Readings, Mark 1:21-28 and 1 Cor 8:1-13
Image, Juan Sánchez Cotán, Still Life With Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber, 1602-1603.
As we grow, the same activity might become increasingly less beneficial. Shoshanna can leap off a high place onto the hard earth and not even flinch. I can recall being able to do similar through my teenage years and perhaps (in the right shoes) into my twenties. Were I to do it now, I might not crumble to dust, but I won’t be able to turn my neck for a fortnight… as the decades pass the carefree leap becomes less a flight into fancy than a crash into reality. All things are permissible, but not everything is beneficial.
Alternatively, anyone who has picked up a new hobby knows that while there may be all kinds of tricks one can learn to expedite a process or revel in wider freedoms, it is not altogether wise to teach that to a beginner. Sure, Rodger Federer can hit a cross-court pass from between his legs, but don’t try that your first afternoon at the local club. All things are permissible, but not everything is beneficial.
This phrase comes just a bit later in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth than what we heard, but the logics are already developing. In a stark contrast to the way Christian ethics are often flattened into a list of do and do not, Paul outlines a far more complex and neighbourly way of determining the appropriateness of any activity.
Paul takes up the question of whether it is ok to eat food offered to idols. And yet he offers neither an unequivocal don’t eat the meat, nor go ahead and eat the meat. For the case of “go ahead and eat” Paul reminds the people that idols do not exist (they aren’t real in and of themselves, but only have the power we give to them) so eat, because all things (including that food) exist in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. God is real, idols are not, sin is vanquished, grace abounds, eat and be merry for these things cannot harm.
However, Paul quickly notes not everyone has this knowledge. There are those in the community who still believe in the reality (and power) of idols. They might see you eating and become confused and unsettled in their faith. And so, for the sake of those weaker members of the faith, refrain from eating the food given to idols.
There are things that are permissible, but not always beneficial, because of what they might communicate to another. Rather than shalt or shalt not, we (as those in Christ, under grace, reconciled and liberated) are given freedom. Yet with freedom comes the responsibility of neighbour love, the compassionate care of our fellow, the encouraging and upbuilding of the community. And so, sometimes, freedom comes with a responsibility to refrain.
How we ought to behave as Christians, what is appropriate Christian ethics, is so often treated simplistically. At the one end we can make our faith an entirely individual matter and not consider how the grace we have received from Christ ought to impact our consumption, treatment of others, or use of our gifts, wealth, and time. At the other end, the entirety of personhood is removed, and we are told exactly how the grace we have received from Christ ought to be followed. We are given a list of do this and don’t do that, with no conception that the ways we move through the world are radically different and diverse influenced by societal structures, cultural mores, family histories that are often wrapped up in sin.
A side effect of such an approach is that it flies in the face of Paul’s main point: Filled with fear that any wrong decision, any misplaced word, any ill-advised mouthful, any inappropriate affiliation risks our salvation, the flattened approach gives too much power to evil, too much credence to malevolence, too much authority to sin. There’s a great line in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame which captures this theological misstep. It’s when the villainous Bishop Frollo, blaming his feelings of temptation on another, sings “It’s not my fault, if in God’s plan, He made the devil so much stronger than a man.” No, says Paul, fear not. The Devil is a nothing. There is one God, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ through whom are all things and through whom we exist… for the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.
Mark’s gospel makes clear that Christ has already triumphed over all other powers. Before recording any teachings, Mark details Jesus’ authority over evil through this confrontation with an unclean spirit. This confrontation and victory (foreshadowing a larger victory) sets the ground for Christian life and ethics, for the shape of the Christian community. Jesus has come, confronted and overcome sin and death, ascended to God’s right hand and been given all authority over heaven and earth. In doing so Christ has dealt with the sin of the world, issued a spirit of adoption, and ushered us all under the umbrella of his grace. We are alive in Christ, and with him we are more than conquerors. It is from this position that we consider what is permissible and what is beneficial, the gift of freedom and responsibility.
To give way to fear and live as if there are monsters in every closet and snares in every snack disregards and diminishes what Christ has done. To scorn the concern of our neighbour and live as if we’re in an ethical vacuum, disregards and diminishes what Christ has called us to do. By grace have received freedom, hallelujah, and community, amen.
Christ’s liberating act draws us into the church. It is with one another that we discern, time and again, how we ought to live together in service of the world. This may be daunting – and in many ways is more complex and time-consuming than the ‘shalt and shalt not’ – but oh is it so much more life-giving, so much more beautiful and noble, and oh is it such a better testament to the freedom and joy that is found in Christ. And though it may be complex, and though all our choices are provisional (open to the changing needs of the community and fresh wind of the Spirit) we should not worry. For we do this work together within an environment perfect love that drives out fear. For what once held dominion is vanquished, and freely we step out into the world as those who live in, with, and through Christ!
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