Summary: The authority of Jesus and all of his would-be followers is rooted in love.
Sermon for 4 Epiphany Yr B, 2/02/2003
Based on I Cor 8:1-13 & Mk 1:21-28
“The Authority of Love”
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Authority and love; the authority of love; that is a common thread woven into our second lesson and gospel today. In our world, authority and love continue to be rather controversial and problematic. History, both ancient and modern is full of examples of the abuse and misuse of authority; and love too has been abused and misused. Such abuses and misuses can and do have tragic consequences for the lives of many people.
The story is told of a young boy who spoke to his elderly next-door neighbour quite often. One day the boy confessed to his elderly neighbour: “I’m a bit worried about going to church this week.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Billy,” his elderly neighbour said. “What’s the problem?”
“Well, it’s getting a bit dangerous,” replied Billy. “Last week there was a canon in the pulpit, the choir murdered the anthem, and the organist drowned the choir!”
This humorous story is rather cute, and it points out how children come up with rather colourful literal misinterpretations of the language of adults. However, I believe it is also a good illustration of what we see happening in our passage from first Corinthians. In our second lesson, Paul is very concerned about how mature Christians influence newer, less mature Christians whenever they choose to exercise their freedoms. As the boy in the story picked up on the violent, destructive images in the speech of adults; so too, says Paul, the less mature Christians can pick up incorrect and harmful messages from mature Christians. As the saying goes: “One person’s medicine may very well be another person’s poison!” Those mature Corinthian Christians might not have had a problem with eating meat that was sacrificed in pagan temples to false gods or idols; since they knew that they did not believe such false gods or idols existed and had no power over them. But the newer Christians—some of whom may have been involved in the worship of these false idols and gods—were scandalized by such a practice and in good conscience, could not bring themselves to eat such meat, which reminded them of their pagan past. In today’s world, a similar situation might occur when mature Christians who do not have a drinking problem choose to take a social drink of alcohol in the presence of those Christians who do have a drinking problem. This exercise of freedom by mature Christians without drinking problems may cause those with drinking problems to fall. Our behaviours, says Paul have very powerful and profound consequences, hence to cause someone to fall by exercising one’s freedom is, according to Paul a “sin against Christ” himself.
The problem Paul is addressing here is still prevalent today—namely, that knowledge and the exercise of one’s freedom based on knowledge may be rationally correct BUT ALL TOO OFTEN IT LEADS TO ARROGANCE, AND THE SENSE OF BEING SUPERIOR TO OTHERS LESS KNOWLEDGEABLE. Paul puts it like this: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
The following story, attributed to Mohandas Gandhi is very instructive to all who claim to be more superior and knowledgeable than others:
A mother approached the Teacher for assistance with a domestic matter. “My son has horrible eating habits,” she said. “Please, he will listen to you if you tell him to stop eating foods with so much sugar.”
The Teacher listened sympathetically. “I ask that you come back next week and make the request again.”
The mother agreed and returned seven days later. “My son’s problem continues,” she said. “I am greatly concerned about his health. He rarely eats vegetables or fruits. Please, won’t you talk to him about the danger of eating too much sugar.”
“Please, come back and see me in a week,” the Teacher said simply.
Though the mother was disappointed, she left and returned one week later. Once again she made her plea. This time the Teacher agreed to talk with her son.
When the conversation was completed, the mother thanked the Teacher. “I am grateful that you took the time to talk to my son, but I don’t understand why it took three requests for you to do so.”
The Teacher looked at the woman and said, “I didn’t realize how hard it would be for me to give up sugar.” 1
This story reminds us all that love builds up and knowledge puffs up. The Teacher exercised humility rather than superiority or arrogance, by love for the son and his mother in being able to practice the same thing as he was advising the son—to give up sugar. Here is where we connect with our gospel today too—Jesus taught with authority in that he met people where they were; he offered them an authority rooted in love. His authority was not remote or top heavy—it was born out of love for people. Jesus never requires his followers to do what he himself did not do.