Published by Michael Bigg on Mon, 29 Jan 2018 10:12

The text of Mike's sermon preached at the All Together in Grafham on 28th Jan, based on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

All is not well in Corinth. As with any human group power and knowledge are used in ways that damage others and it is this to which Paul responds in our reading today.

At the start of Chapter 7, Paul begins to respond to the questions raised in a letter from the Corinthian church and now he comes to the question of meat sacrificed to idols. Corinth is a bustling Romanized city and most of the meat available in markets will have been sacrificed in a pagan temple and then made available for purchase. This is a live issue for Christians in the city, particularly converts who were used to celebrating pagan festivals. Could they eat this idolatrous meat? If offered some at a social occasion should they eat it politely or refuse at the risk of embarrassing themselves or their hosts?

Paul is very, very clear that the moral answer here is that the eating of meat sacrificed to idols is perfectly acceptable (unless it is being eaten explicitly in the context of a pagan ritual, see Chapter 10 vv14 onwards). Paul’s view is that idols are non-entities. They are nothing. They are not minor gods competing with the sovereign God’s authority. They are literally wood and stone. Therefore, although the ritual itself is idolatrous, the meat is, in itself, just meat. Just as if, today, someone were to offer us meat sacrificed to the Flying Spaghetti Monster God we would know that it has been sacrificed to a non-thing, so then meat sacrificed to the Roman pantheon was just meat in Paul’s view.

However, at the heart of Paul’s argument is a more substantial question. “All things are lawful”, he quotes later in Chapter 10, but, he says not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful but not all things build up. Freedom is absolutely at the heart of Paul’s understanding of the gospel (read Galatians). In Christ we have been set free from the legalism that kills. We no longer need to be slaves to the law or to anything else. Our salvation is dependent on nothing but the righteousness of Christ!

Yet Paul’s concern is that Christians can use their freedoms and their rights to the detriment of others. And what good is our freedom if it diminishes the freedom of others?

The insightful observation follows that for some Christians, their previous association with idol worship makes eating meat sacrificed to idols a problem of conscience. For such Christians, to eat such meat would be wrong. It would distract them from God.

Therefore, says Paul, for a so-called “stronger” Christian to eat such meat in front of a so-called “weaker” sister or brother would be to put a stumbling block in front of them. The use of Christian freedom would become an abuse of Christian freedom. All things are lawful, but not all things build up.

And so Paul exhorts the Christians of Corinth to put the ethics of love into action. Yes! You are free! Sit and eat! But do not allow your freedoms to become a cage for others. “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other”.

 

Where does that leave us today? I imagine that for many of you the question of idol-meat is not in your list of top 100 ethical dilemmas. (Although it still is for many of our sisters and brothers in the global south).

 

Paul’s prescription (and exhortation) is that we are free in anything that is not explicitly immoral. In all of the morally neutral or grey areas of life we are free! Within the limits of becoming destructive and enslaving we may drink alcohol. We may smoke. We may gamble. We may worship as we please. We may dress as we please. We may enjoy the benefits of modern medicine and technology. We may vote for who we like. Watch what we like. Eat what we like. Keep the Sabbath or not!

 

And yet, there may well be people in our parish who struggle with alcohol. It would be wrong to allow a freedom to drink to lead another astray. There will be people here who worship in particular ways and struggle to worship in other ways. It would be wrong to allow freedom in worship to cut another off from God.

What did Jesus say about how the world will know his disciples? Was it their freedom in the gospel? No. People will recognise us as Jesus’ disciples by our love for one another. When we prefer each other’s needs.

We are set free not to get ahead, but to put ourselves behind. We are set free not to rise to the top but to joyfully serve.

 

A word of warning and a word of encouragement before I finish.

A warning to those of you (and I include myself in this) who sometimes think deep down “wouldn’t it be good if those less free in the gospel weren’t holding us back. If only everyone enjoyed gospel freedom we’d really move forward”. Put that thought immediately under the authority of Christ and reject it.

An encouragement to those of you (and I also include myself in this) who sometimes feel like a weaker Christian and think “maybe if I wasn’t here I wouldn’t slow everyone else down”. If that’s you then I declare to you that you are a gift to the church!

In churches where the free and the new are embraced while the old and struggling are left by the wayside, such a path always leads to destruction. The spirit of liberation gives way to permissiveness and soon everything is allowed and moral decay sets in. Even with the best of intentions, without anyone to say “I’m struggling with this”, a church is sure to run into trouble.

Conversely, a church without those who are pushing their freedom in Christ to its limits is always in danger of stagnation and retreating into irrelevance.

  The week of prayer for Christian unity has just finished. Look around you. These people are, for good or ill, the body of Christ in this place. They may not be the people you would have chosen but they are the people that God has chosen. Examine yourselves. Share the one bread and one cup with one another. Rejoice that Jesus is our common Lord. Build each other up in love. Go forth and tell that God has chosen you, peculiar mixture of weak and strong that you are, to witness to Jesus who took strength and freedom and made himself a weak servant for you.

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