain rights that ought not be violated. Just think about how you feel when someone cuts you off while driving by pulling into “your” lane.
I think that we as a people tend to believe that’s what it means to be truly “free”: we have certain rights that others have to respect.[4] In fact, our whole culture is founded on this notion that we possess certain “inalienable” rights. But as the world changes and especially as our economy changes some of us realize that the “rights” we thought we were guaranteed are evaporating before our very eyes. If we define our freedom by our rights, I’m afraid one day most of us are going to wake up and be deeply disappointed. When we define our freedom by the “rights” we can assert, it seems to me that we’re not truly free at all.
But our lesson from St. Paul for today casts freedom in a totally different light. Rather than grasping tightly to his rights as an apostle of Jesus Christ, St. Paul defined true freedom in terms of giving up whatever “rights” he might be able to claim.  This is a continuation of our lesson from last week, where Paul insisted that the true meaning of our lives is to emulate the love God has poured into our hearts through Jesus Christ by choosing to love others. In that context, he was addressing a problem in the church at Corinth: some of them felt “free” to take part in idol feasts, while others were definitely troubled by such behavior. And so Paul urged those who were claiming the right to exercise their freedom in Christ to forego that perceived “right” and to think not just about themselves but about the welfare of others.[5]
Here he presents himself as a prime example of that kind of life. As an apostle, there was an expectation that he had the “right” to receive financial support from the churches he was serving. Although St. Paul did occasionally receive gifts from churches he had formerly served, he made it a practice never to accept support from the church he was currently serving. Instead, he worked to provide for himself as a tent-maker, which was considered a rather menial job. In fact, some of the people in the church at Corinth probably saw it as beneath the stature of an apostle.
And yet, St. Paul insisted on carrying out his calling in this way, even though it caused problems on more than one occasion.[6] One reason for this was that Paul felt himself compelled by the free gift of grace he received from God, compelled to offer the gospel to others as a free gift.[7] In our lesson for today in fact he says that his service as an apostle was not something he chose to do “of his own will,” but rather that he felt a certain obligation because he was “entrusted with a commission” (1 Cor. 9:17). In fact, he felt so strongly about this that he could say, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).
Another reason for Paul’s unusual and somewhat controversial practice was that he felt it was essential for promoting the gospel.[8] He makes it clear that he found his freedom not by insisting on certain rights as an Apostle or as a Jewish Christian with a distinguished heritage, or even as a Roman citizen. Rather, he makes it clear that he could “become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22) for the sake of the gospel. He could do this, he could hold even his cultural roles and personal identity loosely, because he believed that being truly free means letting go all those structures and defining lines and giving up any “rights” that might go along with them in order to serve the body of Christ.
  Our world seems obsessed with “rights.” But as St. Paul makes clear, we do not find true freedom by insisting on our “rights.” In this, the Apostle is not striking out on a totally new path. Rather he can say later that he essentially wants them to “follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).[9] Jesus set the example of giving up what one might be able to consider “rightfully mine” in order to serve others (cf. Phil. 2:5-8). His is the ultimate story of giving up his “rights” in order to serve others. I think the same principle applies to our lives. If we want to be “truly free,” we will not find that freedom by grasping our “rights” as if we are entitled to them. Rather, when we give up what we might consider “rightfully mine” in order to serve others, then we will be “truly free.”[10]

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/8/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Lee Pitts, “Generation Why,” Voice News 8 January 2015, p. 7.
[3] Cf. Drew Foster, “Millenial Entitlement Is A Myth,” Salon, Saturday, September 28, 2013, accessed at http://www.salon.com/2013/09/28/millennial_entitlement_is_a_myth/.
[4] Cf. John Paul II, in “The Gospel of Life,” 19.3, said that we have “a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them.” See J. Michael Miller, C. S. B., The Encyclicals of John Paul II, 808.
[5] Joop F. M. Smit, “The Rhetorical Disposition of First Corinthians 8:7-9:27,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59 (July 1997): 486: “If Paul and Barnabas renounce at all costs their legitimate and undisputed right to eat and drink, in order not to be of hindrance to the gospel, then in imitation of them the Corinthians certainly ought to renounce their presumed right to eat and drink, in order to avoid putting a stumbling block in the path of their weak brothers.”  Cf. also Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 148.
[6] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 147: “Paul did not fit readily into any recognizable job description within the culture of the Corinthians.”
[7] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 147: “Paul decided early in his apostolic career to … [work] with his own hands to earn his living … supplemented by occasional unsought gifts from some of his churches …. This was a relatively unusual choice …, and the Corinthian correspondence shows that it proved controversial.” Cf. also Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 158; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:203.
[8] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 148: “Paul’s self-description serves as a model for the conduct that he is urging on the strong: like him, they should be willing to surrender their exousia [right/authority] for the sake of the weak in order to promote the gospel.”
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics, 43: “in correspondence to the servanthood of Jesus, Paul conceived of his own apostolic activity as work. The proclamation of the gospel is a necessity (ananke), which he cannot escape (1 Cor. 9:16f.). Therefore in this service he becomes a “servant of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:1). The apostolic work carries all the marks of the servanthood of Christ.”
[10] See especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit; this is a theme that runs throughout his discussion of the church’s identity and calling. He begins the idea that Jesus establishes the freedom of God’s kingdom by sacrificing himself for others (117), by breaking the powers of oppression through the resurrection (98-99), and by assuring us that we are accepted by God, and therefore enabling us to accept others (188-89).  On this basis Moltmann understands the freedom of God’s kingdom as that which enables us to serve one another in the effort to bring freedom to others (84, 195, 278, 283-84, 292); he construes this life under the concept of “friendship” which Jesus models and we are called to emulate those who are “open for others” and who “love in freedom” (121, 316). I would suggest that this idea of freedom to love is a central theme in Moltmann’s understanding of the Christian life.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Choosing to Love

Choosing to Love
1 Corinthians 8:1-13[1]
I grew up in a family where it was very important to be smart. Like many families, education was seen as a means of advancement. The more education you could get, the more successful you were likely to be. Or so we thought. And since I wasn’t much of an athlete, and didn’t really see any prospects for myself outside “being smart,” I embraced that view with a vengeance. In High School, I was like a lot of my friends—I only did what I needed to do. But in college and in my graduate programs, I went the extra mile to perform at the top of my class. I used to spend hours looking up one little detail. To some extent, it was due to my curiosity. But underneath it was the conviction that in order to succeed I had to be “smart.”
Of course, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with being smart. The problem comes when “being smart” becomes your whole reason for being, that which gives you a sense of worth in life. And along with that temptation there’s another, more subtle temptation: the tendency to look down on those who aren’t as “smart” as you are. Being “in the know” can bring with it a tendency toward arrogance. Sometimes this is obvious—we’ve all known people who (at least in their own minds) are smarter that we are and don’t fail to remind us of that every chance they get! But even for those of us who work hard to better ourselves through education and don’t flaunt it, there can still be an underlying tendency to look down on others. It may be so subtle that we’re not even aware of it ourselves!
The problem is that when we look down on others, it’s difficult to be truly kind. It’s difficult to practice the kind of love that seeks what is best for others. That’s what was going on behind our lesson from St. Paul. There was a group in the church, possibly the wealthiest and most successful people,[2] who claimed that their knowledge allowed them to do what others found offensive. In this case, it had to do with taking part in meals that were held in the temples of local deities, eating food that had been dedicated to false gods. Well, this group, the ones who thought themselves to be “smarter” than others, insisted that from a biblical perspective there is only one true God. And that means that the idols that their friends worshipped had no real existence. The “intelligent” conclusion was that taking part in such meals, which may have been simply a part of their social calendar, would do them no real harm.
St. Paul must have found himself to some extent between a rock and a hard place on this one. I think that’s one reason why this passage is a bit complicated. The problem was that the “smart” people were right in what they claimed. And Paul affirms with them that “we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’” (1 Cor. 8:4). Not to do so would be to go against the entire witness of the Hebrew Bible. It is a continual theme that idols are false and powerless and it is useless to worship them. And so, from their perspective, the “smart” people in Corinth had a valid claim that there was nothing wrong with attending these meals with their pagan friends.
But Paul wanted to make it clear to them that this wasn’t the only factor involved. It wasn’t just about them. There were others in the congregation who had some serious problems with the idea of a Christian participating in a meal in the temple of a pagan idol.[3] Very likely they were Gentile Christians who had been converted from worshipping those false gods. So the fact that the “smart” folks in the church were, from their point of view, essentially participating in idolatry might influence them to waver in their commitment to the Christian faith.[4] As a result, Paul says to the “smart” ones, “by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed” (1 Cor. 8:11).[5]
St. Paul insists that kindness is always more important than being “smart.” Love always trumps the arrogance that can come from knowledge. As St. Paul says it, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1).[6] That is, when we define our lives by how much we know, it tends to make us “puffed up” with pride. But love “builds up” by influencing us to think not just about ourselves, but about what we can do to help others.[7] I like the way the Phillips translation puts it: “while knowledge may make a man look big, it is only love that can make him grow to his full stature” (1 Cor. 8:1, Phillips).
That brings up another factor. When we define our lives by how “smart” we are, it can very well stunt our own development. The pride and arrogance that go along with the quest for knowledge can block the kindness and love that enable us to truly reach our full potential as human beings. Now, of course, as a person with a Ph. D., I’m not advocating that education is a bad thing. I value my education and I know that it played a significant role in making me who I am today. I’m all for anybody who tries to improve themselves through education. But knowledge alone, being “smart” by itself, cannot truly fulfill our lives. As we engage in the quest for knowledge, we must do so not just to make ourselves “look big,” but rather so that we will have something to give to our world. St. Paul reminds us all of the love God poured out into our lives through Jesus Christ so that we can choose to love those around us, which is the true meaning of our lives.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/1/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 137, where he discusses the possibility that there may have been a socio-economic distinction between the “strong” Christians who used their “knowledge” that there is only one God and that idols have no real existence to justify participating in idol feast and the “weak” Christians who were recent converts from paganism.  He says, “The wealthier Corinthians would have been invited to meals in such places as a regular part of their social life, to celebrate birthdays, weddings, healings attributed to the god, or other important occasions.”  He continues, “To eat the sacrificial meat served on such occasions was simple social courtesy; to refuse to share in the meal would be an affront to the host.” Cf. also David E. Garland, “The Dispute Over Food Sacrificed to Idols (1 Cor 8:1-11:1),” Perspectives in Religious Studies 30 (Summer 2003): 174-76.
[3] Cf. Garland, “Dispute Over Food,” 183-84, where he makes a convincing argument that Paul shared this conviction. He says, “For Paul, idolatry is the vice that leads to all vices (Rom 1:19-32) and prominent in the catalog of the works of the flesh (Gal 5:20). Idolaters (among others) will not inherit the kingdom of God ( 1 Cor 6:9). He conveys his disapproval of idol food by the very term he uses for it—είδωλόθυτον. Idol worshipers normally used Ίερόθυτον (10:28) to refer to something ‘offered in sacrifice to a deity,’ and the term είδωλόθυτον [something offered in sacrifice to an idol] does not appear in papyri or literature before 1 Corinthians.  It has a caustic, polemical edge since the word είδωλα [idol] connoted to both Jews and most Christians something detestable (Deut 29:17), opposed to the living God (1 Thess 1:9; 2 Cor 6:16), lifeless and ‘dumb’ (1 Cor 12:2), and demonic (Rev 9:20).” Cf. similarly, E. Coye Still, Iii, “Paul's Aims Regarding Ειδωλοθυτα: A New Proposal For Interpreting 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1,” Novum Testamentum 44 (no 4, 2002):333-43.
[4] Cf. Garland, “Dispute Over Food,” 188: “The Christian with a weak conscience does not have the knowledge to make correct moral judgments. Paul worries that this person's conscience might follow the example of those presumed to have knowledge and eat idol food as truly offered to an idol, that is, as a sacrificial act. He will be led astray in his moral judgment to think that it is permissible for Christians to pay homage to both Christ and pagan deities.” Cf. also Hays, First Corinthians, 141.
[5] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 142, where he says that Paul in effect confronts them with “biting irony”: “Christ died for this person, and you can’t even change your diet?” Cf. also Garland, “Dispute Over Food,” 187: “Christ died for them (8:11). This act of love that brought them into God's family requires that they respond to others in the family with love—putting others' needs and interests ahead of their own.”
[6] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 145: “The central message of this chapter is a simple one: Love is more important than knowledge. Paul calls for a shift from gnosis [knowledge] to agape [love] as the ordering principle for Christian discernment and conduct. Rather than asserting rights and privileges, we are to shape our actions toward edification of our brothers and sisters in the community of faith.”
[7] Cf. Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 141: “οἰκοδομεῖν [to build up] in Paul does not refer primarily to the “edification” of the individual … , but to the building up of the community.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:635-36: “It is love (for one’s neighbour) which builds the community.   p 636  If this does not do it, the community will not be built.”