Despite the density of so much of his writing, Paul does have his poetic moments.
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” he proclaims to the Corinthians. In the intricacy of the argument about idols and eating, it would be easy to miss, but it is a little gem, nestled into a messy setting too fussy for it. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
The bit about eating meat is, frankly, for us a red herring. We can allegorize it to a million different temptations, distractions, kindnesses and customs that give us pause, wondering whether we are wounding the consciences of others by flaunting our freedom, the freedom founded in our forgiveness, our foothold in the established order, and our frail grasp of power dynamics. But the principle behind the thing is all about love.
Love builds up.
I am not by any means anti-intellectual. There are those who would argue that is one of my failings. But having been raised by educators and taught at the kitchen table not to randomly split infinitives [that hurt to type], nor to end sentences with a preposition, I can claim to have been branded with a certain respect for knowledge, and I don’t think Paul is so different, either. He is not disparaging the accumulation of knowledge – after all, he says, we all have it, we all know stuff – but it is how we use it that defines the kind of Christians that we are. Knowledge by itself puffs up, makes us vain, arrogant even; but when love guides its use, its application, we are deflated, not diminished but brought back to our proper proportions, so that we can do our part to build up others.
There is a humility to love which knowledge alone lacks. Elsewhere in this same letter, in another poetic flight, Paul writes that, “Love does not insist on its own way.” Whereas knowledge – O God – knowledge knows that it is right, and it will fight to be heard and it will not take no for an answer. Hell hath no fury like the one who knows that she is right, and who scorns the ignorant.
Knowledge certainly has its place in the pantheon of superpowers, and without it love may have little backbone. But speaking from experience, and less poetically than Paul, knowledge without love can be a bit of a jerk.
This is more than a “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” argument. It is not a strategy, but a way of being, a way of being that we are called to as Christians.
When Jesus arrived in Capernaum, he did two things right away. First of all, he taught. Knowledge clearly is a good thing; he taught with confidence, with authority, with a firm grasp of scripture and of the will of God, and the people were engaged and amazed. Then, perceiving that an evil spirit was in the place, he paused. He put down his scroll. He took the knowledge that this was the Sabbath, that this was the synagogue, and he took the knowledge of what was expected of a rabbi teaching, and of the people gathered, and he rolled them up and hid them in his robe. For now, that knowledge could wait. Even the demon’s knowledge of him, naming him, crying out, that knowledge, too, could wait.
For the moment, it was love’s turn to speak, to teach with its own authority. “Be quiet, and come out of him,” said Love, for the love of God, for the love of humanity, for the love of this one man, standing before the beating heart of God.
The third promise in our baptismal covenant speaks of proclaiming the gospel, the good news of God in Christ, by word and example, in word and deed – as Jesus does in the synagogue, speaking the word of God to the people, enacting it in healing work. It is the perfect marriage of knowledge and love, word and deed.
The good news of God in Christ is that we know through Christ that God loves the world that God has made, so much so that God would die for it, would live for it, will not let it go, no matter how far from God it may fall.
We possess that knowledge, as Paul points out; but knowledge too often brushes away our fears, turns tactfully away from our tears. Knowledge too often finds an end in itself. Rather than using it to puff ourselves up, we must make sure that our knowledge is made useful to those who need to know that God loves them, without exception; that God calls them back from the grave; that God waits to embrace them; not because we know it all and are boastful, but because we have received in all humility the greatest good news a person can know: that we are loved.
Love, which brushes away our tears, hugs away our fears. Love, in humility, offers itself as a building block for one whose life has been demolished, for one whose hope lies in rubble.
We can proclaim the good news of the gospel with words, with letters and bumper stickers and public prayers and private conversations. But it will fall on deaf ears unless we can back it up with deeds, with acts of kindness, mercy, forgiveness; waiting on opportunities to demonstrate God’s embrace.
Perhaps, after all, poetic Paul puts it the best.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.”
But love endures.
I think of that man, in the synagogue at Capernaum, standing before the beating heart of God and understanding, once and for all, what love can do. I think of that old saying, that we are Christ’s hands and feet in this world now, and I wonder what it would feel like to become, too, the beating heart of God, to offer that love wherever we are able.
And I give thanks, that we are able still to come before the heart of God, offered for us in the sweet sacrifice of love, and know, and know, that we are forgiven, healed, renewed by the love of God.