Monday, February 13, 2012

What Are We Afraid Of?

1 Cor. 8:1-13[1]

Our world is a world in which boundaries are more and more important to us. Whether they are national, cultural, racial, or religious, it seems that in our world of increasingly challenging diversity, boundaries make us feel safe. I think for most of us, these boundaries were ingrained in us at an early age. Most of us were raised with certain taboos about things that “good people” just don’t do. And so, when we as adults are faced with the question of whether to cross a boundary, we tend to retreat into the imagined safety of what was prohibited to us in our childhood.

These days, it seems that we are so afraid of crossing boundaries that we are reinforcing them with literal walls, fences, barriers, and bars. Our own experience ought to teach us, however, that those kinds of barriers only keep us isolated from a world we’re afraid of. They can’t really keep anything or anyone out of our lives! Whether it’s a fence to keep people out of our country, or bars on our windows to keep people out of our homes, we ought to know by now that people will always find a way around, through, under, or over all of those kinds of barriers. The only thing our barriers succeed in doing is cutting us off from the world.

It would seem from our Scripture lesson for today that St. Paul was no different when it came to crossing certain boundaries. In this passage, he is addressing the believers at Corinth, who lived in a setting that was filled with all kinds of beliefs and lifestyles. That kind of context inevitably raises a difficult question—do Christians withdraw to protect themselves from the world around them, or do they engage the world with all its challenging diversity from a robust and vibrant faith? The indications are that St. Paul was on both sides of this fence.

In one sense, Paul found himself in agreement with the freedom they felt to engage a diverse world based on a robust faith.[2] The principle upon which he based this was the conviction that there is only one true and living God, and that Jesus the Christ has set us free from our fear of the world in which we live. Instead of a “den of iniquity,” full of dangers and temptations, Jesus approached the world from the perspective of the Gospel of Epiphany, that wherever we are, God is there, loving us, nurturing us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love. And so we find Jesus crossing all kinds of boundaries and joyfully engaging the world around him.[3]

But on the other hand, the believers at Corinth were crossing some boundaries that made St. Paul very uncomfortable. One of the things that Paul seems to have had the most difficulty answering even for himself was the fact that some of them were joining their friends at ritual meals in the temples of pagan idols.[4] That was a line Paul just could not cross! To be fair to him, we have to realize that the cultural and religious barrier between Israel’s worship of one God and the worship of many gods in the pagan world was centuries old! So it’s no wonder that when it came to the question of whether Christians should go so far as to actually participate in a meal in honor of an idol, Paul would not cross that barrier. Even his clear conviction that there is only “one God” and “one Lord” didn’t enable him to overcome that taboo.

We should also acknowledge that there was a practical issue—some of the converts at Corinth came out of pagan idolatry, and seeing their Christian brothers and sisters participating in idol feasts created some severe challenges for them. But instead of taking this as an opportunity for teaching—and instead of following through with his own principle of becoming “all things to all persons”—Paul retreats behind the Jewish taboos against idolatry. He even pulls out what seems to be the equivalent of warning children about the “bogey man” by claiming that participating in idol feasts exposed them to demons (1 Cor. 10:20)![5] I think St. Paul missed an opportunity here, and I think he has influenced generations of Christians to retreat behind one boundary or another. Instead of engaging the world the way Jesus did, we draw lines that separate us from the world around us.[6]

But the good news of Epiphany—that wherever we are, God is there, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love—is a message that sets us free from hiding behind walls and fences and barriers of all kinds. If the one true and living God is with us wherever we go, then what have we to fear from crossing those boundaries to engage the world with our faith? I’m not saying anything goes—there are some things that are incompatible with loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. But if the one true and living God is the one who is constantly surrounding us with life and love, then what are we afraid of? What do we have to fear from engaging those people in our world who challenge us with their different lifestyles and faith systems and cultural expressions?

It seems to me that the God who is always there, wherever we are, does not call us to isolation, but to engagement.[7] The God for whom all space is sacred calls us not to withdraw but to reach out. The God for whom no one is beyond the scope of mercy and love calls us not to retreat behind walls and barriers, but to take our faith out into our world that is so full of challenging diversity. And the same God promises to be with everywhere that calling takes us. So I ask again, “What are we afraid of?” Perhaps the better question is, “What are we waiting for?”

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/29/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf., among others, Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 143-45; David E. Garland, “The Dispute over Food Sacrificed to Idols (1 Cor 8:1-11:1), Perspectives in Religious Studies 30 (Summer 2003): 173-197, disputes this interpretation.

[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 112-15.

[4] On the background of this problem, see Garland, “Dispute,” 174-77.

[5] Dieter Lührmann, Galatians, 109, gives St. Paul more credit here when he says Paul’s concerns relate to “the religious permeation of life as a whole.” Cf. similarly G. C. Berkouwer, The Church, 82 (note 14), where he says that the “reality of fellowship” means St. Paul does not contradict his affirmation of one God with his proscription against idol feasts.

[6] Cf. Garland, “Dispute,” 185, where he points out the difficulty faced by prominent Christians regarding participating in idol feasts: “To shun gatherings that lubricated social and economic relations would make Christians conspicuous outcasts who held outlandish, anti-social, perverse religious beliefs.”

[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 360: the church’s “particular commission” is to “testify by means of word, deed and fellowship to the liberating lordship of Christ, to the ends of the earth and to the end of time.”


Ruth said...

Rather belatedly, commenting on this blog six years after you wrote it but I wanted to thank you for putting down your thoughts so beautifully. I'm preaching on this text on Sunday and I hope to draw on how you have phrased some of your thoughts (without plagiarising). I don't know if you are familiar with Taize music, but I have the chant 'Ubi Caritas' going through my mind as I read this.

Thanks again and God bless.

Alan Brehm said...

Hi Ruth, thanks for your kind words. No worries on "borrowing." I put these out there so that others may benefit, if possible, from my work. I do know Taize, and "Ubi Caritas" is a great connection. Thanks!