Introduction: It is an honor and privilege to be here at Orangethorpe United Methodist Church.
I want to offer a special word of thanks to my friend, Pastor John McFarland for opening the pulpit to me this morning; it is a generous and trusting thing to do, and I am grateful to him for it; thank you John.
Let's pray: Lord open our hearts and minds by the power your Holy Spirit, that as the Scriptures are read and the word proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.
The scripture lesson for this morning is from Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8. Hear the word of the Lord:
1 Now, concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.
4 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." 5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 6 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.
7 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.
8 "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. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 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? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
13 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.
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
I am captivated by all of Paul's letters, but I must say, the First Letter to the Corinthians is my favorite. If the letter just consisted of chapter 13, that beautiful chapter on agape love among the people of the church, and chapter 15, that great chapter on the sure hope of the Resurrection, it would be justly famous by virtue of just those two chapters alone.
But as much as I appreciate those chapters, I am taken with the letter for another reason. Of all of Paul's letters it strikes me is as the one that is most contemporary to us. Or, to put it another way, the letter is always timely.
I'm also going to make a little confession here: I get a bit of a guilty pleasure out of reading the letter. Have you ever found a letter or note someone wrote to someone else, and you just couldn't help reading it? You kind of know you shouldn't, but you sort of can't help yourself.
[My reading notes between older sister and her boyfriend. A mother's ire.]
Well, the wonderful thing about First Corinthians is not only is it ok for us to read other people's mail, as Christians, we are supposed to read it. Sure, parts of it read like it's none of our business, but there it is, in the Bible, and we're not only entitled to read it, we should read it.
Those of you familiar with First Corinthians know it's full of reported church gossip, scandal, conflict between various factions, and even conflict between the whole church and its founder, the Apostle Paul. I often wonder what the Corinthians would be thinking if they knew that for the past two thousand years people have been reading Paul's letters to them as if they are God's holy word to the whole church, across all time and in all places.
But there it is, right there after Romans, for all the world to see. And if you have ever even been semi-invested in any local church for very long, the conflict in the Corinthian church sounds familiar to you. Sure, they are fighting over different things, but it can all sound very familiar to anyone who has served on a church committee — sometime it can sound all too familiar.
And yet what a gift the letter is to us! It's easy for us, sometimes, to put the early Christians on pedestals and talk as if they were all saints. But if you read First Corinthians closely that image is quickly dispelled. The joy, and sometimes the pain, of reading First Corinthians is discovering yourself, your pastor, and the fellow members of your church reflected in the letter — for good and for ill.
The Corinthians are all flesh and blood people: proud and fearful, committed and perplexed, faithful and sinful, striving to be faithful... and failing, and then, by the grace of God, trying again.
Which brings us to this morning's passage. It can be a little perplexing to us. What's the big deal with eating meat? Why one whole chapter on the issue?
Well, clearly it was a big deal to Paul and the early Christians. Paul not only spends a whole chapter on it here, he later circles back around to the topic in 1st Corinthians chapter 10, and also brings it up again in his great letter to the Romans.
Thanks to the good work of historians and biblical scholars, we know that most people in the ancient world could not afford meat. They largely subsisted on grain, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and dairy products. For the poor, if they owned domesticated animals (and many did not, particularly if they lived in a city), slaughtering a goat, a lamb, cow, or chicken just didn't make sense. You might eat well for a few days, but where were you going to get milk, cheese, and eggs after you slaughtered the animal?
On the other hand, if you were among the city's elite, or if you were among that class of people working hard to rise a station or two in life, you could afford to purchase meat, or at least sometimes you could. You might even be able to purchase enough meat to throw a nice dinner party for your family and friends, or to impress that person who might help you move up a bit in a fairly strict, stratified society.
So if you lived in a city, and you wanted to host a dinner party, where were you going to get the meat for your guests? Well, invariably, you were going to have to buy meat from this or that temple, where the animal had surely been sacrificed as an offering to this or that god, for one reason or another. You'd buy a chunk of it, take it home, and you, or more probably your slave, would have a good deal of additional work to do preparing it for you and your guests.
Serving meat to your guest was a status symbol. You were proud to have the financial resources to throw the dinner party where meat was going to be served. It was an indication to others that you had arrived, or at least had climbed up a rung or two on the social ladder.
That was the culture people swam in in the ancient world — not all that different from ours: the desire to advance in this life, to get ahead. Lots of striving, but in the end, striving after something hard to grasp and to hold onto for very long.
We know that in 146 BC the Romans captured the city of Corinth, destroyed it, and no doubt executed many of its inhabitants and sold the survivors into slavery. The city largely remained uninhabited for over a century, until 44 BC, when Julius Caesar rebuilt it as a Roman colony, parceling out land to army officers, soldiers, and other people with the means to buy or bribe their way into it.
So the city was not quite 100 years old when Paul paid a visit and founded a church there. It was a city without long bloodlines and prominent families with deep roots. And geographically, it was positioned on a narrow and important isthmus. The narrow strip of land allowed merchants, shipping cargo between Asia and Italy, to save time and precious goods, by having them hauled across the isthmus between Corinth's two ports, rather than incurring the risk of having to ship them around the Peloponnese (what is now southern Greece), and so further out into the sometimes very stormy and dangerous Mediterranean Sea.
Therefore, Corinth was like a lot of port cities then and now: peopled by folks from everywhere, many of them hoping to advance in the world by honest or nefarious means. As one of my divinity professors put it, "When you think of Corinth as it was when Paul visited, try to think of a what New York City and New Orleans would look like if you melded the two together."
So when Paul visited Corinth maybe you were a practicing Jew who had been raised there and attended the synagogue regularly. You'd never been to Jerusalem, you couldn't even read or speak Hebrew, the native language of your distant ancestors, because you had to know Greek to make your way in the city. So the Scriptures your family and friends cherished, what we now call the Old Testament, were in Greek, the dominant language in the eastern Roman Empire.
And if you weren't a Jew, maybe you were a devotee of one of the more popular gods or goddesses in the great Greco-Roman pantheon of gods like Zeus, Athena, or one of the other hundreds of lesser gods that ruled your fortunes. Or perhaps you were involved with one of the esoteric religions from the Far East, say Zoroastrianism, or the Isis-Osiris cult from Egypt. Or maybe you just had a philosophical bent, and fell in with followers of Plato or Epicurus or Diogenes. The point here is: as far as we know, no religion or philosophical school was dominant in Corinth when Paul visited; it was just a polyglot, mish-mash of this and that.
But whether you were a Jew or a Gentile, you probably would've been impressed or at least intrigued by Paul. He wasn't, by his own admission, a gifted speaker, but he was persistent. He knew what he was talking about, and above all, he was passionate about what he believed. So passionate that he risked everything telling others about Jesus, a Jewish man who laid down his life others, and who Paul came to call his Lord and his Savior.
Well, it's unlikely we would be here this morning if Paul was not an effective witness to, and an able ambassador of, Jesus Christ. He clearly struck a chord with some of the Corinthians, probably just a small percentage of them, but enough to establish two or three house churches among the mixed multitude of people who lived in the city of Corinth. Christian or not, you have to tip your hat to Paul. It's tough to plant a church in such an environment, and even harder to keep it going, especially when you're off trying to plant other churches hundreds of miles away. Inevitably problems and controversies are bound to pop-up in such a situation.
So if you were Paul, what would you tell those new Christians in Corinth when they raised issues you hadn't actually had time to carefully consider yourself just yet?
"Paul, is it ok for those of us who make a little or a lot more money than most of our brothers and sisters in the church to go to dinner parties or host them ourselves when everybody knows the animal we're consuming was sacrificed to an idol or a god or goddess? We know idols aren't real. We're mature Christians, we know there are no gods or goddesses — if they even exist — who can rival our Lord Jesus, the one true God you taught us about. Some of us think it's fine for us to do so, but others are opposed to the practice. What would you have us do, Paul?"
Well, eating meat sacrificed to an idol was a dilemma then, but it's not now. But the Corinthians' question raises an age-old dilemma Christians always have to confront: In short, when is it appropriate for us to exercise our freedom in Christ and join with the wider culture by partaking in things it regards as perfectly acceptable, and when must we refrain from swimming along in the cultural current?
It is not always easy to make such a determination. How much should we Christians wall ourselves off from the wider culture? Should we retreat from it for fear of being contaminated by it? Or should we accept that we've got to go along in order to get along? There are dangers in either direction.
Christians have discovered down through the ages that circling the wagons to fend off the culture often leads to a kind of Pharisaical legalism. When we huddle among ourselves we are prone to create lists of dos and don'ts as a way to differentiate ourselves from the culture out there. And some of us become very good, maybe too good, at following lists of dos and don'ts. In fact, some of us become so good at it that we actually come to believe we've earned our righteousness based solely on our merits to do the dos, and avoid the don'ts. And even worse, we become pretty confident we can determine who belongs on the inside with us, and who needs to be booted out.
At the opposite extreme many of us are very good at convincing ourselves that Jesus is probably all right with just about anything we decide to do. As long as it feels good to us and makes us happy, we're pretty good at convincing ourselves Jesus must be ok with whatever it is we're doing.
Friends, I am afraid a good number of people in the United Methodist Church in United States are doing more of the latter than former: telling ourselves Jesus is fine with just about anything we do if it makes us happy.
Here are a couple of other things Paul wrote to the First Corinthians that always bear are on our lives as Christians. Shortly after his opening greeting, Paul writes:
"When I came among you... I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."
And then, shortly before closing his letter, he writes:
"Christ has been raised from the dead..."
For Paul, and for the church ever since, these two profound, bedrock confessions of the church have been so melded together they have become one — Christ has died, Christ is risen!
There is transformative power in the cross and the resurrection. There is salvation and hope for us sinners in the cross and the resurrection.
As we say in the communion liturgy: the power of the cross and resurrection liberates us from our slavery to sin and fear of death.
That is a message we must share with others with joy in our hearts, wisdom in our minds, and grace in our souls. And we must share that message no matter what it costs us.
But here we are in a church with a good number of leaders essentially trying to tell us that when it comes to our sexual ethics and teachings on marriage, the Bible is outdated, and for the past 2,000 years the church catholic has been wrong on these matters.
Friends, when people start telling me that God is only interested in making me happy, and is willing to endorse whatever it is I think will make me happy, I get nervous.
The Bible commends to us a healthy sexual ethic, a divine pattern for marriage, and it celebrates and heartily approves the life of celibacy in singleness. The church catholic has affirmed in all times and all places those very same teachings. Unfortunately, our culture, and even some of our church leaders think those teachings are antiquated, and that it's time for us to move on from what the Bible and the church teach.
Friends, we must remain steadfast, whatever the costs, and continue to bear witness to the transformative power of Christ's cross and resurrection. If Scripture teaches a healthy sexual ethic, if it commends to us the beauty of faithful marriage, and the goodness of celibacy in singleness, we must believe and tell others that the transformative power of Jesus' cross and resurrection will enable us to live in accordance with those teachings.
I sense that in the not too distant future, we followers of Jesus will face some challenges Christians in this country have not had to face very often, but that Christians in other countries routinely do. I'm not necessarily talking about physical violence towards us. What I'm thinking about is people who will openly sneer at us, who will mock our values, and work hard to belittle us in the eyes of others.
And right now there's no better way of doing that than by treating us with contempt and condescension. Those hostile to our values will call us "backward people," "provincial bumpkins," and sometimes they'll even call us "haters" because we're not willing to approve of or endorse everything our popular culture approves of and endorses.
Now is the time for us to go deeper into God's word and also into the long history of the church, in other times and places, in order to learn how they responded when outsiders were contemptuous of or hostile towards them.
We must become more rooted in and more closely united around our core convictions, and then be ready to winsomely share and defend them. We must encourage one another in the faith in order to strengthen the body, and to equip ourselves to respond to the world firmly committed to the truth and yet full of grace. We must learn to live with hearts and minds full of confidence and hope in Jesus Christ, and with compassion for our adversaries.
The great story of the earliest Christians is not that they were all without blemish. No, the great thing is that they persevered in the faith, and in doing so they modeled Christ in their secular culture, and what a gift that was.
May all of us here today emulate our ancestors. May we go deeper into Scripture, into the rich traditions of our faith, and learn to live lives full of confidence, hope and joy, even in the midst of a lost and sometimes hostile world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
June 17, 2018