“Where Truth Meets Love”

I Corinthians 8:1-13

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

“Now, concerning food sacrificed to idols . . . Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  With those words from today’s epistle lesson, Paul takes up a subject which, apparently, was a significant source of conflict for the community of faith in the city of Corinth; the question of whether or not it was sinful for followers of Jesus to eat meat which was leftover from animals sacrificed in pagan temples; a question of such significance in Corinth that it will consume all of chapters eight, nine and ten of First Corinthians.

It would appear that, in his heart, Paul knows that whether or not one eats meat from animals offered to idols is not something that matters to God as a moral issue.  Paul says as much in verse eight of today’s scripture lesson, where he says, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.”  So, apparently, this question about eating meat from animals offered to idols is just not an issue, as far as Paul is concerned.  In fact, over in chapter ten, still talking about this same subject, Paul says, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience.  And, if an unbeliever invites you to a meal, eat whatever is set before you, without raising any question on the ground of conscience.”

Add to that the fact that, in today’s passage, Paul referred to those who thought it was a sin to eat meat which had been offered on a pagan altar as “the weaker brothers and sisters,” while calling those who knew better “the stronger brothers and sisters,” and it seems clear that Paul believed that those who were worried about the meat-eating question were holding onto something they needed to let go of.

And yet, in that same section of First Corinthians, Paul said other things which seemed to support those who thought eating meat from animals offered to idols was a moral matter.  For example, over in chapter ten, in one verse, Paul said that food sacrificed to an idol means nothing, because the idol means nothing.  But, then, in the next verse, he said that “what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons,” and that “Christians cannot eat at the table of the Lord and at the table of demons,” which sounds as though he thinks eating meat associated with pagan sacrifices is a moral, spiritual issue, after all.

Add all of that together, and it appears that, while Paul knows, in his heart, what is true about this issue, he is trying to be mindful of the less spiritually mature believers in the Corinthian congregation, and, as an act of love, to be sensitive to the limits of the weaker brothers and sisters.  In fact, Paul says as much, when, at the end of First Corinthians chapter ten, he says, “I try to offend no one, and to please everyone.”

All of which is a first century snapshot of the every century complexity of  trying to be a person of both love and truth, without sacrificing one on the altar of the other.

Paul makes it clear that if we have to choose between the two, love and truth, love is the more important of the two. “Knowledge puffs up,” he says in today’s passage, “but love builds up.”                

But, of course, it isn’t always that simple. Sometimes, speaking the truth is what builds up other’s lives.  There have been a number of times in my own life when what I have needed most was someone who loved me enough to tell me the truth.  For example, because of the religious world in which I grew up, I entered adulthood with both the blessings and the burdens of popular Bible Belt fundamentalism; the blessing of a rigorous moral compass, and the burden of a fear based way of looking at others, which had little of the Spirit of Jesus in it, because one of it’s primary concerns was protecting the power and control of those of us who already held most of the power and control, because we happen to have been born on the easy side of every human difference you can name.  As a result, when it came to the way I looked at those who were unlike me, I was spiritually immature, and far from the Spirit of Jesus.  To use Paul’s words in today’s passage, I was “the weaker brother.”  The last thing I needed was for the stronger, more spiritually mature, brothers and sisters who came into my life to pretend I was right, so they wouldn’t offend me.  (If that was the way we lived in the church, then no one would ever grow deeper in the faith than what the most shallow members’ ears could bear to hear.)  To the contrary, what I needed was someone who loved me enough to tell me the truth.

Which is always our job, in the church. Our job, in the church, is never to sacrifice truth on the altar of love, while also never sacrificing love on the altar of truth.

Our job, in the church, is to spend our lives practicing the skill of speaking the truth, to the extent that we know it, never with glibness, cleverness, arrogance, sarcasm, exaggeration or unkindness, but, always, in every case, with Quaker-quiet gentleness, what the poet Naomi Shihab Nye calls “the tender gravity of kindness”; a skill so difficult and demanding that none of us will ever be able to practice it apart from the help of the Holy Spirit.

All of us need something in our lives that is so difficult, and so important, that we could never do it apart from the help of the Holy Spirit. This is one of those practices; the practice of speaking, and living, what Walter Rauschenbusch once called,  “the truth dressed in nothing but love”; a sacred skill which none of us will ever finish practicing, for as long as we live, because, even with the help of the Holy Spirit, no matter how long we live, we will never finally, fully, always get this right; this challenging, demanding, complex, world-changing, kingdom-bringing life of truth and love, love and truth.