January 29, 2012
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
For many of us, Paul’s writing about food offered to idols does not make much sense. Some of us have encountered other religions and had to ask ourselves if we would participate or if what we saw was off limits. But for many, it seems a little antiquated.
But it was an important question for this new community. Christianity has spread out past Jerusalem, out past the boundaries of Jewish practices and dietary laws. And now we have Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians, and they are surrounded by the sacrifices to statues of Caesar, to local deities enshrined in temples, to household gods watching over families.
And like all churches, there are Christians of every type. Some come from deep Jewish backgrounds with heart-held understandings. Some are new converts who find in Jesus that which gives life, but who have no foundation in the faith. For both of these the question of idols is a real question.
Paul knows the right answer: there is only one God, and all these idols are false, so there really is no problem with eating the food. It is just food.
But he also knows what is at stake in the question: people are working out their salvation with fear and trembling, as he would say. They are trying to be Christians within a world that is apathetic at best and hostile at worst.
Christians were labeled atheists back then. Not because they didn’t believe in God, but because they didn’t practice the state religion of sacrificing to the national, local and household gods. They were seen as traitors for not calling Caesar a god.
With so much at stake, it is easy to see why they might be troubled. Paul does not tell them, “Well, just tell them quit whining, it’ll be okay.” He understands that if this is causing a problem for someone’s conscience, then we need to work through it with thought and care.
He reminds them that food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we eat it, and no better if we don’t. “Only take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
This makes sense of Jesus telling the unclean spirits and demons to shut up. In the Gospel of Mark, they know who he is and they proclaim it. But that is just going to confuse the issue, and become a stumbling block to those who need to hear about the kingdom. It is going to change the focus of what he is doing, and put the em-PHAS-is on the wrong sy-LLA-ble. And so even though it is true, that Jesus is the son of God, he does not want the unclean spirits as spokesmen.
Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up. Knowing the right things is good. Being loving is far better. Better to be simply loving than have great theological insight and wreck other people’s growing faith.
I am reminded of the story of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. (The Right Words at the Right Time by Marlo Thomas and friends, 2002.) He grew up in Houston, but spent his summers with his grandparents in Cotulla, Texas. He and his grandparents would caravan with a club each summer, everyone packed into cars and trucks and station wagons, towing around 300 Airstream trailers, traveling all over North America. He was around ten or eleven, the age at which kids start to know everything, and share it with everyone.
Jeff was always a numbers guy. He would calculate miles-per-gallon as they filled up. He calculated average price per item of groceries when they were bought. At one point he saw an anti-smoking ad on TV that said every time a smoker took a puff on a cigarette, he was shortening his life by two minutes.
His grandmother smoked. Riding in the back of a 1973 Oldsmobile with a smoker meant that he learned to hate smoking. So one day he did the math. He worked out how many puffs per cigarette, how many cigarettes per pack, how many packs a day, how long she had been smoking. He put his head between the two of them in the front seat and said, “Grandma, You’ve taken sixteen years off your life from smoking.”
He thought they might praise him for his math skills. Ah, the innocence of youth. Instead, grandma started crying. This was not a usual occurrence. Grandpa pulled out of the caravan of Airstream trailers, off onto the side of the road, stopped the car, got out, and asked Jeff to follow him. Jeff was scared. As he tells it, “Was I in trouble? How much trouble was I in? My grandfather had never said a harsh word to me, but this incident was unprecedented. I had no way to gauge how severe the consequences would be.”
They walked back behind the car, between the ’73 Olds and the Airstream trailer. The other Airstreams continued to roll by. Then his grandfather looked at Jeff, put his hand on Jeff’s shoulder and said, quietly and calmly, “You’ll learn one day that it’s much harder to be kind than clever.”
His grandfather didn’t just tell him. He showed him. Jeff says, “It’s been something I’ve been working on ever since.”
Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.
Let us love one another, as he loves us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.