Sermon by Pastor Joshua Demi
For the past few weeks, we have been talking about the The Bible talks about how we ought to to relate to one another amongst differences. We started by talking about how our identity is ultimately in Christ. All people’s ultimate, their most fundamental identity is in God, all people are made in the image of God, and all believers are in Christ, have “put on Christ” in Paul’s words, and whether else we may be these aspects of who we are are ultimate. We then talked about the nature of our battle, and the importance of fighting the real battle; we talked about scripture teaches that we are in a spiritual war, not a cultural war, and that our real enemy is not of flesh and blood, is not people who disagree with us, but spiritual forces. Then last week, we began talking about how to put these principles into practice, we began talking spoke about how to live in such a way that roots our identity ultimately in God, and fights the spiritual battle, by treating people who disagree with us not as enemies who need to be defeated, but people who we can learn from. Today, we continue that discussion by looking at how Paul handled one of the great controversies in the early church.
We are spending so much time talking about how to relate to one another in controversies, not only because of the amount of tension and conflict there is in the world as a whole, but because part of the goal of this church is to beef up our committees, and transition from a top/down style of leadership to a more grassroots style of leadership, were everyone has a voice. The hope is that a lot more people who are passionate about different areas, like hospitality, or worship, or discipleship, will become involved. Doing so will mean sitting down and talking with people who have different perspectives and making decisions. Sometimes these will be huge decisions, like how to respond to a pandemic, and sometimes smaller but very meaningful decisions, like how to decorate the church or set up the space for worship. I don’t need to tell any of you how intense discussions about what the sanctuary should look like can get. And the reason they get so heated is because they are rooted in deep questions, about spirituality and our identity as a church.
Division and controversy in The Church is nothing new; there have been disagreements within The Church since just about the very beginning. One of the biggest controversies in the days of the apostles, was whether or not it is ok to eat meat offered idols. When someone would sacrifice a sheep or a cow at a temple, the person making the offering would eat a portion of the meat, but since they couldn’t eat the whole animal by themselves, the temple would often sell the excess meat. Purchasing meat from a temple or from a merchant who did business with a temple was was far and away the most inexpensive way to purchase meat, and for many people was the only way that they could afford to eat meat. So this question had profound practical implications. It also had profound theological implication, because the ultimate question was “Is this idolatry?” By purchasing meat either directly or indirectly from a pagan temple, or eating meat that had been offered as a sacrifice in a pagan temple, where they participating in the sacrifice? This was an important and complex issue on a number of levels. Let’s take a look at how Paul responded.
1 Corinthians is a letter Paul wrote to the Corinthian church in response to a letter they had written him. Among other things, he was asked about meat offered to idols. His answer is… complicated. It’s neither a simple “yes, it is acceptable” nor a simple, “no, it’s not acceptable.” He begins by saying this:
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3)
He begins by naming the biblical principle that love and humility are the root of wisdom and knowledge. That’s where knowledge and wisdom begin; knowledge and wisdom begin in a heart filled with humility and love. He then moves on to address the issue directly, and does so from two different angles.
First, Paul approaches the topic from the question “Does the food itself defile us?” His answer is essentially “No the food itself does not, but that doesn’t mean it’s always OK to eat it.” He says this:
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist….We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
(1 Corinthians 8:4-6 & 8b-9)
Paul’s point is that because the false gods do not exist, you are not communing with them by eating the meat sacrificed to them, which worshipers of Zeus and so on thought they were doing, but if eating this eat so is a stumbling block to someone else then you have a responsibility to not eat the meat.
Then in chapter 10, Paul approaches to from a different angle, addressing the practice of sitting down and and eating in the temple itself as part of the sacrificial feast:
What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
(1 Corinthians 10:19-21)
It almost sounds like he is contradicting himself, but he is speaking under the inspiration of The Holy Spirit, so we know he isn’t. His point is that, and the the false “gods” themselves do not exist, yet there are dark spiritual forces which do exist and we should flee any opportunity to participate in a celebration of those dark forces including sitting down in the temple of an idol and eating part of the sacrificial feast. Paul brings it all together in a beautiful passage that we read part of earlier.
‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience, for ‘the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s.’ If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I mean the other’s conscience, not your own. For why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.”
(1 Corinthians 10:23-34)
Here Paul brings everything together, ending the discussion where it began. Fundamentally, it’s about love and humility, putting others first and doing everything for the glory of God.
Paul’s answer was complicated. We don’t have the original letter, so we don’t know exactly how they phrased the question or what was going on at the time, but I sometimes picture the Corinthian church having this big debate and then throwing up their arms and saying “You know what, let’s just ask Paul. Then well have a straight answer: yes, no, whatever, and we can move on.” Then Paul gives them this answer that is so big and complicated that even trying to summarize it in a sermon takes up half the sermon. But that in and of itself is so important to remember, when dealing with contentious issues . Sometimes, many times, the answer is complicated. Sometimes the answer defies our categories, it’s not as simple yes or no, A or B. Sometimes the answer isn’t A or B, or even C, but Pineapple. Sometimes it’s something categorically different, something we haven’t even dreamed of. God is big, and the questions we ask about God are big, and we should expect them to have big answers, answers that don’t fit into the categories, the boxes that we place ideas in. This is why it Paul’s other insight, arguably his central message in the passages we discussed is so important.
Love comes first. It is first in order and in importance. Think back to where we began. It is first in order, because it is impossible to see the truth without love. This is why Paul begins by saying,
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge”
(1 Corinthians 8:1b-2)
My sister once said something which has stuck with me for a long time. She said that, when faced with a difficult question or contentious discussion, her prayer isn’t “Lord, show me the truth” but “Lord, break my heart for what breaks yours”. In order to know what is right, we must love rightly; in order to understand completely we must love completely.
Love comes first, both in order and in importance. Paul’s final advice to the Corinthian church about one of the key controversies of the day was to put others first, even insofar as they were right, to refrain from bludgeoning people with their rightness, to be humble, to be kind, in the way that they engaged the controversy. Love comes first in importance because our neighbors, the people on the other side of the disagreement, are made in the image of God, they are beings of infinite value and dignity, stamped with the image of the eternal God. Whether it is in the workplace, in your family, or sitting around a table, making decisions here at the church, the people you interact with matter, infinitely.
So, remember to look for complexities, and live a life of compassion, whether it is in everyday life, a discussion with your neighbor or your family member who you always disagree with, or at work working alongside with coworkers who see things completely differently, or here sitting around at able with your brothers and sisters making decisions about the church. Remember that the answer is often complicated, in ways that defy our categories, and remember that love comes first, that only through the eyes of love we clearly, and however unclear it all may be, that the God of all creation, the One who loves us enough to call us by name, redeem us from sin and claim us as his own, will lead us through.