Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday after Epiphany + January 28, 2018
Readings: Mark 1:21-28; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Our Monday Night Bible Study group has been reading the Gospel of Luke. For months. Very slowly. Very, very slowly. We started back in September, and tomorrow we’ll be reading chapter 10. Well, the first half of chapter 10.
But we’ve been going at such a slow pace for good reason. This gives us the opportunity to really think about each passage: to pay attention to the details of the the story, to trace back to roots in Old Testament passages, to ask any question that pops into our heads from, “What do you think Elijah and Moses said to Jesus during his Transfiguration?” to “Why did Jesus get so crabby with those people?”
A question we come back to over and over is, “What would it have been like to be there?” What would it have been like to see Jesus stand up in the synagogue and declare that he was the messiah promised in the book of Isaiah (Luke 4:16-30)? Would I have believed him, or would I have been part of the crowd ready to throw him off a cliff? What would it have been like to see fishermen abandon their boats and follow him (Luke 5:1-11)? Was something about him so engaging and powerful that he just drew people to leave their lives for him? Would I have been one of them, or would I have just paid attention from afar?
Our gospel reading for this morning, from the Gospel of Mark, inspires questions along those lines. What would it have been like to be there? To hear Jesus teaching “a new teaching — with authority!” The passage doesn’t give us much detail about how exactly Jesus taught, or even what he was teaching at that moment. How would we have recognized his authority? Was it in the way he spoke and held himself? Was it — like some Bible scholars say — that he just taught on his own merit, not referring back to “what Rabbi so-and-so” said like the scribes did? Was it — as others say — that he was so amazingly genuine, that he proved his teachings by his actions: by his compassion, by his miraculous healings and exorcisms? The people who heard him that day had not been taught that Jesus was the Son of God. He was just a stranger from down in Nazareth. But somehow they recognized — maybe not that God was speaking to them, but at least that this teacher had authority like they had never seen before. How did they know?
Our wondering about these ancient passages comes from the deep longings of our own lives as people trying to know God, to follow Jesus. What would it be like if I could hear God speaking with authority that directly? How do I know what God is trying to teach me today? I want to know what God wants me to do — but nothing feels clear. What I’d give to have Jesus standing in front of me, speaking with such authority that there is no room for question.
Today we usually turn to the Bible as our in-person source of God’s authority. But even with the Bible, things aren’t so clear. This passage seems to point in one direction; this passage in another direction. Or, I heard one pastor interpret a reading this way, and another pastor tell me it meant something different. We hold the Bible to be an authority for us — but we still need an authoritative interpretation. And maybe that’s why so many people flock to churches that emphasize that they “read the Bible literally,” that they know the true interpretation, that they have a clear picture of what God is telling us and what God wants from us. We want to hear something certain, but we find God to be bigger than a simple answer or a single interpretation. God just keeps being mysterious.
As we tune in to what we do have right in front of us — this mess of questions and readings and interpretations — as we tune in, trying to hear the authoritative voice of God, we face the constant danger of shaping God’s will in our own image, of interpreting God’s Word in a way that kind of fits our own desires or expectations of God or the way we were raised. We may do this on a personal level, and it is really hard not to do it on a group level: interpreting God and the scriptures in ways that match the pattern of our culture or the groups we belong to. Like, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the Bible passages American Christians almost never take literally are the ones about giving all your wealth to the poor or to the community. Just like we tend to interpret the news from within the political or ideological bubbles in which we are comfortable, we interpret God’s will from where we are. It’s what comes naturally — but it can be a problem, something that keeps us from more clearly discerning the God who is bigger than us and our groups.
Christians have been doing this around the world for thousands of years, even right after the time of Jesus. Paul wrote the letter which we just read from a few minutes ago, 1 Corinthians, within twenty years of Jesus’s death. Jesus’s closest disciples as well as others who had seen and heard him teach face-to-face were still alive, travelling throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond, sharing their firsthand knowledge of Jesus. But despite being so much closer to Jesus in time and space, these ancient Corinthian Christians had the same problem of thinking God’s will was pretty similar to who they were, what they thought, and how they wanted to live. And Paul had to keep telling them, No, wait, try to think of things from a perspective outside of your own.
We can see that in today’s reading. A group of Corinthian Christians thought among themselves, We know that some of the meat for sale in the market or served up at our friends’ houses has probably been sacrificed to pagan gods. But we know that those gods aren’t real, so it’s not like the sacrifice actually does anything to the meat. It’s totally fine for us to eat that meat like it’s just regular food. The one true God won’t mind.
And Paul wrote to them: Yes, that all makes sense, but have you considered what you eating sacrificial meat might look like to others? Some of your Christian siblings – newly converted from their pagan beliefs — are so used to these sacrifices being important, so used to thinking that food has been changed now that it’s part of that ritual, that they can’t help but see you as participating in pagan worship when you eat it. God might be ok with you eating the meat, but God’s not ok with you confusing others in the Church, maybe leading them in the wrong direction, to think that going back to their old ways is ok. Actually what Paul wrote was more extreme: “But when you thus sin against members of your family…you sin against Christ.”
In another part of the letter, Paul criticizes the wealthier members of the church for the way they celebrated Holy Communion (which back then was more like a meal). You sit down and eat your food, Paul wrote, which seems fine to you. But did you notice the rest of the church? Others can’t afford what you have. Or they’re still working for their small portion while you’re already free to sit down and feast. So “one goes hungry [while another has so much to eat and drink that he] becomes drunk.” It’s humiliating for those who have so little. And it’s completely ignoring the whole point of Communion: to come together as one body, sharing what the Lord has given. Again Paul wrote in strong language: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body [meaning the church, the Body of Christ, the community], eat and drink judgement against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:17-34).
In both of these examples, Paul told subgroups or cliques within the Corinthian church to look to the wider church community to better discern what the will of God might be. By forcing cliques of Corinthians to imagine how another might see things, or feel, or what another person’s life was like compared to their own, Paul helped them see how God’s will might be different than what they could discern from within their bubble. After all, God’s plan, God’s care, encompasses all people — and so God’s will must surely take into account all those perspectives and experiences. Paul reminded them, over and over: You are one with a bigger, more diverse group of people than you realize. And keeping with the understanding of God shown through Israel’s holy stories and prophets and Jesus himself, Paul always assumed that God will would lean toward the needs of those who were more vulnerable, more in need.
These examples remind us of something we easily forget: the Bible is not the only authority left to us now that Jesus has ascended. Jesus’s physical body is gone, but God has given us the mystical Body of Christ, the Church. That doesn’t mean the hierarchy or the rulings of denominations; the Body of Christ means our one-ness in Christ, the holy way that we belong to Christ, and how through Christ we belong to one another in a holy way. Not just the “one another” we experience in-person here at St. Andrew or with other friends; but the “one another” that, in Christ, connects us with the Church around the world: with other denominations, with Black churches, with churches in other countries, with people wealthier and poorer, with people facing famine and war, with people facing racism and sexism, with people facing apathy and self-centeredness.
God has made us one with a bigger, more diverse group of people than we sometimes realize. God has made us responsible to a bigger, more diverse group of people than we sometimes realize. That responsibility to one another is a voice of authority in our lives, and it is another way that God speaks to us today.
We have to work out God’s will for our lives situation by situation, leaning on all the means God uses to speak to us: the teachings of Jesus, the Bible as a whole, the traditions of the Church, the experiences of our lives, and the Body of Christ. And as we learn to better “discern the Body of Christ,” to consider a wider circle of people and their perspectives and understandings, we will be less constrained by our own image, and better able to discern the Word of the God of all Creation.