Sunday, January 29, 2006

Embodying Christ: Fellowship

Continuing my Ordinary Time preaching series, this is what was heard this morning, roughly pieced together and simplified...

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

In an older episode of The Simpsons--a Valentine's Day episode--the middle daughter, Lisa, prepares for her class' Valentine party. They've all got their little bags hung on their desks and everyone is passing their Valentines out. Lisa notices that a classmate, Ralph--very much an outcast--is depressed over not receiving a single one. Wanting to help, she crosses out a name on one of her Valentines and drops it in his bag. Unfortunately, he mistakes this gesture for something more than it is. He rushes to walk Lisa home from school in order to try getting to know her better. There is an awkward silence before Ralph ventures a start to the conversation: ' you like...stuff?'

It was an attempt to break the ice. It sounded silly, but Ralph took that first step. The Corinthians are beyond breaking the ice. Now they're learning more about what comes next. This is a church wrought with problems, the latest of which is detailed in this part of the letter. The Corinthian church, which we might imagine is made up of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, men and women, and so on, are met with a new designation from Paul: the 'weak' and the 'strong.' The ones who have knowledge and the ones who don't.

And what is this knowledge about? It is in reference to the practice of eating food sacrificed to idols. It was understood that taking part in this ritual--eating it, sacrificing it, participating in the communal meal featuring this meat whatsoever--was to acknowledge the idol's existence or power. The ones 'with knowledge' knew that 'there is no God but the God of Christ' and 'no idol really exists,' so for them, they were merely sharing a meal with others. However, to a 'weak' one, one 'without knowledge,' eating such meat was to acknowledge the idol. Paul's concern was that the 'weak ones' would think that idol worship was still okay.

This is just the latest in a long list of ways that the Corinthians are trying to figure out how to live with each other. We might imagine the 'strong ones' saying things like, 'Well...why should I care what they think? Why do I have to wait for them to catch up or be mindful of where they are in their spiritual journey? It'd be nice if they were just as enlightened as me. Instead, you're suggesting that I have to watch what I'm doing?' The Corinthians were not known for modesty or selflessness, so such things might have been said. How are these 'strong' ones and 'weak' ones to get along? Are they doomed to walk together in awkward silence?

Mike Yankoski has a book called Under the Overpass. It chronicles his experiences over a five-month period of being homeless. His decision to do this comes after he hears a sermon entitled, 'Be the Christian You Say You Are.' Convicted by this, he wonders if he could live without his material comforts, and so he organizes this trip through five American cities with a friend.

One story that he relates takes place in a coffeehouse. His friend has wandered off to explore the neighborhood, and he's decided to stay behind and do some journaling. He buys a cup of coffee and starts writing. Before too long, the manager of the coffeehouse steps up and says, 'Excuse me...only paying customers can sit in our dining room.' (You have to remember that by this point, Mike has begun to look and smell the part) Mike answers, 'Well, I bought some coffee, so there's no problem. Thanks.' The manager doesn't leave. Again, he says, 'This is only for paying customers.' 'I heard you. I have my coffee.' He changes his story: 'Well, there's a 45-minute limit on sitting at our tables. You need to leave.' Mike is able to negotiate to wait for his friend, and the two leave, dejected.

Mike wasn't looking for fellowship exactly. Instead, he was looking for welcome. The two are linked, really. To have fellowship with someone is to welcome them and be welcomed by them. To engage in meaningful fellowship with someone, you have in some sense welcomed them in their interests and hobbies, their joys and sadness, their grief, their pain, their family background, their fears and worries. To be in fellowship is to welcome these things, however bizarre or different they seem. To be in fellowship is to ask, 'How are you doing?' and to stay for the answer. It is to give a piece of your time, and a piece of yourself. It is venturing out, even with ' you like stuff?' and hoping that your question will be welcomed with an answer.

In fellowship, we, like the Corinthians, strive to figure out what it means to walk together in faith. It is to recognize another as God's beloved, to love others as Christ has loved us. What we are knowledgeable about doesn't matter. We put it away in order not to be puffed up at another's expense. Instead, we seek to be built up in love. Welcome, and be welcomed.