Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.
Personal freedom is a gift we all enjoy. For instance, right now you are free to say what you feel. Free to do what you want. Free to get up and walk out. The Corinthians are also free in Paul’s letter today: free to eat meat, even meat sacrificed to gods they don’t believe in, gods they know to be idols. They are free to eat that same meat in the midst of those who cannot or will not eat it, who believe it’s wrong to eat it. They are free to offend those people.
Paul understands freedom. And is at pains to name it.
It’s not the reach of freedom he challenges, though. What he challenges is the reach of love: our practice of it, whether it’s big enough to understand people who behave differently than we do, like people who think it’s wrong to eat meat sacrificed to gods because for them it carries hurtful force.
You could decide the meat-eating Corinthians were aiming to be free from puritanical know-it-alls, from the sort of people who are always policing the behavior of others: what they eat and drink, how they dress, what they watch, who they hang out with. But that’s not what Paul’s after. He’s not affirming their capacity to return the favor, nor lifting up their freedom to judge those who judge them. No, what he’s after is their love, whether it’s big enough to love people they don’t understand.
Absent compassion for people who are not like you at all: who look and dress, who talk and vote, who pray and practice, differently than you do; absent compassion for other people — whoever they are, wherever they’re from — you are a stumbling block to the love of Christ. And here’s the trouble: it’s not always easy to know whether you’re the one stumbling or the block that causes others to stumble.
When I was eleven, I lived behind a theatre on a little island in the south Pacific. Nobody had cable out there. Instead we had free movies, including free afternoon matinees every Saturday. Those matinees were always crowded with kids. No empty seats. And one Saturday as the movie began, a friend whispered in my ear, On my way to get popcorn, I saw your sister sitting with a boy.
My younger sister, I thought, sitting with a real live boy. What’s the world coming to?
It wasn’t something I’d ever done before. It seemed out of order. So, right away, I got up and started walking the aisles, down one and up another. And then I spied her sitting right next to a boy I didn’t know. She saw me, too, and suddenly dropped her head to her lap, like she was leaning over to tie a shoe. Or ducking down to avoid me.
Her duck told me something really was out of order. I ran from the theater all the way home. My parents were surprised to see me enter the house all out of breath. What ‘s wrong? my mother asked, Are you okay?
No, I said. Christin’s sitting with a boy in the theater, and I think they’re holding hands!
It took my parents a beat to understand what I was saying, but when they did, I remember how they looked at each other all funny and how my dad suddenly burst out laughing. I remember my certainty giving way to remorse. I felt like I was in the way of something I couldn’t understand.
That day I missed the matinee. That day my sister and I seemed incomprehensible to each other, and for a long time after. It was years before I held a boy’s hand in a movie.
The Christian challenge isn’t about perfect understanding much as it learning to love when you don’t understand. Love, you see, is an alternative to things adding up how you want them to. My friend Tom says, Never be afraid to love things you cannot explain.
In my father’s laughter, I heard the kind of love that never adds up. It told me he loved both of his daughters whether they understood each other or not. It told me love is bigger than knowing what you’re up to or what other people are up to.
As Paul so brilliantly puts it, Knowledge puffs up. But love builds up. Opinions and judgments make us feel safe, are a kind of righteousness without real risk. But love holds hands with another person. Love isn’t afraid of what it cannot explain.
My sister and I still quarrel, as sisters do. But we’ve learned through the years to stand down when we start judging each other. We’ve learned to accept the incomprehensibility of who we are, what you might also call the mystery of each other. Above all things, we’ve learned to look after the love between us.
That’s a high holy calling, and the good news is this: loving somebody is a whole lot easier than tending your differences. Makes you feel good, too.
No two people are ever alike. God made sure of that. In the words of the late great Guy Clark, One man’s pride is another man’s humble. One man’s step is another man’s stumble
Where would we be without difference? It’s the gift of being human, found not only in matters of religion or politics or gender or race or sexuality. It’s written in our DNA, in the signature of God on every person. We’re all walking talking mysteries, incomprehensible and lovable: every person a child of God. And yes the teachings of God are needful. But so, too, is the compassion of God. So, too, is the love of Jesus overcoming our fear of difference.
If we’re going to grow in Christ, we’ll find ourselves embracing the odd mystery of other people, right next to us and outside these doors. In Christ, we’ll celebrate our differences and receive them as holy gifts from God.