As with last week’s passage from Corinthians, Paul is continuing to talk to the Corinthian community about the challenges they face as they live in the tension between the new freedom they have found in Christ, and trying to live loves that show the love, caring and service of Christ. Yes, he says, we have been given freedom, but that does not mean that we are invited to be so self-centered that we exercise that freedom when it harms other people or, for that matter, any of creation. Once again, our call to follow Christ is all about relationships, living in love with God and with one another. And we are called through those relationships to not just sympathize with those who are struggling, who are poor, who are outcast, who are disenfranchised, who are suffering, who are lost, who are confused, and even those who disagree with us. We are not just called to sympathize with them but instead we are called to IDENTIFY with them, which means understanding them, having compassion for them because we can put ourselves in their places and really understand, at a core level, what it is they experience. That goes way beyond having sympathy or even empathy for their plight. And I don’t think as a culture we are good at this. Instead of putting ourselves in others’ positions and striving to understand where they are coming from or their suffering, we tend to blame and condemn those with whom we disagree or who are different from us, especially when their circumstances are worse than our own. We blame the poor for their own poverty. We blame the outcast for their exclusion. We blame those who have been killed for being killed. We blame and convict and condemn. We don’t struggle to understand or have compassion or to identify with these, our neighbors, these, our brothers and sisters, these – the people we are called to LOVE, not condemn.
In both letters to the Corinthians, Paul is talking to a community of people who are in conflict, who are disagreeing with one another over issues such as the eating of meat and circumcision. And he is admonishing them to stop fighting and start identifying with one another as Christ identified with every single person he met. Jesus had compassion, he opened his heart to them, he did not condemn, but included and healed and loved those everyone else judged and condemned. And he calls us to do the same.
I absolutely love what Bruce Rigdon says about this in his commentary on this passage in (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.) He says, “The church is, therefore, not a community of volunteers, but is itself a part of the gospel, the good news. … What Paul asks is that those on each side identify with those on the other side, in order to become as if they were the ones with whom they disagreed. This will not involve a change in conviction, at least not at first, but it means that they are to recognize what it would mean to act in behalf of those to whom they are opposed. What an intriguing strategy for people in conflict, the more so because it is grounded in Paul's understanding of what God is doing in the world. What would happen if congregations were to attempt this in the pastoral life of the church? Perhaps it would help to set new terms for the conflict itself. Unimagined possibilities might appear, creating greater flexibility and new diversity in place of the increasing hardening of positions. People might learn new ways to speak and listen to one another, thus changing the character of the conflict. Indeed, such an experience might help American Christians in particular, given our culture of individualism, to rediscover Paul's point that the gospel envisions freedom as the right of individuals, not to do as they choose, but rather to relinquish their rights for the sake of others. True Christian freedom therefore expresses itself in service.” He continues by saying this, “One final word. In a world as conflicted and violent as ours, if the church were to be a place where Christians learned to identify with their opponents and to experience God's power to bring about transformation, the church would realize its calling to be a sign of hope and a witness to God's offer of life to the world.”
I think about debate teams in high schools and colleges. When you are part of a debate team, you are often asked to take a position contrary to the one you actually believe, to fight for exactly that position with which you disagree. You are trying to win the debate, and so you are forced, in fighting for a position and a belief that you don’t hold, to really dive into the arguments and positions of those who disagree with you. Studies have found that while arguing the opposite side doesn’t always or even most of the time change a person’s beliefs, that arguing the other position does give a person compassion for what others believe and a deeper understanding of why they hold the beliefs they do. I found myself wondering, as I reflected on Bruce Rigdon’s article and on today’s scriptures, what would happen in our congregations and indeed in our larger denomination, if we were to ask people to do the same thing, to research and argue the opposite position to the one they hold dearly. I wonder if it might not open us to doing exactly what Paul asks us to do – to identify with each other in a way that creates compassion and a willingness to give up some of our individual freedoms for the larger good of the congregation and of the individuals within a congregation.
The gospel passage gives us another example of how the healing invitation of Christ, while giving us freedom, calls us to something different. When Simon’s mother-in-law was healed, we are told that she immediately got up and began to serve them. They had just left the synagogue, this was the Sabbath once again, and once again Jesus and Jesus’ disciples are breaking the Sabbath law by healing and serving on the Sabbath. But she gets it, at a level that the disciples really don’t until after Jesus has died and returned. She, too, gets that her salvation from death through Jesus’ hands gives her the freedom not to spoil herself or luxuriate in self-gratifying abundance, but to serve, love and care for others. Her call, her joy, her way of rewarding, celebrating and following Jesus was to serve and love his people. Imagine if each of us had been given a death sentence and suddenly it was waved and instead we were given freedom and new life instead. What would we do with our new lease on life? Go travel? Go exploring the world? Spend more time with family and friends?
Disciples of Jesus do what this woman did. They see the high honor, the privilege and the gift it is to care for one another, to identify and have compassion for one another. They use that new life to love and serve God’s people. Just as Jesus ministry was both healing and teaching, we are called to love with both our words and our actions.
Richard Selzer tells this story: (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.) "I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face post-operative, her mouth twisted—palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed … to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve. The young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private…. "Will my mouth always be like this?" she asks. "Yes," I say, "it will. It is because the nerve was cut." She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. "I like it," he says. "It is kind of cute." He bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close that I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate her, to show her that their kiss still works…. I hold my breath and let the wonder in."
Seeing one another, identifying with one another, putting ourselves in the other’s shoes so completely that we could argue their case for them, and then choosing out of that understanding to love, have compassion and act with care and service towards the other, even towards those with whom we disagree completely. That is what we, too, are called to do. Amen.