Sermon: Freedom, love, covid19 … and Margaret Court

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
31st of January, 2021

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

The gospel written by Mark is the strangest of the four canonical gospels. It is probably the earliest; it is definitely the shortest. Everything in Mark happens ‘immediately’, or ‘at once’. Jesus, the disciples, and we readers race though the gospel, scarcely pausing for breath. Here we are, four weeks into ordinary time, still within the very first chapter, and already John has appeared in the wilderness baptising; Jesus has been baptised; then driven into the wilderness and tempted; has proclaimed the coming of the kingdom at Galilee; and has called his first disciples. All that in 20 verses. Now, in today’s reading, we get the beginning of what seems to be a typical day of ministry for Jesus, a day of teaching and healing.

Professor Brendan Byrne describes the Gospel according to Mark as the scariest of the four gospels,[1] and in this snippet of Jesus’ ministry we can see why. Jesus goes to the synagogue at Capernaum and teaches, with authority. But in the very place in which the people of God gather to hear God’s word, Jesus is confronted by an unclean spirit. The world Mark describes is filled with demons and hostile forces, with things that alienated people from themselves, their community and from God. In the synagogue, in the very place where the word of God was to be heard and expounded, Jesus is faced with an unclean spirit that knows who he is, ‘the Holy One of God’. And because this unclean spirit knows who Jesus is, it is afraid. ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?’ Unlike the unclean spirit, the people in the synagogue do not yet know who Jesus is, and so they are unprepared for what happens next, Jesus’ demonstration of his authority by exorcism. The time has come and the Kingdom of God has come near; all those imprisoned by the world’s hostile forces are being set free.

To us, two thousand years’ later, already knowing who Jesus is, the exorcism might seem to be the point of this story. But those attending the synagogue have other priorities. Other miracle workers could perform exorcisms; it is on Jesus’ authority that people comment: ‘They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ … ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!’ The teaching is as important a sign of the kingdom as the exorcism; both are liberating. The scribes can only teach what they themselves have been taught; they are constrained by their scriptures and religious tradition. Jesus, on the other hand, as both the messenger and the message, can teach authoritatively about God and the kingdom that is coming. He doesn’t need to bolster his teaching with external support, scriptural or otherwise. His teaching is self-authenticating. 

The exorcism is simply Jesus’ teaching put into action. Presumably that man with the unclean spirit had sat in the synagogue week-in and week-out, listening to the scribes expound scripture and then going home unhealed. But in Jesus the unclean spirit is faced with the power and presence of God, and leaves the man with a loud cry.

evangeliary-of-the-sainte-chapelle-paris-13th-century

In contrast to the gospels according to Matthew and Luke, the gospel according to Mark shows us Jesus the teacher, but does not give us his teachings. Matthew gives us the Sermon on the Mount; Luke the Sermon on the Plain and all the parables – Mark just tells us that Jesus teaches with authority and leaves us to imagine what the content might be. But Mark shows us the teaching in action. We can understand it through its impact – it sets people free from everything that binds them. It heals them. It challenges and defeats evil. No oppression can stand against this new teaching given with authority, which sets humanity and the world free from the forces of evil.

How, then, are we to exercise that freedom? Here we turn to today’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Thank goodness for the Corinthians! Here was a community with issues, so many issues that they wrote to Paul several times with long lists of questions asking for his advice. Sadly we do not have their side of this correspondence, their questions, but we do have two of Paul’s answers. Today’s issue is food sacrificed to idols. Is it lawful to eat it or not? For many of the Corinthians, food sacrificed to idols might have been the only meat they were able to eat, as they bought it from priests in the service of some Greek or Roman god. Were Christians able to do that?

The more knowledgeable among the Corinthians thought ‘yes’. Their argument was completely logical and theologically sound: there is only one God and so whatever priests might have thought they were doing with their meat, they were not giving it to gods. There are no other gods, so meat available to purchase has not previously been sacrificed to them. So, good Christians could eat it with a perfectly clear conscience.

Another group apparently thought differently. They had been brought up worshipping Greek and Roman gods; they had always known that the meat roasted before idols was an offering to those gods; and so when they ate the food they thought of it as food offered to idols. Their consciences were defiled.

It is not surprising that food caused such a controversy. Eating is one of those things that we all must do to live, and that gives food a lot of power. We might laugh at early Christians getting so uptight about food sacrificed to non-existent gods, but we have no reason to feel superior. We have similar questions about alcohol in our worship. The reason that most Uniting churches use grape juice in communion services, despite the liturgy clearly referring to ‘wine,’ is that we recognise that for some people not drinking alcohol is a matter of conscience, in the same way that not eating meat was a matter of conscience for some Corinthians.

Paul agrees with those who feel able to eat meat. Their theology is correct. There are no such things as gods; there is only one God; and eating meat or not eating meat will not bring the Corinthians closer to God. So why not eat the meat?

Because, Paul says, the question is not one of knowledge. It is a question of love. It is not a question that can be answered based on whose theology is more correct. On this issue the Corinthians were divided into groups called the strong and the weak; the strong who could eat meat with a clear conscience and the weak who could not. If the weak see the strong eating meat, Paul argues, they might follow their example. Since they think that what they are eating is food for idols, even if they are wrong, they will have fallen into sin. So, Paul says, the loving thing for the strong to do is not to tempt the weak into sin. Do not eat meat sacrificed to idols. In fact, Paul says, ‘if food is a cause of their failing, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall’.

The strong are right, their knowledge is absolutely accurate, their theology correct. But if their knowledge leads them to harm their brothers and sisters, then they are being puffed up. Their perfectly correct knowledge is taking them further from the God they claim to know. When we act on God’s words, Paul reminds us, we must do so with love, or we are not truly practicing that awe and reverence of God that today’s psalmist reminds us is the beginning of wisdom.

Over the past year we have all seen why it may be important for us to prioritise the love of others over our own individual freedoms. Most Melburnians followed the rules during Melbourne’s 112-day lockdown. Websites popped up almost immediately to show the overlap between our various five-kilometre limits, and I know that many of us used them and so only met with people whose limits overlapped with ours. Most of Melbourne did not use the few days after the ‘ring of steel’ was announced to race down to holiday houses on the coast. Most of us did not storm into Bunnings and insist that as free individuals we had the right not to wear masks. There is no way that the lockdown could have worked without the consent of the community and we consented, because we knew that our individual freedoms were not more important than the health and safety of vulnerable members of the community. Commentators from outside Melbourne were appalled that we were willing to follow such draconian rules and accused us of having Stockholm Syndrome. It was not Stockholm Syndrome. It was love.

In the same way, of course Margaret Court has the freedom to say anything she likes. She can say that ‘LGBT in the schools, it’s the devil, it’s not of God’. She argues that her beliefs are based on the Bible and that ‘it’s very important for freedom of speech that we can say our beliefs’. My question of her is: is it loving? She of course argues that it is: ‘I’ve always said what the bible says. And I don’t hate anybody. I love people. And I love gay people and I love transgender people,’ but I suggest that if she genuinely loves LGBTIQ people she needs to speak less and listen more.

The Apostle John wrote of our freedom: ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love’. (1 John 4:18) He then immediately went on to say, ‘Those who say, “I love God”, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen’. (1 John 4:30)

Jesus came to liberate humanity from everything that imprisons us. As we celebrate that freedom, let us do so with love. Amen.

[1] A Costly Freedom, p. x.

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