Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Free To Love

1st Corinthians 8:1-13

 We are dealing with a subject here that is completely unfamiliar in our society, but one that was very relevant to the lives of first century Christians.  It was an issue that was so difficult that the Corinthian Church wrote to Paul to seek his advice on how to handle it.  

 The issue was eating meat.  That’s controversial to some people today.  I have a sister-in-law who’s a vegetarian because she believes in animal rights.  But that’s not why this was an issue.  It was an issue because in the first century culture, meat was often connected to pagan idolatry.

 First, the pagan temples were the banquet halls of the first century.  If people wanted to have a wedding reception or a birthday party or anything like that, they typically did it in temples.  They would take an animal to be sacrificed, and the meat of that animal would then be served at the party, in the temple.  And anyone who went to the party was, in some way, joining in a pagan celebration and in idolatry.

 Second, these pagan temples would, several times a year, have festivals.  They would sacrifice large numbers of animals and give meat away to everyone who attended the festival.  And, often, that was the only time that poor people ever ate meat.  Meat was very expensive.  We think it’s expensive today, but it was much more so then.  The poor typically could not afford it, and most people were poor.  So many people associated meat with pagan festivals and idolatry.

 And finally, animals were valuable.  So when a person went to slaughter an animal, they would almost always take it to one of the temples, where it would be sacrificed before an idol.  After the sacrifice, the meat would be divided into three parts.  The first part would be burned before the idol.  The second part would be given back to the person who brought the animal.  And the third part would belong to the priest who had done the sacrifice, either for his own use or he would take it to the town market to be sold.  So when a person went to market to buy meat, they had no way of knowing whether or not that meat at some point had been sacrificed to an idol.

 So the question was, “Should Christians eat meat at all?”  And there was also a socio-economic aspect to the question because, while the rich could buy meat any time they wanted from the market, the poor typically only associated meat with pagan festivals.  The question probably came to Paul from the wealthy Christians because they assert to him, “We know an idol is nothing, so why shouldn’t we eat?”

 Paul takes three whole chapters of this letter to answer the question.  That’s probably an awful lot of material about a subject that’s no longer relevant to us, since as far as I’m aware, none of the meat in Bi-Lo has ever been sacrificed to an idol.  But the whole discussion is relevant to us because of the timeless principles that Paul brings to bear on it.  Let’s talk about those principles.

 First, love for each other should be the guiding principle in all Christian interactions.  

 Love, not knowledge.  Knowledge has a way of making us feel important.  That’s very true.  When we know something that the other person doesn’t know, we love to beat them over the head with our knowledge.  I’ve seen numerous occasions when a person who is “smarter” than their opponent, or at least one who thinks they’re smarter, belittles them verbally.  I’ve done the same thing myself more often that I’d like to admit.  

 But love is what should guide our actions, not knowledge.  Some Christians in Corinth “knew” that idols were nothing, so they would even go into the pagan temples to eat, without considering how their actions affected others.  They had knowledge, but not love.  The purpose of love is to edify, to build up, to encourage others to grow, not to trip them up.  

 Paul says to these “knowledgeable Christians:” In your knowledge, you are hurting others by encouraging them with your example to do what they think is wrong.  For some early Christians, idolatry, and everything that went with it, even eating meat, was such a part of their lives before Christ that they wanted to make a clean break from it.  And yet, here were other Christians encouraging them to go back to the thing that held them captive.  It is not worth eating meat if eating meat is a violation of love.  These “knowledgeable Christians” knew that they were free to eat.  And it is true that we have freedom in Christ.  But love is more important than freedom.

 The second principle Paul brings to bear on this situation is that we should respect our own conscience, and we should respect the conscience of other believers.  

 God gave us a conscience for a reason.  Our conscience is there to keep us from feeling guilty, because when we feel guilty, we are on path towards self-destruction.  Guilt makes us a prisoner.  Guilt destroys our feelings of worth and value.  Guilt puts up a wall of separation between us and God.  And once we’re cut off from God, we start drifting further away from him, and often we’re likely to go back to the very thing that caused us guilt in the first place.  Feeling guilty can be good if it motivates us to change our behavior, but often feeling guilty becomes a prison that traps us.  

 One of the things that we can observe is that our consciences are all different.  Something that troubles your conscience might not trouble mine.  We are not all tempted by the same things.  And usually our conscience speaks up in response to the things that are particular temptations for us.  I’ve never been tempted by alcohol or tobacco.  They just don’t mean much to me.  But I am very tempted by rich foods.  I try to avoid having them in the house because I know I’ll be very likely to overeat if I have them around.  

 I may not be tempted by alcohol, but I know it’s a temptation for many people.  And I try to respect that.  I would not drink alcohol around someone that I know struggles with it.  We should respect each others’ consciences.  If A is no problem for you, but it is for someone else, then don’t do it around them.  It’s not as if we have to.  As Paul says here about meat:  We don’t miss anything if we don’t eat it, and we gain nothing if we do.  It does nothing to enrich our lives before God.

 It is better to forego something than to cause temptation for someone else, and maybe even leading another believer down a path toward their own ruin.  No one has the right to harm others.  We have freedom in Christ, but it’s a freedom to love others, not a freedom to harm them.  And it is better to forego our rights than cause hardship for others.  

 This is an idea that flies in the face of our modern American culture.  Our culture privatizes everything and demands our rights.  It’s my faith; I can believe what I want.  It’s my life; I can do what I want.  You can’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t do.  That’s Americanism, not Christianity.  Christianity teaches us that our life and our faith are lived in Christian community, and we should think about how our actions affect the community.  

 Paul continues his argument throughout the next two chapters of 1st Corinthians.  Chapter 9 is an example of how Paul applied these principles in his own life.  He reminds them that as an Apostle, a servant of Christ, he had the right to expect the church to provide for his basic needs.  But he willingly laid aside that right so as not to create a stumbling block for anyone.  Better to forego rights than to risk harm to others.

 In chapter 10, he reminds the Corinthians about the fate of our spiritual forefathers, the Israelites in the wilderness.  They were tempted into and ruined by idolatry.  An idol itself may be meaningless, but there are real, spiritual forces at work in the world, and one of the things that those forces seek to accomplish is to lead us away from Christ.  He also reminds them that we have our own sacred feast: the Lord’s Supper.  

 Paul then closes chapter 10 by giving some practical advice on this subject of eating meat.  First, do not eat in the pagan temples.  Second, feel free to eat meat that comes from the market, and don’t ask whether or not it was sacrificed before an idol.  Thank God for it and enjoy it as blessing from God.  Third, feel free to eat meat that is offered to you in someone’s home.  Again, don’t ask it if came from the pagan temple.  And finally, if you are told that meat was sacrificed before an idol, don’t eat it so as to maintain your own witness and not to create a stumbling block for another believer.

 Well we may not have that specific situation to deal with in our lives any more.  We don’t have idols, at least not in the same sense that they did, and we certainly don’t sacrifice our food before them.  But the principles that Paul lays down here are very applicable to our lives as Christians.

 I believe that life becomes more difficult when we come to Christ, not easier.  I think that belonging to Christ creates all kinds of complicated situations where it is not easy to know the best course to take.  How do we live faithfully and with good conscience in the midst of an unfaithful world?  How do we present a good witness and refrain from causing others to stumble in a sinful world?  

 How should we as Christians approach things like alcohol and tobacco?  How should we think of gambling?  Is it okay to go to the casino?  What about the lottery?  What about a raffle ticket?  After all, it supports a good cause?  What about the places we go?  Is it okay for us to eat in a bar?  What about the movies?  Is it okay to watch a movie with a lot of violence or nudity or excessive bad language?  What shows should we watch or not watch on television?  

 I struggle with those kind of questions.  I hope you do too.  I hope you wrestle with the questions of what we should and should not do as Christians.  Especially when we remember that others are watching us.  We may not even be aware of it most of the time, but if we belong to Christ, and others know that, they are going to watch what we do, what we say, and where we go.  

 There are no easy answers, but I think there are principles that we can live by:  Let your love for each other guide your actions.  Seek to build each other up.  Respect the voice of your conscience.  And respect the conscience of others.  Don’t ask or encourage others to violate their conscience.  And when in doubt, it is better to forego what we want than to risk harm to others.  

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