Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 1, 2015
1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Commentary
“Now about food sacrificed to idols….” That is not a zinger opening sentence for a sermon addressed to 21st century North American congregations. Who in the world can relate to something like that? Well, in fact, people in some parts of the world can relate to that very easily, because they do still sacrifice food to idols. But in your congregation and mine, the response to I Corinthians 8 would probably be an irresistible urge to check our text messages. What in the world was Paul talking about, and who cares? (Apparently Paul addressed this issue only because the Corinthian leaders had asked. “Now about your question….”)
Perhaps if we can recapture the cultural setting to which Paul was writing we’ll be able to get into this passage even if it seems irrelevant to us. Like every other major city in the Mediterranean basin, Corinth was filled with temples dedicated to various gods, each of whom was represented by an idol, a visual representation of that god. As part of the worship of that god/idol, the worshipers brought an animal to be killed and then burned on an altar. But not all the sacrifice was burned up. Some of the barbeque was shared with the priests and another part was eaten by the worshipers in a kind of sacramental meal. If there was any of the uncooked sacrifice left over, it was sold in the local meat market.
Apparently, the First Christian Church of Corinth had former idol worshipers in the congregation, along with former members of the local Jewish synagogue. The former had undoubtedly participated in both the sacrifices and the post sacrifice meals, while the latter would have been thoroughly horrified by the thought of such a violation of the 1st and 2nd commandments. In this mixed congregation, there was a dispute, not about whether Christians should worship idols, but about whether Christians might eat meat offered to idols.
That dispute could have taken two forms. It might have focused on participation in those post sacrifice meals. Was that sort of thing forbidden? If so, then those formerly pagan Christians would have to stop socializing with their pagan family and friends, because such quasi sacramental feasts were a big part of the social scene in the ancient world, like a church potluck or a Rotary dinner. Paul seems to answer that question in I Corinthians 10:18-21 with definite and horrified, “NO.” But in this chapter that question is still being debated.
Or the dispute in the Corinthian church might also have been focused simply on eating the sacrificial meat that had been purchased on the open market. If you buy that meat at the market, is it a sin to eat it, whether you knew it came from the pagan temple or not? Are you participating in an idol feast and, thus, in idolatry by eating such meat?
Obviously, the specific issue being debated in ancient Corinth is not relevant for 21st century North Americans, but the underlying question is still a burning problem. How should Christians relate to the surrounding culture? Particularly, how are we supposed to relate to non-Christian family and friends, who are thoroughly enmeshed in our secular culture? When we socialize with them, we will undoubtedly get involved with that culture, too. Is such cultural and relational involvement sinful? When and how?
The question gets even more complicated when we think of the call to go into all the world to make disciples and the call to be separate from the world. How can we evangelize the world unless we are friends of sinners? But how can we be friends of sinners without being “friends with the world and thus enemies of God?” (James 4:4) And, to complicate things further, as we cozy up to sinners either for the sake of friendship or for the sake of the gospel, how can we avoid offending and even damaging the faith of other Christians whose sensitivities about “worldliness” are different than ours? Or to quote Paul in the next chapter of Corinthians, how can we be “all things to all people” without leading a fellow Christian astray? This is a very complicated question that requires careful thinking and self sacrificial love.
That’s exactly how Paul begins his answer to the dispute about eating meat sacrificed to idols—with a little poetic/philosophical riff on knowledge and love. Some in Corinth dealt with the controversy about meat with a knowledge-based approach. That would make sense in a church that Paul initially described as enriched with all knowledge (1:5, et al). So, Paul begins, “We know that we all possess knowledge,” and you can almost hear heads inflate with pride. Indeed, that’s exactly what Paul addresses in his famous next words. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That’s really the philosophical summary of the chapter. Your behavior in the world and in the church must be determined not first of by what you know (even if what you know is the Gospel), but by whom you love.
The problem with knowledge, says Paul, is that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we know. “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” This is not an argument against knowledge per se, or education, or philosophy, or theology. It is an argument against being a “know it all.” The first verb for “know” in verse 2 is in the perfect tense, indicating that the knower thinks that he has a complete and full knowledge. And, says Paul, anybody who thinks he has such knowledge doesn’t really know anything.
Real knowledge begins with love, particularly love for God. When you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, then…. When you humble your mind before God, then…. I repeat those elipses, because Paul doesn’t say what we think he should say. He doesn’t say, “you will know as you ought.” He says, you are “known by God.” So, the key to solving the intricate problem of relating to both culturally toxic unbelievers and culturally phobic believers is not knowledge, but love.
Interestingly, Paul says love is more important than knowledge even if what you know is, in fact, Gospel truth. In verses 4-6 Paul quotes the essential Christian creed about idols and the true God, a creed anticipated in Judaism (cf. Isa. 44:12-20 and Psalm 115, for example). “We know that an idol is nothing in the world and that there is no God but one.” There is simply no reality corresponding to those idols. They are just blocks of wood or stone. There is only one living God. Oh, yes, there are many “so called gods and lord in the world,” but we know that there is nothing to them.
So, all of us who are Christians know that there is really only “one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ….” Paul’s wording there might seem to suggest that Paul is contrasting God and Jesus, as though there is one God and Jesus is not him. But the way Paul describes Jesus in terms that nearly parallel his description of God (“through whom all things came and through whom we live”) indicates that Paul believes Jesus is fully God. He isn’t arguing about the Trinity here; here’s arguing about false gods and the true God. We all know there’s just one true God, and that idols are nothing at all.
Except that not every early Christian knew that clearly. Some new converts from paganism had lived for so long in a world dominated by idols that they couldn’t easily throw off their old habits of thinking. We see the same thing today in Africa and Asia and South America, where Christians can’t entirely shake off the remnants of animism and ancestor worship and voodoo, even though they really believe in Christ as their Savior and Lord. The old beliefs make them weak in their Christian faith. The Corinthians were like former addicts who fight an inner battle whenever they are exposed to drugs.
So, if these former idol-addicts saw another Christian sitting down at a post-sacrificial meal with family and friends, the weak Christians couldn’t get past the thought that this meat has been sacrificed to an idol. It looked as though their more mature Christian friend was participating in an idol feast, and the weak wondered if it was now OK for them to do such a thing. When the weak Christians did participate themselves, encouraged by the example of their Christian friend, they were acting against their conscience and that conscience was, therefore, defiled. They felt guilty. They lost their sense of confidence before God. Their faith was wounded. They were in danger of being “destroyed.” Even if it was just a matter of eating sacrificial meat sold in the market, the sensitive conscience of the former pagans was violated if they ate such meat as they followed the knowledge-based example of a more theologically sophisticated Christian.
You can almost hear the theologically sophisticated Christians say, “Oh come on! Get over it! Grow up! Think clearly about this. We know it’s just food and food doesn’t bring us near to God. It doesn’t make us better and it doesn’t make us worse. It’s just food.” And they were right. Paul knows it and he lets them know he knows it. But being right isn’t the end of the story. You can be right in theory and all wrong in practice, when it comes to the question of how you live as a Christian in a pagan world.
So, says Paul, “be careful that the exercise of your freedom (the word here is exousia, meaning authority or right) does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Yes, you are free to eat anything you want, even though the Old Testament forbade many kinds of food, especially “idol food.” Jesus Christ has set you free indeed. You have a perfect right to eat that idol food. You are right. But don’t let your rights trip up a fellow Christian on the journey to full maturity in Christ. Yes, they are weak in their understanding of Christian truth, and they need to grow. But until they do, you have an obligation to love them where they are. That means you must forego your rights and restrict your freedom for the sake of your weaker brother or sister.
Something in me rebels against that. It feels like I’m being governed by the ignorance of the immature, tyrannized by the minority that doesn’t get it, dictated to by those who don’t have to right to teach me, restricted in my enjoyment of all the goodness of God’s creation. And I think I have a point. It is important to distinguish between judgmental Pharisees and weak Christians. The former just want to impose their uptight regulations on me, while the later simply don’t know better. Like Jesus, I may and must resist the Pharisee, even as I bend low to care for the infant believer. Sometimes it is hard to make the distinction. And it is always hard to make sacrifices, especially sacrifices of hard won freedom and God given rights.
That is probably why Paul ends with a sledge hammer. “So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brother in this way, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.” That feels like a punch in the gut. It takes all the righteous, knowledge based hot air right out of us. Paul says in effect, “You want to make this a matter of knowledge, of thinking? Then think of this. That weak person is someone for whom Christ died. That person who is such a pain to you is so connected to Christ that when you hurt that person you hurt Christ. In fact, if you lead that person into sin by your theologically justifiable behavior, you have sinned against that person. And because of his unity with Christ, you have also sinned against Christ himself.” For Christ’s sake, for that person’s sake, for love’s sake, don’t do anything that would make a fellow Christian fall.
Paul ends with a powerful and personal promise. “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” Now, there are two very important words in that pledge—“if” and “cause to fall.” It may well be that at some point, that weaker brother will grow in his knowledge about idols and God and Christian freedom. Then Paul’s powerful personal promise isn’t in force anymore. It isn’t forever, or for all situations. If I’m not with a weak brother, I can eat whatever I want. The key question is, “Will my eating cause him to fall into sin?” It might offend him. It might make him wonder. It might make him uncomfortable. But if it doesn’t lead him into sin, I’ll eat anything I want. In other words, Paul’s stern promise is motivated by love for the weak. It is not a hard and fast rule for all times and places and persons.
Here’s the preaching point in this arcane text. What are we willing to do to promote the cause of the Gospel, advance the work of Christ, and enhance the growth of the church? What sacrifices are we willing to make for the well being of another human being, especially those who are part of the household of faith? Whether it’s reaching out to a pagan idol worshiper or an immature believer or a Pharisaical church leader, what does love require? It is not theological sophistication that will redeem the world; it is Love that is willing to empty itself of authority, give up precious rights, and restrict God given freedom. The only thing that will redeem the world is Incarnate Love that is willing to die for the other. That’s what God cares about most, and so should we.
What made “food sacrificed to idols” such a hard question was that it was rooted in actual commands of God, namely, the strict prohibitions of idol worship in the 1st and 2nd commandments. That’s the same thing that made “Sabbath observance rules” such a hard question for later generations of Christians. God had given a very clear and firm command in the 4th commandment, and generations of serious Christians in my theological tradition had expanded that simple command into a host of specific regulations.
When more recent theological reflection concluded that the work of Christ has set us free from such legalistic observance of that Day, those who still held to those old rules were put into a moral quandary. How do I keep that day holy? How do we balance our freedom in Christ that makes the Day a delight with our love for fellow Christians who are still rule oriented? How much do we go along with the free and easy use of the Day so prevalent in our secular culture and how much do honor the old rules for the sake of those whose faith is wounded when they see us “acting just like the world on God’s holy day.”
Or, to give another example of the Corinthian quandary, how should we use the gifts of wine and beer? While the Bible speaks very negatively about getting drunk, it speaks positively about the use of alcohol in celebrations and sacraments. But some Christians can’t make the distinction between the abuse and the proper use of alcohol. How do I navigate that tricky territory between enjoying a fine chardonnay with my salmon and not offending my formerly alcoholic friend sitting across the table? To make this issue more missiological, is the currently popular practice of doing evangelism in bars a good idea? Is “bar theology” an appropriate exercise of Christian freedom and evangelistic inventiveness or is it a stumbling block to Christians who struggle with alcohol?
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