Epiphany 4b 2014 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
No pastor before or since had to deal with any congregation more difficult than that of the people of Corinth to whom Saint Paul ministered, and to whom he wrote the letter from which we heard a portion this morning. He had enough bones to pick with them to assemble an entire skeleton, but I’d like today to focus on the issue that came to light in this short passage: while there are many false so-called gods, there is one Lord Jesus Christ above all lords, one God and Father above all gods. Moreover, he presses the same point that had been made for 600 years by the prophets before him, that idols are not gods. Long before Paul set pen to paper (or stylus to tablet — and I don’t mean an iPad!) prophets had ridiculed and condemned those who put their trust in inanimate objects of wood and stone and metal: so-called gods that could not speak or move or even smell, since they had no breath in their nostrils. You may recall that Winston Churchill once replied to a grande dame to told him, “Sir, you smell.” He replied, “No, Madam. I stink; you smell.” So it is that these idols could stink even if they could not smell — having no breath in their nostrils — when their wood caught fire and they went up in smoke, powerless to defend themselves.
And Saint Paul continues the message: we know that there are many so-called gods, but we Christians know better: That Jesus Christ is the one Lord through whom all things are and through whom we exist; and there is one God who is God the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist.
So far, so good, you might well say, because, of course, that is what we believe. But in Saint Paul’s day, Judaism, with its belief in the proclamation of one God, was a tiny fraction of the population, and Christians formed a smaller fraction still. The bulk of people living around the Mediterranean — Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Egyptians — most of them believed in many gods if they believed in gods at all. Not too many still worshiped idols as if a god could actually be made of wood or metal, though a few still did — and Christians got in trouble with them in Ephesus, as they threatened to put the carvers and casters of idols in wood and metal out of business.
But many sophisticated Greeks had long given up believing in idols, or even in the gods themselves. They would still observe the convention of tipping a few drops of wine out of their wineglass at a banquet to honor the gods, but this was purely “the thing to do,” social convention; they did not believe the gods were real. These were the first atheists — and as far as most of the religious people of the Mediterranean were concerned, the Christians - who denied that idols were gods, and who affirmed that there is only one true Lord and God — were numbered among them. The basic rule was, “If you deny my god, you are an atheist!”
This in the context in which arose the problem with which Paul had to deal. Some of the Christians in Corinth were proud of their knowledge that there is but one Lord and God, and felt so proud that they had no compunction about eating food that had been offered to an idol in a pagan temple, since they knew that the idol was just a block of wood or stone, or a slab of metal. The problem, as Saint Paul sees it, is that this sophistication might lead a less sophisticated person astray into thinking that the idols might really be gods. If they see a member of the congregation who is accounted to be “in the know” eating food offered to idols they might think, “Gee, if Mr. Metropolous eats food offered to idols then maybe there’s something to this idol business after all...” And that, Saint Paul says, would damage the faith no end.
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More importantly, and more relevant to us, since we are very unlikely ever to encounter food offered to idols, is the larger issue of the extent to which the knowledge of God falls short. Knowledge that there is one Lord and one God, is not enough on its own. As the Epistle of James puts it, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder.” The demons know that Jesus is the Holy One of God, as attested in our gospel passage today, and in many other places in Mark’s Gospel. In short, it is not enough simply to know God, or who God is, not enough even to believe in God as Father and Jesus Christ as Lord — even the devils know God, perhaps better than any human being ever could, for, like the angels, they come from the spiritual realm.
But their knowledge of God does them no good, for they lack the one crucial element that makes salvation secure. And that is love. As Saint Paul tells the Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” Knowing God gets you nowhere without loving God and your neighbor. And if knowledge is misapplied, it will get in your way and be of no service either to you or to your neighbor. It might even do them harm. The devils know God, but have no love in them, so their knowledge does them no good at all.
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There was once a little boy who showed a remarkable talent for playing the violin. At the age of four he happened to come upon his uncle’s violin left unattended for a moment when he stepped out of the room. The toddler picked up the instrument and imitating the actions he had seen his uncle perform, began to play. It wasn’t a virtuoso performance, but his uncle was so astounded — hearing this music from down the hall — when he came back into the room and saw this child making music, he decided that the boy had to get his own violin and learn to play it. And play it he did — beautifully, and without instruction. He simply listened to recordings of the great violinists of the day, and imitated the sound with the instrument in his hands. He was soon giving concerts and even made a few recordings himself.
By the age of twelve it was decided he needed some proper instruction from a real violin master. And that master discovered that the boy was playing the violin all wrong. Although it sounded wonderful he was using the wrong fingering and bowing to produce the sound. So the teacher set to work correcting all of these bad habits so that he could play even more beautifully. The trouble is, all of this new instruction spoiled his ability to play at all. The habits formed over those eight years were too set to be unlearned. Fortunately, before all was lost, it was decided to let the boy alone and continue to play in his peculiar manner — after all, if you weren’t watching him you couldn’t tell how he was playing; all you could hear was that beautiful music. The love of music that inspired this child won out over the so-called knowledge of the right way to play. Knowledge is not the point; music is. You can have all the knowledge of technique in the world, but if you have no love of music, your performance will be empty.
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And when it comes to God, it is the same: knowledge is not the point; love is. This is why Jesus rebukes the unclean spirits who recognize him as the holy one of God, but warns those who believe in him that they must come to him as a child — just as he came to us as a child. It is not sophisticated knowledge or technique that saves us, but the innocent love of a child.
Our worship often ends with a blessing and I hope you will listen to it carefully today. For it affirms that the peace of God passes understanding — that is, it is something beyond the capacity of our minds to understand — but not of our hearts to receive. And the blessing continues by asking that the knowledge and the love of God be upon us. The knowledge alone will do us no good, it might even spoil our efforts to make the music God wants us to make, in our service for and to and with each other. Knowledge, without love, as Saint Paul would assure those same troublesome Corinthians, doesn’t make beautiful music — it is a clanging gong or noisy cymbal, if it comes without love. But with love, love that endures all things, bears all things, and ultimately believes all things with a believing heart — with love we are perfected and blessed as children of God our Father, who with Christ our Lord and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns for ever and ever.