Sermon from February 1st, 2015. Text for this sermon was 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.
Does Love Conquer All?
Love conquers all. It is one of the least controversial statements of Christian theology. It is so universally agreeable that Walmart sells framed copies of the quote to hang up on your bathroom wall. If you interviewed people on the street about it, Christians, atheists, Muslims, whatever, nearly every single one would tell you that they would agree with the statement that love conquers all. But is it true? If it were true that love conquered all we could get rid of Intercontinental Ballistic missiles and send intercontinental love notes to our enemies. If it were true that love conquered all we could close down food banks and soup kitchens and just let love conquer that hunger. If it were true that love conquered all the police would hardly have anything to do.
In our passage from First Corinthians we find ourselves eavesdropping on a 2,000-year-old conversation that pertains to this topic of love. It is a conversation about food. Perhaps you have come to discover like I have that food and love are often closely related. Specifically, there was a debate raging in the Corinthian church concerning whether or not you should eat meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan idol.
At that time in Greek cities when you brought a sacrifice to the Temple of Artemis or Dionysus or whoever, the priest would take it, slaughter it on the altar, take his cut, and then give the rest back to you. And you’d cook it up and invite all your friends to a feast in one of the Temple’s party rooms (yes, a Greek Temple had rooms for parties, like a roller skating rink). And there you’d serve the meat. If you’re a Christian, but you’ve been invited to the birthday party of your nephew who is not, can you eat the meat that’s been sacrificed to an idol?
Some people argued that they shouldn’t eat meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. Eating meat of some other spiritual significance seemed like they were being unfaithful to God. And maybe some of them were tempted by their old lives, to believe that the meat really was blessed, so to eat the meat was to participate in the blessing. So they avoided meat sacrificed to idols all together. On the other side they argued that since the Greek gods don’t really exist, it didn’t really matter who mumbled what while they were being slaughtered. Their words had no meaning, so why waste good meat? They weren’t going to skip the brisket just because someone else thought it was magical.
Paul’s response is what we have in 1 Corinthians 8. He says to the second group, you’re absolutely right. Meat that has been sacrificed to a pagan god is no different from any other meat, because those rituals have no significance. But don’t eat the meat anyway. Don’t eat the meat because you might become an obstacle to someone else. Just because you have this more enlightened understanding doesn’t mean that you should disregard the feelings of others. Paul is saying that they should choose to be gracious to their neighbors over being right. Your neighbor is more important than your doctrine.
Fred Craddock tells this story about these folks who lived up the street from him. They had three or four daughters when the divorce happened. And one of those daughters, was maybe fourteen years old, and always in trouble. She skipped school, she smoked pot, she was doing all the things that parents hope their children wait to do or never do. Fred says she was, “hanging on the tail end of every motorcycle that went roaring through the neighborhood.” Finally the judge sent her off to a reform school. And probably the fourth or fifth month she was there she gave birth to the little baby that she had been carrying.
Well word got around the neighborhood that a few months later she was coming home. That day she came home, everyone in the neighborhood had found something to do out in their yard. Mowing the grass, watering the daisies, trimming the hedges, and watching the house. Fred too. She didn’t show up and didn’t show up and didn’t show up. Hardly anyone had grass on their lawns left to cut. And then the car came. And out this little girl comes with her baby, and people come rushing out of the house to hug it and to hold it. They’re all laughing and joking, and pretty soon another car pulls up and another pulls up, to the point that a righteous Christian couldn’t drive down the street, blocked for all these people coming in to welcome this baby.
Now Fred was the preacher in this town, watching this thing, and suddenly he got awful nervous. What if someone saw him and asked him to come by? What if someone saw him out there, laughing and joking with that unwed teenage mother and tickling the little baby’s feet? He went inside.
I could tell you a hundred stories of people who will never again warm a pew on Sunday morning because someone chose to be right instead of loving them. I could tell you a hundred more stories of people for whom the same thing is true about their own childhood home.
And I could tell you a few stories about people whose place in the pew will always be warm because someone chose to love them instead of being right. But more important than these, are the stories that were told by Matthew and Mark, Luke and John. When the law of love conflicted with the Sabbath law, Jesus said “Come out of him, demon. I don’t care what day it is.” When Jesus saw a mob of people ready to stone a young woman, Jesus said, “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.”
For Jesus and for Paul, if there is ever a situation in which you have to choose between being right or righteous and being loving, the answer is clear. Of course you should love them. If that means inviting in that longhaired boy your teenage daughter has been following around, of course you should love them. If that means cleaning up your alcoholic uncle knowing that he’s going to go right back to it tomorrow, of course you should love them. If your grandchildren show up to Thanksgiving with blue hair and nose rings and tell you that meat is just a gear in the system of capitalist oppression, break out the Tofurkey. Of course you should love them. If someone stops by your office asking for you to donate so that those poor little Muslim children will have schools, and your buddy says, “Feed them today, fight them tomorrow. I’ll give my money somewhere else” Of course you should love them.
The Gospel message is that if you ever have to choose between doing what is righteous and right, and loving someone, the choice is clear. Because it is true that love does conquer all. But only if you let it.
 Craddock, Fred, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 35.