Occasionally we encounter a Scripture passage that seems utterly inscrutable unless we know the back story. That’s certainly the case today with Paul’s admonitions to the Corinthians about “things sacrificed to idols.” Perhaps all of you already understand the references perfectly. Or perhaps you regard them as insignificant since they clearly pertained to a cultural context totally different from that of 21st century America.
Of course you’re right. But we find in this passage general principles that are timeless. In fact, the principles may turn out to be even more relevant to our time than to Paul’s.
The cliff notes version of the back story is this. It was customary in the Graeco-Roman world to sacrifice meat to idols that represented particular gods within the overall Pantheon of gods. Individual regions or cities had their patron gods, such as Diana of the Ephesians. Many families actually had household gods. It was widely believed that those so-called gods needed to be appeased through meat sacrifices. But those Greeks were rather thrifty: rather than wasting any of the meat remaining after the sacrifices, they either ate it at home or sold it at the local meat markets.
What does any of this have to do with the Christians at Corinth? It was that some Christians, as a matter of conscience, believed that it was sinful to eat meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan altar, whether it was being eaten at the home of a non-Christian friend or at one’s own home after buying it at the market. Others, such as Paul himself, felt that since the so-called gods were not gods at all, eating this meat had absolutely no significance for a Christian. As Paul wrote, “there is no God but one; for us there is but one God, the Father, from Whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by Whom are all things, and we exist through Him” (I Corinthians 8:4, 6).
But that’s not the end of the story. Paul added, “If food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” That was the heart of Paul, and that’s at the heart of today’s epistle reading. Paul’s attitude and his conclusion were the absolute opposite of what many Christians believe and how they behave today. Those who are consumed with themselves, their own convictions about things, their own ways of doing things, are far more likely to judge their weaker fellow- Christians than to bend to their weaker consciences.
Let me give you just one contemporary example. A pastor friend of mine shared this story with me recently. His parishioners had a Ravinia night gathering where they all came together for a picnic and concert. His flock consists entirely of evangelical Christians but from multiple generations. The older people grew up in a time when most evangelical Christians, as a matter of conscience, were absolute tea-totalers, as were my own parents. But the younger persons grew up in this time when total abstinence is no longer expected. The controlling principle today is not abstinence, but moderation in all things, including alcohol consumption.
Assuming, as was in fact the case, that the younger Christians were well aware of the position their elders had held all their lives, what should they have done at this picnic, according to today’s epistle? Without question, they should not have brought alcohol to the picnic. Yet they did, doubtless believing that they were exercising their Christian freedom and that the older persons could just deal with it.
And there’s the rub. For Paul, if the weaker conscience of fellow Christians required him to forgo meat, which it would seem that Paul enjoyed, then it was a non-decision for him: eat no meat. Paul felt that he had to deal with it, not his weaker brethren. But for those young people from that particular church community, the attitude was the exact opposite: we will drink and they will accommodate us.
I imagine we could make long lists of comparable things that have crept into the Church and may have reached their peak in our day when our so-called “human rights” are of greater importance than the outdated and irrelevant scruples of other Christians. Our rights are protected by the Constitution no matter what the Bible says.
But the exercise of our freedoms in Christ may never be at the expense of another believer’s conscience. That’s what Paul was saying, translating his example of meat sacrificed to idols into contemporary terms. I’ll leave it to you to think of other examples, some of which may strike closer to home. But we’re not to ignore Paul’s conclusion: “Through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (I Corinthians 8:11, 12).
Has that thought ever crossed your minds? I mean the very thought that fellow Christians for whom Christ died could be “ruined” when we sin against them, and that we are thereby sinning against Christ Himself. Does that even fit the way we define “sin” in our modern world?
Many branches of Christianity, including the Anglican Communion, set aside this past week as a “week of prayer for Christian unity.” Superficially, we’re living in a time when the quest for greater unity in the Church of Jesus Christ seems to be making strides. The Anglican Communion is in conversation with Methodists about joining together after nearly three centuries of separation since the days of the Wesleyan revivals. At the same time, the archbishop of Canterbury has been meeting with leaders of the Lutheran church. And, as we all know, Pope Francis has been meeting with Anglican, Lutheran and Orthodox leaders in quest of uniting us as one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
So why did I label these ventures as “superficial?” Most of you have heard me publicly lauding these tête-à-têtes in the interest of my second-favorite Bible word: “one.” But I fear they will fail, simply because they lack the proper motivation. The only proper motivation is that we should all come together as one in our affirmation of those truths that are embodied first of all in Holy Scripture and perhaps also in the creeds of the early Church. Instead, I believe that some church leaders are taking advantage of the fact that today both our pews and our pulpits are filled with persons who no longer have an informed knowledge of what Scripture says or means, and how it is that their spiritual lives should be governed by those things.
Accordingly there’s a willingness to water things down, to accept lowest common denominators, to abandon catechesis and Christian education, and to have one big contemporary-styled lovefest in which all differences are set aside as irrelevant. As fiercely opposed as I am to turning indifferent matters into bones of contention, I fear even more that we’ve lost the ability to distinguish between what’s indifferent and what’s essential.
Let me return for a moment to the “week of prayer for Christian unity.” I think it’s brilliant and hugely significant that the bookends of that week are the Confession of Peter at the beginning of the week and the Conversion of Paul at the end. You’ll recall that Peter’s great confession came in response to the question of Jesus, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Paul, when he was confronted on the road to Damascus by the risen Christ, reversed the question and asked, “Who are You, Lord?” Jesus replied, “I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). In both cases the question was the same: “Who is Jesus?” The answer to that question must be at the heart of every quest for Christian unity. And the answer is found in only one place: the Word of God.
Soon afterwards these two men, Saints Peter and Paul, these giants of the faith on whose fearless proclamation the whole spread of the Gospel in the Roman world depended, faced the possibility of the first great split in the primitive Christian Church. What a catastrophe that schism would have been! But it never happened. The issue was indeed a matter of conscience for both men, but it was not at all a clear-cut case of a stronger conscience needing to bend to a weaker one.
In the end it was because both men were equally sensitive to the work and leading of the Holy Spirit and the evidences of the Spirit’s activity in the early Church that they were able to lay aside their differences; to acknowledge their different callings, Peter to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles; and to go forward in building up the body of Christ on earth. Nothing was compromised, no theological truth was set aside, no contentious ill will or hurt feelings persisted, and the Church grew exponentially.
By contrast, today the Church is pretty much shrinking. Seminaries are closing. Churches are consolidating or shutting down. Persons entering the clergy are in increasingly short supply. Church leaders are dying or retiring, and they’re not easily replaced. That, I fear, is a large part, too large a part, of the motivation for bringing various branches of the Church together: it’s a matter of numbers and basic survival.
What are we to do? How is Grace Anglican Fellowship to survive, if indeed God Himself raised up this church for His greater glory and for the extension of the Gospel in this community? We must shift our priorities. We must “stir up the gift of God” that is in us, as Paul wrote to Timothy (II Timothy 1:6). We must be diligent in inviting others to come to church with us even if we’ve never done that before. We must be consistent witnesses 24/7 to our faith in Jesus Christ. We must share our faith with fervor and urgency, recognizing with Paul that no matter how many days are left to any of us, “the time has been shortened” and “the form of this world is passing away” (I Corinthians 7:29, 31). If all those who bear the name of Christ would adopt that fervent sense of urgency, our churches would not be able to hold all the persons who would come seeking what the church has to offer.
What does the Church have to offer? It offers all that Jesus Christ Himself offers: salvation, peace, abundant life, freedom from anxiety and worry, and absolute confidence that our lives and the lives of those we love are held in His merciful hands of love. That’s what drove the leaders of the early Church. And that’s what should unite us in our worship, a worship that needs to take first place in our lives regardless of how we’re feeling on any given Sunday.
Our worship should never become a “sometime thing.” For New Testament believers, worship occurred as frequently as possible, often daily. The very thought of “weekly” never crossed their minds, much less the thought of “occasionally if the weather is favorable, if I’m feeling well, if there are no conflicts and and nothing else ‘comes up.’”
I suppose no one should ever go to church just out of a sense of guilt or of “having” to go. We should go to church because there’s absolutely “nowhere else on earth that we would rather be.” We come to refuel, as every one of us needs to do, even if we’re ordained ministers. Those who pride themselves on “running on fumes” eventually will run out of gas. But our spiritual refueling is not just about ourselves. The assembling of ourselves together to worship Almighty God is what God Himself desires. He seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. How do we know that? Because we did not make that up! It’s what Jesus Himself said when He was speaking to the woman at the well: He said that God the Father desires our worship (John 4:23f.).
And furthermore, along the lines of worship not being about ourselves, we’re responsible to each other. The idea that when one part of the Body of Christ suffers, the whole Body suffers, is not a statement about physical suffering. It was a spiritual concept articulated by Paul with regard to the health of the Church as Christ’s body (I Corinthians 12:26). We need each other. Others need us. We’re not islands. We don’t have the luxury of saying “I’ll be in church whenever it’s convenient and I feel like being there.” You are to be in church because others need you, because you need to feast at the table of Jesus Christ, and, first and foremost, because God wants you to be here.
A famous contemporary pastor wrote, “Your most profound and intimate experiences of worship will likely be in your darkest days – when your heart is broken, when you feel abandoned, when you’re out of options, when the pain is great – and you turn to God alone.” When you do that, when instead of running from Him you come to seek His face, you’ll find that He’s right here waiting for you. The Psalmist wrote, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved, and He Who keeps you will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:1-4). That’s the God Who wants to meet with you every time you come to worship Him! He’s seeking you!
May we take to heart the words from I Thessalonians that we heard at the end of last Sunday’s service. They present to us a challenge, a commission, a mandate: “Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honor all persons; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.” Then hurry back to refuel as you worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen