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The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall The Rev. Dr. Laura Mendenhall

The Rev. Dr. Laura S. Mendenhall is the former president of Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA, and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

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Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA


The Limitations Imposed by Love

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

February 02, 2003

My husband and I have been married for over 32 years. We know the limitations imposed by love. For example, if some terribly handsome movie star should come to my office asking for pastoral care, I could pray with him, but I could not accept his invitation to further extend pastoral care by joining him in the Bahamas for the weekend. While some would declare this as a lost opportunity on my part, what I have come to understand is that my life is actually much less complicated because of a decision I made years ago--a decision to allow my love for my husband to limit my relationships with other men.

My love for my children has imposed other limitations on my life. Over the years, I have made sure that I left my work in time to fix dinner for them, that I could be home with them when they were sick, that I was able to go to soccer games and school plays. On occasion, I imagined how much more I could get done if I had given my work my undivided attention. However, while I fantasized about more commitment to my work, it was always my family who came first. As I figured it, those were the limitations imposed by love.

Looking back, I now realize how much my family has given me, how I became a better pastor because of them, how glad I am that I heeded those limitations imposed by my love for them. It is with this understanding regarding the limits imposed by love that I read the letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. Paul was trying to help a church family through a squabble. It appears that some would like to be free to eat food that had been used in the worship of idols. Since they knew that these idols were no threat to the one true God, that this food was just food, then there was no reason to waste good food. However, others in the church family still worried about the idols. These folks believed that to eat the food that had been used in the worship of idols was to lessen their devotion to God. What was this church family to do?

Paul agreed that there was nothing wrong with eating this food except that to do so would not take seriously the concerns of those who still worried that this would link them with idol worshippers. Consequently, the limitations imposed by love dictate that they not eat the food. Even though those concerned about eating the food were wrong, love for one another took precedence over principles.

As Paul said later in this letter, "Love does not insist on its own way." And so while we acknowledge the importance of knowledge and of freedom, we also acknowledge that what must determine our behavior is our love for one another. We are not free to think only of our own response to a situation. We have to take in account those affected by our actions. The health of the body of Christ--the church--takes priority over our knowledge and our freedom. These are the limitations imposed by love.

Paul does not seem concerned about what impact eating the food might have on those outside the church. He is, however, concerned about what sort of witness is made when others see the church squabbling with one another. Therefore, those in the church in Corinth had to be concerned when some could not shake the notion that eating food associated with idols was a sin. While Paul does not consider this food to be a sin, he does believe that it would be a sin to cause members of the family to act against their conscience.

For Christians, there is a value higher than our knowledge and our freedom. For our knowledge of God is limited and finite anyway, and our freedom does not release us from our responsibility for our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are bound to live within the limitations imposed by love.

Love welcomes those with very different outlooks--Jews and Greeks, slave and free, male and female--to be one in Christ. Love works to keep the various segments of the community from splintering into warring factions. Love is the only way those with different points of view can experience genuine community in Christ. Love means that each one of us has to know that we have to be the one making the compromise. It is not somebody else who needs to compromise for us. These are the limitations imposed by love.

Such limitations do not mean that we avoid conflict. In fact, Paul insisted that this particularly difficult issue in the life of the early church be confronted. The church was exactly the place for these difficult discussions. Paul simply urges that every member of the community be taken seriously, for knowledge does not belong to any one segment of the church. Good, intelligent, faithful disciples of Jesus Christ will interpret Scripture differently. Therefore, we must listen to one another, really listen, not in order to correct one another but in order to learn from one another.

Our differences are not because some are stupid and some are smart, not because some are virtuous and others are wicked; rather, the life experiences of some cause them to interpret Scripture one way, whereas others, out of their life situations, have a different interpretation, and at some point, it does not even matter who is right and who is wrong, because Christ has called us to live together as the church. Therefore, dialogue becomes our protection against self-righteousness. For without the ministry of our opponents, we can easily become proud and pretentious, cutting ourselves off from the work of grace by judging our faith and practice to be so correct that we do not think we need grace. Knowledge has the power to convince us that being right is of the highest value. Yet, Paul warns the church in Corinth knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.

Scripture calls us to hold our convictions but always with humility. It is more important to be loving than to be right. These are the limitations imposed by love.

As is often the case, the resolution of differences was important to the life of the church in Corinth. Their central act of worship was the Lord's Supper, eating a meal together. If they had allowed each one to do as their conscience directed them at this meal, their community would have been destroyed. It was a classic standoff between liberals who believed they can eat the meat and conservatives who believed eating the meat was strictly forbidden. Surely, there was a temptation to claim an irreconcilable impasse rather than to work for reconciliation, but to say irreconcilable would be an affront to the Christ who called us to be a church together. So Paul reminded them to be on the lookout for the strong convictions of knowledge and the fervent passion of freedom that could puff them up and cut them off from one another.

Likewise, we need to commit ourselves to the love that builds up. Paul calls us to recognize when the limitations imposed by love take away the weight of being right. Surely, Paul's words to the church in Corinth continue to speak to us today, calling us to step forward, to recognize the limitations imposed by love, and to play a reconciling role in our families and in our church family. Surely, Paul's words to the church in Corinth continue to lift up for us the importance of our commitment to the body of Christ, the church. This does not mean we hold back on our differences, but, rather, that we see our diversity as God's gift to us, a guard against self-righteousness, and a reminder that God's ways are not our ways. We need one another in order to more fully discern the will of God.

Paul calls us to welcome and accept those with differing points of view in ways that honor and reflect the Lord's welcome and acceptance of each one of us. So may we continue to live within the limitations imposed by love in our homes and in God's house and may we be blessed with a continuance of God's love that is big enough to hold all the pain in the world.

Thanks be to God for such a love in Jesus Christ, the One who is the head of the church. Amen.

I invite you to join me in prayer.

Almighty God, in Jesus Christ you called disciples and by your Holy Spirit you made them one church to serve you. Receive our prayers which we offer before you for all members of your Holy Church, that in our vocations and our ministry we may truly and devoutly serve you. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, restore the penitent. Never let us board up the narrow gate that leads to life with rules or doctrines that you dismiss, but give us a spirit to welcome all people with affection so that your church may never exclude any friends of yours. Help us to welcome new things you are doing in this world and to respect old things you keep and use. Save us from senseless controversy; do not let us tear away from one another through division or hard argument. Let us never be so sure of ourselves that we condemn the faith of others or refuse reunion with them, but make us ready to reach out for more truth. Help us to determine what is good for us and for all people. Give strength to those who are searching together for that kind of obedience which creates unity. Heal the divisions separating your children one from another so that they will make fast with the bonds of peace the unity which the Spirit gives so that your Church may be joined in love and service to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, the One is whose name we pray. Amen.


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