Preached at St. James by the Rev. David Henson on Jan. 29, 2024
Who remembers those little “all-in-one” hermetically sealed, totally sanitary packages of bread and wine we used for so long during the pandemic? They were like cruel and frustrating tests of manual dexterity each week just to take communion. Remember, you’d have to go back to your seat to peel off the top layer to eat the tiny wafer and then peel off the bottom for your thimble of wine?
Then, of course, we moved on to these little flying saucers with individual cups of consecrated wine, an idea we borrowed from our more evangelical sisters and brothers, and how you’d have you grab the tiny base of the cup so as not to touch hands.
It’s sort of bizarre to think back on it all. But, out of curiosity, as we are nearing the fourth anniversary of the global pandemic and shutdown, I went back and re-read some of the letters sent out by clergy and bishops to the churches about the pandemic and communion.
In retrospect, we probably got some things right and something wrong. I think, were something like that to happen again, we’d keep the doors of the church open and we’d probably keep our Eucharistic practices unchanged. But it’s not entirely fair to judge the past with the wisdom of the present. We all did the best we could with the information we had.
But beneath the specific pastoral direction about gathering size, communion practices, and masks from bishops and clergy, is a rather beautiful theology grounded in love of neighbor, and the strange and extreme lengths we were willing to go to protect the most vulnerable. In a time in which we had to be physically distant we strangely drew in love and care closer to those most isolated and at-risk.
I think there’s still something to learn from that response, not in terms of what we did but why we did it.
I share all this because I think it helps us as we reflect on our lesson from St. Paul.
Sometimes I feel sorry for him.
He wrote these pastoral letters to address unique situations in unique places in a unique time in history. I’m not entirely convinced he knew his epistles would one day comprise the oldest parts of the Christian Scriptures or that his pastoral letters would thousands of years later become the basis of major theological decisions and church practices.
Can you imagine?
Like, what if 2,000 years from now, we held in reverence all the collected epistles from all the Anglican bishops from March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, and were making major theological decisions and arguments in the year 4024 about how we are supposed to take communion.
A Reading from the Epistles of the Pandemic, the lector might say.
Certainly, these pastoral letters—both Paul’s and the ones from the pandemic—are buttressed and informed by eternal truths of God’s redemptive love, but they are still nevertheless artifacts of a particular moment in time, usually about a crisis or a conflict that has surfaced in a local body of believers.
But it would be ludicrous to take the pandemic communion moment and try to make it, centuries from now, the basis for all our Eucharistic practices.
But it would be equally as ludicrous not to look beneath the specificity of the situation, to the important truth and learning about how we are to act as people of faith toward one another and in community.
All that to say, when Paul writes to the church in Corinth about whether it’s okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, it’s both incredibly esoteric and anachronistic to our ears today. But eternal ethic beneath the strange, specific situation some 2000 years ago holds something incredibly salient and profound for us today.
“Knowledge puffs up,” Paul explains. “But love builds up.”
Or to put it more colloquially, and I think probably accurately to the original language:
“Knowledge blows things up, but love builds a house.”
It’s an ancient way of saying, perhaps, that when you have a choice, choose to be kind rather than to be right.
In our own world and in our own time, an election year, an information age in which truth is difficult to discern, maybe the question at the heart of Paul’s instruction is simply this:
“How do we love someone even when we disagree with them?”
“How do we love someone even when we know they are wrong?”
Perhaps it might help to know that facts rarely change anyone’s minds. If anything, debating facts only makes people dig in their heels more!
How might we trust that love really is what transforms the world and redeems our lives? That the power of God is not in violence, retribution, triumph, or being right about everything. As Paul will write in just a few pages in his famous passage on love, that even if we know the future and can fathom all the mysteries of creation, if we can move mountains, give everything to the poor, speak in the languages of both mortals and angels, but have not love, then it is nothing but hot air, vanity, empty, meaningless noise.
That Knowledge blows things up. But love builds a house.
That is better to be kind than it is to be right.
Which is perhaps what Paul means when he writes that not only is love kind and patient, not only is it not envious, or arrogant, or boastful, or rude, but also that love doesn’t insist on its own way, its own way being the right way, but instead love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
And love never, ever ends.
At the end of the day, Paul explains, that’s the only kind of knowledge that really matters in this world, or in the next. It isn’t the knowledge you possess, no matter how much you know. It’s not what you know. And it’s not even who you know.
The only knowledge that matters is that God knows you.
That you are fully known and fully loved by God.
And if it is true, that our worth is tied up in being known and loved by God, not in our rightness or wrongness, then we are liberated to no longer chase after meaning and worth by being right or rich or winning or making a difference or changing the world.
We are set free to live as all that matters is that we are loved.
And if that’s true, if we trust that, then how might that change us, how might it shape the next week, the next month, the next year?
For Paul, it meant willing to sacrifice being right for being loving. Paul actually seems to agree that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if you eat meat sacrificed to idols. Those idols are figments of the imagination. Paul himself probably would eat such meat.
But being right, to Paul, isn’t nearly as important as being kind.
And if his eating meat sacrificed to idols would hurt someone, then, as he says, he’ll never eat meat ever again.
Sort of like how many of us said if doing certain things in the pandemic might harm someone vulnerable, we’d gladly wear a mask even though we hated how it fogged up our glasses or social distance even though we really could have used a hug.
Because even if we didn’t agree with everything, being kind was more important than being right.
Love, not being right, was the truth that drove Christians 2000 years ago to have this esoteric conversation in Corinth about food sacrificed to idols, and it was love again in 2020 that drove us to address pandemic issues and do things that now might seem a little outdated.
And I hope, in the coming year, in whatever we do, or say, or write, that’s the truth we hear underneath it all.
Because, I suspect, this year, in an election year, “being right” might well become our country’s greatest idol and we won’t just be tempted to sacrifice food to it. We’ll be tempted to sacrifice our family, friends, churches, and communities so that we might feast on being right. We can already sense it building, a year in which it will be all about who is right and who is wrong and how anything less than steadfast loyalty to one side or the other’s right-ness might well be deemed as capitulation to evil.
How might we hear again the eternal truth about God in St. Paul’s letter to the local Church in Corinth about an esoteric issue that, while it has no relevance in today’s world, was nevertheless threatening to rip apart God’s church?
How might we hear again the eternal truths about God in those epistles of the pandemic in which we did strange things never before imagined, even though we knew they might not quite be 100% right, just so we could stay united in love, worship, and fellowship?
How might we hear for our time the warning that knowledge puffs up, it inflates the ego, until it bursts into nothingness, but love … love builds a house.
A house that stands strong, that shelters in the storm, that protects against harm, that welcomes the lonely and cold, that opens the door to strangers, that watches the generations grow.
Love builds a house.
A house for God.
A house for love and mercy.
A house for sinners and saints.
A house for you and me.
One house, for all people.