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Preaching : 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

The specific issue with which Paul wrestles in 1 Corinthians 8—the eating of meat offered to idols—is actually a fairly narrow one without a lot of direct parallels in modern life which the average minister is likely to confront. The Corinthian question was not whether the Christian should offer religious devotion or obeisance to any other god than the one true "God, the Father, who is the Creator...and [the] Lord, Jesus Christ."(GNB) Both Paul and the enlightened "strong" of Corinth agreed that only God should be worshiped. The question was whether the Christian should engage in a practice which was commonly associated with the worship of another god, and therefore might be interpreted as worship or homage to an idol by a so-called weaker Christian when: (1) the Christian engaged in the practice knew the god did not exist; (2) the act was otherwise harmless; and (3) the practice was not intended as worship or devotion. How many innocent and harmless practices prevail in contemporary culture which should be off limits to Christians only because the public assumes that those who practice them are worshiping or reverencing rival deities?
Popular practices, trivial and harmless, tainted only by their religious connotations may not leap to mind nor attract a sermon, but the issues at stake and the concerns evoked in Paul's confrontation of the "strong" Corinthians may very well justify one. The foundational principal upon which the Apostle makes his case in the text is essential still. Only the one true God is worthy of ultimate devotion, and the centering of life around any lesser loyalty is an idolatry and is ultimately destructive to self and society. It is against the very appearance of idolatry that the Apostle writes. It is the subtle lure of idolatry and the way the lines can blur between "innocent" behavior and inordinate devotion to forces and things in the created order that trouble him.
The idols, or lesser gods, whose worship and service attract modern Western people today tend to be secular rather than overtly religious ones. They may be, in fact, the same old gods that the ancients also worshiped, masquerading under their proper secular names. Their devotion and service are usually indistinguishable on the surface from ordinary, secular, daily-behavior that does not appear religious in itself. Who can tell, for instance, whether the person who works slavishly at a career is worshiping self, career path, money, or none of the above? The practice of diligent and dedicated labor at one's chosen work can hardly be shunned as idolatry, although idolatry it very well may be. Paul Tillich defined faith as "ultimate concern." He contended that the object of a person's ultimate concern is that person's real god. Investing something with ultimate worth, taking something in life with final seriousness, no matter what that something might be, is what is meant by the word faith. A sermon built upon this theme might help hearers clarify their own loyalties and, by the grace of God, perhaps, even create among them some of those inward confrontations with the light of Christ in which the self-centered self is shattered and the way opened for the self to center upon the One worthy of ultimate devotion.
The "strong" Christians in Corinth, the illuminati, as we might call them, were confident that their knowledge was a sufficient hedge against falling into error. They understood intellectually that only God is God, and they had demythologized the entities superstitiously worshiped by their neighbors. So armed, they believed they could use ritually prepared foods from the market or shambles with impunity. They could also partake of such foods at social gatherings, even those held in the temple of a god. They saw no reason to defer to the more tender scruples and sensitivity of the less sophisticated members of the congregation who should be expected to grow up in knowledge and understanding rather than controlling the behavior of the more mature by their superstition.
Paul's case for shaping behavior by a due concern for the weaker brother or sister places in contrast key Christian values. The Corinthians who favored eating the ritual foods invoked the knowledge that Paul preached—only God is God, and Jesus is Lord. From this knowledge derives another great Christian precept, also invoked by the Corinthians—the freedom of the Christian. Acknowledging these spiritual realities and guiding principles, Paul places beside them another essential value—love. Love trumps freedom and knowledge in Paul's lexicon as his hymn to love in the upcoming thirteenth chapter will make clear. As a basic way of sizing up situations and making decisions, love is the superior organizing principle and outlook. Knowledge is good, but has its limitations. Knowledge can create blind spots. It can be a source of self-satisfaction and even arrogance. Moreover, knowledge is partial at best. The language in which Paul refers to love is important, especially the statement that "the person who loves God is known by him,"(GNB) where we would have expected to hear, "the person who loves God knows God." Redemption derives from the divine initiative, from God's first knowing and loving us. God's love generates a four-fold reunion, reconciliation, and love—for God, for self, for others, for life. The others we love are those whom Christ loved and for whom he gave himself even to death on the cross. (In this text love is specified toward those inside the church. It is from other texts that we know that love is directed to those beyond the pale as well.)
In sports and other activities, there is the factor of the home field advantage. The home field is where the fans are. It is familiar territory, a comfort zone. All other things being equal, the team that plays on home turf has an edge. In the life of faith, as in the life of sports, the home field advantage, the comfort zone, comes into play. The Corinthians who emphasized the ascendancy of their knowledge as the touchstone of their behavior were evidently those whose comfort zone was loving God with all their minds. There are those whose home field advantage is the emotions. They are the enthusiasts who love God with all their feelings and test religious observances by the excitement quotient. Others prefer to love God with all their hands and feet. Still others rely upon resolve and will-power to do the heavy lifting. Their answer to temptation is a stiff upper lip. They are the folks who advise you to "just say no." The list can be multiplied. Faith, however, is something one does with the whole self. Learning to work outside the comfort zone is the challenge here.
Paul's appeal to love as the more basic value is closely related to the issue of the importance of influence—a favorite motif of preachers and Sunday school teachers. If it is an oldie, it is a golden oldie. Along waterways it is common to see a sign which warns that all boats are responsible for their wakes. An ocean-going vessel, for instance, has the power, if it runs at sea speed, of churning up a wake that would smash all the little boats along a confined passage. People need to be aware of their wakes as well, of the impact of their actions upon others.
One issue raised by the text is the possibility of a tyranny of the "weak." Are the sensitivities and scruples of those who are the most rigid, narrow, unsophisticated, or tender in the faith, to constrict the behavior of all Christians? The point is made by commentators that Paul's argument is not that the opinions of the weak must not be offended. Rather, the weak are not to be tempted into practices that carry them into the orbit of false gods that seduce them into infidelity and spiritual ruin. The question remains open as to who is to decide which practices those might be. If it is to be the individual Christian, the guide must be love and compassion, not just knowledge. Anyone widely experienced in church life and familiar with the vast diversity in Christian practice will recognize that the distinction is more easily suggested than maintained.
Perhaps this is one of those cases where a balance must be maintained between opposing counsels. Christian freedom based upon more sophisticated understanding must sometimes be emphasized, lest the church be confined to a cultural backwater. Charity toward the impressionable is always appropriate and often the necessary emphasis lest the church lose touch with an important part of the family.
A final motif worthy of use in the sermon is Paul's emphasis upon the building up of the church as a guiding consideration. Most contemporary American Christianity is marked by an emphasis on the individual as opposed to the corporate. The importance of the church as the body of Christ is a corrective to that distortion.
James H. Slatton