The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Let’s chill. We’re both partly wrong. (Sermon of 1 Feb 09)

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In the aftermath of  World War II, many European intellectuals (later joined by Americans and many others) were forced to ask this question:  how could this have happened? This referred to two world wars, and especially the Holocaust. […] They diagnosed the sickness that had befallen Western civilization in general and “Christian” Germany in particular to be excessive confidence.

Brian McLaren in Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope

Mark 1:21-28 (NIV*)

Arguing over a sales commission (Chicago Theater Blog)

Arguing over a sales commission (Chicago Theater Blog)

21They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.

Strange thing to say, isn’t it?  Rabbis certainly did have authority to teach the Scriptures. But when Jesus spoke, something else happened.

And as if to prove it:

23Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, 24″What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Remember, we’re in Chapter 1 here.  Who else in the room would have even thought this? Virtually no one but Jesus himself. How shocked they must have been to hear it. What a statement!

And what a source! Jesus reacts immediately. First:

25″Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly.

Why would he shush, if it’s true? Why would an evil spirit say it, anyway?

Apparently, this is not how Jesus wants himself known (at least, at this point); apparently, it is how this unclean spirit wants Jesus known.  Strange, eh?  The unclean spirit wants to shout out the truth; Jesus Christ wants truth withheld.  I don’t think they teach classes called “Christ-likeness through withholding truth” in seminaries.

But maybe Jesus is trying to avoid getting stereotyped.

Maybe there is such a load of preconception about who the “Holy One of God” will be, that Jesus wants to build a different reputation before talking about it. Maybe he’s trying to avoid being seen as who they think the Holy One will be (you know: lead a revolt, whip the Romans, set the nation free) in order to more carefully demonstrate the nature of the Holy One.

“Come out of him!” 26The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

Jesus orders the spirit out. But the spirit has done some damage to his plan:

27The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.” 28News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

Perhaps the point is that this isn’t what Jesus wants to be known for. Not power.

What might he want to be known for?  Well, he’ll be working awfully hard at care for outcasts, showing kindness and servanthood everywhere.  He’ll generally avoid confrontations, except with that minority of religious folk who value being “right” more than relieving suffering.

So he has authority, but he holds back when he can. He knows truth, but he keeps it quiet. Demons want to flush him out. But he wants to wait.

Contrast him with me: when I learn something new, I think everyone on earth should know it right away. I found a new song last night. Oh, it was good. Rare. Wanted to stay up, learn it, get it out to you today!!

But Jesus is in no hurry. He waits for the moment. He’ll go on to demonstrate his love, his care for the poor, his astonishing acceptance of people found unacceptable in “righteous” circles, before he deals with the metaphysical implications of “the Holy One of God”- ness.  For once the latter gets out, he’ll be stereotyped wrongly by pro-Roman Jews, anti-Roman Jews, Romans themselves, and who knows who else.

If I’m right, the demon knew that grabbing the agenda would short-circuit love and change the focus.

And while getting the facts on the table seems wise to us, love is more important than facts. Love is the context that makes facts understood.

And love wasn’t ready yet. So Jesus shushed him.

– – – –

Paul is talking about authority and love, too, today in 1 Corinthians.  The church at Corinth is a church with issues.  Some are from cautious, conservative Jewish backgrounds.  Others grew up around sometimes spectacular worship of Greek deities.  So Paul takes a conflict between them and uses it to show that love is the trump card.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (The Message**)

Freedom with Responsibility

The question keeps coming up regarding meat that has been offered up to an idol: Should you attend meals where such meat is served, or not?

Meat offered to idols.  It’s been on your mind, right?   Question keeps coming up, right?

When you think of Greek history, what comes to mind? Greek gods: Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Aphrodite, many more … and there were temples in Corinth where various gods were worshiped.  Animal sacrifices were made in them. The leftover meat was sometimes given to the temples’ priests, sometimes sold in markets, sometimes offered to anyone in feasts at the temples.

Some of the Corinthian Christians had grown up in those temples, then began to follow Jesus – and they had an opinion about all this, as you’ll see. Others in the church at Corinth didn’t have that lifelong connection, and they had a different opinion.  Some would show up for a free meal; others would be horrified at the thought.

Anything like that in our day? Sure!  Lots of things.  Some Christians drink alcohol; some do not.  Some keep Sabbaths; some do not.  Some feel supporting pro-choice candidates compromises their faith; others believe pro-choice candidates offer more hope for reducing abortions.

“What?” some readers will say, “How can you even think such a thing?” I’ve heard people say “We don’t have to go back to the ways of Egypt.” “How could you be a Christian and refuse to ‘take a stand’?”  “If you have any morals at all, you’ll . . . “

You’ll be on their side, of course.  One or two of you, dear readers, have suspected my Christianity because I opened with a quote from Brian McLaren.  You’ve read this far to pounce on heresy.

And that is exactly what some Christians were feeling toward others regarding eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  Exactly the kind of powerful, seemingly open-and-shut issues that Paul is talking about here.

Here’s how he starts:

We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions– but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds.

Hmm. Maybe this is about something other than idol meat. Like what? Maybe, humility? Ooh, listen to his next sentence:

We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.

Whoa, what are you saying, Brother Paul?  He’s saying that because our understanding is limited we’d better be humble, not thinking our view is the only right one.  Isn’t he?

Back to idol meat. Here’s what one side says:

Some people say, quite rightly, that idols have no actual existence, that there’s nothing to them, that there is no God other than our one God, that no matter how many of these so-called gods are named and worshiped they still don’t add up to anything but a tall story.

They say–again, quite rightly–that there is only one God the Father, that everything comes from him, and that he wants us to live for him.

Also, they say that there is only one Master–Jesus the Messiah–and that everything is for his sake, including us. Yes. It’s true.

So are the people who think these things going to be for going our for idol-meat or not?  Sure they are.

Here are the facts:

In strict logic, then, nothing happened to the meat when it was offered up to an idol. It’s just like any other meat. I know that, and you know that.

Meat is meat.    There you go.  An open and shut case.

And then Paul throws a monkey wrench in his own machinery:

But knowing isn’t everything.

What? Wait a minute – what else is there?

What else was there with Jesus?  Why might he have wanted to keep “You are the chosen one of God” from getting spread around?  Because people weren’t ready for the facts, yet.

Paul goes on:

If it (knowing) becomes everything, some people end up as know-it–alls who treat others as know-nothings. Real knowledge isn’t that insensitive.

Wow – real knowledge is not just right, it is also sensitive. When I’m dead certain I’m right – and then I get insensitive about it – I’m wrong.

Remember the gospel story we read, about how Jesus was preaching, and the demon-possessed man called out the truth, but the truth pushed on everyone like that really caused Jesus quite a bit of trouble?

Knowing isn’t everything. Not everything that is true is sensitive.  Not everything that is true is love.

We need to be sensitive to the fact that we’re not all at the same level of understanding in this.

Some of you have spent your entire lives eating “idol meat,” and are sure that there’s something bad in the meat that then becomes something bad inside of you.

Does it? Is there actually, really something bad about meat dedicated to idols? Nope – but …

An imagination and conscience shaped under those conditions isn’t going to change overnight.

Some are going to believe there is something wrong there even if there isn’t. They are technically incorrect. Others know the truth. So is eating it right, or is not eating right? Come on God, lay it out for me, I want to know what you want – I want to know who’s getting the “A” here:

But fortunately God doesn’t grade us on our diet. We’re neither commended when we clean our plate nor reprimanded when we just can’t stomach it.

Neither gets an automatic “A.” The rule – the action – the outward part – is not the point. For in most things, there is no rule. Even for most things we have rules about, there really is no rule. We are amazingly, incredibly free. Except in one important way:

But God does care when you use your freedom carelessly in a way that leads a Christian still vulnerable to those old associations to be thrown off track.

For instance, say you flaunt your freedom by going to a banquet thrown in honor of idols, where the main course is meat sacrificed to idols.

Isn’t there great danger if someone still struggling over this issue, someone who looks up to you as knowledgeable and mature, sees you go into that banquet?

What’s the problem with that, if there is no rule?

The danger is that he will become terribly confused- -maybe even to the point of getting mixed up himself in what his conscience tells him is wrong.

Why not just straighten him out? Tell him what’s true and get on with it ( I’ve done this so many times, I say with regret!)  Why not? If you tell him the truth, will his conscience change just because you say so? And what may become of him if he takes you seriously but learns to ignore his conscience?

Christ gave up his life for that person. Wouldn’t you at least be willing to give up going to dinner for him–because, as you say, it doesn’t really make any difference?

But it does make a difference if you hurt your friend terribly, risking his eternal ruin! When you hurt your friend, you hurt Christ.

A free meal here and there isn’t worth it at the cost of even one of these “weak ones.”

So, never go to these idol-tainted meals if there’s any chance it will trip up one of your brothers or sisters.

Oho, Paul made a rule: never go to an idol-tainted meal, right? NO!

It isn’t that easy! Never go if there’s a chance you’ll trip up a brother or a sister. I am completely free to go. But it wouldn’t be like Jesus to go if someone would be hurt by it. Love trumps every other card.

Else I end up exercising my freedom in a way that just might set up roadblocks to what Jesus is trying to do. Like the demon who told the truth.

So, to the Sabbath, to the tavern, to the political issue:  I’ll do as I believe the facts suggest.

But if there are people around who can’t handle that, I’d be wise not to stick it in their faces.

For it wouldn’t help. If I pressure someone into following me, I fail to love his or her conscience.  If I put something that seems so obviously true out there, but he or she isn’t ready to hear it, I may just raise stereotypes of who I am and what I’m up to that simply aren’t true.

The challenge is to cherish one another.  The challenge is being wary of excessive confidence.  The challenge is humility.

We have complete freedom. But love trumps everything.

We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions– but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds.

We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all.

*New International Version (NIV) Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society
**The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
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  1. Excellent, well said. Thanks again.

    Rick Reiley

    February 8, 2009 at 7:52 pm

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