Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany (Year B)
TEXT: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak … So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. (1 Cor. 8:9, 11)
What Paul says here was not meant only for the Christians in first-century Corinth, but for all of God’s people in every time. His theme is freedom. Christian freedom. Christian liberty. The glorious reality of our lives in Christ is this: we have been set free! We have been delivered from the power of sin; no longer are we in bondage to it. To use the Scriptural language, we have been set free from the law; we are no longer under law, but under grace. And we have been released to enjoy life abundantly.
But just how free are we free to be? This is the question Paul addresses in today’s text. Are there any limitations to our freedom in Christ? Are we totally free to do anything we like? We are all familiar with the line of reasoning that says, “I am free to do anything I please as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” It sounds good, doesn’t it?
But the problem with this kind of reasoning is that it assumes we can be totally independent of other people—that our decisions and actions do not affect anyone else. The truth is different. The poet John Donne was right—no person is an island. No one of us truly lives in isolation. Each of us is part of a larger whole. What affects you affects me. My actions impact you. The reality of our human condition is that we are all interconnected. And this is especially true in the church.
The church is a picture of the basic unit of society: the family. Others in the church are our brothers and sisters. We are part of a community, a fellowship, a family; and what we do and how we live directly impacts all of us.
The church in Corinth was facing an issue of Christian liberty. Like us, they were asking: How free are we free to be? Are there limitations to our freedom in Christ?
Now, for them, the matter at hand was whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols—offered, in other words, as part of pagan temple worship. Probably, none of us will ever have to think about that specific problem. But the larger issue does apply to us. How does our exercising of our Christian liberty affect others? Does my behaviour help—or hinder—my brothers and sisters in Christ?
Paul draws our attention to three important considerations that should guide our conduct as Christians: we need to consider ourselves; we need to consider others; and we need to consider Christ.
Let’s look at these. Point one is: consider yourself. Paul wrote:
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. (8:1-3)
The first person you need to consider is you. It should start there. Before you can look outward, you need to look inward. You need to take a good long look at yourself to determine your own situation. And there are two areas suggested in our text.
The first is the area of knowledge. Knowledge is a good thing to have. In fact, as we grow in our relationship to Christ, we also grow in our knowledge of him and of his ways. This is a good thing, an essential thing. But it can also be a dangerous thing, if we rely too heavily on what we know. Why is that? Because, while knowledge is essential, it is not sufficient. When we put too much trust in what we know, it can cause us to become proud. Our text says that knowledge “puffs up.” It can cause us to become egocentric. It can make us arrogant. We begin to look down on others who do not have the same level of knowledge.
The second area is love. You not only need to ask yourself what you know, you also need to ask yourself whom you love. Paul tells us that while knowledge puffs up, love builds up. He goes on to say that the one who loves God is known by God. In other words, love is the foundation of our relationship with God, and the essential building block of the healthy life.
Do you love God? How do you know? So often, we evaluate our love for God by how we feel inside. I do believe that feelings are important, but feelings can also be fickle. I may feel ten different ways in an average week.
There are people who think they love God because they have a sentimental feeling toward God. Yet many of those same people can’t even get out of bed on a Sunday morning to come to church. They do not share their time, or talent, or resources for God’s work. Still, they say they love God because they have a warm feeling in their heart toward him.
There is a better test of our love for God. It is the test of obedience. If you really love God, you will show it in how you live for him. We are to love God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.
O.K.—back to our three points of consideration. Point two is: consider others. Let’s look again at what Paul wrote. He said:
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.’ … It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. (8:4, 7a)
So—after we’ve taken a good long look at ourselves—we then need to consider others. We need to consider what they don’t know. Not every person will be in the same place in his or her knowledge of the truth. As we’ve seen, the question for the Corinthians was the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols. Now, Paul indicated that an idol was nothing. It was the representation of a god that did not really exist. He knew that, and other mature Christians knew that. But not everyone knew that. In Paul’s time, there were Christians who had not yet come to understand that there is but one real God. Some continued to think of these idols as significant, and they were having trouble justifying eating meat which had been sacrificed before the idols.
The problem was, the animal sacrifices that were brought to the pagan temples in Corinth eventually ended up in the marketplace. Part of the meat was burned up in the sacrifice. Another portion was given to the priest. And the rest was sold in the local butcher shops. But was that meat somehow contaminated because it was a religious sacrifice? Was it wrong for a Christian to eat meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan god? And was it right for a Christian who had no qualms about eating that meat to eat it in the presence of someone who did? How free were they free to be?
Jesus taught that knowledge of the truth will set us free; but knowledge of the truth comes with time and experience. New Christians require space to mature and grow in their knowledge, and the rest of us owe them some tolerance and understanding. We need to allow for the fact that others may not be where we are in our walk with God. And when it comes to questionable things, we need to consider the situation of others. We need to consider what they may not know, and we also need to consider where they may be weak.
Paul talks about the weak brother. He is weak because he does not possess the knowledge necessary to understand that eating food sacrificed to idols is nothing. But weakness is not sin, and we need to understand that. We need to take into account the spiritual situation of our sisters and brothers in Christ. We need to be careful that our behaviour does not become a stumbling block to any of them.
That, I think, is the real reason why so many churches do not support the use of lottery funds. No doubt it is true that most of us can buy a “6-49” ticket or spend an evening in a casino without losing the rent money. But that is not true for everyone.
Some people may have scruples based on conscience. In those cases, we need to be careful to respect their hesitation. After all, if someone believes that a particular behaviour is a sin, for them it is a sin.
Scripture warns that if we cannot act in faith, we will end up in sin. If someone believes that it is a sin to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and they do so, for them it is a sin. They have disobeyed God in their heart. And if, by exercising our freedom, we embolden them to eat, then we cause them to sin. That’s why we must be careful to consider others before we act.
Let’s look at our final point for consideration. Point three is: consider Christ. Here’s what Paul wrote:
But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (8:12)
We must consider Christ. You see, when you sin against others, you sin against Christ. In everything we do—and choose not to do—Christ should be our primary consideration. Is Christ pleased with my actions? Do my choices reflect his priorities? Is his will my desire? And if not, then in what sense is he my Lord?
These are the kind of questions that we need to be asking ourselves. Because, if Jesus is not the top priority of our lives, then our lives will lack the purpose and meaning God intends for them to have. The real issue is what motivates us. What controls the way you live? Are you controlled by your own ambitions—to get and have and possess? Or are you guided by something higher: a desire to please God and walk in God’s love?
It is for love’s sake that we choose not to cause our friends to stumble. We may be more mature and have a more complete knowledge. And we may therefore be free to indulge. But we are also free to choose not to indulge for the sake of another—to limit our practices so that others may continue to grow in grace and knowledge.
If Christ Jesus truly is our Lord, then his love will guide our lives and influence our decisions. It is the love of Christ that causes us to live to please Christ—to live, not for ourselves, but for others. The promise of Christian faith is this: walk in love, and you will walk in the power of God. Walk in love, and you will build your brother up. Walk in love, and you will please the One whom you call Saviour, Lord, and King.
May it be so, for every one of us. Amen.