1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1
I’m continuing on with my series of sermons from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians; once again, forgive me if I don’t read the entire Scripture passage before beginning, since it’s three chapters long.
There’s a lot in those three chapters – a lot of good sermon material. And that’s how it’s usually been presented to us over the years, as little snippets of good stuff, used as the basis of a sermon on this, or that. But when we take it that way, we miss the larger point. We miss the whole argument that Paul is making – and that larger whole is more important than the various parts, and it’s what I want to focus on today.
The Corinthians sent Paul several requests for guidance on various issues, and one of the biggest issues dividing the church in that city was the issue of “food offered to idols.” You see, pagan society was built upon pagan beliefs and pagan values, and cemented together with all kinds of little instances of pagan worship. And nowhere was the ubiquity of paganism more noticeable than in the practice of offering food to the pagan gods – or to pagan ancestors.
Every Gentile banquet began with the equivalent of what we call "grace" – a libation poured out to pagan gods. This is one reason why Jews did not accept Gentile hospitality; it offended their profession of exclusive devotion to the God of Israel. Gentiles who had accepted Christ, of course, didn’t do this; but then, the meat you bought in the marketplace may have been prayed over by the very butchers in the act of preparing it for sale. It was part of the practice of their trade – so it may already have been “offered to idols.”
This is why Jews insisted on kosher meat. Not only was it prepared differently, it wasn’t prayed over by pagans beforehand. And though Christians weren’t required to keep kosher, they were worried about buying meat in the open marketplace. Would it be a betrayal of their faith in Christ? This would be a problem even between Jewish and Gentile Christians – a bar to accepting hospitality even among believers in Christ. Where did that meat come from? Was it acceptable to eat?
Beyond this, every trade guild would offer the meat for their guild banquets before consuming it, so if you belonged to a trade guild and wanted to remain in good standing, you wound up participating in a banquet where everything had been offered to idols before you started. By the way, these guild banquets were typically held in a pagan temple, too. How, then, could a Gentile maintain one’s standing in a trade guild after his conversion to Christ?
And then there were the pagan funeral dinners, where the “idols” were not images of pagan gods so much as the imagines – wax masks – of the deceased and other ancestors. Offerings were made to them as part of the ritual. Some of these banquets, even the funerary ones, in addition to the tinge of pagan worship attached to them, would also degenerate into debauchery – drunkenness and sex and so on.
Well, the Corinthians wanted to know the Christian way to deal with all this. They couldn’t get away from it; they had to live amongst it. How, then, should they live as Christians in the midst of it all?
Paul seems to give two contradictory answers, one in chapter 8 and another in chapter 10. In between, he goes off in another direction entirely, on what looks like some rant about his rights as an apostle. In Chapter 8, he looks like he’s pooh-poohing the concerns about meat offered to idols. He says that idols – things made of stone or metal or wood – aren’t gods, and they don’t have any power; certainly, they can’t make meat unfit for Christians to eat. He says,
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "an idol has no real existence," and that "there is no God but one." For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth - as indeed 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 (8:4-6).But then, over in chapter 10, he seems to imply that there’s real danger for Christians in all this.
Therefore, my beloved, shun the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the practice of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer 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. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (10:14-22)The distinction he’s drawing, though, is important. Paul points out that though idols can’t harm you incidentally – that is, by your eating something offered to them; nevertheless, if you go so far as to join in the offering, then you are betraying your exclusive commitment to Christ.
So, what’s the difference? Well, let’s suppose somebody, like say maybe the Chamber of Commerce, or Ellettsville Main Street, has invited a group of Balinese fire-walkers to open a community event with a display of their ability to walk on hot coals without being burnt – which is an act of religious devotion on their part. I can watch them do it; indeed, I will respectfully attend to their performance and conduct myself with great dignity, and thank them afterward for gracing our event with their presence. But then, they’re not asking me to walk on the hot coals with them; nor would I do so, not even if I were as sure of being delivered from the fire as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. (Old Testament reference – that’s another sermon.)
Even if there were no hot coals, I could not join in their act of devotion to their gods, for I belong only to Christ. The difference is between allowing them to be who they are and do what they do, which doesn’t hurt me at all – and my assent and participation in their prayer, which, even if done in silence, is a betrayal of my Lord.
Those images of stone or metal or wood can’t harm me. Not even other supernatural beings – Paul calls them demons, but at this time of the year, we could call them “ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night” – no other power in earth, or heaven, or hell, can harm the soul that belongs to Christ, nor taint the food the Christian eats with some kind of spiritual toxin. But the follower of Christ must not pray to other powers, must not bow down in the house of Rimmon – not even if he dies for it. (Those twenty-some Egyptian Christians led out onto a beach and beheaded by Islamic fanatics had only to say a few words, to do as their captors required, in order to be spared. But every one of them died with the name of Christ on their lips rather than deny their relationship with him.) For to join in the pagans' offering, to receive their pagan sacrament, is to commune with the demons themselves, not just their material representations, and that we must not do.
At the same time Paul is making this case, he points out that not everybody draws the line at exactly the same place, and you have to take into account that other people are involved. In the case of those who know that idols have no real existence and the food offered to them can’t hurt you, he says,
However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if any one sees you, a man of knowledge, at table in an idol's temple, might he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? and so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, your sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother's falling, i will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall (8:7-13).You have to be careful not to scandalize people for whom this is a big, big issue. Sure, you can go to dinner with unbelievers – and certainly with fellow Christians – but don’t flaunt your superior enlightenment in people's faces.
The argument in between, in chapter 9, where Paul talks about his rights as an apostle, is basically in answer to the Corinthians’ tendency to look elsewhere for advice when they didn’t get the answer they wanted from Paul. He’s asserting his right to decide the issue. He returns to his own example at the end of this section, where he says,
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (10:31-11:1).Now, this all seems pretty far out there and irrelevant to today’s world, but I want you to consider this. When we were all much younger, our society’s beliefs and values were basically the same as the Church’s; not that everybody was a believer, let alone a very faithful one, but the default position on all major questions of morality or identify was taken from Christianity -- or, at least, conformable to Christianity. For even if we were never a “Christian nation,” nevertheless, we were, by and large, a nation of Christians.
This is no longer the case. There are lots of different kinds of people, with different religions and no religion, who are part of American society these days. Not only that, but many of those who have adopted other beliefs and values have deliberately done so in rejection of the dominant, Christian, beliefs and values they grew up with, to which they are actively hostile. We are now a post-Christian, a de-Christianized, society.
So the question arises, far more than we woud like, How far we can go to accommodate someone else’s beliefs or values? In fact, it has gone so far that we now find, far more often than we ever thought we would, that we are challenged when we try to operate on the familiar beliefs and values of Christianity. Instead of the minority religions having to assert their freedom of religion to be who they are and do what they do, without our interference, we now find that we – the majority religion – are having to assert our freedom to be who we are and do what we do, as government and the schools, and public opinion begin to see our beliefs and values as outdated, and our traditional practices as examples of institutional bigotry to be modified or eradicated. It’s all very confusing and disagreeable.
So let me say just a couple of things about how to handle this. The first thing to acknowledge is, that people who are different from us are not necessarily bad people, and how we treat them says a lot more about us than it does about them.
I have a cousin my age, who was into really heavy drug use as a teenager, but he had a religious conversion and left all drugs behind. I am very glad for this, for if he hadn’t found a new spiritual relationship to build his life on, he would probably be dead or in prison long since. But the new spiritual relationship he found was not with the Lord Jesus Christ – but with Lord Krishna.
For the last forty years or so, Robert has lived in a Hare Krishna monastery. We still keep in touch, usually by Christmas card. (He noted some years ago the oddity of Hares sending Christmas cards, and then said, "We even celebrated Thanksgiving this year.") I love him as much as I did when we were boys together – and I pray for him – but there are things we cannot share. And I have to respect his choices, as he has to respect mine, for to try to argue each other into the “right” religion, or to try to pretend that the other is “really” just following the same religion by a different name, would be unloving - indeed insulting – either way.
The people who are on a different path – whether morally or spiritually – who have declared their allegiance to different beliefs, different morals, a different lifestyle – whatever it is – are still the same people we have always loved, and we must never cease to love them. The same goes for all those on those paths with whom we have no personal history. They are not radioactive lepers – none of them. They are children of God. Lost children perhaps, but that’s as may be. You will not get anywhere with them – let alone present Christ as an attractive alternative to them – by your disgust or horror or anger.
So the first rule of love is, you have to let people be who they are, and do what they do. But it works the other way back, too: they have to understand that you have to be who you are, and do what you do, also. You have spiritual commitments that you can't just dump because they make things awkward for you.
Meanwhile, however you figure out how to get along with the rest of the world, others will probably draw the line somewhere else. You may be in advance of some people’s understanding, as you are behind still other people's. Remember to take other people’s feelings and opinions into account, and don’t be a jerk about things, ya know? That seems to be Paul’s advice.
But most of all, at the bottom of everything, don’t forget: Your relationship with Christ is the single most important fact of your life. Don’t ever compromise on that; but try to live like Christ, not just argue for Christ, in all that you do. That’s putting God first, in a godly way. I remind you again of Paul’s conclusion in this section:
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ (10:31-11:1).Amen.