Are You Free?

Sermon on 1 Cor 8:1-13

Psalm 111:1-3 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures for ever.

Introduction

I was taken with the idea that love never participated with law. I was deeply invested in pursuing what seemed a clear and eternal divergence between divine command and promise, following closely to a specific reading of Martin Luther’s theology—the distinction between law and gospel. In this scheme, to be in a loving relationship with someone else means never making any demands on them. Here, Love is about creating space for that person to be as they are wherever they are whenever they are; this was the liberty of God’s grace, the freedom in Christ: true rest from the demands to “perform” and “people please” and “earn righteousness through work” and thus “true life”. While some of these ideas find some grounding (albeit with intentional nuancing), the underbelly of this theology wasn’t rest, freedom, and life but increased suffering, burden, and death. Well, it was rest for one group and toil for everyone else not in that group.

Then one day as I stood in a large church auditorium like sanctuary, watching a video of people talking about the liberative experience of this specific interpretation of God’s love and grace, I saw it. It was the last video. A married couple was sharing their story. The husband spoke about how wonderful this conception of grace was because now he comes home from work and there is no expectation on him to help with the kids or other events, he can rest if he wants to—fall back on the couch, kick shoes off, grab a beer, and watch some tv. Then the camera turned to the wife. “Yeah…,” she said half-heartedly. “It’s great because now when he helps, he wants to.” While her words affirmed her husband’s experience, her face and her eyes told me everything I needed to know. She was not free. She was not rested. She was exhausted, burdened, and suffering by being stripped of any ability to ask for help and to confess pain and discomfort because it would be “law” to him and thus “condemnation.” She was dead. When you see death, you can never unsee death.

That image—her face, her desperate eyes—fuels my academic and pastoral pursuits now as I’ve walked away from that destructive theology.[1] Liberty and freedom in Christ brings liberty and freedom to all and not at the expense of another’s body, mind, soul, and spirit. A relationship is only loving and free where both people in the relationship are mutually engaged in each other’s thriving not in turning a blind eye to things. Where both step into the exposing light of love calling a thing what it is and are willing to do self-reckoning work.

1 Corinthians 8:8-13

Now, “food of any kind will not prove us to God.” Neither if we do not eat are we lacking, nor if we eat are we over and above. But discern carefully this power to act of yours does not become a stumbling block for the weak.

1 Corinthians 8:8-9, translation mine

Paul proclaimed that the believer is justified by faith in Christ (ευαγελλιον) apart from works of the law. She need only faith in Christ, and this becomes the sole foundation of her justification and righteousness with God—there are no works of the law that can justify or make righteous as completely as faith does. Thus, the believer is liberated from the threat of condemnation and death that leads to death and is now free to love God and neighbor. There is nothing that can or will separate her from the love (presence) of God—not even hell. This is the freedom Paul proclaims to his fledgling churches: freedom inherent in the event of encounter with God in faith liberating into life and living. God in Christ comes to the believer, calls her, and rescues her from death into new life in the Spirit. This is grace.

In chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, Paul pumps the freedom brakes. He details guidelines for the Corinthian believers finding themselves in a conundrum. Some believers are fine eating meat “associated with offerings to pagan deities.”[2] They are whom Paul refers to as “the strong”—a phrase referring to both those confident in their faith and who were wealthy and had access the occasions to eat such meat.[3] Paul writes, while it is true that neither eating nor abstaining from this meat has an impact on their presence before God, it may have an impact on those “weaker” brothers and sisters—those who were both insecure in their faith (unsure about what is okay and not okay) and lower in social status.

Paul challenges the knowledge (γνωσις) of “the strong” resulting in their liberty to eat what they want and do what they please. Paul declares that knowledge (alone) puffs up and inflates and lures toward being an imposter; but paired with love it builds up authentically edifying both the beloved and the lover (vv. 1-2).[4] In other words, “the strong” should keep γνωσις yoked to αγαπη (love): even if they are free to eat, they should care more for their “weak” brother or sister who didn’t have the same access to such food and security in the liberty of their actions.[5]

Paul makes it clear that this love isn’t self-generated but imparted in the encounter with God in the event of faith (v.3). To love God is to be loved by God and known by God; this becomes the foundation for the love fractal. As we are loved by God, we love that which and those whom God loves seeing and knowing those whom God loves by seeing and knowing them, too.[6]

Paul’s point isn’t to side with the “strong” Corinthians or the “weak”, but to say: the composition of the conscience (secure or insecure) can lean toward a miscalculation about what is right to do and what is wrong.[7] Operating out of fear is as problematic as operating out of abundance of confidence. Paul warns “the strong” that their supposed liberty isn’t a reason for autonomous activity without considering the effect on others. [8] It’s not strictly about intent for Paul, these Christians may truly believe they’re free. Impact must also factor in here. For Paul, this is done with freedom wedded to love. Just because you can, says Paul, doesn’t mean you should because it may cause others to be polluted by being tripped up by your actions. [9] For Paul, a future forward ethic keeping in mind the potential impact of one’s actions/words on other brothers and sisters is the definition of freedom

Conclusion

For those who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan and for those who have ears pricked and heads turned hearing Christ call them by name, what is freedom for you? To follow Jesus as disciples means that freedom is going to take on an orientation toward the other. A cruciform freedom puts “weak” brothers and sisters before us. This is not to the loss of our freedom as if we lose ourselves, but in that we have received ourselves in the love of God in the encounter with God in faith, we enter into the plight with our brothers and sisters. True freedom for me is actualized only in freedom for you; if you are not free, am I free? [10] It becomes about mutuality. Mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz explains,

“Commitment to mutuality is not a light or easy matter. It involves all aspects of one’s life and demands a lifelong permanency. The way in which the commitment is lived out may change. From time to time one maybe less passionate about carrying out the implications of mutuality, but somehow to go back and place oneself in a position of control and domination over others is to betray others and oneself. Such a betrayal, which most of the time occurs by failing to engage in liberative praxis rather than by formal denunciation, results in the ‘friends’ becoming oppressors once again and in the oppressed losing their vision of liberation.”[11]

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology p. 100

If I in my strength cannot tame my liberty and walk with you so you can have your liberty, then I’m not free. If I cannot deem the liberties and freedoms of others as important as mine, then I have not freedom but bondage. If I am threatened by you having as much liberty and freedom as I do, I’m not free. If my autonomy must eclipse and ignore your need; I’m not free but captive.[12]

To be free, to be truly free isn’t to claim your rights as absolutes and acting on them no matter what. To be free, to be truly free is to say with Christ: into this I can enter with you. (This is solidarity.) Freedom can both break the law and obey it because it knows when to do which. If we’re free, then we are free–free to share in the burden of existence while trying to alleviate the yoke of suffering without losing our freedom. If stepping into the anxiety, fears, and concerns of our neighbor means we’ve lost our freedom then we didn’t have freedom to begin with. If we are unable to hear the cries of the weak, to listen to their stories of suffering, and affirm their lived experience, we’re not strong. So, beloved of God, you who are sought and called and loved by God: Are you strong? Are you free?


[1] I give credit for the start of this journey to two colleagues: Dr. Dan Siedell and Dr. W. Travis McMaken.

[2] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 620

[3] Thiselton “ε`ιδωλο’θυτα And the Scope of the Corinthian Catchprhases” 617  “…if Theissen and the majority of specialist writers are correct in their sociological analysis of the identities of ‘the strong’ and ‘the weak,’ the issue of eating meat, together with its scarcity for the poor and the variety of social occasions for the rich, has a decisive bearing on Paul’s discussion.”

[4] Thiselton 622 In re γνωσις Gardner “[compares] the contrast between ‘knowledge’ and love in this verse with the parallel contrast between 13:1-1 and the two chapters on ‘spiritual gifts’ which provide its frame. He sis that γνωσις is practical; but its nature and its relation to love can profoundly determine what kind of practical effects it set in motion.” And, “Love, by contrast, builds solidly, and does not pretend to be what it is not. If it gives stature to a person or to community, that enlargement remains solid and genuine.” “knowledge inflates” “φυσιοω suggests the self-importance of the frog in Aesop’s Fables, or something pretentiously enlarged by virtue of being pumped full of air or wind.”

[5] Thiselton 622-3 “Rather than seeking to demonstrate some individualist assertion of freedom or even victory, love seeks the welfare of the other. Hence if ‘the strong’ express love, they will show active concern that ‘the weak’ are not precipitated into situations of bad conscience, remorse, unease, or stumbling. Rather, the one who loves the other will consider the effect of his or her own attitudes and actions upon ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters.”

[6] Thiselton 626  “The kind of ‘knowledge which ‘the strong’ use manipulatively to assert their ‘rights’ about meat associated idols differs form an unauthentic Christian process of knowing which is inextricably bound up with loving.” And, “…it is part of the concept of authentic Christian knowing and being known that love constitutes a dimension of this process.”

[7] Thiselton 640, “Paul sides neither entirely with ‘the weak’ nor entirely with ‘the strong’ in all respects and in relation to every context or occasion. For the self-awareness or conscience of specific persons (συνεδησις αυτων) does not constitute an infallible guide to moral conduct in Pauls’ view….someone’s self-awareness or conscience may be insufficiently sensitive to register negative judgment or appropriate discomfort in some context…and oversensitive to the point of causing mistaken judgment or unnecessary discomfort in others.”

[8] Thiselton 644, “Paul is not advocating the kind of ‘autonomy’ mistakenly regarded widely today as ‘liberty of conscience.’ Rather, he is arguing for the reverse. Freedom and ‘rights’….must be restrained by self-discipline for the sake of love for the insecure or the vulnerable, for whom ‘my freedom’ might be ‘their ruin.’ This ‘freedom’ may become ‘sin against Christ (8:12).”

[9] Thiselton 654 “By projecting the ‘weak’ into this ‘medium” of γνωσις, the ‘strong’ bring such a person face-to-face with utter destruction. What a way to ‘build’ them!”

[10] Thiselton 650-1, “For in the first case, ‘the weak’ or less secure are tripped up and damaged by the self-assertive behavior of the overconfident; while in the second place it is putting the other before the self, manifest in the transformative effect of the cross, which causes the self-sufficient to turn away….True ‘wisdom’ is seen in Christ’s concern for the ‘weak” and the less secure, to the point of renouncing his own rights, even to he death of the cross.”

[11] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 100.

[12] Thiselton 657-8, “Chrysostom comments, ‘It is foolish in the extreme that we should esteem as so entirely beneath our notice those that Christ so greatly cared for that he should have even chosen to die for them, as not even to abstain from meat on their account.’ This comment captures very well the key contrast through this chapter between asserting one’s own ‘right to choose’ and reflecting with the motivation of love for the other what consequences might be entailed for fellow Christians if self-centered ‘autonomy’ rules patters of Christian attitudes and conduct. It has little or nothing to do with whether actions ’offend’ other Christians in the modern sense of causing psychological irritation annoyance, or displeasure at a purely subjective level. It has everything to do with whether such attitudes and actions cause damage, or whether they genuinely build not just ‘knowledge’ but Christian character and Christian community.”

Sacred Seminary Symposium

Episode 4: “By the Rivers of Babylon”

In this episode, Sabrina and I discuss Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s book Mujerista Theology, specifically looking at chapter 3: “By the Rivers of Babylon: Exile as a Way of Life”.

Isasi-Diaz takes time to walk her reader through the structure and language of Psalm 137, a Psalm that marks her life journey as one of exile. Exile is not an easy place to live…when we think of exile we may think of one being a stranger in a strange land, but what if that strangeness is felt both at “home” and one different soil? Those of us accustomed to being “accepted” as part of the dominant and in group do not know this feeling of being neither here nor there. In a world that loves classifying bodies as “illegal” maybe we should stop and think about the strain of permanent exile?

Sabrina and I discuss some of the primary themes of the chapter and drive home the recurring theme that our praxis as Christians matters…even if small, Sabrina reminds us, those small acts have beautiful ripple effects.

Here are some quotes from the chapter we look at specifically:

“I learned how to do scientific exegesis. But no matter how much i tried, I was not able to acquire that disinterested objectivity that seems to be required for this discipline. There are two things that always troubled me about this. First, as a mujerista theologian, a Hispanic women’s liberation theologian, my hermeneutics of suspicion led me to conclude what most of the time thwart is considered objectivity is the subjectivity of dominant groups who can impose their understanding on others.”

page 37

“Then, as I struggle to stand in solidarity with the poor in this country and in other parts of the world, Psalm 137 helps me sustain hope and maintain a countercultural posture while living in one of the richest countries in the world. This means, among many other things, not succumbing to consumerism, not caring so much about always having enough money that I am not generous in sharing what I have. It means that I have to influence other Christians, in whatever way I can, to understand and accept that we cannot call ourselves Christian if we do not avidly work so all can have what humans need in the struggle for fullness of life; food, shelter, healthcare, employment. Psalm 137 helps me to maintain a countercultural position by remind me to ‘live simply so other can simply live.’” 

page 48

“The point of entry is precisely the reader: she is the one who frames the questions being posed about the text and to the text; her hermeneutics will ultimately influence what the text is understood to have meant and meant today. Because scientific biblical studies ignore this, they cannot get at the real meaning of the Bible. Attempts to recover the original meaning in reality turn the Biblical text into an undiscovered archeological artifact.”

page 38

“The ‘speech of assault’, I believe, often becomes not cathartic but rather as a screen for the complicity (by omission if not by commission) of all of us in exile in what has happened in Cuba. The cries for vengeance can indeed function to absolve us falsely of all responsibility for the situation in our country.”

page 46

“middle-class white woman”: “One of the most shocking things that I came to realize many years later was that in coming to the USA my race had changed from white to “Hispanic.” 

page 39 fn 7

Sacred Seminary Symposium

Episode 2: Ch. 1 “A Hispanic Garden in a Foreign Land”

In the previous episode of our special project, Sacred Seminary Symposium, the host of Seminary for the Rest of Us (@seminaryshow), Sabrina Reyes-Peters (@_sdrp), and I dove into the short yet significant introduction of Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. Sabrina noted in the show notes for this first episode, “There’s a lot to dig into, including privilege in theology, liberation, the kind of fruit theology produces…” And those themes continue in this second episode as we narrow in on chapter one: “A Hispanic Garden in a Foreign Land”. We spent this segment addressing specifically the problem of white feminism, specifically white American feminism, the normativity of white cis-het patriarchal theology as a the plumb line to measure “other” theology (read: theology by non-male, non-white, non-hetero theologians), and the necessity to affirm the work of our sisters who have gone before us in this fight while building for future generations.

Follow along, read along, and let us know your thoughts ! Here are the excerpts we reference:

“True sharing of power leads to mutuality, and that is what we mujeristas ask of Euro-American feminists. It is not a matter of their allowing us to share in what they define as good. Nor is it only a matter of each one of us respecting what the other says and defending her right to say it. Mutuality asks us to give serious consideration to what the other is saying, not only to respect it but to be willing to accept it as good for all. Mujerista understandings must be included in what is normative for all feminists.” (19)

“One of the easiest ways to understand the structure of power in a society and within the women’s liberation movement is to look at how we both construct and express what we think. Let us, therefore, look at language. For example, the fact that the word ‘women’ refers only to middle- and upper-strata white women shows who decides what is normative. All the rest of us, in order not to be totally invisible, have to add adjectives to the word…” (20)

“As long as Euro-American feminists do not share power within the movement with Hispanic, African American, and other marginalized racial/ethnic women, the movement will only be capable of bringing about a liberalization of those who control and oppress. Under these circumstances, the feminist movmemnet might moderate patriarchy, but it will not do away with it.” (20-1)

“As a matter of fact, I think the difference exists in part because what she has told me and the way she has lived have pushed me a few steps farther. I believe we must take time to explain this to our older sisters in the women’s liberation movement. We build on what they have wrought. If we only maintain what they have built, the women’s liberation movement will retreat instead of advancing. Our older sisters in the movement must be told time and again that if we can see farther than they do it is because we stand on their giant shoulders and capitalize on what they have accomplished.” (23)

Also, here is a link to an article discussing the “Womanchurch Movement” mentioned in the episode and on page 18 of the text, https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-women-church-movement/

Sacred Seminary Symposium

Introduction to a new joint project between Sabrina Reyes-Peters of “Seminary” for the Rest of Us and Lauren Larkin of “Sancta Colloquia”

What do you do when you realize that your theology is malnourished because you tend to only read theology written from a singular perspective? Well, you get off your ass and fix it. I (Lauren) have grown frustrated with the limited exposure my theological and ecclesiastical education has given me. Turns out, I’m not alone, and that’s good news. Friend and theological and podcasting colleague, Sabrina Reyes-Peters, confessed a similar frustration with her own theological experience. Our theological exposure and education was biased, oriented toward one voice. So, as we kept sharing our frustration with our education the idea was born: we should be reading and expanding our theology to include the broad range of women doing theology.  We thought it would be interesting to invite our podcast audiences in to watch and listen along with our re-education. And with that, we decided we would read (together and publicly) and discuss (not evaluate or critique) the text, Mujerista Theology:A Theology for the Twenty First Century, by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz.

The opportunity to study and discuss Mujerista Theology on an intellectual level is exciting for me (Sabrina), because, as Lauren alludes, my formal education was largely based on one particular voice. The opportunity to study and discuss this book is also very personal for me. As a toddler, my first language was Spanish; in the house, we spoke Spanish. But besides gathering with Puerto Rican family and good friends, all my other contexts were English-language dominant white spaces, and I “lost” my Spanish. That continued throughout the rest of my life, and I became more intimate, partially because of having white privilege, with white culture and white theology, even while picking up some Spanish again (that I’ve since lost, again!). The subliminal message therein was that white, Western men and women have it “right” and others, well, they need help. “Orthodox” became synonymous with ideas that were produced by theological giants of old, and they were usually men, and usually European. That was the dominant perspective.

In the “Preface” of Isasi-Diaz’s text, she writes, 

“This book, Mujerista Theology–A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, is an attempt to take seriously comments made to me regarding the need for more complete elaborations of mujerista theology…My goal has always been and still is to make the churches, womanists, Asian American, Native American, and Euro-American feminists, the theological academy at large, and all those committed to struggles for liberation to take note of the religious understandings and practices that play such an important role in the Latina struggle for survival and liberation in the united states.” 

Isasi-Diaz eloquently describes why it is important for us to engage in this way. Sabrina and I are both very committed (via our personal, profession, and podcasting lives) to the various human struggles for liberation. As feminists we are committed to the liberation of *all* peoples and this commitment must include listening and learning and supporting the voices of all people. If we keep our eye only to that which we have been taught through the authority of white supremacy and patriarchy, our ability to stand with and be a good ally of oppressed groups will be septic and perpetuate oppression. Committed as we are necessitates reading and studying and being taught by women who have experiences that are not similar to ours. And not as a singular experience, but a continual and perpetual dialogue that changes and alters our hearing, our language, our vision, and (importantly) the activity of our bodies in the world. 

It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I (Sabrina) picked up a little theology book written by Justo González, Mañana, that I realized there was so much more to learn outside of the box that I had created for myself. It’s been slow going since then, but upon the continued learning of just how many (practically all of them!) theological frameworks are saturated with the dominant culture thought, I wanted to get serious about decolonizing my theology. Similar to learning to speak a new language, or relearning a lost language, it takes a new way of thinking, doing, and being, but it is necessary work, work that affects the way we move in the world. As we move in the world, are we perpetuating harm by ignoring and silencing the voices of the marginalized? Or are we elevating, listening to, and learning from them?

So, starting in September, we invite you to join us to listen along, read along, watch along, and dialog alongside us. While we will be sharing short quotes from the chapters (1 or 2 per person per chapter), we exhort you to purchase the text to read on your own. We do hope to have guests visit us for some episodes, specifically ones connected to the author since, in this particular case, Isasi-Diaz transitioned on in 2012. The episodes will air monthly, and we will be splitting who publishes the episodes, alternating month to month (so, I, Lauren, will publish an episode through Sancta Colloquia one month and then Sabrina will publish an episode through Seminary for the Rest of Us the next and on it goes). We’d love to hear from you and will receive listener engagement via direct message of our Twitter or Instagram podcast accounts.  

We are excited about this project and are eager “to engage in the struggle for justice.” To further quote from the dedication of the book, 

LA VIDA ES LA LUCHA!