Sunday 28 January - Epiphany 4 - Eucharist - Stephen Holmes

 Epiphany 4 2018 – 1 Cor 8:1-13

+ ‘Take care that your freedom does not become a stumbling-block to the weak’.

About a decade ago, a priest stood up to preach in an Edinburgh church. He looked at the congregation and shouted one word. It had four letters. The first was ‘F’ and the last ‘K’. The congregation were shocked but the priest continued. ‘You hypocrites, you’re scandalised by a good Anglo-Saxon word but last week a fellow human being died of cold sleeping rough outside this very church and you couldn’t care less. You bunch of Pharisees, you don’t give a…..’. This was an effective sermon, it still makes people think and I would be glad if people were still provoked by my words ten years on, but that is not my point. Notice that I did not say the offending four letter word beginning with ‘F’. It is part of my vocabulary, I have been known to use it, but I feel it is inappropriate in a sermon because some of you would be scandalised to no good effect.

[As one of the congregation observed after the service, I obviously meant the word FORK…]

This is the question that Paul addresses with the Corinthians in our second lesson. I wonder how many of you listened to it, it sounds obscure because it talks about eating meat sacrificed to idols, but it addresses an essential question for all of us: how should Christians live in a non-Christian world? And it also takes us to the heart of our faith. It is worth having a closer look at it.

The problem is that when Paul wrote his letter, about twenty years after the crucifixion, Christians lived in Roman cities like Corinth surrounded by pagan worship. Animals were sacrificed to pagan gods and the meat was eaten in the dining areas of the temples or sold in the markets. At the temple of the god Asklepios in Corinth, archaeologists have found three dining halls with kitchens and fixed tables. You might dine here at a feast, a wedding or a funeral, or you might be served meat from the temple sacrifices at a party. Such sacrifices also provided a cheap source of meat for the poor. If you ate it you might seem to be taking part in worshipping false gods and betraying God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You see the problem. How should a Christian live in a non-Christian world and keep their conscience intact. Our situation is closer to the pluralist world of Paul’s letters than to our own more recent past when our society was pervaded by Christianity.

Paul, however, doesn’t start with the meat problem. He starts by talking about ‘knowledge’ – he seems to be quoting one of the factions in the Corinthian church, the intellectuals, ‘all of us possess knowledge’, and criticising them with his own slogan. ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up’. It is not your knowledge but your love that counts. Paul puts relationships above knowledge, using Jesus’ double commandment of love: ‘love God, love your neighbour’.

Having demolished knowledge, he then affirms it, using more of their slogans: ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and, ‘there is no God but one.’ Here he agrees with what they say, there is indeed only one God, but again he does something unusual with it. He says that many gods are in fact worshipped, a century later Pausanias listed the gods worshipped at Corinth, but, instead of joining in the argument Paul takes the classic definition of Jewish monotheism, Deuteronomy 6:4 ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord’, and expands it to include within the one God of Israel both God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The idea that Jesus is God goes back to the earliest days of the Church, back to the first disciples experience of Jesus crucified and risen; but this is not just an opinion. It affects how you live.

We can get so caught up with inclusion and good interfaith relations that we forget the unique gift we have as Christians. The Dalai Lama once made some gently sarcastic comments about Christians who are desperate to learn from Buddhism but forget the riches of their own tradition.

Paul, however, being Paul and not afraid of a fight, goes back to the argument with his own brand of godly sarcasm. Ok, you knowledge-loving intellectuals have this freedom because you have superior knowledge from the Corinthian equivalents of the Guardian and Radio 4. And you are actually right, meat is meat and that it comes from a temple means nothing because the gods of the temple are not real gods. But you are not members of an elite dining club, you are part of the Church of Christ, fellow members with people who don’t live in your liberal bubble. They may read the Corinthian Daily Record and listen to Radio Forth or Peloponnesian Radio Hermes.

Paul says, ‘take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak.’ It’s not about you, it’s about your neighbour. ‘For if others see you, who possess knowledge’ – they know you’re superior because you’ve told them - ‘see you eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to eat food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.’ You eat and it means nothing, they see you eat and think it’s ok to worship false gods. You may be right but you are sinning against members of your Christian family. They come to serve both Christ and Asklepios. ‘By wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.’

If we step back from first-century problems like meat from Greek temples, we can see that Paul is looking at the world around him and trying to answer the problem, how should Christians live in a non-Christian world? He’s not afraid to get into the contemporary debate and he recognises there are no easy answers: the answer here is ‘yes and no’. But his most useful resource is basic Christian doctrine: There is one God, pagan gods are nothing. Jesus and the Father are that one God (elsewhere he mentions the Holy Spirit but this was when the doctrine of the Trinity was still being formed). In Christ, who was weak on the cross, everyone has value whoever they are, even if they don’t have great knowledge. So, ‘take care that your freedom does not become a stumbling-block to the weak’. Read in your Bibles what Paul is up to and apply his method to modern problems: pre-natal screening, the refugee crisis, sustainable farming, taxation or the provision of mental health support. God has given us knowledge and faith, but it is up to us to use them today in the service of ‘those for whom Christ died’.

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The Reading: 1 Corinthians 8.1-13, New Revised Standard Version

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ 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.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact 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.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 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? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.