Mark 1: 21-28 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
1 Corinthians 8: 1-13 January 28, 2018
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Prayer: Holy One, won’t you please build us up in your love, by your Spirit, by your word and presence. Amen.
Laws. There’s no doubt about it. We are a people of laws. We have all kinds of laws. There are federal laws, state laws, county laws, township laws, city laws. We have civic laws, tax laws, corporate laws, labor laws, real estate laws, laws of business, laws of culture, rules of the road, rules of engagements, rules and regulations all over. Ever since the 10 BIG laws, we’ve had a ton of other laws. There’s moral laws, biblical laws, religious laws, and church laws. Sometimes those all get blurred together. Some laws are practiced, some are hinted at, some are unwritten but observed, some are written, but not observed, some evolve over time.
Churches today have laws concerning the sacraments. There’s a commonly held law that only ordained pastors have the authority to baptize people, or to consecrate the bread and juice/wine of Holy Communion. Also, there’s an understanding that only church elders can serve Holy Communion. Also, three of the four churches I served over my career in ministry had French drains in their sacristies so that left over communion juice or wine could be poured down directly into the earth, and not into the unclean sewer.
In the days of the New Testament, they had religious, biblical, church laws, too. Some laws about food during the infancy of Christianity caused a ‘bone’ of contention [pun intended]. Keep in mind, this was Roman/Greco territory. Well-established pagan religious practices often involved sacrificing food and animals to idols and gods. After that, the food was put on the public market for sale.
Practicing Jews and Jews who became Christians didn’t want to have anything to do with that food or meat… it was, in their minds, defiled because it was offered as a sacrifice to pagan gods. And, handling food in those days...nothing sanitized about it. So who knows if it was tainted or not, possibly getting spoiled by sitting out in the heat of the day. To eat it would be unclean, religiously against Jewish law, could look like an endorsement of pagan idolatry, not to mention that it could make you sick.
Gentile converts to Christianity, however, had no problem eating meat sacrificed to the gods. They were used to doing that already, and besides, they thought they could eat meat sacrificed to idols without endorsing idolatry—they did not actually offered the sacrifice, after all.
Paul insisted, however, that having knowledge and love of the one true God, and having a relationship with God in Christ—these were the most important things. Which means that what you eat cannot bring you closer to God or take you farther away from God. Food is food. They were no worse if they did not eat, and no better if they did. And, since idols are phony gods, food sacrificed to a phony idol is no more tainted or defiled than food not sacrificed, so eating food previously sacrificed to idols has no power whatsoever to ruin your faith or your relationship with God.
So, based on that thinking, does it makes sense to say that strictly speaking, ordained pastors are not the only ones who can baptize people or consecrate Holy Communion? Truly, the Holy Spirit does both of those so maybe others can do nicely in a pinch? And, maybe elders are not the only ones who can serve Holy Communion. The same God is served when an elder serves Communion or when a non-Consistory member serves it. And, it doesn’t make one bit of difference whether the leftover juice or wine goes down the drain into the earth or down the drain into the sewer.
Some of you might be squirming in your pew a little bit. What about church law? What about decades worth of tradition? What about the authority granted by ordination?
Yes, all that is valuable and worthy of consideration. But consider this—God has a supreme law of love. Frederick Buechner writes, “Jesus said that the one supreme law is that we are to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves. “On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” is the way Jesus put it (Matthew 22:40), meaning that all lesser laws are to be judged on the basis of that supreme one. In any given situation, the lesser law is to be obeyed if it is consistent with the law of love and
superseded if it isn’t.
The law against working on the Sabbath is an example found in the Gospels. If it is a question of whether or not you should perform the work of healing people on the Sabbath, Jesus’ answer is clear. Of course you should heal them is his answer. Obviously healing rather than preserving your own personal piety is what the law of love would have you do. Therefore you put the lesser law aside” (personal email, Buechner, Frederick, https://mail.aol.com/webmail-std/en-us/DisplayMessage?ws_popup=true&ws_suite=true, retrieved January 20, 2018). The people were amazed because Jesus taught with authority. I think his authority came because he taught and acted with love and compassion. He put aside the lesser law in favor of God’s law of love.
So, perhaps to help ease the squirming, maybe it’s wise, generally speaking, to have ordained clergy administer the sacraments and elders to serve Holy Communion, but not so much to endorse church law and tradition, but much more to encourage the law of love growing in everyone’s heart.
The bottom line is that those who practice the law of love practice with true authority. ,Therefore, I believe no one should ever be denied Holy Communion because it wasn’t served by an elder or a priest, or an ordained pastor. Such an action to preserve a lesser law could jeopardize the higher law of love for a person not strong in their faith. Making them upset, and turn off God, turn off church, and maybe never set foot in a church again.
Paul dealt with a similar sort of thing. He was concerned that someone might be watching who has knowledge of law and tradition but is without love for God or is only so-so in relationship with God. Imagine you are living in New Testament days, and someone with knowledge of religious and cultural laws but without a relationship with God watches you eating food previously sacrificed to idols. But, you know it’s ok; our faith and love of God is strong. It could, in their minds, be a bad thing; therefore, your actions can, inadvertently, lead that person to go against his or her conscience and cause them to believe that their faith or their relationship with God is now ruined because they ate previously sacrificed food. “Well, he’s eating it, why can’t I?” Then they feel guilty in that case. No love of God can grow. So, Paul writes, “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” So Paul abstains.
As we grow toward full practice as an All-Inclusive Church, we do so combining our knowledge of God, what we think we know about God, and our love for God and each other. To practice all-inclusivity, I think means we realize that the higher law of love supersedes other lesser laws, be they biblical, religious, or cultural. To practice all-inclusivity means we practice the law of love in our official welcome of all others, in making all our building and grounds accessible to all. It means we examine our language and our technology and make changes so as not to deter anyone in their faith, love, and knowledge of God.
True authority come, I think when we act with knowledge and love of God in Christ combined. Just having knowledge of church law and tradition by itself is limiting. Just knowing about the authority that comes with ordination doesn’t go far enough. Living only by the law can be detrimental. Knowledge, by itself, puffs up, but add love, then faith is built up. Relationship with God is built up. True authority combines both knowledge and love and important things happen.
I recently was in conversation with someone who attends Weight Watchers. At a recent meeting, the leader of the group asked everyone, “Why are you here?” Several hands went into the air. Some said, “I’m here to lose 30 lbs. by summer.” Another said, “I’m here to lose 15 lbs. before I go on my trip to the Bahamas.” A third said, “I want to look better and feel better.” But, those answers didn’t seem to suffice fully enough. The leader said, “Yes, I know all that. But, why are you truly here?” What the leader was getting at was that every attender should be there because they have a love for themselves, a love of their body, a love of life. Combine that love with the knowledge of new eating habits, new lifestyle practices, strong determination, and the Weight Watchers point value system—that combination of love and knowledge is the only way one can lose weight and keep it off. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Combine the two, and you act with true authority.
In a few minutes we will offer our reports on what ministry we did in 2017. I invite all of us not just to offer reports, but let’s look at
how we combined our knowledge of God and our love of God together, so that what we did in 2017 actually built up faith and love in other people and in ourselves. That’s what the purpose of the church ultimately is… “To increase among men, women, youth and children the love of God and neighbor” (Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1956, p. 31).
- January 2018 5
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