Sermon: 4th Sunday after Epiphany (B) – 1st February 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church Epping 8.30am

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20;  Psalm 111; 1  Corinthians 8;  Mark 1:21-28

Human rights are constantly being debated. Particularly as Australian citizens, we believe we have certain rights, certain just expectations from our society and even our government.

Many people would say that the execution of drug smugglers is a cruel and inhuman punishment, which is an infringement of human rights. Many would say that Moslem women do not have the right to go around in public with their faces covered, while others say that they do have that right. I would certainly say that the rights of asylum seekers are being trampled on by Australian policies. And I would also question the claim that people have the right to bear arms without restriction, as many Americans insist, and of course the American Constitution seems to indicate.

The problem is that we live in a world which is not neat and tidy. Many rights we take for granted could also be described as freedoms. Australians have a right to freedom of speech. But is there also a right not to be insulted or lied about? As George Brandis appears to think, do I have the right be a bigot? And if I do, are there any limits to my right to express that bigotry? And I might also ask: who has the right to determine whether what I say is bigotry anyway?

In the real world, our rights and freedoms are not absolute and unlimited. They interlink with the rights and freedoms of others, and the well-being of society. We live in what I regard as a free society: but that freedom in all sorts of ways has its limits. I not only have freedoms and rights, but I also have obligations and responsibilities and appropriate restrictions on what I do and what I say. We are not totally independent people.

One aspect of being made in the image of God is that we are individuals in relationship. We are made to know and love and serve God, and to live in relationship with others, whom we are called to love. And any good relationship involves restrictions and limits on our freedoms, so that we do good and not harm to the other person.

In the church of Corinth, as we heard in our second reading, the question being debated was: “Is it OK for Christians to eat meat offered to idols?” I don’t remember any tense debates at Synod on this particular subject, and I doubt whether many of us have had sleepless nights try to work that one out! Perhaps in some parts of the world, it is an issue which causes concern even today. But in Corinth in Paul’s time it was a real issue which the apostle felt the need to write about in his letter.

In Corinth, much of the meat available in the markets had been sold by the priests of the local pagan temples. Worshippers would offer a beast at the temple as a sacrifice to the god or gods of the temple. Some of it would be burned in honour of the god, some would be eaten at the temple, and the rest would be given to the priests, who sold any meat they didn’t want. It would be difficult and probably expensive to go to the market and buy meat which definitely had not been sacrificed to an idol.

The issue for Christians was: was it wrong to eat meat which had been offered to a false god? Was it spiritually dangerous: for instance, could an evil spirit from the false god get into you? And if I was invited to someone’s feast, would it be wrong to eat the meat being served? Would I have to ask whether it had been offered in pagan worship? Or were Christians required to cut themselves off from social contact or even business gatherings where food might be offered?

In the church of Corinth, there was disagreement on this issue. There were those who said that an idol is nothing. It has no value or significance or power. It can do you no good, but it is also powerless to harm you. So even if something has been offered to an idol, it has no power and brings no threat to the person who eats it. So of course there is no problem at all about eating meat offered to idols.

But there were other members of the church who were very uneasy about all this. Didn’t eating meat that had been offered to idols involve you in some way in pagan worship? And wasn’t idol-worship linked with demons and evil spirits? Mightn’t they have power to harm those who ate?

The first group said that the others were fuddy-duddies, still in spiritual kindergarten, hung up on rules and regulations and unnecessary fears. The second group said that the others were risking spiritual harm and compromising their faith. Who was right?

In responding to this dispute, Paul says that both sides have a point. The eaters are right in saying that there is only one God, and that idols are empty and powerless. And they are right in saying that what we choose to eat is a practical decision, and that what we eat does not in itself affect our relationship with God. These people have worked it out. They’ve got the knowledge and understanding.

But knowledge is not everything. Even sound doctrine is not everything. In fact, says Paul, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”. Sadly the church has been slow to take that in.

Doctrinal arguments have turned what should be a community of love into an institution of violence and hatred. We think of the evils of the inquisition, or the war and hatred that accompanied the Reformation and beyond. And we think of the judgementalism and arrogance of those who even today are sure they’ve got the message right, and exclude those who understand things differently. And don’t forget that liberals as well as conservatives can have that failing. Of course, the Pharisees had that problem: it was easier to reject the message of Jesus and condemn him than to consider what he was saying and whether it might be true.

So Paul tells those who feel free on this matter, those who are sure they have got it worked out, that correct doctrine is not the only issue. Love matters.

 His point is this. I might feel perfectly free to eat whatever I choose. But the real question is: how do I act in love? Is my attitude going to help or harm my brothers and sisters in Christ? Will my action be of help to my fellow-Christians, or will it upset and confuse them?

Paul says: “Doctrinally I have no problem with eating anything at all. But if I believe I might cause spiritual confusion or harm to someone who hasn’t reached my understanding, I will abstain. It is more important to seek their welfare that to insist on my freedom, my rights.”

The question is always: how do I act in love? It is not simply: what am I permitted to do?

Paul makes clear that love does not insist on its own rights. In love, we may decide to do things that we would not otherwise do for the sake of others. We may decide to miss out on things we don’t believe are wrong for the sake of others. Our question is not longer “what do the rules permit?”, but “what will benefit the other person?”.

When I was an earnest Youth Fellowship member, there were big debates about whether a good Christian could drink or smoke or wear makeup or go to dances or see adult movies or wear short dresses. I made the sacrifice and never wore short dresses! Some weren’t even sure about going to see movies at all, or watching television. I know that members of different churches came to different answers and different rules on many of these issues. Of course they are all matters of judgement, not absolutes.

For most of us, these burning issues have been resolved – in most cases in terms of freedom rather than strict rules.

But for instance as we know, members of the Salvation Army and many other Christians have chosen to totally abstain from alcohol, largely on the basis of Paul’s principle. For them, drinking might confuse people, or even lead someone to drink, who might end up going down a destructive path.

We may or may not come to that particular decision. But we need to remember that many Christians have decided to abstain from alcohol, not because they are wowsers or legalists, but because they believe that it is a loving thing to do, and may save others from harm. What is important is not that we make full use of our rights and freedoms, but that we seek to act in love.

We are all free to follow Jesus as we believe he leads us. Yes, truth does matter, and we need to humbly hold fast to the central truths of the Gospel. But ultimately love matters. In the decisions we make and the paths we take, let us not simply seek our own agenda and insist on our own rights, but in love, seek the good of others. Amen.


The Reverend Paul Weaver