Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Unity, Liberty and Charity Please Read:
A Sermon by the Rev. Scott Herr 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
The American Church in Paris – January 28, 2018 Mark 1:21-28
One of my favorite parts of our new member class is to hear people tell about where they were born and what their faith background is. It’s fascinating to hear the diversity of nationalities and denominations. It reminds me of the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead when she looked out on thousands of Christians from around the world at the fifth gathering of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi (1975) and declared, “You are a sociological impossibility.” In the same way we, gathered in this room today, defy sociological understanding. But the fact that many of us are part of such a diverse community for years, even decades, can probably be traced back to the motto proposed by Richard Baxter, Puritan activist and preacher: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things liberty; and in all things, charity.”
In fact, any unity in the church is a gift of the Holy Spirit. In a time of increasing political and religious polarity and extremism, we must remember that we are here because of the call of Jesus Christ. Once we were lost, but now are found in Him. We have heard the good news, and affirm that He is necessary for our lives to be complete, to have meaning and purpose. In Him our joy is complete! We are here despite what Mark Labberton calls the Ecclesiastical Industrial Complex. We are here because the gospel has taken root in our hearts and overrides all other authorities.
But this begs the question, what is necessary in the gospel? Our reading from the Gospel according to Mark shows that Jesus was offensive to the religious authorities and institutions of his day when he breezed into the synagogue in Capernaum and taught. Notice that whatever Jesus said was not recorded, but his action was significant: He liberated a man who was oppressed by “an unclean spirit.” When the presence of Jesus collided with the oppression of this man, the oppression was lifted and the man is set free, to the amazement of all those who witnessed the encounter.
Freedom is necessary to the gospel. When we claim that Jesus is Lord and Savior, we are asserting the truth that Jesus has the authority and the intention of setting the captives free, to liberate all who are oppressed by the forces of sin and death. Throughout the gospel of Mark, we will see this dynamic of Jesus’ identity and power manifest in the liberation of people from the oppression of demonic powers and brokenness. The apostle Paul makes the bold assertion in his letter to the church in Galatia, “For freedom, Christ has set you free”(5:1)!
Our first lesson, however, gets at how we are called to exercise our freedom in community. And I would like to spend a bit of time on this Corinthian text together, because I think it is a key teaching for any Christian community whether in our current context, or around the world.
The key is Paul’s statement, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In other words, we need to focus always on the necessary love that God has for sinners. This is so basic, we too often forget: “For God so loved the world…” and “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…” In other words, God revealed the depth of his love in taking the hit for us.
So here was the problem: At the time Paul was writing, there was a division in the Corinthian church probably among the wealthy and poor, the educated and less-educated members of the community. Social life in Corinth for the wealthy included banquets and parties where meat was used that had been sacrificed to idols. And so there was conflict about whether eating meat was OK. You never knew whether it had been butchered as an offering to one of the temple gods.
Corinth was a heavily traveled crossroads of the Roman Empire, home to the Isthmian Games. These games were second in importance only to the Olympics. Not surprisingly, there were famous temples to various gods. One of the main temples honored Aphrodite, which stood atop the Acrocorinth. I guess you know what that temple was all about? Think “aphrodisiac!” While the temple had fallen into ruins by Paul’s time, there were still 1,000 cult prostitutes who continued to offer sex for money. Excavations have uncovered as many as 33 wine shops, so you can imagine the immorality that the combination of sex prostitutes and alcohol in a port town would produce… To call someone a “Corinthian” was an insult, like calling them a “barbarian”.
Corinth also had temples to Poseidon, the ruler of the seas, and as Jake mentioned last week also the maker of earthquakes. There were temples to Apollo, Hermes, Venus-Fortuna, Isis and to All the Gods. Meat was sacrificed to the various idols of the temples before being served in Temple dining halls. Meat not used in the dining halls would be sold in pagan markets. The Jews would have bought their meat at a Jewish market, but if they ate in the home of a gentile, they could never be sure. So the issue was for Jewish Christians one of maintaining purity codes that had been observed for centuries. And for the Gentile converts, it was also a question of whether or not they could eat with business associates, or fellow members of the trade guild, or attend the wedding of a relative’s wedding?
Most likely, it was the wealthy who were more liberal on this issue and considered the socially lower group “weak.” Remember that the Jerusalem Council forbid eating meat offered to idols (Acts 15:29)… But the apostle Paul recognized that it’s more complex. He neither adopts the ascetic view nor does he give total freedom to those who would do whatever they felt was right. Rather, he focuses on the necessary thing of love. He would want us to ask, “What does love require? How will I love my neighbor best?”
At the heart of Paul’s teaching here is an interpretation of Christian freedom. In other words, freedom to show God’s love is necessary to the gospel. For the follower of Jesus, freedom does not mean doing whatever you want. Freedom is grounded in God’s love, a freedom from condemnation and judgment, but also a freedom for showing God’s grace and compassion toward others. Martin Luther said it this way, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to everyone.”
This gives a mandate of love around any issue so as not to hurt a weaker brother or sister. In other words, there is always freedom, but freedom to creatively show deference to your brothers and sisters. Just because you may have more knowledge, even a better handle on the “truth,” doesn’t mean you can ignore what love requires…
Can you think of issues that divides the Christian Church today? It’s amazing, really… Baptism. Communion. Christology. Soteriology. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Women in leadership. Divorce. Sexual Ethics. I’ve even heard people complain about using phones in church! (You know those people using bibles on their phones? They are using phony bibles.) The list is long!
People over the centuries have argued about what is “necessary” and what is “doubtful,” about what is essential and what is optional in our theology and lifestyle. I like the difference between a bounded set and center set community. In a bounded set community you figure out a list of rules and boundaries across which people cannot cross, and that is what defines who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Unfortunately, Christians are known for being pretty exclusive around boundaries that are as much cultural as they are biblical. I think we are called to be a center-set community. What I mean by that is that we focus on Jesus, and that no matter how you express your Christian faith, we’re all on a journey deeper in relationship with Jesus Christ. And as long as you are facing toward him, you are one of his own, and welcome to be a part of the fellowship. In other words, the sole basis for membership in the church is whether or not you are willing to publicly declare your faith (without crossing your fingers): “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.”
I like the image of the Australian ranchers who have these massive properties in the outback. They don’t need to build fences…but they do sink a well. The animals know where the water is and so always stay within a certain distance. That’s what a center-set church is about: We preach Jesus Christ and look to him to be our living water. We look to him to transform our hearts and change our lives to conform more with his Kingdom values of love and grace.
But there are issues that we have to deal with, and I want to suggest to you that there are three categories of issues: conviction, persuasion, and opinion… We’ll explore this another time, but the basic idea is that there are some issues that are about our convictions and these are about core beliefs and values. We use the Apostles’ Creed as an anchor of what our core convictions are here at the ACP. For example, we aren’t going to waver on the conviction that Jesus is Lord!
But then there are persuasions that different Christians have… Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, the great Protestant Reformers of the 16th century read the same scriptures, but were persuaded differently about such central practices as baptism and communion! And then opinions, of course, are about preferences like the color of the paint in the sanctuary, or the type of music that people offer in their time of worship together. The problem is when we move our issue up the chain of categories, making our opinion a persuasion, or our persuasion, a conviction!
There are so many expressions of Christian faith, and like the Corinthian Christians, Paul’s teaching confronts the church today with the need to navigate cultural boundaries with grace. The Good News is that when we encounter the gospel of Jesus Christ our lives will be reordered and reoriented. The question is will it produce renewed faith, hope, and love? I invite you to reflect on what is the heart of the gospel for you and for authentic Christian community? I think Paul would encourage us all to practice the motto, “In necessary things unity; in doubtful things liberty; and in all things charity.”
In the name of the Father, The Son, And the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Thanks to the Rev. Steve Gaultney, pastor in Hong Kong, for sharing these categories with me.