If last Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s call to “those who have wives [to] live as if they have none” seemed daunting to proclaim, this Sunday’s Lesson’s treatment of the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols may seem nearly overwhelming. It may, after all, feel as though Paul is speaking more to African or Asian churches than those led by most of those who read this Commentary.
In the apostle’s day, however, one could hardly live in a Greek city without having to deal with meat that people had already sacrificed to idols. Religious leaders often sold to markets the “leftover” meat that had already been sacrificed. So even when Christians bought their meat from a merchant, it might already have been sacrificed.
What’s more, nearly all of Paul’s contemporaries believed that demons and devils entered people through the food they ate. So they assumed that they could avoid such contamination by dedicating all of their food to some god who was powerful enough to protect them from those evil forces.
Since Christians knew such gods don’t actually exist, some assumed sacrificed meat carried no stigma. They didn’t see eating meat that people had sacrificed to gods as any kind of concession to faith in false gods. This practice of eating food that had already been sacrificed to false gods, however, deeply bothered other Christians. They assumed that it represented a kind of compromise with the false religions from which God had freed them.
Yet while eating what people have sacrificed to idols isn’t an issue for most North American Christians, it points to an issue that should concern Jesus’ modern followers. How do those whose faith is strong live in the Christian community with those whose faith is weak?
The story a colleague tells of a more contemporary issue may help us think about it. One congregation had a transparent picture of Jesus that was lit from behind with a neon light. It was a butt of many jokes. At the end of church events, people would often call someone to turn off the light by asking her to “Turn off Jesus.”
Eventually, however, the church removed the picture over the objections of many people who appreciated it. So was that an act of Christian freedom or love? Did it build up or tear down the church community?
Today some of the issues that most deeply divide North American Christians revolve around politics. So when some people advocate certain political stances but other people resist, how do we negotiate a resolution?
1 Corinthians 8 reminds us that Christians need to remain concerned about the relationship between those who are “strong in their faith” and those who are “weak.” Of course, it first it may seem as if Paul brushes off this issue as almost trivial. He, after all, strings together slogans, a form of which even lower school students may know: “We all possess knowledge.” “There is no god but one.” Yet Paul also knew that Christians who “knew” these things were tempted to look down on people who worried about eating food people had sacrificed to an idol.
I’ll never forget the extended family Christmas party that my distant cousin soured with condescension. This formally educated person made a condescending remark about my formally uneducated cousin’s work as a refuse hauler. George’s knowledge at least seemed to puff him up in a way that deflated Dave so much that Dave never returned to our family Christmas parties.
Some Christians “know” that, for instance, God took more than six twenty-four hour days to create the world and everything in it. So it’s very easy to look down on those for whom this is a basic part of their Christian faith.
Or consider how some of Jesus’ followers “know” that things like eating out on Sunday and drinking alcohol are matters of Christian freedom. It’s tempting to be smug toward those “fundamentalists” who think they’re sins.
Paul, however, didn’t look down on what he called his “weaker” Christian brothers and sisters. After all, once he seems to dismiss their worries about eating food sacrificed to idols, he takes their concerns very seriously. The apostle puts those concerns in a distinctly Christian context.
Paul, after all, says to the strong, “Be careful that your wisdom or Christian freedom doesn’t cause a problem for others’ Christian faith.” It’s, after all, wonderful to be sure of what Christians believe and aware of what we don’t know. It’s great if we’ve arrived at the point where relatively non-essential issues no longer trouble us.
However, God’s adopted sons and daughters who consider ourselves wise or strong must be careful. Christ gives us a responsibility to those who are weaker in their faith. Strong people possess much knowledge. Since the living God is God alone, we “know” that, for example, it’s not a particularly big deal whether or not we eat food sacrificed to idols.
In our strength, however, Christians must be very careful not to become a “stumbling block” to the weak. Our strength, after all, becomes a curse if it harms those who are weaker in their Christian faith.
Those who are “weak” in their faith are those for whom our Savior graciously lived, died and rose again from the dead. By our arrogance we may be in danger of damaging their faith. By showing a lack of concern for those whose Christian faith is battered by certain issues, we may be in danger of tearing down their faith.
Paul, however, challenges our conventional ideas of precisely who’s strong and who’s weak. Christians often think of strong people as those who have strong opinions about what it means to be a Christian. The truth, however, may be just the opposite. Those who are weakest in their faith may be precisely the people who hold the strongest opinions about its implementation.
However, one theologian also notes that we may also need to change our views of the strength of those who claim to be self-sufficient. Perhaps we need to rethink how we categorize people who expect others to steadily stand on their own two feet.
Christians generally think of such people as “strong.” Perhaps, however, we need to think of them as “weak.” They may, after all, have fallen into the hands of the “look out for number one” attitude that infects our culture.
Paul reminds us that to be strong in our faith is to be able to bend, by God’s grace, to others’ limitations. As a colleague points out, those who are strong concern ourselves not just with cultivating our own little spiritual gardens, but also do all we can to help others’ flourish as well.
Love is Paul’s solution to the arrogance that sometimes comes with strength, knowledge and self-confidence. God graciously loves all of God’s adopted children, from the tiniest baby to the Ph.D. astronomer. When Jesus’ followers genuinely acknowledge that, we can look at both strong and weak Christians as equal Christian brothers and sisters.
Then, of course, since there is no God but the living God, we may choose to eat meat that people have already sacrificed to idols without sinning or do things like go out to eat on Sunday and drink alcohol. We can support one style of worship or one political standpoint. Yet if doing those things somehow causes another to fall from faith, Jesus’ adopted siblings lovingly refuse to do those things.
Of course, this isn’t the way we usually look at debates. Even Christians generally ask ourselves first and last what’s best for us. We expect the maximum freedom to do as we choose as long as we don’t somehow crash into each other while doing it.
So perhaps especially twenty-first century North American Christians naturally expect Paul to say, “Go ahead and do what you think is right. Go ahead and do whatever Christian freedom allows you to do without worrying about how other people will react!”
Paul, however, says, “Of course God has given you much Christian freedom. However, since it may deal with issues that are big for people who aren’t as strong in their faith as you are, be willing to tailor your Christian freedom and responsibility to their needs.”
I don’t know if Paul has answers about issues like political perspectives. But he does offer a principial question: what would be most helpful to Christian brothers and sisters in the community? What action is motivated by Christian love? The apostle wouldn’t be concerned about which side “wins.”
Perhaps we can begin dealing with those hard issues by constantly reminding ourselves that we’re dealing with those for whom Christ also graciously died. Instead of taking votes on contentious issues, Christians might search for a process to work out our difference together. Of course, even the most loving processes don’t always end in complete agreement or avoid hurt feelings. They do, however, deal with sensitive, important issues with Christian love.
However, it’s not always easy to know how to apply this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. If, after all, a particular course of action is plainly right, it’s wrong to avoid it just because some don’t approve. What’s more, quite candidly, not all offense is a stumbling block to someone’s faith. Sometimes those who are weak in the faith don’t act in love but hold the strong hostage with their threats of taking offense.
Quite frankly, after nearly 35 years in Christian ministry, I’m no longer sure who’s strong in their faith anymore. Sometimes I’m not even sure if Paul would consider me strong or weak in my Christian faith. So Jesus’ followers pray for the grace to act on what we do know: God’s adopted children always act with loving thoughtfulness toward those with whom God surrounds us.
Someone I’ll call “Ed” held the strongest opinions about the Christian life of anyone I’ve ever met. He fiercely clung to views about things like Sunday observance and the role of women in the church. Ed sometimes battered me with his strong convictions about some of the things the church I pastored and he attended was trying to do.
I’d always thought of Ed as one of those people whom Paul would call “strong.” However, I’ve come to at least suspect that he was what Paul would think of as “weak,” not morally, but in his faith. After all, Ed seemed to almost perpetually take great offense at things I’d always considered as part of Christian freedom. I constantly had to pray for the grace not to look down my sometimes long and snooty nose at Ed.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 31, 2021
1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Commentary