Sermon Ideas For 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Part 3
Imagine what problems would have been spared thoughtful people if only God had given an eleventh commandment, "You shall not eat meat or animal products." No hassles about the danger of cholesterol from eating too many eggs. Or has that currently been pronounced OK again? No worries about the dangers of red meat, whether too broiled or too rare. Finally, to stay with today's lectionary reading, no concern about eating food offered to idols.
In many countries, faith in spirits and other gods still permeates the culture. In southern Brazil a few years ago I saw near rural intersections or beside waterfalls in small mountain streams hidden nooks and crannies containing offerings of boiled rice, vegetables or eggs. These signs of makumba, black magic, were left there to appease a road or water spirit or, when marked with a bright red or black cloth, to put a hex on someone. North Americans, of course, are rarely confronted with this. Besides not offering food to spirits, most of us only pay lip service to their existence.
Even in Corinth, eating meat offered to idols was only a local sidebar to the more universally relevant question: how much freedom Christians have to do their thing. The issue may take shape around vastly different concerns depending on the practices of surrounding cultures. In Islamic or pagan cultures it may be the question how many wives, or husbands, a person may have. In another setting the focus may be on whether to use wine or grape juice in the Lord's Supper. Or whether women may wear slacks or men have rings in their ears (never mind noses). What about divorce or abortion? The question of Christian freedom, coupled with Christian compassion and tolerance, can even trigger strong disagreement whether the union of homosexuals should be blessed by the church. Any divisive issue can play the role that food offered to idols played in first-century Corinth. What then should a thoughtful Christian do?
Paul comes down hard on those who want to approve their own behavior on the basis of logical or theological arguments. Knowledge or logic is not always the best yardstick against which to measure behavior. Yet how frequently do churches resort to committees that spend many months creating lengthy documents that more often than not fail to unify disagreeing parties. To make matters worse, too frequently we hang less than flattering labels on those who have the audacity to disagree with us when the truth, as we see it, is so obvious. That is the sort of intellectual arrogance which, says Paul, "puffs up" but does not build up.
Paul wants the Corinthians to know, and us who still wrestle with this issue, that knowing what is right or wrong, black or white, appropriate or inappropriate, is not enough. Mature Christians, persons truly interested in doing God's will, must ask the further question whether a particular act or behavior or position, which they have concluded to be acceptable for themselves, is helpful or harmful to others. Our behavior, particularly within the family of faith, can't simply be autonomous but must be communal, its propriety judged at least partly by the impact it has on others whom Paul calls "weaker" and who may be tempted to do something that will leave them feeling guilty afterwards.
The conclusion Paul comes to is this: our behavior may not be wrong in itself. Nor should we let our behavior be governed by the narrow-minded consciences of others (1 Cor 10:29, 30). Love for those weaker than us, however, and the desire not to harm them should be sufficient motive to refrain from public practice of a disputed behavior. It is a small price to pay, thinks Paul, for safeguarding weaker brothers and sisters. Such is the challenge of living within the Christian community. No one said being a Christian would be simple.
There is more at stake, according to Paul, than an end to divisive theological discussions that can create hurt feelings and antagonisms. Often persons will take offense, because of paranoia or an overly sensitive spirit, where none was intended. It can be hard to deal with such persons, harder still to apologize for the sake of peace for what we did not do or intend. Paul would suggest that we do it anyway and refrain from repeating the practice that triggered the conflict.
The concern is for those others of our family of faith "for whom Christ died." They are saved—if one believes that those for whom Christ died are assured of salvation—but they can still be destroyed. Rather than fall back into the trap of theological debate over what this means, the knowledge that "puffs up," strong Christians should be sufficiently mature and sensitive to allow the needs of the weak to take precedence over the rights of the strong. I suggest this also applies to persons on either side of divisive issues such as those suggested earlier. Paul asks for compromise and tolerance, compassion and nurturing.
Ultimately the struggles go beyond those immediately involved to touch on our relationship to Jesus Christ. In final analysis, appropriate Christian behavior can nevertheless become sinful behavior when it hurts others in the family of faith. When we hurt, however inadvertently, a member of the family, we hurt Christ. When we persist in hurting a weaker member of the family we sin, not merely against the weak one but against Christ.
Paul has no doubt about his duty: "If my behavior risks destroying or hurting the faith of someone else, I'll never touch meat again, I'll never do again." We can fill in the blanks ourselves. What is in the blanks makes no difference. It is the avoidable offense that is the real issue. It is our sensitivity towards weaker Christians. It is our loyalty, finally, to our Lord Jesus Christ. To repeat myself, no one said being a Christian would be simple.