January 26, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, the Jews of Capernaum went to the synagogue. Some of them went sleepily, others went with a great weariness following a busy week of work. Still others trekked over in a rather irritable mood for who knows why–maybe it had been no more than that they were out of cream cheese back at the house and the bagel at breakfast that morning just wasn’t as good without it. In any event, something set them off and so they weren’t in the best of moods as they approached synagogue. Still others arrived having bickered with their kids on the way over. “We’re going to God’s house, for pity sake! Shape up, you kids!”
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
From various paths, emerging from a variety of experiences in the week gone by, awash in a welter of differing emotions and mental states, they came. They came because, among other things, it was frankly their pious habit to do so. For as long as many of them could remember they had gone to synagogue on Sabbath morning. It was the thing to do. It was what was expected of you. You went to the synagogue, moved your way through the fairly staid and predictable liturgy, listened as the scribes read a portion of the Torah, sang a hallel doxology, and then you went home for the feast day meal at noon.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
But on that particular morning, Jesus of Nazareth was there, and his presence would create a worship service no one would ever forget. This Jesus stood up as some kind of guest pastor that day. Few, if any, had ever heard of him before and once they looked into the bulletin and saw he was from Nazareth originally, not a few perhaps groaned inwardly. But then he started to teach and although he was no John the Baptist full of theatrics and arm-waving fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, there was something striking in the very way this Jesus spoke.
It wasn’t just that his ideas and vocabulary were fresh and innovative and it wasn’t simply that he was a better orator than they at first guessed. Rather, there was something in the very presence of the man that made you want to sit up straighter. Even the teenagers, who had worked so hard at perfecting a bored-stiff look on their faces, couldn’t help perking up, slouching a bit less and listening more closely than they’d care to admit.
This man had authority. He had a moral gravity, a weightiness and substance to him that people found difficult to explain. Somehow they sensed that this man and the message about God’s kingdom he was talking about were one and the same thing. This man’s impact had nothing to do with any seminary diplomas he had hanging on his wall. It did not stem from his once having been ordained and it wasn’t just because he had clearly done his homework, had practiced his sermon, and so was able to preach without distracting stutters. No, this man was the very message he was proclaiming. They couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but this man packed a wallop just by virtue of being there at all.
A few folks were starting to whisper their amazement even as others scrawled a furtive “Wow!” on the bulletin and then showed it to the person next to them. They were just starting to realize that something extraordinary was happening when suddenly and from the back pew a shriek went up. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?! Have you come to wipe us out already!? I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!”
Well, this didn’t happen every week in worship, either!
“Be quiet!” Jesus commanded. And everyone there was glad he said it because it was on the tip of their tongues, too. You can’t tolerate that kind of thing in church. The only thing for such an interruption is to tell the person to hush and then hope the ushers get over there fast to bring this sadly crazed person to the narthex. Everyone in the synagogue was thinking “Be quiet!” and so they were glad Jesus said it out loud on their mutual behalf.
But then Jesus said something that no one else had had in mind: “Come out of him!” And no sooner were those words out of Jesus’ mouth and the man convulsed! He shook like a leaf in a violent wind before shrieking one last time and then collapsing into a heap. But then the hapless fellow was better. The fire had gone out of his eyes and a look of calm came over him.
At that precise moment, however, he was the only calm-looking one in the whole place! Everyone else was scraping their jaws off the floor! This just didn’t happen every week at church! By that late in the service on a typical Sabbath people’s thoughts usually began to drift to other vital things, like will they get home on-time enough to keep the pot roast from drying out and is little Martin is behaving himself in worship center. But not today! No one’s mind wandered, no one turned his thoughts to the mundane or the typical. They had encountered Jesus, and he was all they could talk about for a long time to come.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to the Synagogue.
But on that particular day, by the time they returned home from the Synagogue, the people had the overwhelming sense they had been in the very presence of God in a way that was anything but typical. But then, what they didn’t know, was that the very Son of God would be present that day, too.
The thing is, however, that we Christians go to church each week and we do know that the Son of God will be present via the Holy Spirit. But do we expect that this living presence of Almighty God will shake us up, make us exclaim over the power in our midst? We shouldn’t need to see the kind of razzle-dazzle the people of Capernaum saw that day nevertheless to know that we have encountered something wonderful. Maybe we should even expect it. Because when you gather for worship and Jesus is truly there, anything can happen but something life-giving will happen.
We should expect no less.
As we’ve noted before in other sermon starter postings on Mark, this is one gospel where everything happens IMMEDIATELY as Mark peppers the early texts of this gospel with the Greek word euthus. In fact, the first of 3 uses of that word in this text from Mark 1:21-28 is rather intriguing. If we translated verse 21 literally, it would say, “And coming into Capernaum, immediately the Sabbath arrived and he taught in the synagogue.” Mark is no doubt signaling a mere temporal linkage here but it almost sounds as though when Jesus shows up, the Sabbath follows him immediately as does the teaching that comes as a result. Similarly in verse 23 no sooner had Jesus immediately arrived to teach on the Sabbath and immediately this spirit-possessed man crops up. Later in verse 28 after Jesus had both taught the people and driven out the demon IMMEDIATELY his fame spread throughout the region. This triplet of uses of euthus seems to have a sense far more interesting than some temporal sequencing along the lines of “First this happened and then this happened and then this happened . . . “ No, Mark seems to say that it is the very presence of Jesus himself that more or less causes or in some deep sense leads to these other things happening. It all has a kind of holy inevitability, which is just what you’d expect when the Son of God is near!
A while ago I read a charming anecdote involving the great Pope John XXIII. One day the pontiff was having an audience with a group of people, one of whom was the mother of several children. At one point the pope said to this woman, “Would you please tell me the names of your children. I realize that anyone in this room could tell me their names, but something very special happens when a mother speaks the names of her own children.”
I suspect we know what the pope meant. And maybe it was something like this that the people sensed about Jesus. Maybe this is what they meant when they said he had an authority others seemed to lack. The teachers of the law were good at teaching about God. They drew off their book learning and seminary training, they employed their various gifts of oratory and enunciation. And good though they were at this, there always seemed to be a bit of a remove between a given scribe and the God he was talking about. But not so with Jesus. There was an intimacy to his knowledge about God. He spoke as though he had spent a long time personally being with God. Oddly enough, it almost seemed at times like he was speaking as God. Probably no one in Capernaum that day went quite so far as to conclude this was God in the flesh, but when this Jesus fellow talked about God, it was like hearing a mother intone the names of her own children–the love and the personal involvement Jesus had with his subject matter made it clear that this was not coming out of his head so much as his heart.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Talk about your wheel within a wheel (and perhaps within yet another wheel at that!) As Robert Jenson has pointed out, Deuteronomy is the one part of the Bible that is itself presented as a sermon. So when a pastor preaches on Deuteronomy, she is already doing a sermon based on another sermon. But now inside this somewhat odd chunk carved out of Deuteronomy by the Revised Common Lectionary we get Moses talking inside his own sermon about other future sermons that might be delivered by whatever prophets God might raise up in Israel through whom to speak his truth. So if preaching a sermon based on another sermon is a wheel within a wheel, then preaching on this part of Deuteronomy 18 adds one more layer to all that!
The premise of this text is easy enough to state and summarize. Since direct communication with Almighty God had proven to be a knee-buckling, white-knuckle experience for the Israelites, God had for a very long time spoken through Moses. But since Deuteronomy represents Moses’ swan-song sermon to Israel there on the Plains of Moab just before the people would finally enter the Promised Land, Moses takes care to assure the people that future prophets like himself would be raised up so that the communication pipeline between Yahweh and his covenant people would continue to be utilized. The message would still flow in the post-Moses era.
Before he finishes delivering this piece of news, however, Moses takes care to remind the people—in case they did need a reminder, and their history across the last forty years would indicate that they did need the reminder!—that the job he had been doing in their midst all along had not been very easy. It was a high stakes enterprise. One false move, one mangled reportage of the divine message, and the prophet would be in serious trouble. (And let’s not even talk about the prophet who spoke on behalf of another god or religion altogether!)
Maybe Moses was remembering—even as he spoke these words—his own failure at the rock some years ago. God told him to speak to the rock, he whacked it with his staff instead, and even that little switch-up of the divine message was enough to get Moses banished from the Promised Land for good. Did Moses wince as he spoke the words contained in verse 19? We’re not told but if an involuntary shudder went up and down his spine, you could hardly blame him. But this may have been also Moses’ way of telling the people, “Don’t think that any Tom, Dick, or Harry can take my place. Before presuming to take over being the mouthpiece for God, you’d better be more than a little certain you have been so called by God and even then be more than a little aware that one false syllable could land you in serious difficulty!”
But that’s about the sum total of this passage. As a Lectionary selection, it might be difficult for many of us preachers to get a whole sermon out of this. Still, it is a reminder of how vital and precious God’s Word is as well as what is at stake in getting that Word across to God’s people. It is a wonder that any preacher even today yet dares to undertake this task. I confess that although there are still times I get very nervous before preaching, the reasons underlying the nervousness are seldom what they should be (namely, a fear of messing up God’s message). And across the many years when I occupied the same pulpit month after month and week after week, there were many Sundays when I did not experience a flutter of nerves at all.
In some ways that seems to be OK. After all, God has made each of us now a Temple of God’s Holy Spirit. What’s more, unlike in Moses’ day, we now have the great gift of having an inspired written record of God’s revelation to us and so although it remains fully possible to get things wrong in sermons, the guardrails are more firmly in place now (even as the community itself can call the preacher back to his senses in case a sermon seems clearly at variance with the written Word of God as found in the text).
Even so, preaching is a vital activity and if much has changed in the millennia since Moses spoke these words to Israel about how God would get his Word across in their day, much has remained the same, too. God’s people need God’s Word and even if it is true that today they can read that Word for devotions all on their own, the task of preaching has not contracted in importance just because people all own their own copies of the Bible. It remains a central task of the church and, in many places, remains also a vital component of the worship service as well.
And yet . . . it is finally a spoken word. Very near the heart of the Christian experience is a person talking. That’s how God got his Word across to Israel, too. It did not necessarily make Israel the most attractive religion in the region! Eugene Peterson commented somewhere that had he been alive around the time of ancient Israel and had been faced with a choice among the then-viable religious options in the Ancient Near East, he is not at all sure he would have been lured particularly toward the faith of Israel. There were any number of spiritualties and religions around that were far more colorful, far more exciting, far more physically (if not sexually) engaging than the comparatively staid and stricture-laden religion of Yahweh. Other religions had gods you could see and hold and touch. Other religions located the divine in the cycles of nature that everyone could observe and participate in. But Israel’s God could not even be depicted and was clearly completely separate from the physical forms of nature and the earth and the sky.
The situation is not that different today. There are other faiths that are easier to follow—and sometimes more colorful and engaging to follow—than the Christian faith. What’s more, some of those religions don’t carry a few millennia’ worth of historical baggage with them. No one ever accuses New Age-like crystal gazers or Scientology devotees of fostering past pogroms and crusades. Some of these other faiths also don’t call for sacrifice the way Christianity does and do not force one to the foot of a bloody cross that looks suspiciously to some like a sordid form of child abuse.
People today do have spiritual options and do encounter spiritual crosscurrents! And if in ancient Israel the idea of God’s truth coming across through the simple use of an ordinary human voice looked a little less exciting than other religious options, really the same thing is true today. Some years ago a denomination in Canada was facing the prospect of being bankrupted by some lawsuits. It looked like the church would lose much or all of its property and assets in the process. One day a reporter asked one of the pastors of that denomination what they were going to do in the face of such potentially huge losses. But this pastor was thoughtful and deeply insightful when he replied, “In the end all we need is a little water, a little bread, a little wine, and someone to explain God’s truth. If we have that, we will be fine and the church will go on.”
A little water, a little bread, a little wine, and a human voice. As Deuteronomy 18 foreshadows for us, that’s all we need to live in and to receive God’s truth. Such simple things face powerful spiritual competition, and we dare not give in to the current zeitgeist that tempts one to say that one form of spirituality is as good as the next, the main thing being that someone have some kind of spirituality going for him or her. Instead we go on proclaiming God’s truth and reveling in the wonder of the simple ways by which, for 2,000 years, God has brought his Word to his people.
In the final Harry Potter movie and book (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), there is a scene in which Harry meets up with the deceased former headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizadry, Albus Dumbledore. At one point during their visionary conversation, Dumbledore quotes back to Harry a clever phrase he had once uttered. He then says something to the effect, “I’ve always prided myself on being able to turn a phrase. Words are, Harry, in my not-too-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.”
Dumbledore was reminding Harry of something we all know intuitively and that we all experience on nearly a daily basis: words are powerful. They have the power to soothe as well as the power to wound. Words create scars that remain far longer than even most physical scars last. Even the disembodied words that come across in an email, in a text message, or on the phone can lift our hearts up into the sunlight of joy or plunge us into the darkness of despair.
God knows the power of words. The Bible tells us he created the world through his Word. And before that Bible is finished it is clear that we are also saved through a Word made flesh. Preachers who traffic in words in order to communicate the one saving Word likewise know: words are our most inexhaustible source of, not magic, but of life-giving power!
Author: Doug Bratt
You don’t have to read many sermons to notice that at least some pastors are vulnerable to a kind of moralism that focuses on the “do’s” and “do not’s” of the Christian faith. We sometimes want to leap right to what God wants people to do before contemplating who that God is and what God does.
Yet that’s a bit like trying to build a durable house without first laying a solid foundation. Just as a house that has no foundation is vulnerable to all sorts of destructive forces, human character that the Spirit hasn’t constructed on the foundation of God’s character is very fragile. Psalm 111 lays such a solid foundation for the kind of Christian life pastors and teachers want to preach and teach about. It grounds Christians’ faithful response to God’s grace in God’s faithful person, words and works.
Psalm 111 is a poem each of whose lines begins with a successive Hebrew letter of the alphabet. This structure may be a kind of mnemonic device by which the psalmist tries to make it easier to memorize the psalm. In that way it may be a bit like the classic acronym Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge that music teachers once used to teach students the line notes on the staff in the treble cleft.
However, Psalm 111 is no piece of fluff poetry that’s built just on a memorable structure. It is, instead, full-orbed in its theology, calling worshipers’ to join the poet in praising God for what God has done, does, is and says. It insists that full-throated public praise is the most appropriate response to the majesty and glory of God. So Psalm 111 is the kind of psalm that almost begs for something like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing as the psalmist recites it.
This psalm begins literally with a “Hallelu Yah,” an appropriate way to begin any communication. The psalmist then proceeds to explain just why such a public burst of praise is so appropriate. After all, as it reminds us, God’s works, the focus of this psalm, are praiseworthy. They are “great,” “glorious,” “majestic” and unforgettable. God’s works are “faithful” and “just.”
Yet some scholars suggest that all of the praiseworthy works of God the psalmist describes here are either aspects or consequences of God’s one great work that is Israel’s exodus from Egyptian slavery. If that’s true, God’s “redemption” of God’s people of which the psalmist speaks in verse 9 refers to God’s act of liberating the Hebrew slaves. God’s “covenant” to which verses 5 and 9 refer would then recall the covenant God established with Israel at Mount Sinai. The “food” God provides to those who fear the Lord would, in that understanding, refer to the manna with which God graciously fed Israel in the wilderness. Verse 9’s recall of the gift of the “lands of other nations” would then refer to the land of promise.
Yet faithful teachers and preachers might also want to explore the manifestations of God’s glorious works in other contexts as well. Certainly other things God has done and still does are no less glorious and majestic than God’s activity during the Exodus. So those who explore this psalm might ask what sorts of works of God’s hands are still faithful and just. Clearly those who interpret Psalm 111 in the light of the New Testament can also hardly help but hear faint echoes of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Yet the grace and compassion that God demonstrates in no small part through God’s majestic and glorious works also summon a response from those whom God creates in God’s image. The psalmist certainly recognizes that. He vows to wholeheartedly extol the Lord in the “council of the upright” and “in the assembly.” After all, praise has a public dimension. It’s as much for gatherings of the faithful as it is for the shower or car.
However, because God’s works are so great, they’re also worth “pondering.” While scholars consider this a textually difficult phrase, it seems to suggest a kind of contemplative response to God’s works. In a world that’s increasingly fast-paced, the poet invites those whom God has graciously redeemed to look for ways to slow down enough to carefully reflect on what God has done, is doing and promises to do. Psalm 111 provides, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a wonderful stimulus to such meditation.
Those who recognize the glory and majesty of God’s works then respond with “fear” and “obedience.” God’s redeemed children don’t fear God in the way we may fear environmental catastrophes, wild animals or terrible diseases. Instead we seek to be open to the Spirit’s production in us of a kind of reverential trust in our gracious and compassionate God. That trust, by the power of the Spirit, issues in a commitment to responding to God’s great work with faithful obedience.
A 2011 Gallup survey suggested more than 90% of all Americans claimed to believe in God. Evidence also, however, suggests that they’re deeply confused about this God in whom they claim they believe. Some people seem to think of God largely as a toothless, benign grandparent-type who always gives and never asks. Others perceive God to be a fiery tyrant who does nothing but ruin people’s fun.
Researchers with the National Study of Youth and Religion at the University of North Carolina looked carefully at American teenagers’ beliefs about God. In a report entitled, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers, they conclude that most American young adults believe in something the researchers label, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
The researchers identified four pillars of such faith: 1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. 2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. 3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
Psalm 111 is a wonderful antidote for such confusion. After all, the living God who creates, cares for and is redeeming the heavens, the earth and every created thing is its chief subject. In fact, only the psalm’s very beginning and its end has people as the subject of a sentence. The God whom the psalmist praises and to whom the psalmist devotes so much attention is far more personal and active than at least some of our contemporaries seem to believe.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Author: Stan Mast
“Now about food sacrificed to idols….” That is not a zinger opening sentence for a sermon addressed to 21st century North American congregations. Who in the world can relate to something like that? Well, in fact, people in some parts of the world can relate to that very easily, because they do still sacrifice food to idols. But in your congregation and mine, the response to I Corinthians 8 would probably be an irresistible urge to check our text messages. What in the world was Paul talking about, and who cares? (Apparently Paul addressed this issue only because the Corinthian leaders had asked. “Now about your question….”)
Perhaps if we can recapture the cultural setting to which Paul was writing we’ll be able to get into this passage even if it seems irrelevant to us. Like every other major city in the Mediterranean basin, Corinth was filled with temples dedicated to various gods, each of whom was represented by an idol, a visual representation of that god. As part of the worship of that god/idol, the worshipers brought an animal to be killed and then burned on an altar. But not all the sacrifice was burned up. Some of the barbeque was shared with the priests and another part was eaten by the worshipers in a kind of sacramental meal. If there was any of the uncooked sacrifice left over, it was sold in the local meat market.
Apparently, the First Christian Church of Corinth had former idol worshipers in the congregation, along with former members of the local Jewish synagogue. The former had undoubtedly participated in both the sacrifices and the post sacrifice meals, while the latter would have been thoroughly horrified by the thought of such a violation of the 1st and 2nd commandments. In this mixed congregation, there was a dispute, not about whether Christians should worship idols, but about whether Christians might eat meat offered to idols.
That dispute could have taken two forms. It might have focused on participation in those post sacrifice meals. Was that sort of thing forbidden? If so, then those formerly pagan Christians would have to stop socializing with their pagan family and friends, because such quasi sacramental feasts were a big part of the social scene in the ancient world, like a church potluck or a Rotary dinner. Paul seems to answer that question in I Corinthians 10:18-21 with definite and horrified, “NO.” But in this chapter that question is still being debated.
Or the dispute in the Corinthian church might also have been focused simply on eating the sacrificial meat that had been purchased on the open market. If you buy that meat at the market, is it a sin to eat it, whether you knew it came from the pagan temple or not? Are you participating in an idol feast and, thus, in idolatry by eating such meat?
Obviously, the specific issue being debated in ancient Corinth is not relevant for 21st century North Americans, but the underlying question is still a burning problem. How should Christians relate to the surrounding culture? Particularly, how are we supposed to relate to non-Christian family and friends, who are thoroughly enmeshed in our secular culture? When we socialize with them, we will undoubtedly get involved with that culture, too. Is such cultural and relational involvement sinful? When and how?
The question gets even more complicated when we think of the call to go into all the world to make disciples and the call to be separate from the world. How can we evangelize the world unless we are friends of sinners? But how can we be friends of sinners without being “friends with the world and thus enemies of God?” (James 4:4) And, to complicate things further, as we cozy up to sinners either for the sake of friendship or for the sake of the gospel, how can we avoid offending and even damaging the faith of other Christians whose sensitivities about “worldliness” are different than ours? Or to quote Paul in the next chapter of Corinthians, how can we be “all things to all people” without leading a fellow Christian astray? This is a very complicated question that requires careful thinking and self sacrificial love.
That’s exactly how Paul begins his answer to the dispute about eating meat sacrificed to idols—with a little poetic/philosophical riff on knowledge and love. Some in Corinth dealt with the controversy about meat with a knowledge-based approach. That would make sense in a church that Paul initially described as enriched with all knowledge (1:5, et al). So, Paul begins, “We know that we all possess knowledge,” and you can almost hear heads inflate with pride. Indeed, that’s exactly what Paul addresses in his famous next words. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That’s really the philosophical summary of the chapter. Your behavior in the world and in the church must be determined not first of by what you know (even if what you know is the Gospel), but by whom you love.
The problem with knowledge, says Paul, is that we don’t know nearly as much as we think we know. “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.” This is not an argument against knowledge per se, or education, or philosophy, or theology. It is an argument against being a “know it all.” The first verb for “know” in verse 2 is in the perfect tense, indicating that the knower thinks that he has a complete and full knowledge. And, says Paul, anybody who thinks he has such knowledge doesn’t really know anything.
Real knowledge begins with love, particularly love for God. When you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, then…. When you humble your mind before God, then…. I repeat those elipses, because Paul doesn’t say what we think he should say. He doesn’t say, “you will know as you ought.” He says, you are “known by God.” So, the key to solving the intricate problem of relating to both culturally toxic unbelievers and culturally phobic believers is not knowledge, but love.
Interestingly, Paul says love is more important than knowledge even if what you know is, in fact, Gospel truth. In verses 4-6 Paul quotes the essential Christian creed about idols and the true God, a creed anticipated in Judaism (cf. Isa. 44:12-20 and Psalm 115, for example). “We know that an idol is nothing in the world and that there is no God but one.” There is simply no reality corresponding to those idols. They are just blocks of wood or stone. There is only one living God. Oh, yes, there are many “so called gods and lord in the world,” but we know that there is nothing to them.
So, all of us who are Christians know that there is really only “one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ….” Paul’s wording there might seem to suggest that Paul is contrasting God and Jesus, as though there is one God and Jesus is not him. But the way Paul describes Jesus in terms that nearly parallel his description of God (“through whom all things came and through whom we live”) indicates that Paul believes Jesus is fully God. He isn’t arguing about the Trinity here; here’s arguing about false gods and the true God. We all know there’s just one true God, and that idols are nothing at all.
Except that not every early Christian knew that clearly. Some new converts from paganism had lived for so long in a world dominated by idols that they couldn’t easily throw off their old habits of thinking. We see the same thing today in Africa and Asia and South America, where Christians can’t entirely shake off the remnants of animism and ancestor worship and voodoo, even though they really believe in Christ as their Savior and Lord. The old beliefs make them weak in their Christian faith. The Corinthians were like former addicts who fight an inner battle whenever they are exposed to drugs.
So, if these former idol-addicts saw another Christian sitting down at a post-sacrificial meal with family and friends, the weak Christians couldn’t get past the thought that this meat has been sacrificed to an idol. It looked as though their more mature Christian friend was participating in an idol feast, and the weak wondered if it was now OK for them to do such a thing. When the weak Christians did participate themselves, encouraged by the example of their Christian friend, they were acting against their conscience and that conscience was, therefore, defiled. They felt guilty. They lost their sense of confidence before God. Their faith was wounded. They were in danger of being “destroyed.” Even if it was just a matter of eating sacrificial meat sold in the market, the sensitive conscience of the former pagans was violated if they ate such meat as they followed the knowledge-based example of a more theologically sophisticated Christian.
You can almost hear the theologically sophisticated Christians say, “Oh come on! Get over it! Grow up! Think clearly about this. We know it’s just food and food doesn’t bring us near to God. It doesn’t make us better and it doesn’t make us worse. It’s just food.” And they were right. Paul knows it and he lets them know he knows it. But being right isn’t the end of the story. You can be right in theory and all wrong in practice, when it comes to the question of how you live as a Christian in a pagan world.
So, says Paul, “be careful that the exercise of your freedom (the word here is exousia, meaning authority or right) does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Yes, you are free to eat anything you want, even though the Old Testament forbade many kinds of food, especially “idol food.” Jesus Christ has set you free indeed. You have a perfect right to eat that idol food. You are right. But don’t let your rights trip up a fellow Christian on the journey to full maturity in Christ. Yes, they are weak in their understanding of Christian truth, and they need to grow. But until they do, you have an obligation to love them where they are. That means you must forego your rights and restrict your freedom for the sake of your weaker brother or sister.
Something in me rebels against that. It feels like I’m being governed by the ignorance of the immature, tyrannized by the minority that doesn’t get it, dictated to by those who don’t have to right to teach me, restricted in my enjoyment of all the goodness of God’s creation. And I think I have a point. It is important to distinguish between judgmental Pharisees and weak Christians. The former just want to impose their uptight regulations on me, while the later simply don’t know better. Like Jesus, I may and must resist the Pharisee, even as I bend low to care for the infant believer. Sometimes it is hard to make the distinction. And it is always hard to make sacrifices, especially sacrifices of hard won freedom and God given rights.
That is probably why Paul ends with a sledge hammer. “So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brother in this way, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.” That feels like a punch in the gut. It takes all the righteous, knowledge based hot air right out of us. Paul says in effect, “You want to make this a matter of knowledge, of thinking? Then think of this. That weak person is someone for whom Christ died. That person who is such a pain to you is so connected to Christ that when you hurt that person you hurt Christ. In fact, if you lead that person into sin by your theologically justifiable behavior, you have sinned against that person. And because of his unity with Christ, you have also sinned against Christ himself.” For Christ’s sake, for that person’s sake, for love’s sake, don’t do anything that would make a fellow Christian fall.
Paul ends with a powerful and personal promise. “Therefore, 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.” Now, there are two very important words in that pledge—“if” and “cause to fall.” It may well be that at some point, that weaker brother will grow in his knowledge about idols and God and Christian freedom. Then Paul’s powerful personal promise isn’t in force anymore. It isn’t forever, or for all situations. If I’m not with a weak brother, I can eat whatever I want. The key question is, “Will my eating cause him to fall into sin?” It might offend him. It might make him wonder. It might make him uncomfortable. But if it doesn’t lead him into sin, I’ll eat anything I want. In other words, Paul’s stern promise is motivated by love for the weak. It is not a hard and fast rule for all times and places and persons.
Here’s the preaching point in this arcane text. What are we willing to do to promote the cause of the Gospel, advance the work of Christ, and enhance the growth of the church? What sacrifices are we willing to make for the well being of another human being, especially those who are part of the household of faith? Whether it’s reaching out to a pagan idol worshiper or an immature believer or a Pharisaical church leader, what does love require? It is not theological sophistication that will redeem the world; it is Love that is willing to empty itself of authority, give up precious rights, and restrict God given freedom. The only thing that will redeem the world is Incarnate Love that is willing to die for the other. That’s what God cares about most, and so should we.
What made “food sacrificed to idols” such a hard question was that it was rooted in actual commands of God, namely, the strict prohibitions of idol worship in the 1st and 2nd commandments. That’s the same thing that made “Sabbath observance rules” such a hard question for later generations of Christians. God had given a very clear and firm command in the 4th commandment, and generations of serious Christians in my theological tradition had expanded that simple command into a host of specific regulations.
When more recent theological reflection concluded that the work of Christ has set us free from such legalistic observance of that Day, those who still held to those old rules were put into a moral quandary. How do I keep that day holy? How do we balance our freedom in Christ that makes the Day a delight with our love for fellow Christians who are still rule oriented? How much do we go along with the free and easy use of the Day so prevalent in our secular culture and how much do honor the old rules for the sake of those whose faith is wounded when they see us “acting just like the world on God’s holy day.”
Or, to give another example of the Corinthian quandary, how should we use the gifts of wine and beer? While the Bible speaks very negatively about getting drunk, it speaks positively about the use of alcohol in celebrations and sacraments. But some Christians can’t make the distinction between the abuse and the proper use of alcohol. How do I navigate that tricky territory between enjoying a fine chardonnay with my salmon and not offending my formerly alcoholic friend sitting across the table? To make this issue more missiological, is the currently popular practice of doing evangelism in bars a good idea? Is “bar theology” an appropriate exercise of Christian freedom and evangelistic inventiveness or is it a stumbling block to Christians who struggle with alcohol?