Liberty in Christ

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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 The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 28, 2024

Now concerning food offered to idols … food will not bring us close to God.  We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.  But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  (from 1 Corinthians 8)

 Some years ago the extended Waring family took a cruise around the Hawaiian islands.  One day we signed up for a shore excursion on the big island of Hawaii.  It was a bus tour that would take us to Volcano National Park where we would see a volcano called Mauna Loa.  The bus driver explained that one of the most enduring figures of ancient Hawaiian folklore is the goddess Pele – the goddess of wind, fire, lightening, and volcanoes.  What is more, not far from Mauna Loa was the crater of another active volcano where generations of Hawaiians thought Pele lived. 

After walking around Mauna Loa for a while it was time to board the bus again, but before we did the driver told us one more thing about the goddess Pele.  Legend has it that upon those who take rocks and pebbles from her island, Pele will rain down not volcanic ash, but a lifetime of perfectly awful bad luck.  At that moment, the sound of a bus load of tourists emptying their pockets of pebbles on the parking lot pavement resounded like a dump truck releasing a cargo of gravel.  No one wanted to risk the wrath of Pele, neither the superstitious nor the skeptics, nor the cynics. 

On the last day of the cruise we were packing up our stateroom, and I checked under the bed to make sure nothing had fallen beneath it.  There I found a volcanic rock.  Undoubtedly, the previous occupant of the stateroom had sneaked it aboard the ship, then faltered when it was time to take it home.  Now I had it.  What should I do?  It would be a lovely keepsake, I thought.  But what about the curse?  I don’t believe in curses.  I should take the rock and prove how silly it is.  Yes, but what about the curse? I asked again.  In the end, I made the decision – rationally arrived at, I might add – that it would be disrespectful to keep the rock.  But now the onus was on me to return it.  What should I do?  How about throwing it from our stateroom balcony, ten stories down into the waters around Hawaii?  Call it an offering to the gods, or just plain fun, if you like.  I can’t deny that I felt a slight superstitious relief when the rock splashed into the water.  Take a rock with an unclean spirit on an airplane all the way home?  No way. 

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark we’ve heard about an encounter that Jesus had with a man in the synagogue at Capernaum.  To say that this man was having a run of perfectly awful bad luck would be an understatement.  Mark describes him as having an unclean spirit.  What does Mark mean by an unclean spirit?  Was the man mentally ill?  Was he possessed by a demon?  Was he under the curse of some pagan deity or sorcerer?  Or was he simply a fragile soul who believed in spooks?  Whatever the cause, the man had lost all restraint and ability to engage the world appropriately.  Witness his behavior in the middle of the weekly gathering at the synagogue.  He stood up and tried to shout down the guest preacher, who was Jesus: What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God. 

When the man began shouting, Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  The people were astonished.  Note well: the people were not astonished or even startled by the disruption.  They must have known the man and expected his outbursts.  The only thing that surprised them this time was that someone was finally able to do something about it.  The people were amazed at the authority of Jesus, who was able to heal and restore the man with the force of his word. 

What Mark the gospel writer wants us to take away from the scene is to see and know the authority of Jesus.  The incident in the Capernaum synagogue dramatizes what the Apostle Paul would later write, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).  For those who belong to Jesus and put their whole trust in him, his authority means that no power is able to claim them.  No pagan god, no sorcerer’s curse, no superstition, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth is able to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  If you claim the faith of Jesus and trust in him you are free.  His authority covers you.  The Lord of hosts is with us.  The God of Jacob is our stronghold. 

This gift of Christ’s presence and even power isn’t merely bound to distant years in Palestine.  It can be ours today.  But how?  How can we experience the authority and power of Jesus?  If you read in Mark just two chapters beyond where we are today you will see that Jesus sent his disciples into the world with authority to cast out demons.  In the Gospel of John the promise to those who believe in Jesus is that they will receive power to become children of God.  I won’t bore you with New Testament Greek, only to say that power and authority are translated from exactly the same word: Exousia.  Imagine, the power and authority of Jesus are ours.  The Spirit and the gifts are ours.  Really?  On the one hand, many of us feel inadequate the task of wielding the power and authority of Jesus.  On the other hand, much of society cringes when Christians start talking about stepping out in power and authority.  What do we mean?  The power to control and coerce?  The authority to decree and demand?  No, what we mean is the power of love.  What Jesus demonstrated in the synagogue was the authority of love, and he gives us his presence and power to do the same.

I was amused recently by an online article about proper etiquette when you are aboard a cruise ship.  Specifically, what rude and unloving behaviors should you avoid in order to be an ambassador for Christ among your fellow passengers?  Well, it’s really not complicated.  Don’t hog the deck chairs.  Don’t sneeze over the salad bar.  Don’t hoard the food at the all-you-can-eat midnight buffet.  Don’t be late for your shore excursions.  Don’t let your kids run wild.  Don’t throw things overboard.  (Unless, that is, you are trying to get rid of a rock cursed by the Hawaiian goddess, Pele.  I’ll give myself a pass on that one.)  Then this purely superstitious prohibition: Never mention the Titanic.  It’s true: never mention the Titanic if you are on a cruise ship.  A passenger who is described as a viral TikToker and social media star posted that over lunch one day he said, “Say, did you know that our ship is only one-hundred feet longer than the Titanic?”  He describes how the whole dining room fell silent, the waiters gasped, and people dropped their utensils.  The passenger’s friend scolded him never to mention the Titanic on board a ship.  Why?  It’s a superstition, that’s why.  The Titanic flouted the gods and she sank on her maiden voyage.  Don’t even say the word!  You risk winding up just like those doomed passengers of long ago. 

Such magical thinking and superstitious scruples are nothing new.  In fact, they were roiling the early Christians in Corinth, so much so that Paul the Apostle had to address it in the portion of his Epistle that we heard today.  The Corinthian congregation included new and mature Christians.  Corinth was a religiously plural society with a multitude of temples to gods and goddesses of every sort.  Most of the meat for sale in the market places had been sacrificed in the various temples to the various pagan deities.  The question was, should the Christians partake of such meat?  Those new to the faith said absolutely not: this meat was defiled.  Some sinister spirit hiding in a summer sausage might sneak into your soul, and then you’d be back to the starting blocks with the demon possessed man in the Capernaum synagogue, having a perfectly awful run of bad luck.  “Look what happened to him,” they might have said.  “He probably ate defiled meat!”  Even though the new Christians had begun their life in Christ, they were not entirely free from their fears and superstitions associated with whatever cult they belonged to before.  But the mature Christians knew that they had nothing to fear.  Meat offered to pagan gods was harmless, they said, because the pagan gods had no existence, despite how fervently people believed in them.  With such knowledge they bought in the market place and ate, even in the presence of the new Christians, with no worries about the origin of the meat. 

In the reading we heard today, even though Paul was in theological agreement with the mature Christians, he gave them a pastoral directive.   He advised them to refrain from eating meat offered to idols.  Don’t do it.  Yes, they were correct in their knowledge that the meat was harmless in and of itself.  They were free to eat it.  They were free to each shrimp cocktail, fried catfish, and bacon cheeseburgers.  But take care, wrote Paul, that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.  Not to bore you with any more New Testament Greek, but the word Paul used for liberty is once again the same word Mark used for authority, and the same word John used for power.  Liberty.  Authority.  Power.  It’s the same word: Exousia

St. Paul was concerned that the mature Christians were using what they understood to be their gift from Jesus not to build up the weak, but merely to puff up their own egos.  It’s as if they suffered from a fairly common spiritual malady we might call “amnesia of the already saved.”  They forgot that they too were once new Christians in need of patience and understanding.  Now, as they helped themselves to another serving of sirloin steak sacrificed to the goddess Athena that very morning, they might be looking condescendingly upon the new Christians still working through their fears, and thinking, “Bless their hearts.  There but for the grace of God go I.”  Paul implied that the mature Christians were being needlessly insensitive and rude.  Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up, he wrote.  Use your liberty, your power, your authority in Christ to build people up, not tear them down. 

Dear People of God: Christ has set us free.  No, you are not free to take rocks from a national park on the big island of Hawaii.  To do so is against the law.  Indeed, the most reliable theory to the origin of Pele’s curse maintains that it was invented by a park ranger to scare people into obedience.  Another theory is that bus drives invented the curse because they were tired of cleaning up pebbles that tourists decided they didn’t want after all.  So don’t take the rocks.  It’s against the law. 

Also, out of Christian love you should not feel at liberty to wish a performer “good luck” before he or she goes on stage.  Instead, you should play along and say “break a leg.”  You should avoid mentioning the Titanic while sailing the high seas.  These are superstitions, yes.  But to spook the weak as they work through their fears is not a sign of mature Christian discipleship.  It’s just puffed-up, haughty, and rude.  But in all other matters concerning the principalities and powers, the elemental spirits, and things that go bump in the night, know that you are free: free to walk under ladders, free to live on the 13th floor of your building, free to open an umbrella inside your house on Friday the 13th, free to break mirrors, and step on the cracks of sidewalks.  You are free to drive in the car with the dome light on, free to go swimming right after you eat, free to own black cats.  We have two of those at the rectory, by the way, and they cross our paths every day, especially when they are hungry, which is pretty much always.  Blessings abound.  Christ has set us free. 

Hear again the words of St. Paul, who wrote, But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.