Sermon: Watch Those Stumbling Stones!
Text: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
(Note: for this sermon you will need to gather a few things ahead of time and get some helpers. Props: Several stones you can carry in a sack. Friends to walk behind you and pretend to stumble over them. If you do not wish to do this in your sermon, you could use it as your children’s sermon).
(Come into the sanctuary dropping a stone after you every few feet. Even go up the aisles. Your accomplices will walk behind you, trying to avoid those stones and not always easily.)
I know what you’re thinking—the pastor really has been working too hard and should take a vacation. Well, I can’t disagree with you on that! But I assure you there is a message to this madness. It begins with these words from Paul (if you have not read the text for today, do so or have it read now).
You know, if I had to summarize this text it would be, “Be careful that you do not drop any stumbling stones behind you.”
Ancient Corinth was a very religious city. Just about every known god and goddess was worshipped there in one way or another. Temples to these deities were scattered all in and around the city. One of the chief ways they were worshipped was through the sacrifice of animals and through feasts or banquets. The food was dedicated to these gods, with prayers even asking for the gods to bless the food or even come into the food in some mysterious way. Not all the meat sacrificed in these rites was consumed. So the priests would sell excess meat to the vendors in the street markets to be purchased by the public. Also, if someone invited you to such a feast at a temple or guild, or for a private dinner at their home, or even a wedding, chances are they would be serving meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Also, if you bought meat in the market place, there really was not any way of knowing if it had been used in idol worship or not. So this posed a concern for some of the Corinthian Christians, “Can we eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols? Must we refuse invitations to dinners in which we know such meat will be served?”
Some, who Paul describes as “possessing knowledge,” knew there is only one God and that idols are not real gods. So, they realize that any food offered to idols is nonsense and can be eaten freely. But others had scruples about this. They find that the eating of such food makes them feel guilty. Some of these may well have been Gentiles who had first been converted to Judaism or even Jews who have strong traditions about what is proper and not proper to eat. Also, it is likely that these persons had once fully participated in the rites and rituals of these pagan religions. Any further practice of that old life, even the eating of meat offered to idols, was a strong lure back into that life. Interestingly, it’s the first group that Paul primarily addresses here.
Possess Love Most of All
The group that was not bothered by eating meat offered to idols had several favorite sayings to justify their beliefs and actions. Paul quotes these: “all of us possess knowledge” (vs 1); “no idol in the world really exists” (vs 4) and “Food will not bring us close to God” (vs 8). And Paul agrees with each statement, but with some modification and explanation.
“All possess knowledge.” Well, yes and no is Paul’s answer. Yes, they are correct in their theology in regard to their reasons for going ahead and eating meat with a clear conscience. However, not everyone possesses that knowledge. And it’s this group Paul wishes them to recognize and be sensitive to.
Paul agrees with them. There are no idols and the meat is perfectly okay to eat. But not everyone understands this. Each believer has a different level of maturity and understanding. For some, these gods do exist and eating meat sacrificed to them would be equal to worshipping those gods again. For them, then, eating it would be a sin, would take them away from Christ. It would weaken them spiritually, cause them to feel guilt and shame. It might even lead them back into paganism.
So “you may possess this knowledge,” Paul is saying, “but possessing love for your weaker brothers and sisters is a far greater possession that I wish you would all pursue.” This is the basic principle Paul sets forth—let love for each other be a principle guideline for your actions. This culminates in that wondrous chapter 13 on love.
Paul is telling those who possess knowledge to think more of love than their own liberty. Certainly they are at liberty to eat the meat, but what will that do to those who find this a great temptation and source of allurement from Christ? Might not one of these others see them doing this, be lured to do it as well, and later feel guilt or even be led away from the faith? Don’t think of your liberty but of your love, Paul is saying. Don’t be a stumbling block to your brothers and sisters, but be a building block for them.
Others Watch & Follow Us
I was recently in a meeting with clergy from various denominations. Somehow the topic got around to drinking alcohol. Some did and some didn’t. Some felt that it was okay for clergy to do this, for after all the wine they used in Holy Communion was real wine. Others felt that it was not proper for them to drink, even a glass of wine for dinner.
One pastor made these interesting comments: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with alcohol and it would not hurt my conscience to drink from time to time. Alcohol in and of itself is not evil. It can be used for evil, it can be abused and it surely is like most everything else we have. So I could drink and feel okay about it. In fact, I would love to have a glass of wine from time to time. But I don’t...” and he was silent for a moment.
The rest of us asked, “Well, why don’t you?”
“I don’t want to sound holier-than-thou,” he replied, “but I don’t because I know that there are persons in my congregation who have a real problem with drinking. They are recovering alcoholics. I just think if they saw me out drinking, it might not be helpful for them. Also, I want to set a good example for the youth in our church. I know many of them are experimenting with alcohol and some even more than that. I really don’t want them to be able to use me in any way for justifying their own use of it. Many of those kids cannot use it wisely. Too, there are some in our church who have very strong feelings about drinking and even though I might disagree with some of what they think, this would be greatly offensive for them. So I choose not to drink. And it is no real loss for me.”
In a way, we all are in the same position as this pastor. We are being watched. Our lives are models for friends, fellow Christians, and certainly our family. Things we do and take for granted doing have great impact on those around us. Are they being strengthened by what they see? Are we building them up with our example? Or are we dropping stones in their path over which they might stumble?
(Now go back and collect all the stones you dropped earlier. The symbolism of this will need no explanation).
Bio: Bass Mitchell is a United Methodist Minister serving in Hot Springs, Virginia. He writes sermons frequently for the Circuit Rider magazine and for Abingdon Preaching Annual. Bass also has an internet ministry for ministers that shares sermons called, “HOMILES BY E-MAIL.” His first book, IN EVERY BLADE OF RUSTLING GRASS, will be published by Abingdon/Cokesbury in March of 2000. He can be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.