|Sermon of the Week
|Freedom and Sensitivity to Others
|1 Cor 8
|I'd like you all to come to a Barbecue. You won't all fit at our place, so I've booked the Apollonia Temple Plaza. The evening will begin with the usual festivities. First there'll be the slaughtering of the bull as an offering to the gods. If you'd like, you can join the procession beneath the slaughtering platform to allow the bull's blood to drip on you, so the strength of the bull, and of course the god he represents, will pass into you. There's no need to do that of course, because the strength of the bull will be there when you eat anyway. It'll be a great evening of fellowship and sharing our lives together. So if you'd like to join me, it'll be next Friday at 6pm.
|Well, can you see how such an invitation would leave you with a dilemma if you were a Christian in first century Corinth? A 2-fold dilemma in fact. First was the fact that the steak being served up would first have been offered to a pagan god. In fact that was a problem whenever you wanted to eat meat. The practice of public sacrifices required that the animal being sacrificed was divided up. Part was burnt as an offering to the god. Part was taken by the priests for their meals. The rest was given to the magistrates and other public officials as part of their livelihood. What they didn't need they sold to the shops and markets for general sale.
|So for the Christian there was this dilemma that in order to eat meat they'd be taking into their bodies something that had been made unclean by this act of pagan worship.
|But the other side of the dilemma was that if you refused to eat meat then you cut yourself off from the majority of social occasions you might otherwise be part of. That's not good from a personal point of view of course but more importantly it would mean that you cut yourself off from any opportunity to make connections where the gospel can be shared with those who need to hear it.
|This has been a problem for countless Christians since the days of the Puritans and the Methodists, who shunned pubs because of the evils of drunkenness associated with them. As a result the people who congregated in the pubs were cut off from the opportunity of meeting Christians who might tell them about Jesus. They lost the opportunity of seeing that Christians were just ordinary people like them, people who could enjoy life without the excesses associated so often with alcohol. In fact just the opposite impression was given. Christians were seen as strange people who never went near the pub; wowsers who didn't know how to have a good time; judgmental people who looked down on ordinary people as though they were sinners for enjoying themselves.
|The Corinthians have asked "Is it OK to eat food that's been sacrificed to idols, or should we avoid it? Should we become vegetarians perhaps? Should we remove ourselves from the social contexts of the city?"
|So as is his usual practice, Paul begins with a theological answer. The question hangs on food that's been offered to idols. So the first issue is the idols. Have they made the food unclean? Let's think about it.
|First of all, idols have no real existence, v4. There is only one true God. So idols can't really affect the food we eat.
|But even before that, we need to remember that we're known by God. God has taken up residence within us. Some people thought that there were evil spirits that attached themselves to food, and entered your body when you ate the food they were connected to. But we know that God has already entered our bodies and is present within us. So we have nothing to fear from evil spirits, even if we eat food that's been offered to one of them. God is greater than any evil spirit.
|So the conclusion is that since there's only one God, and idols have no real existence, offering food to idols won't change the food. So we're free to eat it. The Corinthians motto was right: "Our knowledge has set us free". We can eat what we like.
|But then we come to the "But." He says: "It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge." It's all very well for the strong believers to be happy to eat anything but what about those whose consciences are weak? What about those who have come out of a strongly pagan world where they were steeped in the whole culture of idol worship; who can't easily remove the connections they have in their minds between the evil of their pagan past and the food associated with it. These people still think of this food as being tainted, so their consciences are defiled by eating it.
|You can imagine someone these days who'd been converted out of a life that hinged around gambling on the races. They'd spent every Saturday afternoon down at the TAB watching the races, poring over the form guides, betting on the favourite or the long shot, making their fortune then blowing it in an afternoon. Then someone had brought them to Christ and delivered them from the addiction that gambling had become. You can imagine them having great difficulty if one of their Christian friends invited them to go to the Melbourne Cup. It may be fine for their friend but for them it's the symbol of everything they've been rescued from.
|So we have a third dilemma. Not only do we have to resolve the matter of what's clean and what's unclean. We also need to be discerning about the impact the exercise of our freedom might have on other Christians. The knowledge we've gained isn't necessarily shared by everyone. Some people need time to understand and take on board the freedom they now have. The trouble is this sort of knowledge tends to puff up rather than building up. What is it that builds up? Love.
|But there is a knowledge that all have. Look back at v3. All of us are known by God. This is the knowledge that's primary. What matters most is the relationship we have with God. Not only does his presence within us cleanse us from the taint of food offered to idols, it also assures us of the relationship we have with him.
|So the first thing we need to do if we're to work out what to eat and what not to eat, what to take part in and what not to take part in, is to ask whether my handling of this issue affects my relationship with God and others who belong to him.
|Now notice that eating or not eating is a non-issue as far as our relationship with God is concerned (v8). Just because we're free to eat doesn't mean we need to. There's no idea that freedom carries with it an imperative to act. It's ironic actually the way some people think that because you're free to do something then you should do it. The result of that sort of thinking is that freedom itself becomes a bondage. We saw this in ch6 over the issue of sexual morality. Everything may be permissible but not everything is helpful. In fact you're no better off one way or the other, once you understand your freedom of choice.
|But the real question we have to think about is whether our freedom could become a stumbling block for others. Whether seeing our example as a mature Christian could lead others astray. If that should happen then your freedom has become the source of sin against members of your family, he says, and therefore it would be better if you didn't exercise it.
|Well, what I want to do now is to give you an opportunity to think about the sorts of things in today's world that might equate to eating food offered to idols. What are the sorts of things that have an element of evil or idolatry associated with them, for example, that might be difficult for a Christian to be part of?
|Gambling - casinos, pub pokie (poker machine) venues
|Are we free to do these things? Yes. Within limits and with some provisos. Some involve disobedience to God (eg 10th commandment). Some would lead us into temptation. Some might take us away from the communal worship of God.
|So how do we decide? Let me suggest some guidelines.
|Are they going to help or hinder our relationship with God? If we're known by God, it means he's with us when we take part in these things. So how will we feel doing them in the knowledge that he's with us, watching what we do?
|Are they going to be a stumbling block for weaker Christians? Do we need to modify our behaviour at certain times or in certain circumstances? Do we have friends who need greater care because they're still young in the faith, or still have weak consciences about certain things? Mind you, notice that there's a difference between changing our behaviour out of care for weaker Christians and the sort of hypocritical behaviour of those who put on a pretence of piety in front of their Christian friends while living lives of ungodliness when they think no-one is watching.
|Finally, will my behaviour build others up? Is love the controlling factor in my behaviour or is it a desire to exert my personal rights. As we'll see next week, rights can be waived. One sign of the mature individual, in fact, is the willingness to waive my rights for the sake of another.
|One of the things I discovered when I became an adult was that I was able to handle eating things I disliked, - like cauliflower or cabbage, when I visited friends. I would never have eaten them by choice, but I was willing to waive my right to turn up my nose at such a revolting smelly vegetable because I was no longer a child. I had the maturity to put up with things I didn't like for the sake of my host's or hostess's comfort.
|Next week we'll see how Paul applies this principle of the freedom to restrict our freedom to the preaching of the gospel, but for now here is the overriding principle: v1: "Knowledge puffs up but love builds up." And v.9: "Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak." Rather make sure whatever you do leads to either you or others being built up.
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