Monday, 5 March 2012

weak and the strong 1 Cor 8:1-13

1 Corinthians 8

Concerning Food Sacrificed to Idols
1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.[a]
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
  1. 1 Corinthians 8:3 An early manuscript and another ancient witness think they have knowledge do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves truly knows.

There is a book on conflict in marriage called "You Can Be Right, or You Can Be Married". I heard the phrase from a friend and it stuck with me. Those who are married understand both the humour and the truth in the phrase. Sometimes it's just not worth  being right if it means that you are damaging the relationship. Sometimes in marriage we endure certain things patiently for the sake of greater unity in the relationship.

            So there are times when I leave my socks next to the bed and forget to put them in the clothes basket. Crystal never really says anything about it even though she would have every right to hold it against me. It's one of those things she doesn't see as important enough to bring up. "You can be right, or you can be married". We could exert our rights and hold them ahead of our marriage, but most people who are married know that sometimes unity in marriage is worth more than exercising certain rights. We might have the legal right to go out all night with our friends and return home at 4:00 in the morning, but it might not be helpful for our marriage.

            Paul is saying something similar to the Corinthian church in our reading today. If you remember two weeks ago, we were speaking about our freedom in Christ based on 1 Corinthians ch 6. "'I have the right to do anything', but not everything is beneficial... 'I have the right to do anything', but I will not be mastered by anything". Paul was speaking to the Corinthians about the fact that their freedom is for something. They might have the right to do something, but that doesn't mean that there aren't consequences. If you drive on the road and there are no police to give you a ticket you will still feel the consequences of running a red light and getting into an accident. But more than feeling negative consequences, our freedom is based on whose we are. We all serve a master if we realize it or not. Serving Christ is freedom. Our freedom has a context. Our freedom is for something, it is not just about our own individual rights.

            Paul is building on this idea of freedom. The Corinthians were arguing about eating meat that had been part of Pagan sacrifices and they asked for Paul's advice. Corinth was mostly Pagan at the time when Paul wrote his letter.  Some Christians were invited to important dinner parties put on by friends or business acquaintances. These parties had meat that came from temple sacrifices. Pagan temples in cities like Corinth often served as sources of meat. Also, these parties were often held in rooms connected to temples and they were frequently held in honour of a particular Pagan god, though they weren't really services of worship.  Some in the Church believed that since Pagan idols didn't really have any power over them as Christians, that they could eat the meat without any harmful consequences. These Christians could also make the argument that they don't want to offend their Pagan friends by not accepting an invitation, and besides, a dinner party might be a good way to share the Gospel with their Pagan acquaintances. To refuse an invitation to a party like this would be to isolate them from their Pagan friends.

            Others in the Corinthian Church believed that these Christians were playing with fire. Many of the Corinthian Christians were converts from Paganism. These parties looked too much like returning to their old life.  Rubbing shoulders with Pagans in temples, eating meat dedicated to idols, and attending a party held in honour of a Pagan god, was too much of a temptation. Not only is it putting yourself through unnecessary temptation, but they were are also providing a confusing example to new Christians. How could they come from such a pagan party and then receive bread and wine from the Lord's table. Doesn't that just look like hypocrisy? It seems like they are trying to have their cake and eat it too.  They want to be Christian, but they don't really want to make any changes in their life. They want to completely fit in with their culture and their old life. Some have lost family, friends, and business partners in becoming Christian. It doesn't seem fair that some Christians make such personal sacrifices when other Christians carry on with their lives as if nothing changed when they became Christian.

            They both make a pretty good case. So they put their question to Paul. Is it okay to eat meat dedicated to idols? Paul gives an interesting answer. He says essentially that Pagan idols don't have any power over Christians, so the Christians that go to the parties are basically right in their theology. However, he also says that being technically right isn't the only factor in deciding the right action. "You can be right, or you can be married". Being a part of a Christian community means that sometimes we need to take that community into account when we make our decisions. Just because we have the right to do something doesn't mean we should. If our exercising our right causes another Christian to stumble, then we should freely chose to not exercise that right.

            So If I go out to supper with a friend I have the right to have a beer with my meal. However, If I happen to be with a friend who is a recovering alcoholic then maybe I shouldn't have a beer with my meal because I don't want my friend to be tempted. I can freely chose to not drink in front of a friend who struggles with alcoholism. I have the right to, but I can freely wave that right in favor of the relationship. "You can be right, or you can be married". Paul says he would rather never eat meat again if it means that he won't cause a fellow Christian to stumble.

        Relationships matter when it comes to making a free spiritual decision. We are not primarily individuals. We are a community. We are the Body of Christ and that should make a difference when we make decisions. We should ask, "What effect will this decision have on the community?"

            When speaking about the freedom of a Christian the 16th C., reformer Martin Luther said, A "Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all". Our freedom has a context. We are free because we belong to the Body of Christ. That means responsibilities come with our freedom. We have a duty to one another.

            C.S. Lewis commented on this passage in a book he wrote called the Screwtape Letters where he imagines letters written by a demon named Screwtape who is giving advice to another demon who is tempting a particular human being. In the book Screwtape says, "I think I warned you before that if your patient can't be kept out of the church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don't mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. And it isn't the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up a hatred between those who say 'mass' and those who say 'holy communion' when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker's doctrine and Thomas Aquinas', in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things- candles and clothes and what not- are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men's minds what that persistent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials- namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the 'low' churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his 'high' brother should be moved to irreverence, and the 'high' one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his 'low' brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour. Without that the variety of usage within the church of England might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility". (Letter 16)

            Of course there are some issues where we should stand our ground, as Screwtape warns. For example, I would say our belief in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ isn't negotiable. I believe that is core to who we are as Christians. There are some things, however, that are not core. We don't deal with meat dedicated to idols anymore, but we do have non-essentials that are a part of our communities. Musical tastes might be an example of this. Screwtape mentions those who enter worship with their bodies by bowing and kneeling and others who don't. Some of us want to sing and dance and some of us want to kneel in awed silence in the presence of God. There is a famous saying that arose in the 17th Century "in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity" (Marco Antonio de Dominis 1617). 

            We might have very good reason for doing what we do. We might have a solid argument for our particular taste in worship style or music, however, our freedom to choose our action comes from being a part of the body of Christ- it is a freedom won for us by Christ- it is a freedom we have because we belong to Christ rather than some other master.  Just as someone might freely choose to not have a beer when having supper with an alcoholic friend, we can freely chose to withold our point of view on certain nonessential topics for the sake of unity. "You can be right, or you can be married". Sometimes it is important for us to hold our tongue on some non-essential matters.

            Paul is telling us that our relationship to the Body of Christ is important when we are making free spiritual decisions. It is not just a matter of our own individual rights. We have been reborn into a community. That community is where our freedom comes from and it is to that community that we have responsibilities. Our unity in Christ outweighs any divisions we might have about non-essentials. Sometimes relationship is more important than being superficially right. "You can be right, or you can be married".                

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