Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow from 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. I hope your day is a wonderful Lord’s Day!
What’s For Lunch?
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
1Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. 3But the man who loves God is known by God.
4So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
7But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
9Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, won’t he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? 11So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.
A Thorny Question
Paul is writing to his favorite group of overly enthusiastic Christians — the church in Corinth. It was this church, you remember, that Paul has to devote page after page of correction and instruction to in order to correct their bad practices. So, when we come to this chapter — chapter 8, although Paul doesn’t know it’s chapter 8 — he has already talked pretty straight to them about divisions in the church, immorality in the church, lawsuits among believers, and, once more for good measure, immorality in the church. Lots of immorality in the church apparently.
Then we come to chapter 8, and Paul has to address a cultural habit that is unique to the Christians in Corinth. The earliest Jewish converts in Jerusalem would not have encountered this problem. Jews themselves, whether Christian or not, would not have encountered this problem. But for these new Christians in Corinth, most of whom are not Jews, there is a problem — whether or not they should eat meat offered to idols.
Now, we have a very difficult time comprehending the dilemma this created for the Corinthian Christians. In Corinth there were several temples or ruins of temples:
* The Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Although this temple was in ruins, Aphrodite still commanded 1,000 temple priestesses who sold themselves as part of their devotion to Aphrodite, and also to make a living. Corinth was a seaport, and a crossroads for commerce. In other words, sailors and traveling salesmen were frequent visitors to Corinth. The old saying, expressed with a wink and a nod, went “Not every man can afford a trip to Corinth!” To call a young woman a “Corinthian girl” was to insult her moral character. To “live as a Corinthian” was actually a saying for the drunken, licentious life of Corinth.Perhaps Paul emphasizes agape love, true Christian love, because he is in the City of Erotic Love.
* The Temple of Asklepios, the god of healing. Those who sought cures came to this temple and sought cures from both Askelpios and his daughter, Hygieia, from which we get our word, hygiene. Worshippers would offer clay votives made like the parts of their bodies that needed healing — a hand, a foot, an ear, an eye, a leg, and so on. Thousands of these votives hung in the temple of Asklepios, and this is probably where Paul gets his inspiration for talking about the Body of Christ being like parts of the human body, with Christ as the head.
* Other temples to Apollo, Hermes, Venus, and Isis also dotted the hillsides of Corinth.
So, Corinth was a city accustomed to polytheistic worship and sacrifice. And this is where “meat offered to idols” comes into play. The saying was probably “meat offered to the deity” but Christians would reword that phrase to emphasize the powerless, lifeless form that were the idols which represented the various gods. Usually these idols were actually large statues that stood inside the respective temples of each god. They dominated the interior just as the newly commissioned statue of Athena dominates the interior of the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee.
Debbie and I traveled to Taiwan in 1989, and our hosts took us to a temple which stood on top of a mountain in Taiwan. The Longshan Temple was a huge complex of buildings and to access the temple itself we walked up a winding path which ascended to the temple entrance. As we entered the temple, attendants gave us little laminated cards with lotus blossoms pictured on them. Entering the temple we saw hundreds of statues of Buddha that lined the walls and a grand statue of Buddha that dominated the temple interior. A line of tourists and worshippers alike streamed into and out of the temple the entire afternoon that we were there. That must have been something like the temple scene in Corinth, only louder, baudier, and less reflective.
But, back to meat offered to idols. When sacrifices were made in any of the Corinthian temples, one of three things happened to the meat that was offered to the gods. A tiny portion of it was symbolically placed on the altar and actually consumed in the ritual. A second portion of the sacrifice was reserved to feed the priests and attendants at the temple. This was not unlike the Temple practice in Jerusalem.
But, the bulk of the meat, the remainder of the sacrifice which had all been presented to the god, was either consumed by the family who offered it, or it was sold in the local butcher shop often adjacent to the temple itself.
Here’s Their Dilemma
So, here’s the dilemma of the new church in Corinth: How different do they have to be from the culture around them?
Already Paul has told them at least three ways in which they have to be different:
1. They are to be united in Christ, not divided by politics. In chapter 3, Paul says this to the young congregation —
1Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? 4For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men?
5What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.
— 1 Cor 3:1-5 NIV
2. They are to be moral, not immoral. In chapter 5 (and several other places) Paul addresses sexual conduct within the church like this —
9I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
12What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?
3. They were to settle their disagreements differently. In chapter 6, Paul tells them this —
1If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? 2Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church![a] 5I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6But instead, one brother goes to law against another—and this in front of unbelievers!
7The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers.
Paul wants the Corinthian church to realize that they are different and must act differently than the pagan world around them. If they are no different from the pagans, from those who do not know Christ, what good is that? It actually harms the cause of Christ whose kingdom is not a kingdom of domination and power, not a kingdom of consumption and excess, not a kingdom of satiating every appetite, but a kingdom of love, joy, and peace. This is good news, but it is not without price. Christians should act differently than the non-Christian world around them.
What Harm Does Eating Idol Sacrifices Do?
Paul takes on the intellectual argument that must have been the Corinthians defense —
We know these idols aren’t God, therefore it doesn’t matter whether we eat meat that has been offered to them.
But, Paul has an answer for what the Corinthians think they know. He says, “Knowlege is a great thing, but love is even better. Just because you think you know something, doesn’t mean you know what you ought to know.”
In other words — Yeah, you might have this all worked out intellectually, but there’s more at stake here than your intellectual exercise. Love is at stake. Knowlege makes you proud, but love helps the community of faith — love builds up.
Of course, Paul says, we know these aren’t really gods, these idols. There are lots of so-called gods, but we know there is only one God from whom all things came and for whom we live, and one Lord Jesus Christ through whom all things came and through whom we live. Now we could stop right there and spend time talking about the difference Paul makes in God “from whom all things come” and Jesus “through whom all things come” but that’s a lesson for another day. Paul’s point is that we know God is God, Jesus is Lord, and neither Aphrodite, Asklepios, Hygieia, Apollo, Isis, or any of the other “gods” are gods at all. We know that, but that still is not an excuse to eat meat offered to these so-called gods.
Because Paul says, Not everyone knows that. And when he says that, he is talking about other members of the Corinthian congregation, not pagans in the outside world. Paul is talking about other believers because he says,
“When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.” 1 Cor 8:12
And that is the heart of Paul’s argument.
Responsible For One Another, Responsible to Christ
I may know that these idols are lifeless pieces of bronze with no powers whatsoever, but maybe the newest member of our congregation is still struggling with that. Maybe the newest Christians in Corinth still are being pressured by family and friends to come to the temple, eat with the family, follow the traditions — Just add this Jesus to what we’ve always done, they say. Cover all your bases, hedge all your spiritual bets. Missionaries face this all the time, and the term they have for those who want to add Jesus to their already existing religious practice is syncretism.
When we lived in Atlanta, I got a call one day from a man named Jimmy. Jimmy identified himself as the pastor of a Romany-speaking congregation and they were looking for a place to meet to worship on Sundays. I think I have told you part of this story before, but this makes my point very well. I had just been to Fuller studying church growth, and one of the groups we studied were Romany-speaking churches. We know them as “Gypsies.”
Gypsies live right here in the US, and have an amazing network all across the country. I knew that there was a movement of God among these people who had traditionally been on the fringes of the Catholic church, but now were coming to personal faith in Christ. So, I met with Jimmy, presented the deacons with their request to meet at our church on Sunday afternoons. The deacons were all for it, with one small stipulation — I had to meet with the Gypsy church each Sunday to make sure their practices were not out of keeping with our church.
That was the beginning of a very interesting experience. Debbie and I were invited to the home of one of the Gypsy families one night. In the driveway was their Lincoln Towncar — they only drove Lincoln Towncars, not Cadillacs — and a huge dually pickup truck. At the end of the carport they had a full-size Coca-cola machine, all lit up.
We were welcomed in to the home, seated at the dining room table and treated to wonderful hospitality. We noticed that we were sitting at the table only with the men, and the women were doing all the serving and never sat down. The head of the clan — because this house held an extended family — explained that Gypsy women ate only after the men had eaten, but since we were guests Debbie could eat with the men. And, to make matters even more strange, he also explained that as the women served the meal, they did not turn and leave the room. Rather, they backed out of the room without turning their backs to the men. Amazing even in the 1980s! So, this was a very different culture than ours.
I asked them what they did for a living, and there were vague answers about dealing in scrap metals, like the gypsies of old Europe had done. They assured us they no longer worked in circuses or never stole children. So far, so good.
I continued to meet with the congregation on Sunday afternoons for over a year. The pastor preached in Romany, and one of the men interpreted for me. He had some pretty good messages, and I really enjoyed getting to know this small congregation of about 30-people. We visited in another Gypsy home, and the pastor told me that I was known throughout the Gypsy world because we opened our church to them.
But, as I left that church to come to Greensboro, the deacons thought the Gypsy congregation needed to find another home. So, I informed them of that decision, we met for the last time, and I thought that was the end of it.
A few days before we moved I received a phone call from a real estate agent. She asked me if I knew a man named Jimmy so-and-so, and I said I did. She asked if I knew how to reach him, and I said I did not. I then asked why she needed to contact him. They were renting a very nice house in our community — a split-level home not far from the church. What she said next floored me. “They moved and took all the wall-to-wall carpet, the light fixtures, and pulled all the wiring out of the house.” I was stunned. This was the pastor whose sermons about following God had inspired me. I realized that in this movement of God among the Gypsies, God still had plenty of work to do.
So, I understand how the Corinthian church could profess faith in Christ, while still clinging to the cultural traditions of their family and friends. But Paul says that the more mature should watch out for the less-mature, because sinning against them is sinning against Christ. Not “like” sinning against Christ, but actually doing so.
Paul also warns that the behavior of these so-called “knowlegeable” believers could cause weaker Christians to sin.
David Augsburger in his book, Dissident Discipleship, says there are three kinds of spirituality:
* Monopolar spirituality seeks my own personal development. I’m on my own journey, seeking to find myself, be my own person, be all that I can be, and other similar sentiments that revolve around my own ego.
* Bipolar spirituality seeks my relationship with God. This is probably the most popular form of religious faith today. It reminds me of the old gospel song, “Me and Jesus got our own thing going, me and Jesus got it all worked out, me and Jesus got our own thing going, and we don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.” It’s me and Jesus, and nobody else.
* Tripolar spirituality seeks God in the company of others and sees God in others. This would be the “least of these” idea that Jesus speaks of in Matthew’s gospel — “In as much as you have done it to the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.” This spirituality sees God, but sees God in others. One rescue mission worker prayed one night, “Lord, we know you’re coming through this line tonight. Help us to be kind to you.”
That’s what Paul is talking about. I give up my own superior knowlege and privilege because there is a person in our midst who can’t handle it, for whom my action will cause them to sin. And if I sin against them, I sin against Jesus. One and the same, no difference. If I cause one person who sees me eating meat offered to idols to fall back in their Christian life, turn back to the old ways of Corinth, lose the joy of finding new life in Christ, then I have sinned against Christ Jesus himself.
That’s why when we come to this table today we come as a group, as a community. Without the community we cannot take this bread and this wine in all its fullness. At this table we see Christ represented in the bread and wine, but we see Christ living in each person gathered here today. The story of God has always been the story of God and his people. From the garden of Eden to the glory of the New Jerusalem, God is present in and with his people.
We are responsible for each other. We are accountable to one another. We used to take that accountability seriously in our church covenant, but that document has become a meaningless exercise. But it is at this table that we see the broken body of Christ who died for, not just me, but for all the world. All of this community of faith, all of these brothers and sisters of mine, all of us in whom Christ lives, and through whom Christ expresses himself. “Lord, you’re coming to this table today with all of us, help us to be kind to you.”