TO RETURN TO HOME
I think it's true to say that the Corinthian Church to whom Paul was addressing the words that we heard a few moments ago, was not a perfect church. Despite the fact that it had not been up and running very long, and the words of Jesus were still ringing in the ears of contemporaries, it was a church with problems.
Paul spent a year and a half or more in Corinth during his 2nd missionary journey, arriving probably in the winter of 50-51AD, staying at the home of Aquila and Priscilla while he carried on both the trade of a tent-maker and the mission of an evangelist.
There's no doubt that Paul cared very deeply for the spiritual and moral wellbeing of the people of Corinth, which was itself well known for being a morally corrupt city. It appears that several reports had reached Paul concerning the difficulties that the Church was facing, including letters from Church members raising all sorts of questions about Christian lifestyle and doctrine.
Paul's reply, by way of this letter, was his way of ensuring that the various congregations and sections within the church at Corinth understood fully the implications of their faith and the way that this faith must be separate from the accepted behavior of the day.
In chapter 8 which we heard read Paul deals with two separate issues, one briefly and the other at more length.
Firstly, there had obviously been a question posed .. 'Which spiritual gift is the better to possess? Is it knowledge?'
Paul doesn't waste many words on this issue, as he knows he's going to discuss the matter later, spending a lot of time talking about spiritual gifts. Here he contents himself with merely saying that there is something far better than knowledge, which can be divisive, something which all people can possess and which knows no class or educational boundaries, and that is LOVE - because love builds up the person and the fellowship.
It's not a simple 'aside comment' here that Paul allows himself though, because what he has to say next reflects on this particular viewpoint as well.
Paul spends the rest of this chapter talking about food. Not a subject that you would have thought could be a point of division between Christians, but then we approach it from 21th century western civilization. For the Jew, and certainly for an orthodox Jew, food is a very serious business, and as was the case with most of their life, the Jewish religious leaders had written a whole host of do's and donts regarding what was considered acceptable for consumption.
There was an added complication in that Corinth played host to a variety of different forms of worship, and many of them were certainly not Christian and included sacrifices. Now the practice was that only a part of an animal that had been offered for sacrifice was actually burned, and the rest eventually found its way onto the butcher's counter. Which probably sounds quite acceptable to us - rather than wasting a whole animal make use of what's left .. eminently frugal.
Unless of course you are a recently converted Jew who still carries within you the fear of breaking those rules which until then had played such an important part of your life.
The dilemma of course was that this meat had been offered as a sacrifice to idols. Now, every good Christian housewife knew that idols were a load of nonsense, just bits of carved wood, of no value at all, and of course the gods to which they were dedicated simply didn't exist did they? After all, there was only one God.
But .. maybe she shouldn't touch the meat just in case idolatry did cast a spell over the food, and by this making it 'unclean' and unfit for consumption by believers.
Somehow it brings the debate over should we or shouldn't we eat Beef on the bone into perspective.
Would you fancy tackling the subject? What would you tell the Corinthian housewives who raised this matter with Paul? Should they eat this meat or not? And if not, then why?
Well, Paul handles it in a very clever way by looking at both sides of the problem. Firstly he agrees of course with the affirmation that there is only one God (big 'G'), even though the general population were used to being surrounded by idols and statues dedicated to a multitude of gods (small 'g'). So if there is only one real God and one Lord, Jesus Christ, then all those statues and idols - call them false gods if you will - are meaningless because the object of their followers devotions simply doesn't exist.
So, does that mean that this meat can be eaten without worry, then?
Well, hang on a minute, says Paul. It's not quite as simple as that for a true Christian. Why? Because of those few words with which he started the chapter. Head knowledge is one thing, but the really important thing is to understand and know 'love'.
It's fine for us, says Paul. We're strong and confident believers and know all this to be true now, but what about our friends and others with whom we have contact. Do they all share this same confidence about what is right and what is wrong to eat? Hardly, he replies, there are lots of folk around for whom this is a very important matter. Some of your congregation are so used to being surrounded by idols in their daily lives that they would still somehow feel contaminated by being forced to eat food that had been offered for sacrifice to idols.
So, says Paul, rejoice if you must in the freedom you now feel about eating such meat, but be sensitive to the views of others, because your new found confidence might inadvertently be a stumbling block to someone like this, someone whose faith is not yet strong enough to feel totally separated from the worldly values of your society. Some people's faith is strong, others a little weaker.
In this way your knowledge could cause the downfall of another, Paul tells his readers, and that is most definitely wrong.
In fact Paul goes on to say that this is more than just a case of being insensitive to the needs of others. If this is the way that you act towards others, he warns, then you are in effect treating Christ in the same way. Here Paul echoes the words of Jesus himself.
If its going to cause my brother to struggle with his faith, then I'd rather give up eating meat altogether, says Paul.
Of course there's no real relevance to today's church in this reading, is there? Sacrifices went out of fashion a long time ago, and people are free to eat whatever they want, or whatever their consciences allow them to eat.
But as in most readings of this type, it is quite easy to apply the truth within it to our own situation.
Take for example the very opening words again, where Paul talks about the relative importance of knowledge and love. Within the Church at large, and this church in particular, there are Christians whose faith is strong - built on a very firm foundation that has been tested over the years and found to be steady in the face of temptation and questioning. There are others who have only recently found that sureness of faith that can uphold them through the darker times in their lives, and there are yet others whose faith is vulnerable - who believe and yet are constantly searching for unanswered questions - and who can be easily distracted from the narrow road that the gospels talk of.
How easy for those of us who feel confident enough to speak out about issues of faith, to actually place a stumbling block on the road of someone else's journey. To do exactly as Paul warned the Corinthians not to. Saying the 21st century equivalent of
'Of course it's Ok to eat that meat, for goodness sake. You're not worried about the effects of non-existent idols on the texture, are you?'
We're never insensitive are we? We never criticize the religious viewpoint of another Christian, do we? We never abuse our freedom to say what we want on matters relating to our faith, even though it might upset someone else, do we?
If we do, says Paul then we need to be rather careful. If by our actions or words we cause someone's faith to be weakened, and for them to fall away .. then it's to God we answer.
Jesus was the prime example to follow when it comes to handling tricky subject areas of faith. He was never, ever insensitive to the needs of others. If he had to get a point across that meant someone acknowledging that they were wrong and he was right, then he did it in a loving and sensitive way. Yes, he did shout now and then, but only where it was appropriate. Jesus LOVED people into the kingdom. He had more knowledge in his head than any man - he could have argued people into the kingdom if he had chosen to, but that was not in his nature, and that is not the way that he expects his disciples to behave.
Knowledge is one thing, says Paul, but it can be a dangerous thing if when used it causes someone to stumble. Love never caused anyone to stumble.
We would do well to remember these words of Paul within the church today. So often people seem to feel excluded because they find, perhaps, certain aspects of the church's doctrine difficult to grasp. I can't help but feel that Jesus must weep when he sees such things happening.
Jesus did not come to bring division, he didn't come to cause God's chosen people to fall. He came to LOVE them into the Kingdom, and that should be the example that we follow. If we're about to say something that we know will cause offence, if we're about to state our opinion on a doctrinal matter in such a forthright manner that others might start questioning their faith, then we need to be careful because that puts a very big responsibility upon our shoulders. Our conscience should be our guide. The great theologian and writer C S Lewis in one of his books explains how he believes that our conscience is not only a God-given gift for helping us to discern what is right and wrong, but it is even a proof of God's existence. It is certainly something that should not be ignored as happened in our reading from the Old Testament. The Pharaoh knew what was the right thing to do, his conscience told him, and yet his heart persuaded him otherwise.
Mother Theresa had a very simple policy when it came to her dealings with other members of the human race, whatever their particular beliefs, caste, condition might be. She treated each one as if she were dealing with Jesus himself. And it seems to me that Paul is saying something similar to us here.
In all things, in our dealings with other Christians especially, sensitivity and love are the key words.
© John Birch