Sunday, July 05, 2015

1 Corinthians 8: Tripping Over Idols

This morning, we continue our series on 1Corinthians. The full manuscript and the scripture passages are found below the audio player.

Old Testament Reading      Exodus 33:12-16
12 Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
14 The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us?  What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”[1]

Epistle Reading  1 Corinthians 8
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God. 
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall. [2]

Sermon           “Tripping Over Idols”   Rev. Charissa Howe
I started a fight online the other day. I actually try not to do this, as a general rule, but the internet is a weird place and sometimes the strangest things get people really wound up. I joked that I thought Tim and I might need marital counseling because I caught him stirring the coffee in the French press. There are two types of French press users: there are those who stir the grounds in the water and those who don’t. I am one of those who never ever stir the grounds. You see, the way a French press works is that you pour the coffee grounds into the beaker – I prefer glass, some prefer steel, but that’s a whole other argument – You then pour in the hot water over the grounds. (200 degrees Fahrenheit is the exact water temperature, in case you were wondering.)  Some people advocate stirring the grounds either right when you pour the water in or about a minute after, before letting it steep like tea for 3-4 minutes. The argument is that it more evenly distributes the grounds to make the coffee more even. But those of us who advocate not stirring recognize that the press itself moves the grounds through the water as your push it down (like this) and that the coffee is stronger when you don’t stir – and strong coffee is the right kind of coffee.
Tim is one of those who never ever makes coffee, so he just doesn’t know any better than to stir the coffee. It’s really ok. I was joking about the counseling. Partly because it’s not a big deal in the long run and partly because I finally convinced him to stop stirring the coffee in the press.
Much to my surprise, people got really wound up about this when I made the joke about our disagreement (which hardly qualifies as an actual disagreement). I don’t know if I wasn’t clear that I was joking or not, but apparently, if you do not stir your coffee grounds, you are dead to those who do.
This is not the first time I have inadvertently started a Facebook comments war. I try to avoid being too controversial online, so I’m always pretty gobsmacked by these fights when they happen. People get wound up about everything:
dogs vs cats
city vs suburbs
iPhone vs Android
glasses in the cupboard upside down vs rightside up
toilet paper over vs under
disposable grocery bags vs cloth bags
And the list goes on. No matter which side of the issues you fall on, there will someone who is mortally offended that you disagree with them. And the issues aren’t all so obviously ridiculous. Some of the issues really do affect our lives and are really, truly difficult to find a good answer to: politics, environmental concerns, human rights issues, parenting, religion and spirituality.  .  .
There seems to be a trend in many circles of Christianity to associate being a “good Christian” with a certain type of vote or with particular stances on social issues like foreign relations, welfare, or gun control. We get these cultural pictures in our minds of what a good Christian looks like and we aim to fit ourselves into that mold of cultural Christianity. When others don’t fit into the picture of the “perfect Christian” – whatever that picture might be – they are, in the eyes of many, not actually understanding what it means to be Christian. They’re on the wrong side of the debate – may God have mercy on their souls.
But that’s not how we’re supposed to identify ourselves, according to 1 Corinthians. It’s not about what’s on the outside, Paul tells us. It’s not about falling on the “right side” of every debate and controversy out there. Our identity as Christians isn’t our behavior or what group we do or don’t belong to. It’s not even in which behaviors we approve of and which we call sin. We can’t really live out the Christian life if our definition of the Christian life is based first on any identifying characteristic other than relationship with Jesus. That’s why in other places in his letters Paul tells us that in Jesus Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no male or female, no old or young. It’s not that we aren’t supposed to be unique. It’s that we are to remember that we are all Christians above and beyond all else, then after that we are male, female, Jew, Greek, pro or con, right or left.
         The face has changed since Paul’s time, but this is not a new issue. This isn’t a problem only of the modern American church. The ancient Corinthian church faced it too. This is a weird passage here, talking about idol meat and if it’s ok to eat meat sacrificed to pagan gods, but it comes down to the same core issue: Christian identity and interacting with the culture that surrounds the church.
         We often have an immediate knee jerk reaction to words like “idol” or “pagan.” They seem pretty obviously like bad things. But it wasn’t so obvious to the people in Corinth. Worship of other gods and idols was just part of the culture. It was woven into cultural celebrations. It was so much a part of who they were as Corinthians that many of the poorer people in the congregation would only have tasted meat during city-wide pagan celebrations. That’s why this whole meat thing is such a big deal for Paul in this strange passage from today.
Paul says that it’s not about whether the meat is ok to eat or not. “Go ahead and eat it.” He tells them. That’s not what your salvation hangs on. He says, “We Christians know that those idols are meaningless and there’s no sort of magic mumbo jumbo that happened to this meat just because it was slaughtered as a pagan sacrifice.” The problem was that there were those in the church forgetting that they weren’t all coming from the same background. The meat wasn’t a big deal for the Jewish converts because they had never celebrated those pagan rituals. But the gentile converts had.  In eating the idol meat, even though it had no meaning for the Jews, they were inadvertently putting the temptation of idolatry in front of their gentile brothers and sisters and then getting upset with them for not understanding that that meat didn’t really have any meaning.
         Whenever people come together from diverse backgrounds, there will be disagreement. The case in Corinth was that idol meat was the major disagreement in which the disagreement was seriously hurting one group of people. The loving thing to do is for the Corinthian church to just let go and stay away from the idol meat, even if it has no real meaning to them. Sure, it’s cheaper in the marketplace than non-sacrificial meat and sure, it has no real power or special meaning, but it’s causing harm to some brothers and sisters. It wasn’t important that one group was right and one was wrong. The importance was their brotherhood in Christ.
         Because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, says Paul, sometimes we have to let go of a disagreement even if we believe we are in the right. Sometimes we have to stop worrying about being academically in the right because we’re causing more harm than good.
          So what do we do with this? That’s really what we’re after week after week digging into the Word of God, right? So what?
One very concrete way that we as a church community come together is in the celebration of the sacraments. Today, we have the joy of celebrating both sacraments in one service! In baptism, we welcome those who profess Jesus as their Lord and Savior, or who have been presented by family who profess Jesus and promise to raise them in the community of believers. As we receive the one being baptized, we remember our own baptisms as well and celebrate the family that is created through this sacrament. In Communion, we receive the grace of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and we are brought into fellowship with God through our unity to Jesus. These are signs of our unity. Our tradition recognizes any baptism performed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We welcome all believers to the Communion Table. This is where we start proclaiming our love for and unity with one another.
It’s important for us to take caution not to be caught up in the culture wars we see around us. They are idol meat. The baptism we all share is more important. When we get caught up in belonging to one side or the other, in being on the “right side,” we’re just tripping over cultural idols in the road. Not only is this important for the health of our relationships in the church, it’s important for how the world around us perceives the church. Do we want the world to see us as those who bicker and fight just like the rest of the world, or as those who have a different and loving way of interacting? As those who will argue others into the ground to prove themselves right or as those who welcome a diversity of voices in the conversation? Where Christian brothers and sisters disagree, kindness and Christian love are more important than being proven right or being on the winning side of the argument.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Ex 33:12–16). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[2] The New International Version. (2011). (1 Co 8:1–13). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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