When Knowledge Becomes an Idol

1 CORINTHIANS 8:1-13

1Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.

4Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

7It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.8“Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

MARK 1:21-28

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

I just want to start our conversation today by acknowledging that I am about to say something that could very well sound like Presbyterian Heresy. My only consolation is knowing that, as the frozen chosen, you are highly unlikely to get riled up enough to walk out on me, but here it goes:

God doesn’t care how smart we are.

There it is. I said it. I, your Harvard educated, knowledge loving, greek and Hebrew reading Presbyterian pastor, just admitted that God’s primary concern isn’t how “smart” we are. Coming from the reformed tradition, this might seem like quite a shock—the very foundations of Presbyterianism rest on the ideals of the Enlightenment. John Calvin started the movement that encompasses Presbyterianism with the idea that our intellect is our first means to God—he believed that, given an education, the common man (or woman) could approach God by him or herself.

By democratizing access to the tools of religion, Calvin unwittingly spawned a revolution in everything that the church held sacred. Suddenly everyone had an (educated) opinion about God’s will for the church. Whereas before, the priests guarded access to Truth through the Word and the liturgy, all of a sudden every change was up for debate. And my, what a debate! Imagine, Christians debating and fighting over every aspect of the life of the church—basically everything we take for granted in this sanctuary was, at one point, considered heresy or worse by Christians who preceded us. Just a sample of things that educated Christians fought over:

-pews (a development of the reformation era that went hand in hand with Calvin’s belief that the work of liturgy was first and foremost not the sacrament, but approaching God through the accumulation of knowledge in the sermon

-candles: too ritualistic or a biblical symbol of Christ?

-stained glass: does it distract from or enhance the worship of the people of God?

-the organ: too modern, or a new means of making a joyful noise to the Lord?

-choir robes: are they a symbol of pride and vanity, or a reminder of our roles?

-the hymnal: is it ir is it not permissible to sing music that isn’t scripture, but inspired by it?

It is easy to forget that so much of what we take for granted was, at one point or another, the subject of debate, often involving two side who “knew” what God wanted, and who “knew” the other side was mistaken, sinful, or worse.

But Jesus doesn’t seem all that concerned these sorts of debates when he shows up at the synagogue in our reading this morning. He didn’t take note of how many candles there were (or weren’t). He didn’t comment on the music, and as far as we know he brought no special clothes. No, when Jesus turned up in the synagogue in Capernum, he was interested in one thing, and that was this: holiness.

Now holiness is one of those words that can mean a lot of different things to different people, so let’s think about what holiness is.

I’ve heard it said that holiness is like cheese…it’s all about maturity. I think we need a little more than that to go on, however.

So here it is: one of the best ways I can describe it for myself is that holiness is like exercise.

Most of us don’t go to the gym because it is our favorite place to be. We go there because we want to be healthy, and we know that one way to get healthy is to exercise. There are a lot of different ways to go about it—you can run, or lift weights, or take a yoga class. All of them will get you moving in the direction of the kind of healthy you want to be.

  1. It is about improvement rather than a final destination. Exercise isn’t the goal—it helps you get somewhere that you want to be.
  2. If exercise is about improvement, then it follows that the more you do it, the closer you get to your goal.
  3. There is a cost, but if you do it enough it is worth it. Exercise takes time, and sometimes it will make you sore. You might even get hurt. But you have to push through it—you have to endure the difficulty—if you want to reap the reward.
  4. It is easier for some of us than others. We don’t like to hear this, but we don’t all improve at the same pace. Some people start exercising and see immediate and obvious changes, while others of us struggle or notice little difference. But all of us improve. All of us are better for doing it.
  5. Finally, maintenance is required. When you reach your fitness goals, you don’t get to stop and go back to the way you were before. If you want to stay fit, you have to keep exercising. Of course, uou can quit anytime you want, but if you do, it will cost you.

All of this is to say that holiness, like exercise, is a process. It is a question of character, less a why than a how. It is about the process of drawing closer to God. And just like exercise, the process of holiness can be expressed in a myriad of ways, but no one expression is necessarily the best version. And in fact, a healthy relationship with God is secure enough in itself to handle the reality that the process will always change.

In Presbyterian speak, Holiness is something that we call Sanctification, which is a fancy theological word that means that holiness is expressed through the ways in which we live out our lives as people saved and transformed by God’s grace.

So what might be the “spiritual exercises” of holiness that we are called to practice? When Jesus spoke about holiness, what did he have in mind? I have a few ideas:

  • Hospitality: our faith needs to be welcoming to others. Look at Jesus—he was willing to welcome anyone who came to him with an open heart seeking God. So we must ask ourselves: who is welcome at our table, and whom do we merely tolerate? Are we accepting others as they are in love, or are we rigid in our expectations about what the hungry and thirsty are allowed to look like?
  • Justice: Jesus came for the sick, the imprisoned, the broken, and the marginalized. In other words, he was concerned with justice for all of God’s people. In our scripture this morning, he addresses this problem by banishing the demon that possesses a sick man. Now, the medical establishment doesn’t recognize demon possession (and good luck getting your insurance to reimburse an exorcism) but how many of us can relate to the notion that we can be possessed by forces beyond us? How many of us have seen the damage wrought to loved ones and strangers who are possessed by poverty, hunger, addiction, sickness, greed, materialism, feelings of inadequacy? And so our own faith ought to be interested in healing brokenness, too, whatever form it takes.
  • Love: whatever we do, if we can’t do it with love, we are lost.

If you need an example of what this might look like, I draw your attention to our second reading this morning, from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Apparently the community was having some problems with hospitality. In this case, knowledge was getting in the way of being welcoming to newer Christians

You see, in Corinth, a port city known for its plethora of cultural and religious backgrounds, many new Christians were not Jewish but Gentile. Many of them had grown up surrounded by a culture in which people routinely sacrified meat before the idols of pagan gods. To eat that meat was to pledge your allegiance and fealty to the god or goddess.

More mature Christians like Paul understood those idols to be nothing but stone and wood. Any oaths or offerings made to them were meaningless. The meat couldn’t possibly possess the power of a God that didn’t exist, so there was no conflict in eating the meat if you were a Christian. But the newer Christians had trouble with this. They struggled already to maintain their relationship to Christ in a pluralistic society, and seeing mature Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols was apparently not just confusing, but dangerous to their faith in God.

So what does Paul do? Paul exhorts the stronger Christians to bend for the weaker ones—to hold off doing things, even things that are perfectly okay, in the interest of loving their brothers and sisters of nascent faith. To stay away from idol meat, even if you know it is just meat, because you love your brothers and sisters in Christ more than you love being right.

In other words, process. Paul exhorts the Corinthians, reminds us, that holiness, true holiness, isn’t about being right. It is about the work of hospitality, justice, and love, both to one another and to the world beyond the church. Because it is that work, that willingness to bend for one another, that will ultimately bear the fruit of a mature faith.

Because that is the goal, isn’t it? And I don’t know about you, but it is a lot easier to get there together than alone. We need one another to encourage, to exhort, to remind us that every path walked in faith is holy, and valid, and necessary.

So I have to wonder: what sort of team do we want to be? What sort of holiness are we after here at IPC? Because the Holy Spirit is out there, bidding us come. But we move forward if we aren’t together. It’s up to us to focus on what’s most important: love, justice, hospitality—and trust that if we focus on those things, the rest will work itself out.

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