The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

“The world is all grown strange. . . . How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”

This is the question Eomer, a character in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings asks of Aragon, the heir to the king. “The world is all grown strange. . . . How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” And Aragon answers, “As he has ever judged; Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear.”

As a young girl, I was not a fan of Tolkien’s books. I liked reading the stories of James Herriot, and when in a daring frame of mind, I’d venture as far as to read Richard Adams’ great novel, Watership Down, as I lay shaking in my bed. My brothers read the Tolkien Ring Series, but I didn’t understand the attraction; it all seemed too violent.  I still don’t think I would go back and change my sweet little world of animals for the combat and strife of Tolkien’s fantasies, but I’ll admit that I missed out. Questions like the one Eomer asks, are the stuff of life… ‘how shall we make decisions, how shall we act when everything around us is scarily abnormal?’ Rock-solid answers like Aragon’s are solid grounding, too: ‘as we have always done, we know the difference between good and evil.’

Today we read a chapter from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

The Corinthians have asked him questions like Eomer’s, questions about life. Paul instructs them, these  new followers of Christ, how to act in this new, strange world of theirs. His words gave them grounding, even if two thousand years later, Paul’s teachings sound strange to us.

Paul teaches them about sinning against the body, saying the days are short until the coming of the Lord; Paul tells the people of Corinth not to get married if you can help it; and he goes on and on about food sacrificed to idols.

It seems, there is not a question the Corinthians can ask that Paul doesn’t have an answer for.

What shall we do with this strange questions and answers? Shall we pick and choose what we take from this? The folks in world of the 1st century had very different things to deal with than we? Food sacrificed to idols, women as property, slavery accepted as necessary part of life…that world had cultural norms we’d find unacceptable today, so it is often hard to make sense of how we are to take all of Paul’s teaching.

Many of you know that I used to teach Algebra I. I loved it because by the time kids they get to Algebra they are tired of changing fractions to decimals and calculating percent interest. In Algebra they get to solve equations, find an unknown variable. They get to graph linear and quadratic equations—and realize that a line is just a series of dots whose coordinates all solve the same equation. Don’t go blurry eyed on me—this is fun stuff!

It is wonderful to see the light go on in their heads. I could tell them to envision the equation y=x, for example, and they could see what the line on the coordinate plane looks like in their heads.

Cool thing about Algebra is that you can check your own answers. You just plug the numbers you get back into the equation and you’ll know if you are correct.

Sure the answers to the odd questions were in the back of the book, and they could look there, but the real answer was how did you get your solution?

Seeing the big picture, being able to see beyond one answer, that is the goal. 

Figuring out how you got there, so you can do it again the next time.

Now I teach from a different book, but I see similarities. 

The Bible isn’t an Algebra book with answers in the back. Well, some may think the Revelation to John has answers hidden in it, but the answer to what, is the question.

The bible isn’t a book we can just pluck answers out of….to all the conundrums of 2021, we must read it in context. We must figure out, how did they get to their answer? 

In truth, Paul has fewer answers for us readers than we think. Even for the Corinthians, he is all about showing your work. Paul gives his readers tools to make the decision themselves.

On topic of the body, for example, Paul asks the Christians in Corinth, do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore, glorify God in your body.

On topic of marriage, Paul can be confusing, and sound pretty negative, but we must remember he is working under the assumption that the world will end in weeks or months, so that is why he says if you’re married, stay that way, and if you are not married, don’t get married. Ultimately, Paul believes in the virtue that marriage brings and tells the people it is their choice, if they have the gift it takes to be married: “for each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.”

On subject of Food, Paul took issue with strict adherence to food laws as these laws  caused great division in the church. Today’s reading, the people want to know specifically about Meat sacrificed to idols: Paul tells them, “You know there are no others gods,” but not everyone does, so be careful that what you do doesn’t become a stumbling block for others. The bottom line is that “Food will not bring us closer to God.”

Like the people of Corinth, we too would like the answers written down for us…but as much as it may seem that this is what Paul does, ultimately this strident leader and teacher argues not for specific answers…Paul even warns them that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul says “knowers” can only have incomplete knowledge; we will never know all that we can. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul wants love to serve as a guide for how the Corinthians put their knowledge into practice.

This week Alicia and I met with our youth group for some fun and games, with masks on, we challenged one another in a race against the clock on how many ping-pong balls we could collect in cups, stacked up in a tower. Once you get a few balls into cups, one on top of another, the stack gets very floppy, and trying to catch another ball is not easy! After the games, we sat down for some study. The youth is reading the book of James.

James, you’ll remember is the leader of the Christian movement in Jerusalem. Coincidentally, he also wrote lots of instructions for new followers of Christ on how to live.

If you were a fly on the wall in the youth group, hearing their discussions, you’d see the kids are learning a good bit; if nothing else, from the start one person shouted, “Wait, Jesus had a brother?” Alicia did a great job of helping them figure that out; yes, he did. James is son of Mary and….??Joseph.   

This week’s discussion from James centered around the topics of boasting and selfish ambition. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” James writes,  “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.” Show by your good life….

Paul and James are on the same page— they encourage Christians to ask questions and to be reflective with one another; they both teach the foundations of Christ’s grace. The truth is, we don’t inherit all the answers to every situation; we inherit a teaching of how to get there and it always starts with love.

No matter what millennium we live in, no matter how crazy the world seems around us, Christians are called to respond to the ups and downs, the difficulties and joys of life with love.

Our youth decided that James had a lot to say about our speech. What we say matters. Our words can hurt, or our words can be of great comfort. It is up to us how we use them.

One girl offered this great Acrostic, a way to remember to THINK before we speak….I’m not sure if she knew that the acrostic is how a few of our psalms are written, like today’s psalm; so that the people of God could remember the teaching. This young person said we need to T-H-I-N-K and Ask ourselves these questions:

Is it True?

Is it Helpful?

Is it Inspiring?

Is it Necessary?

Is it Kind?

This young person demonstrated exactly what the  Corinthians gave us, a model for the active work of Christians—to ask questions.

As crazy as our world may seem to us, it was just as zany for the Christians in Paul’s time. Yet, “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear.”

I pray that we will model this for the world, as those early Christians did for theirs.

How we’ll respond in our time is what matters; may we let love serve as our guide.

Thanks be to God.