The Crisis of Responsibility
Category: Bishop's Sermons
Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington
Tags: disciple, freedom, christian, ethics, paul, liberty, responsibility
January 31, 2021 + The Fourth Sunday in Epiphany
The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinty, Paris
Text: 1 Corinthians 8:9: "Take care that this liberty of yours does not become a stumbling block for the weak.”
We are living in the midst of heated debates about a fundamental idea: the idea of freedom, of personal liberty. Even as I say those words, there are demonstrations in the streets of cities protesting the restrictions on our lives imposed by the authorities trying to gain the upper hand on the ravages of the pandemic. And we’ve seen countless stories of people refusing to wear masks in all kinds of situations, arguing that doing so infringes their liberties.
Of course all of those protests are happening in places where individual liberties are a cornerstone of how government works. And it is not an accident that all of those places are places deeply influenced by the inheritance of Christian ideas. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Just mentioning the fact of these protests may raise your own sense of anxiety. So let me instead begin in another deeply divided, falling-apart community; Paul’s little, unhappy church in Corinth.
You don’t have to read very far into this letter to know that a lot of what Paul is trying to do in it is to keep a church together that is falling apart. He has an investment in this; he started the church.
And because Paul started the church, we know that basically had two kinds of people in it; people who were part of the Jewish community in the town, and people who were basically from any other tradition. People that the Jewish community called goyim, people of other nations. The Gentiles.
In the ancient world, that divide was a very deep one. It wasn’t just about the dietary laws that Jewish people followed. Jewish people wouldn’t eat food prepared by people who weren’t Jews; they typically wouldn’t eat in homes that were the households of gentiles.
Paul was great at bringing people together across this divide. But once he left town and went on to plant another church, the old differences tended to divide people again. That’s the problem he’s addressing this morning.
Some people in the community are gentiles. In the world they come from, the strict rules about foods that are clean and unclean don’t apply. And here is something more: It was a pretty common experience that a friend of yours might invite you to dinner, a dinner that held in a particular part of a local temple to a favorite god. Aphrodite had a big temple in Corinth.
When you went, the first thing that would happen would be a little bit of the meal would be set aside in a short ceremony for the local god. But you didn’t really mind that, because the people there were your friends, and you made new contacts there, and you might make a new business deal or find a potential mate.
If you were Jewish, that whole world was closed to you. It wasn’t just about the food rules; it was about the first two commandments. You only give worship to the God of the covenant, the God of Abraham. You don’t give your worship to idols. Not ever.
The markets of Corinth were the place you’d go to to buy supplies for such a banquet. But the Jewish folks had their own markets, because they didn’t even want to buy meat from the same places that were supplying the temple banquets.
That’s the life of Corinth. Some people are free to go to the market, to buy what’s there, to eat it at home or to join in a dinner at the local temple with their friends. And some people are not. And Paul has planted a church with both communities in it—a church that has at the center of its life sharing a meal in common. How on earth can they stay together?
That’s a long-ago story. Why does any of this matter to us? Because what Paul writes to them isn’t really about food, or what to eat and what not to eat. What Paul writes to them is about the relationship between the liberty each of us have, and the responsibility Christians have toward others—all others. That is where the ancient becomes modern.
Some of the people in this community are free to eat whatever they please. They’re free to join their friends for banquets in the temples.
But Paul is telling them that their exercise of that freedom is not cost-free. When they do what they are free to do, they can harm others—in this case, by the force of their example. To someone who doesn’t know them, who doesn’t know that they’re part of the Christian community, it sure looks like what they’re doing is worshiping the idol in that temple.
Paul was calling these early Christians to account for how they used their freedoms. And in doing so he was setting in place a fundamental idea in Christian ethics: When we call ourselves disciples of Jesus Christ, we give up the looking-out-for-number-one rule of life. We accept that what we do, the choices we make, have consequences for others. And we accept we are responsible, not only to ourselves, but for those consequences as well.
Our year of pandemic has revealed to us in unsettling ways that without even knowing it we were living alongside a foreign country—the Republic of Cain. The Republic of Cain is a place where no one is their brother’s keeper, everyone denies any responsibility toward anyone other than themselves. The creed of that republic is rugged individualism. The prophets of that republic are as varied as Ayn Rand and Friederich Nietzsche.
Whatever else this pandemic has taught us, it has taught us what happens when human beings are suddenly confronted with the crisis of responsibility—the reality that they might be dangerous to others simply by exercising what seems like harmless liberties. You can be infected with this virus and never know it, feel as though you are healthy—and you can give someone else a disease that might kill them.
There are people around us who reject the idea that this fact should impose upon them any obligation to change their behavior or somehow limit their liberties. And let me say this directly: That is a profoundly un-Christian, even an anti-Christian, idea.
If we are disciples, caring for the welfare of others is not optional for disciples; it is obligatory. Voluntarily accepting limits on our liberties for the good of others is what Christ-like love looks like. It’s how the transformative power of God’s love actually gets the transforming done. It is how unjust systems are dismantled, how oppression is turned to compassion, how racism is turned to reconciliation.
We should be in no doubt that we are living in an era where basic ideas we took for granted—ideas like compassion, and caring for the vulnerable, and caring for the society we must make together—are suddenly being contended.
What it means now for us to be people of the Epiphany is to be people shedding the light of Christ’s love through the example of our lives, showing that we accept our responsibilities toward the least, the last, and the lost, and doing so fearlessly.
We do that here in this cathedral twice a week by feeding the hungry and the neglected. We do that in Rome at the refugee center and in Frankfurt with the Heimkehrer ministry, and in missions of our church that work with refugee communities.
This isn’t just about wearing masks. For us, for the months and years ahead, it is about whether we accept the responsibilities that come with discipleship, and remember what we have been taught—that when we serve others in the name of Christ we serve Christ, and that serving Christ is perfect freedom. Amen.