Sunday, May 8, 2005
By the Rev. David M. Bast

Broadcast Minister and President of Words of Hope

1 Corinthians 8:1 - "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."

There is a long tradition in Western literature of famous opening lines. "Sing, Muse, of the Wrath of Achilles." (Homer, The Iliad) "Call me Ishmael." (Herman Melville, Moby Dick). "In every generation there is the Chosen One... who will fight the powers of darkness. She is the Slayer." ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer," episode 1). See what I mean? Well, here is another great opening line. This is the first sentence of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion: "Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves." And as Calvin said in another luminous statement from the Institutes, "In knowing God, we know ourselves."

Knowledge. It's a great thing, but not an entirely unmixed blessing. If the history of the 20th Century has proved anything, it has proved the truth that knowledge is a two-edged sword. The scientific knowledge that has lengthened our lives and has given them a level of comfort and luxury that would have been the envy of royalty just a century ago has at the same time produced ever more efficient killing machines. The wonderful digital technology that enables you to correct all those typing errors so quickly or to download Mozart to your iPods - what, Mozart's not at the top of your iTunes list? Have I missed something? - that same technology is what enables child pornography to flourish and spread everywhere. Knowledge is not an unmixed blessing. As Professor Roger Shattuck writes in his book Forbidden Knowledge, the dark side of knowledge is a common theme throughout Western civilization. It's the lesson of ancient stories like the myth of Prometheus or the legend of Pandora's Box, not to mention the little incident of the tree in the Garden of Eden. It's the theme of stories like Frankenstein, popular stories in print and in film. It's the human intuition of this truth of the danger of knowledge that lies behind the stock character of the mad scientist who ends up destroying everything through his reckless and relentless pursuit of knowledge. It's the message of proverbial wisdom: "Let sleeping dogs lie." "Curiosity killed the cat." "Leave well enough alone." And it is the truth embedded by the Apostle Paul in our text this morning: "Knowledge puffs up."

Beware of knowledge, all these sources are telling us. That is to say, too much knowledge, knowledge of that which is better left unknown, better kept secret, twisted knowledge, knowledge wrongly applied. That's the warning we're given. Knowledge is a dangerous thing. It can be even more dangerous than ignorance - just as fearlessness, too much fearlessness, can do more harm than too much fear. Fearlessness leads to rashness and hubris, and hubris calls forth nemesis. That's how the ancient Greeks put it. The Hebrew prophets said it slightly differently: "If you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish." (Deuteronomy 8:19).

Now, I'm not going to stand here and criticize knowledge. Please, don't misunderstand me. After all, you have just invested four years of blood, sweat, toil, treasure and tears in the pursuit of knowledge--and that's just your parents. So it would be rather foolish of me, not to say offensive, if I stood here and denigrated knowledge and wisdom. These are good things. No, it is unconstrained knowledge that we're warned against. When knowledge is pursued without limits, when knowledge of ourselves and our world is divorced from knowledge of God, and, supremely, when knowledge is separated from love, that's when it turns bad, when it turns dark, when it turns dangerous. And the dangers aren't hard for us to conjure up today. I was watching, at the end of spring training, an ESPN series on steroids in sports, especially baseball. And the last segment - it was a five-part report - the last segment concentrated on the future. But it didn't talk about steroids. It talked about the genetic manipulation of muscle tissue, a procedure that's going to make steroids look like bubble gum. And the reporter said, "I want you to imagine a day, not too far off, when there are 400-pound sprinters and 12-foot-tall basketball players." The segment ended by quoting from the head of the anti-doping committee of the International Olympic Committee, who said that in the future we will witness the end of sports. What we'll be watching will no longer be athletic competition. It will simply be "the physical activity of mutants."

But there are more serious dangers than just the destruction of sports that forbidden knowledge threatens. Unbridled knowledge, the reckless pursuit of this kind of dangerous knowledge, threatens human lives and even human nature. Last week the Associated Press published a story entitled "Genetic Mingling Mixes Human, Animal Cells." It was about the development of chimeras - which are beings that combine cells from two different species into one animal, one organism. In this story, according to AP biotechnology writer Paul Elias, In January, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed a proposal to create mice with brains nearly completely made of human brain cells.

Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who chaired the ethics committee, said the board was satisfied that the size and shape of the mouse brain would prevent the human cells from creating any traits of humanity. Just in case, Greely said, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice's behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior. (AP story, Friday, April 29, 2005)

Now, I don't know about you, but that raises some questions for me. Like, how are they going to tell if the mouse begins to display human-like behavior? What's it going to do, wink at them? Ask to bum a cigarette? Haven't these people ever watched "The Fly"? Don't they know what happens? And most of all, this question: doesn't that worry you just a little bit?

So, there's a danger - a danger that threatens us, but another danger that threatens us even more personally and directly. That is the danger of what loveless knowledge can do to ourselves. It's the harmful effect it has on us. "Knowledge," says the Apostle, "puffs up." He's thinking here about what knowledge does to me, the knower, when I treat it as an end in itself without consideration to the effects it has. Such knowledge overinflates my ego. It makes me proud and disdainful of those whom I consider to be beneath me. Loveless knowledge turns arrogant and contemptuous and dismissive of others. Time for a little bit of context here. In this passage, Paul is speaking to the church in Corinth. That's pretty obvious; I mean, this does come in a letter which he addresses "To the church of God that is in Corinth" (1 Corinthians 1:2). But the reason for the letter--actually, the letters--to the Corinthian Christians was because of problems that had arisen there. The church in Corinth, as we like say, had some issues. And one of those issues--in fact, probably the chief among them--was the development, the existence in Corinth of a kind of a haughty group of people who considered themselves to be "in the know." Gnosis, "knowledge," was their watchword. They were apparently a sort of prototype of the group that would later come to be called "Gnostics." Gnosticism taught that salvation could be secured for the chosen and select few by the pursuit of hidden knowledge, secret knowledge, especially of the spiritual world. And Paul criticizes this brand of spiritual elitism first of all for the effect that it has upon its adherents. It puffs them up. It'll puff you up, he says. The word that he uses there is relatively rare in the New Testament. It means "to be swollen with conceit." In fact, it occurs only once outside of the book of First Corinthians, but it occurs six times within that book, the last of them in the great list of things from chapter 13 that Paul says love is not: "Love is not arrogant."

So another problem with loveless knowledge is what it does to me, the knower; and still another is what it causes me to do to my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. Let me quote again from 1 Corinthians 8, this time the whole verse. "Now concerning food sacrificed to idols," writes Paul, "we know that 'all of us possess knowledge.' Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (NRSV). So he's talking about a problem that seems to have been fairly widespread in the early church: the issue of what to do about food that had been used in idol worship, had been sacrificed. The animal would be slaughtered at a pagan temple, but the food, then, from the carcass would be carved up and sold to the public. What about that? Was it permissible for Christians to eat that? Well, the knowledge party in Corinth said, "Yeah, of course it is." They had a pretty clear insight into the reality here that the idols had no real existence (v. 4), so eating this food was a matter of indifference. And Paul's response to them is basic agreement. That's true, he says, but have you considered these more important questions? What will your behavior do to those around you for whom this is a crisis of conscience - whose faith is not sufficiently formed to enable them to do this without guilt? What if your example leads them to sin against their own conscience? What then? And Paul's answer is clear: "Be careful," he writes, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol's temple, won't they be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.

1 Corinthians 8:9-12, TNIV

Now, the issue of food that is sacrificed in a pagan temple is no longer a live one for most of us. But we have plenty of contemporary instances of the kind of intellectual or theological arrogance that can lead us even to destroy - or at least to disparage - our brothers and sisters in the body. Consider, for example, the use of the word "fundamentalist." When delivered with a suitably derisory tone of voice, it becomes the epithet of choice for many, including Christians. And yet, if we understand that word in its original sense--at root a fundamentalist is basically a person who can recite the Apostles' Creed without crossing their fingers back--each of us is, or ought to be, a fundamentalist. On the other hand, consider the disdain we feel and the words we mutter or repeat to our friends about those whom we consider to be too far to the left on the theological spectrum. Or, to speak plainly in this academic setting, consider the arrogance of some who feel it is their mission in life to undermine the simple, naïve faith of those who are younger or less mature in Jesus Christ than they themselves. Here's an apostolic news bulletin: the Lord hasn't appointed anybody in the church to the office of Faith Under-Miner or Scruples-Remover. It is a fearful thing to tamper with the mind or the conscience of another person. Which is why those of us whose are called to the responsibility of teaching or preaching have such need of humility. "Not many of you should become teachers," writes the Apostle James, "for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." (James 3:1)

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. "Love edifies." To love is to live constructively. Love builds up the community. One of the Apostle's favorite images for the church in 1 Corinthians is the not-yet-completed building of God (1 Corinthians 3:9-16), to which we all contribute. We're all adding to the walls, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Love builds up the body; it also builds up the individuals who are the living stones that constitute the body. When I think about the meaning of agape and how it differs from eros, and you've all heard sermons about that, I think about two different scenes. The first is a wildflower-studded alpine meadow with snowy peaks across the horizon. The second is a beautifully tended garden in a riot of full bloom. Now, both of those are beautiful - and both are loved, both those scenes. But the one is loved because it is beautiful, and the other is beautiful because it is loved. And that's what agape is: it's the love that beautifies, that builds up, its object.

I love this story that is told about Martin of Tours. Martin was a fourth-century Catholic bishop in Gaul, but early in life he was a Roman soldier. And one day the young soldier Martin was riding in winter into the city of Amiens, and he saw there shivering by the gate of the city a beggar, who looked to him beseechingly. Martin had no money, but he took off his cloak, drew his sword, cut it in two pieces and shared it with the beggar. That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw the Lord Jesus--exalted in heaven, surrounded by the glory of the angels--wearing half of a Roman soldier's cloak. And an angel asked him, "Lord, why are you wearing such a ragged garment?" "Because my friend Martin gave it to me," Jesus said. A month or so ago I was standing on a railway platform at a station in India. And a beggar wheeled himself over to me. He was on a little, low cart, his crippled, atrophied legs bent uselessly beneath him, and he pushed himself over with his hands on the pavement, and looked beseechingly at me. But what could I do? What was one drop of pity in such an ocean of misery? And besides, I knew from experience that as soon as I gave him something I would be swarmed with hands reaching out. So I looked away from him until he went away. And you know, now - now I can't help but think, "I wonder if I missed a chance to give a gift to my friend Jesus?"

Loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength; loving neighbor as we love ourselves; loving God by loving neighbor - that is to live constructively. So love the Lord God with everything you are and have, and love your neighbor as yourself - your black neighbors or your white or your Hispanic, your elderly neighbors, your gay neighbors, your unborn neighbors, your African neighbors . . . and your Indian.

I take it we are all familiar with 1 Corinthians 13. But I wonder if we pay sufficient attention to the great antitheses with which Paul opens that chapter. "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong, or a clanging symbol." Eloquence--even Spirit-inspired eloquence--without love is pointless. "And if I have prophetic powers, to understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." And, "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing." Eloquence, knowledge, wisdom, power--none of them mean anything without love. As Karl Barth once remarked, they're like so many zeroes with no positive number in front: however long the string of your accomplishments, without love it all adds up to nothing. Love is what will make your life a success. If you have it, if you demonstrate it, then whatever else you lack, your life is successful. If you lack it, then whatever else you do, your life is a failure.

Today you graduate from college, and I congratulate you. But you have not yet taken your final exam. One day your life - and mine - will be tested, finally and forever. It's going to be an open-book exam with just one question: Not "How much did you make?" Not "How much did you know?" Not "How much did you publish?" Not "How much did you own?" Not even "How much did you accomplish?" Just this - "How much did you love?"