Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Weak and the Strong

homily preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler
September 11, 2014

I want to tell you a story that has not, to my knowledge, ever actually happened. Let’s imagine for a moment that your neighbor turned on a sprinkler, invited all the local kids to play in it, and then informed the kids’ parents that their children had now been baptized into this neighbor’s personal religion. Did a baptism occur just because this person said so? Of course not.

Well, at least it's not burning them ...
Yet there might be people who, rather than just writing off this event as spiritual kookery, would worry that something supernatural had actually occurred against their will and that of their children. Will God be angry with them for allowing such a thing to happen? Does some other supernatural being now have a claim on their children? And if so, how will they be able to undo the effects? These anxious parents are the people Paul would characterize as “weak in faith”—that is, they feel that it’s up to them to make sure that they and their children stay in God’s good graces, rather than just trusting in God’s good graces.

The issue in Paul’s time was not neighborhood sprinklers, but meat sacrificed to idols. It was a regular part of Greco-Roman worship to offer meat in sacrifice to their gods, and then to sell such meat in the marketplaces. It was understood that to consume such meat was to participate in the worship of these gods. Furthermore, there was often no way to tell whether the meat you were buying had at some point been sacrificed to an idol. Those whom Paul calls “strong” Christians trusted that God, the creator of the universe, would understand this situation and would not hold it against Christians for eating such meat. But for Paul’s “weak” Christians, the thought of participating in idol worship, even by accident, opened them up to all sorts of spiritual danger, so they thought it best to become vegetarians and avoid the whole mess completely.

Don't get snippy ... be patient ...
It got tricky when these two groups of Christians met. Those who were more educated, more philosophically astute, perhaps, knew perfectly well that no idol actually exists. Even if there are spiritual forces out there other than God, they are subordinate to and subject to the God who created all things. To worship them is wrong, yes. But one cannot accidentally worship a false god, any more than one can accidentally be baptized.

The other group, however, is not wrong to be afraid of such things. If their conscience tells them to be very careful of supernatural beings that might divert them from their devotion to the one God, should they be told that their conscience is wrong? This group would rather play it safe. The “weak” Christians are not in essence weak people, even if they have much to learn from the “strong” Christians. What’s important to Paul is that the “strong” Christians also have something to learn from the “weak” ones—something to learn about how to love others. The answer is not to get impatient and snippy with them, but simply to love them and to be considerate of their doubts and fears.

It’s hard to characterize these two groups impartially, because even the terms Paul uses, “strong” and “weak,” sound laden with judgment to our ears. One senses that Paul was writing primarily to the “strong” group because he didn’t seem to worry about offending anyone. And it’s to the “strong” Christians that he directs his primary message: don’t be a stumbling block to people who know less than you do. Would you tell a young child, “Oh, don’t bother with that Santa Claus nonsense”? Would you tell a teenager in love, “You’re just going to break up in a couple months anyway”? Would you laugh with condescension, “Oh, how silly of me! I forgot that you don’t speak Greek.” When faith in God is involved, the stakes are even higher, because the things we say and do have a real effect on what people believe God is like.

A few years ago, some person who probably thought he was pretty clever put a photo online of our presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and added the caption, “Don’t believe in that crap? Neither do we. The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” I think it was an attempt to help non-Christians understand that we’re not fundamentalists. But I thought it was very badly done, giving off the impression that we really don’t believe much of anything. The problem with beginning from the negative, explaining what we are not, is that there may not be any room left for the positive. The problem with being snarky is that it’s very easy, and it’s lots of fun, and it’s not very thoughtful. So if one of the Christians in Corinth were to say, “Oh, it’s no big deal! Here—have some of this meat,” Paul says that would be a terrible sin.

It takes an expansive person to think not only about our own spiritual health, but also that of others. It’s the same kind of expansiveness that comes into play when it comes to loving our enemies. Loving our enemies does not come from a position of weakness, from a place of merely needing to survive. It comes from an inner dignity that understands that God is preserving us at every moment, and that our enemies ultimately have no power over our lives or our souls.

It is better to be loving than to be right. It is a blessed thing to sacrifice one’s own liberties for the sake of letting others find their way at their own pace. This is a vital feature of Christian discipleship. Where are the places in your life where you have insisted on being right at the expense of being loving? And how might that begin to change today? Amen.

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