LOVE, THE BUILDER
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 1, 2015, 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Psalm 127; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
1 Corinthians 8:1b

Have I ever told you about the Inflatable Church?

I am not making this up. You can find it on the Internet: “inflatable church.com.” Available for sale or rent.

Somebody in England came up with the idea. It’s kind of like those inflatable bounce houses you see at fairs and festivals (or the one we used to rent on Seafood Festival Day). Only this one’s a church: traditional Gothic architecture and all.

It’s not a big church. Seats maybe 50 people, tops. On the outside it’s made to look like gray stone: a smaller version of the typical English country church.

The chief market for the Inflatable Church is weddings. If you’re planning a wedding reception at some outdoor site, like a public park, or a friend’s back yard, you can rent the Inflatable Church and hold your ceremony inside. It’s waterproof, in the event of rain.

The Inflatable Church is the ultimate example of consumer religion. No membership, no requests to serve on a committee, no stewardship campaign. There is, of course, a rental fee: but that’s for services rendered. One payment — cash, check or credit card — and you’re done. When the ceremony’s over, the guys from the inflatables company turn off the air compressor, fold the thing up and cart it away for the next rental. All that’s left is a patch of flattened grass.

I suppose that’s lots of people’s idea of an ideal church. You pay for it only when you need it: a straight-up commercial arrangement. And when you don’t need it (or don’t think you do), it just goes away.

*****

I got to thinking about the Inflatable Church when I read a line from this week’s New Testament lesson: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It was the “puffed-up” part that made me think of the Inflatable Church. The Greek word Paul uses is phusio. It’s related to the word for bellows — bellows like a blacksmith pumps, to keep air blowing on the fire. It’s a word that even sounds like the thing it represents: phooosio! (Can you hear the puff of air?)

Paul’s writing his letter to the church in Corinth, which is anything but an inflatable church. Those people must seem like the deflated church, with all the problems they have! The particular problem Paul’s addressing here is: food offered to idols.

Now, I don’t care where you’ve lived nor what sort of church you’ve ever attended, but I’m quite sure you’ve never encountered the problem of food offered to idols. It’s a problem pretty much unique to the church of the first couple centuries, the church of the Greek and Roman world.

That early church, of course, was a minority in the pagan culture of the time. In a city like Corinth, there were all manner of temples, dedicated to all sorts of gods. One thing those pagan temples all did well was sacrifice.

Now, animal sacrifice in that day and age was the closest thing to what we know today as a barbecue. And, like our barbecues, the pagan temples were a big source of delicious food. Some Bible scholars think the temples of Corinth effectively served as the city’s meat market. After the gods were done enjoying the barbecue at the first seating — which, for them, was pretty much all about that delicious aroma, wafting up to heaven — there was a whole lot of roast meat left over, down here on earth. And the priests of the temples made a pretty penny selling it off to the general public.

Even with all those temples, meat was pretty expensive. It didn’t find its way onto the dinner tables of the poor very often. Mostly it was the well-to-do — the leading citizens of Corinth, who (be they pagan or Christian) entertained one another at lavish dinner parties. At those gatherings, the diners reclined on couches as servants hovered around, keeping their wine-cups filled. These were the only regular meat-eaters.

Now, the Christian church that Paul started included a cross-section of all sorts of people. There was everybody from the wealthy to the destitute. Among a certain faction of Corinthian Christians — and some think it was mostly the poor ones, for reasons perfectly obvious — a belief arose that it was unfaithful, idolatrous, for Christians to eat meat (because of where the meat came from). Another faction, who just so happened to be wealthy meat-eaters who loved to make the rounds of the dinner parties, said it was perfectly OK, the pagan gods didn’t exist. They had no power over followers of Jesus Christ. Meat was meat, no matter where it came from.

Quite apart from the arcane theological question of the efficacy of pagan sacrifice, the church fight was probably not about the meat. It was more about who was rich and who was poor, and are we one community in Christ or are we not? The fire of that theological battle was stoked with jealousy and envy and social pretensions.
Paul — regarding this situation from afar, as he writes his letter — wasn’t born yesterday. He’s a wise pastor who knows what’s really going down. And so he begins his response by agreeing with the meat-eaters’ faction. “You’re perfectly right,” he says to them. “The pagan gods are nothing. They don’t exist. There’s only one true God, the God of Israel, incarnate in Jesus Christ.”

You can almost imagine the wealthy Corinthian Christians as they hear this letter being read in church for the first time. “Oh, yeah, Paul. You tell ‘em. Go get ‘em. Set those sanctimonious holy rollers straight.”

But, wait. Abruptly, Paul’s argument takes a right-angle turn. “Even so, I think it’s better that all you Corinthian Christians become vegetarian. The meat from the pagan temples can’t hurt you: but, if some of you people are chowing down on standing rib roast while the rest are munching on collard greens, and you don’t know how to share; and if others of you are horrified at the thought that some of your fellow Christians are selling out to the enemy, and you’re not sure you can even sit at the Lord’s Table with them anymore, then you need to put all that nonsense aside and concentrate on the one and only truly important thing.”

And what is that? “It’s not the knowledge that ‘puffs up’ — be it the knowledge of how evil pagan meat is, or the certainty that it’s perfectly harmless. Both sides in this Godforsaken theological brawl are walking around all puffed up, with swelled heads — and the fine little fellowship you people have built for yourselves is about as durable as an inflatable church. No, what you people need there in Corinth is a real church, one that’s constructed of more reliable stuff. At the end of the day, the only thing that builds up the church is love. And wouldn’t you agree: that’s in pretty short supply in Corinth these days, isn’t it?”

*****

Now, you can choose to hear that advice of Paul as ancient history — a matter of reading somebody else’s mail — but if you do, you’re missing the point. The advice Paul gives is universal. It applies to life in the church, to life in the family, to friendships, to marriages — to just about any committed human relationship. The one and only thing that builds a solid, covenantal relationship between human beings is the one thing we all spend our lives searching for. And that, my friends, is love.

It’s hard to find true love out there, you know, because there are all kinds of counterfeits. One of these is addictive love.

Addictive love is the most immature form of love. It’s a beautiful, endearing obsession. You find it, a lot, amongst junior high kids who are just learning to love in a grown-up way. You older people: if you can remember back to your junior high days, just may recall how alluring that sort of love can be — and how terrible when it doesn’t work out (as is true, most of the time, at that stage).

Some people never leave the stage of addictive love, no matter how old they get. Their lives, for the most part, end up being a wreckage of broken promises and shattered relationships. They chase one person after another, obsessively, always in search of the perfect high, but never finding it. The more frantic their search becomes, the more damage they inflict on themselves and others.

Most people, though — once they’re done with adolescent infatuation — move on to another stage: consumer love. This stage is very hard to get out of. Many never do. It can last for years, or even a lifetime.

Consumer love is built on the assumption that human relationships are like business contracts. You know: you scratch my back, I scratch yours. Your task, in such a relationship — your contractual responsibility — is to keep me happy and satisfied. And, for my part (it’s only fair), I agree to do the same for you. All throughout our relationship we need to keep score. We maintain the emotional ledger book. We’ve got to make perfectly certain that the terms of the contract are faithfully and equitably preserved: that neither one of us is demanding too much nor offering too little.

In consumer love, the choice of who you make the contract with is everything. Before making up your mind, you play the field. You test out a wide range of possible contractual partners. You keep “buying up” as many times as you possibly can, jumping from one relationship to another — though not too many nor too often, because that can cause the value of your stock to crash. You rely on certain value-added features — call them advertising — things like beauty products and fitness-center memberships. A good, steady job doesn’t hurt one bit, either. Ideally, you keep on dealing until you can do no better, emotionally speaking. Then, ideally, you settle for a person one rung down the ladder from the one you’re standing on: because that will keep your beloved just a little bit indebted to you (which is not a bad thing, practically speaking). It allows you to enjoy the role of senior partner.

If the contract is constructed carefully, and if the partners are reasonably well-matched, consumer love can seem like a pretty good thing. The best of these relationships can have a fairly long run, some of them even for a lifetime. But they’re not the highest ideal. Consumer love, when you boil it down to its essential element, is all about self-gratification. If your beloved can help you get there, and if you don’t mind doing the same in exchange, then it’s an equitable and comfortable arrangement.

*****

But, there is a better way. Paul hints at it here, in chapter 8, but gives the full blueprint in chapter 13, that famous “hymn to love.” What he says about it here is three simple words: “love builds up.”

It’s a construction metaphor: the Greek word is oikodome, derived from the common word oikos, or house. True love is the greatest of all house-builders.

What true love builds up is: the other person, the partner in the relationship. Now, this may sound a lot like the contract of consumer love, but it’s actually very different. The foundation of this relationship is not a contract at all, but a covenant.

A covenant is not about services rendered, but, rather, services offered — freely, selflessly, lovingly. Covenant love does not seek value. It gives it, demanding nothing in exchange, and never keeping score. When both parties are committed to the covenant in a spiritual sense, scorekeeping is beside the point.

Now, some relationships — a great many, actually — begin with contract love and mature, in time, into a deeper sort partnership. The contract eventually gathers dust in some file-drawer somewhere, forgotten. It served, for a time, the same role training-wheels play, on a bike. Now, it’s no longer necessary.

Such a progression, from consumer love to covenant love, is not likely to happen automatically. It’s not like an apple ripening on the tree after a season or two. It’s not likely to happen all by itself because covenant love requires not only emotional but spiritual maturity. And spiritual maturity never happens without God in your life — in the lives of both of you.

“We come to love,” writes Sam Keen, “not by finding the perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly.” [To Love and Be Loved (Bantam, 1999)]. And where does this capacity come from, but from God — who sees us perfectly?

There are indeed many things in this world that puff up, but only one that builds up: the love of Jesus Christ. It’s fitting that our Lord was a carpenter, a builder: for he places tools of love in our hands, apprenticing us until we ourselves know how to build — our friendships, our marriages, our families, our church — building those covenants up into something truly beautiful for him.

When, by the grace of God, such a transformation comes to pass, our neighbors will know us for who we truly are: Christians. They will know us by our love.

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.