A sermon preached at`St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on  January 29, 2012, by Christopher L. Webber.

Marcus Borg is a well-known scholar with a doctorate from Oxford who has written a lot of books  about Jesus.  I heard him speak a few years ago at the Cathedral in Hartford  and he spoke about his upbringing in  a Lutheran Church in the upper mid-west and how he had rebelled against  the very narrow and judgmental expression  of Christian faith he found there.  Later in life he became an Episcopalian, and if he found mid-western Lutheranism too confining  he has apparently found the Episcopal Church not confining enough.

Borg is a member of the so-called “Jesus Seminar,”  a group of scholars who meet everyyear to exchange views and get publicity for themselves.  They vote, for example, as to whether or not Jesus really said what the Bible says he said or did what the Bible says he did.  Which is all very interesting as an academic exercise  but kind of misses the point.

Borg is a Canon Theologian at the Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle but when someone asked him once to differentiate  his views from those of the Unitarian Church (which denies the divinity of Christ) he said there really wasn’t very much difference.  But there is all the difference in the world  between studying an historical record  and understanding its meaning for human life. Here is this widely read and highly educated man who knows so much about Jesus – but doesn’t know Jesus.  And that’s sad;  and it really misses the point.

The Epistle this morning makes a critically important point in its opening words when it says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  St. Paul is writing to new Christians  who are trying to live out the gospel as they are beginning to understand it.  “You are free from the law,” said St. Paul.  So some of them had set out to break the law  to demonstrate their freedom.  “We don’t have to keep kosher any more,” they said,  and they invited their friends in for dinner and served up a roast that had been offered previously at a pagan shrine.  And their guests said, “Wait a minute! How can you eat food offered to idols.” “No problem,” said the hosts, “we know idols are foolish.” “That’s true,” said the guests, “but once food has been offered to idols, true or false, we don’t want to eat it. It offends us to be associated with idols in any way.” So they wrote to St. Paul and asked, “Who’s right?” And St. Paul said, “You’re both right.”  (Paul was probably an Episcopalian.) “We know that idols are nothing,” he wrote, “but if my knowledge offends my fellow Christian, I won’t take advantage of it. Love is more important than knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Well, OK, but then why do we send our kids to school? Why do we read the papers? For that matter, why do we study the Bible?  Just to get puffed up? I think we need to make some distinctions between different kinds of knowledge. I think, for starters, there’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom.   There are “wisdom” books in the Bible  but they aren’t chock-a-block with facts.  What they offer is something far more important:  the knowledge gained not of facts but of life.  They tell you how to live.

This is wisdom:

“Let another praise you,  and not your own mouth.”  (Wisdom 27:2)

“Better is a neighbor who is nearby than a friend who is far away” (27:10)

“Like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so are the lazy to their employers.” (10:26)

“To guarantee loans for a stranger brings trouble (11:15)

Now is it better to know that kind of thing, or the square of the hypotenuse and the President of Croatia?  Can you get wisdom from a microscope  or a test tube or a CAT scan?  No way!  So there’s knowledge and there’s wisdom;  knowledge is good, but wisdom is better.  Wisdom is a deeper kind of knowing, isn’t it?  A knowledge not acquired by reading books  or going to school  or working in a research center.  It can’t be measured, or analyzed, or demonstrated by scientific experiment, but what a difference it makes to have that kind of knowledge!

You may remember that the word “sophomore” means “a wise fool” – someone who knows a little  but not enough.  I don’t know why we use that for people in their second year of high school or college when it might fit better on recent graduates: people who know some facts but still have to leam about life.

Here’s another way to look at it:  I’m sure you’ve heard of “carnal knowledge.”  The Bible also talks about that kind of knowledge.  God says to the chosen people,  “You only have I known of all the people of the earth”  and the word used is the word used for a sexual  relationship.  God knows us that intimately –  unfortunately – because the Bible then goes on to say, “Therefore I will punish you.”  But isn’t that the way we behave too?  Punishment is for our children not the neighbors children;  they are the ones we know and therefore they are the ones we discipline.

I was watching the morning news one day and they brought on a child development expert and I’m always interested to see  whether they have some wisdom to pass on –  wisdom, not information. And this one said you should talk to your child everyday. Not that’s pretty basic; you would hope we lived in a society where you didn’t need to be told that –  but we don’t.  There are parents who think that buying toys for their children and  putting them on the school bus will do it.  It won’t. That’s not enough.  So to say, “talk to your children,”  is some wisdom that needs to be passed on –  wisdom, not information.  But if you don’t talk to your children,  how can you know them,  really know them or know anyone, for that matter?  And how can your children – or anyone else –  know you – if you don’t talk to them?  And what kind of community would we have if we didn’t know each other?  That’s a real question today.

They talk about computer systems that will bring you movies and groceries and  everything you could possibly want and you’ll never have to leave your  easy chair –  and we will truly become vegetables, no longer human beings at all, knowing no one and nothing, all the information in the universe and no wisdom.  Small children and rocket scientists  can cope with computers  and even set the VCR, but we don’t put them in charge of foreign affairs; that takes wisdom, it takes a knowledge of human life  and, ideally, of moral principles.

Now, I’ve been talking about the opening words of the epistle, but I think we ought to put that together now with the gospel readings of the last few weeks.  We’ve had two stories about Jesus calling disciples, and today a story about the formal beginning  of his ministry.  He goes into the synagogue to teach and a man possessed cries out  “I know who you are: the holy one of God.”  And Jesus rebukes him and silences him.  The man had knowledge of a sort, but not wisdom.

Jesus called – well, we say he called “disciples”  but that’s our word not his.  I think it’s too narrow a word; it means someone being taught.  But Jesus called people to follow him;  not just to listen to him, but to be with him, to know him. And it wasn’t a matter of sitting down for advanced instruction in religious principles; it was, literally, following –  going from village to village,  climbing an occasional mountain,  taking a boat from one side of the lake to  the other,  being with him in a storm,  being with him at a banquet,  being with him when he healed the sick,  being with him when he reached out to the lepers, and being with him when he sat down with the tax collectors.  Every now and again he gave them a little test: when I fed the 5000 how many loaves did we have?  Who will love more,  the one forgiven a few sins or the one forgiven many?  Who do people say I am?  Who do you say I am?  

The disciples did fairly well on those tests, but then there was another test; “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Actually, that was a make-up exam because Peter had failed the first test.  And eventually Peter passed it,  when he was crucified himself.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  In one version of the epistle, they put the word “knowledge”  in quotation marks  and I think they’re trying to indicate  that there’s a knowledge-so-called  and there’s a knowledge-that-matters.  Maybe you could also call it wisdom; why not?  But also you might call it love, perhaps,  call it an experience of the love of God –    the kind the disciples gained by watching Jesus respond to the sick and  hungry and needy – and by watching him die –  the kind we ourselves can gain  by faithfulness in prayer and  Bible study, and by gathering around an altar  to share the bread of life  and by working with other Christians  to create a community in which God’s love can  be experienced right here, right now.  That builds up.  It builds us up into something more like the potential implanted in us.    It’s also the kind of wisdom the disciples gained by watching Jesus respond to the sick and  hungry and needy – and by watching him die.  It’s the kind of wisdom  we ourselves can gain  by faithfulness in prayer and  Bible study, and by gathering around an altar  to share the bread of life  and by working with other Christians to create a community in which God’s love can be experienced right here, right now.  That builds up.  It builds us up into something more like the potential implanted in us.  It’s the kind of wisdom that unites us in love with God.

1 Comment

ScoopJanuary 29th, 2012 at 4:39 am

This dovetails nicely with my thoughts about whether it is necessary to understand Eucharist in order to be admitted to partake in Eucharist. I wish I had thought of this point. Thank you for your love, as well as your wisdom.

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