Many years ago now I visited Becky in The Gambia, West Africa. She was there working as a nurse and nurse tutor, and I was there for a short vacation over the Christmas holidays.
One of the experiences I remember from those 4 weeks in The Gambia was attending a church service in the village of Jarrol. This was a village just a few kilometers upcountry from where Becky was living and working. And it was a very small church – there were only 6 of us there that Sunday morning. Along with Becky and me there were two other health care workers (Australian midwives) – there was a young Christian man who was serving in the Gambian army – and there was the village chief, who was a Muslim. That Sunday I was asked to preach, which I did, and the young Gambian man translated my words into the Mandika language for the chief. As you can imagine, it was pretty informal – I sat on a bench in the church as I offered some reflections on a passage of scripture.
Everything went fine that morning. But then after the service, one of the Australian midwives pointed out that after reading the scriptures I had placed my bible on the ground next to the bench where I was sitting. She pointed out that in a Muslim context, this would have been a sign of profound disrespect for the bible – no Muslim would ever put the Qur’an, their holy book, on the ground. The only saving grace, she said, was that I had at least placed the bible partly on mat that was there on the ground beside me.
Now what kind of response could I have offered to that gentle correction? One response would be to say: “Well, that’s just ridiculous. This book is just ink and paper and cardboard. God’s word is a living Word – God’s word comes alive by the Spirit. It’s not offensive to God to place this book on the ground. Besides, God made the ground and there’s nothing offensive about sitting on the ground or walking on the ground, or putting the bible on the ground.”
Now if that was the only response I offered, it would at least have the merit of being an honest response, and I think truthful response.
But without denying that truth, I could also respond quite differently. Like this:: “Of course it doesn’t matter where I put the bible down. I know I’m not defiling it or offending God by putting it on the ground. But I also understand that this Muslim chief won’t see it this way. In one moment he’ll see me talking about this book as if the message of Jesus really matters – and in the next moment he’ll see me putting the bible on the ground, as if this book doesn’t mean anything to me at all. So even though I know it makes no difference, I’ll be careful what I do with the bible – so I’m not sending mixed message.”
That situation in a little village in rural West Africa came to me this week when I was looking at our passage for today from 1 Corinthians. There is some degree of similarity between that situation in Jarrol and a debate that was unfolding in the church in Corinth.
The question in Corinth was whether followers of Jesus should eat meat that had been offered in religious ceremonies of other gods. If you went to the great public square in the city of Corinth, you would have found so many temples and statues of different gods. Statues and temples of Dionysus and Artemis and Poseidon and Zeus and others. You name the god, and there was a temple to that god. And we should also know that in this city of Corinth, most of the meat that people ate had been involved as some kind of offering to the gods – whether in the great public temples or at private shrines.
The truth is that most people living in Corinth – especially the many who made up the lower classes – would not eat meat regularly. It was just too expensive to buy meat. Although there were certain times of the years when huge festivals were held at the temples, when there was all kinds of meat on the market – and the prices would come down. So for the wealthier citizens of Corinth, some of whom were also part of the church, eating such meat was likely a fairly regular occurrence. But for many others in the church, eating such meat rarely if ever happened.
In any case, there was one group in the Corinthian church who thought it was just fine to eat the meat that had been offered to some god. We could call them the freedom party.
In our passage from 1 Corinthians chapter 8 you will see quotation marks around some of the phrases that Paul writes – and those quotation marks have been added in by the translators because they believe that in these instances Paul is actually quoting the slogans of the freedom party. So they are saying things like this:
“No idol in the world really exists.”
“There is no God but one.”
“Food will not bring us close to God.”
The freedom party, which perhaps includes wealthier members of the church, are saying this: “Look, these gods aren’t real – these idols have no power. There is only one God, and it’s the one true God that we worship. It means nothing that this meat has been offered to some non-existent god. It has no effect on the food. We are absolutely free to eat it. We know this.”
So Paul is writing his letter, in part, to address this conflict. And the first thing he says to the Freedom Party is this: “You are absolutely right that you can eat this meat sacrificed to idols. Eating that meat isn’t going to hurt you and eating that meat isn’t going to help you. Food is just food.” In offering this argument, Paul is in a way following the teaching of Jesus. In Matthew chapter 15, Jesus expresses his great suspicion about how food laws were being enforced. In explaining one of his parables, Jesus says to his disciple Peter: “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?…[T]o eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” In other words, stop worrying about these food laws – and start worrying about the attitudes of your heart and the words of your mouth.
Paul says to the Freedom Party – you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with eating this meat.
But that’s not all Paul has to say. Far from it! Because as far as Paul is concerned, just because they are allowed to eat this meat, doesn’t mean they should. The freedom party has made a right judgment about the meat – they are free – their knowledge of the tradition is correct – their argument about the implications of their faith is a good argument. But as far as Paul is concerned, when you think about how you are going to act, you always have to consider the life and faith of sisters and brothers in the church. Paul writes these words:
But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
We need to be clear here. Paul isn’t just worried that some in the church might be offended at what the freedom party is doing. Paul is not worried that the sensibilities of some Christians might be injured at the sight of sisters and brothers eating meat offered to a Roman god.
Rather, his deep concern is that those of weaker faith might be lead astray from their faith in Christ. Those of weaker faith might think to themselves: “Well, if they’re eating in the temple, maybe it’s ok – maybe it’s ok to participate in the worship of these other gods. Maybe I can follow Christ in most of my life, and still participate in the worship of these other gods at the same time.”
Here we should remember that this church community, as a part of its regular practice, shares in a meal of bread and wine that puts them in touch with the risen Jesus. This is a meal at which Jesus presides as host and nourishes his people. And then these Christians of weaker faith might see a sister or brother eating in another very different context of worship and think: “Ok, I guess it’s all the same. We can participate in all of these kinds of worship.”
Again, Paul isn’t concerned that someone of weaker faith will be offended at the sight of someone eating this meat. He’s not worried about those who might say: “Oh look at that, they’re eating meat at the temple, I can’t believe they’re doing that – it’s so offensive.” No, Paul is concerned that a person of weaker faith, someone perhaps new to the church, will end up being divided between Christ and these other gods that are so much a part of life in Corinth. Paul’s deep worry is expressed when speaks about the faith of the weaker sister or brother being destroyed – when he speaks about them falling. This isn’t just a question of someone being offended, it’s a question of someone being led away from Christ.
This morning there’s a final part of Paul’s argument that we should perhaps recognize this morning. Right at the outset of our passage, Paul has these words for the freedom party. Paul writes:
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.
It’s that last phrase that we want to focus on: “Anyone who loves God is known by God.” What’s striking about that phrase is that it’s not at all what you would expect Paul to say. You would expect Paul to say something like this: “If anyone loves God, then they know God.” Or something like this, “If anyone loves God, they will know how to live.” But Paul doesn’t say anything like that. He says: “Anyone who loves God, is known by God.”
Paul is saying that our knowledge isn’t of first importance.
Paul is trying to put our knowledge into a right perspective.
Paul is knocking our self-confident knowledge down a few pegs.
What matters is not simply what we know – what matters is that we are known by God! And of course in the Hebrew tradition, the language of knowing something, or knowing someone, is not just about intellectual activity – it’s not simply about knowledge held in our minds. In the Hebrew tradition in which Paul was so deeply imbedded, knowing means loving. Anyone who loves God is known by God. Anyone who loves God is loved by God. We love, because God first loved us.
God’s knowledge of us – defines us.
God’s love for us – defines us.
We are not defined by what we know. We are not defined by our freedoms. We are defined by the fact that we are known by God and loved by God. Our starting point in all of life and thought and action is the knowledge that the one God has created us and embraced us.
In the middle of our passage for today, Paul offers a remarkable and beautiful statement of faith that expresses who we are. In this statement of faith he affirms the monotheistic slogan of the freedom party, but then he pushes beyond it to a statement about uniqueness of Jesus. Paul writes: “[F]or us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and [there is] one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things and through whom we exist.” As one ancient Arabic translation of the bible puts these last words…
The intention of all of all of this is the same – we are not defined by our freedoms – we are not defined by our knowledge. We are defined by God’s love for us. We are defined by the fact that God, through Jesus the Son, has created us and redeemed us and drawn us into communion and into the truly human way.
So don’t let your knowledge puff you up. Don’t let your knowledge and freedoms make you forgetful of your sisters and brothers. Don’t let your knowledge and freedom turn into an arrogant forgetfulness that your words and actions have an impact on others. This doesn’t mean we need to be constantly worried about offending one another – it doesn’t mean that the most sensitive souls among us get to define the life and action of the church.
But all of this does represent a challenge to so much of what our culture proclaims about the priority of knowledge and freedom. In so many ways that we begin to recognize, day by day, our Christian faith sets us in such a different world – with a different set of priorities and perspectives – rooted in the life we have in Christ. We are not our own – but as one of the great catechisms put is: we belong, in body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful savior, Jesus Christ. His life defines us.
And now to the one God be glory in the church, and in Christ Jesus, now and always, Amen.
In this sermon I have followed the interpretations laid out by Bailey in his Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes and Hays in his Interpretation commentary on First Corinthians.