Sunday, May 25, 2008

Audio from May 25

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Sermon from Sunday, May 25

Based on 1 Corinthians 8, the passage about whether or not Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols.

For the past few weeks, we have been doing a sermon series on the book of 1 Corinthians. I chose this topic for a sermon series, as you remember, because of the similarities between our context and the ancient city of Corinth. Corinth was a church at the crossroads, quite literally; it was located in a part of the world where people would move in for a couple of months or a couple of years, do their business, and then return to their home, or move on to the next port of call. In Corinth, I see a lot of similarities to our modern situation in Exton; we live in a transient part of the world in a transient time in history. In the last twenty years or so at our church, at least 250 or so people have come to our church for a period of time, sometimes just a month, sometimes a few years, and have moved on—we are not a church with a real stable membership.
The book of 1 Corinthians is a letter from Paul to the church in that city of Corinth about how to be the best church they could be for that context. And since our contexts are so similar, I think the book is a useful read for us too as we consider who God is calling us to be. What does want a church at the crossroads to look like? In the last four sermons, we have looked at four different descriptors that should characterize us as a church: one week, we talked about the need for a church at the crossroads to be spiritual. By this we meant that a church at the crossroads should be able to look at the world with the eyes of Christ, and to think about the world with the spirit of Christ. The next week, we talked about the need for a church to be holy. By this we meant that a church at the crossroads should be distinct from the rest of the crossroads, that people should recognize that the church is not just an extension of the culture around it, but separate in a sense, different. The following week, we talked about the need for a church at the crossroads to be trusting. Because the community at the crossroads is constantly in flux, there often exists very little trust in Exton and Chester County as a whole. Neighbors often don’t know or trust each other, and all the things people share in small towns—the same schools, same traditions, etc.—don’t exist in a community at the crossroads. The church must be a place of trust in a mistrustful community. Finally, in the fourth sermon, we talked about the need for a community at the crossroads to be content. So much of the culture at the crossroads is rootless, missing something, anxious and worried; and we are called on to learn the secret of contentment, and to live a life that demonstrates that contentment.
This week, we need to turn our minds to something a little bit different, and it is something that I’m sure will shock you to the core. I mean this, buckle your seatbelts now; I’m going to share something with you that’s going to rock your world. Are you ready? Churches at the crossroads are going to disagree about things. Big surprise, huh? I hope I have not destroyed anybody’s ideas about the church, because everyone seems so friendly, and they are friendly, but we do not always see eye to eye on everything. This is true in any church in modern America, for in our culture, ordinary people have access to more information and more places than in years ago. But it is especially true in modern Exton and Chester County, where people come from all over, and so they represent all kinds of ideas and traditions. Part of being a church at the crossroads is realizing that that reality will exist. In reality, it exists in every church; no two people, no matter how alike they are, agree on everything regarding religion. So churches are never pristine places where people agree on everything; there always will be some measure of disagreement. Of course, that disagreement factor is really raised by the fact we are at the crossroads. At that time in history, one of the issues that threatened to divide the church was eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. And it is that issue which we will explore a little bit today.
I should start with a little bit of background on this whole issue. The church was of course a tiny little minority in Corinth, so early in the church’s history. Most people were not Christians but were rather pagans of one stripe or another, worshiping many gods that were available to be worshiped in Corinth. Because people came from all over the world to Corinth, the gods of many cities and peoples were worshiped there. And while all of these gods were different, most of them employed some sort of sacrificial system where some animal would be sacrificed by fire. So lots of gods equaled lots of cooked meat when there was a religious festival. Now, this was a culture where meat was very expensive. Fish was plentiful, obviously, surrounded by water, but meat was a rarity. But when there were these religious festivals, there was all this meat, and it was so cheap, because they didn’t have refrigerators, so the sellers had to sell it quick. For many people, this was the only time they got to eat meat at all!
And yet it made many Christians uneasy. Because, after all, this was meat that had been offered to another God; it had been dedicated and sanctified to a rival deity. Even though they knew that these idols weren’t real, even though they knew they worshiped the one true God, still, it made many Christians uncomfortable. So many Christians chose to not eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols; in fact, many Christians became vegetarians for this reason. In the marketplace, often the meat sacrificed to idols and the meat cooked in other ways were not clearly marked or were put together either intentionally or by accident. And so they could not be assured that what they were eating had not been sacrificed to idols, so they would not eat meat period.
Other Christians, though, believed that they could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols with a clear conscience. After all, since they knew that the idol to whom it had been sacrificed was not real, just imaginary, what was the harm in eating perfectly good meat that would otherwise go to waste?
You can understand how such a situation would cause conflict in a church. After all, many situations like this cause problems in modern churches today. We debate which style of music is most honoring to God, or whether it’s appropriate to drink alcohol, or what are and are not appropriate musical groups and songs for Christians to listen to. In all of these conflicts, two sides tend to arise: there is the side that favors a looser application of the rules and a side that favors a stricter application of the rules. Those who favor a looser application of the rules generally talk a lot about freedom and rights. In Christ, we are set free from our old ways of living and we are free with respect to the world; we are made right with God through Jesus and so we can exercise more freedom in the way we live our lives. Those who favor a stricter application of the rules generally talk a lot about holiness. God has set us down a certain way to live, a way that follows in his way, and we recognize that we very easily stray from that way, sometimes without even realizing it. So we have to be extremely careful about how we worship and act and live, and we shouldn’t go trifling with things like meat sacrificed to idols. Even if it may not hurt us, we avoid it just in case.
Now what’s interesting here is that both sides have a point, don’t they? Those who apply the rules more loosely have a point when they talk about freedom. Yes, freedom is a big deal for a Christian. Jesus sets us free! And so to live in constant fear of one false step is to fail to take seriously the power of the God we worship. And yet, those on the other side have a point too. Holiness is important to a Christian, and it’s very important to not flirt with sin; sin is powerful, sin is real, and before you know it, sin can have you going in a completely different direction than you want to be going. Both sides have a point. And the fact that both sides have a point sometimes means there is a stalemate in the church.
Paul knows something has to break that stalemate and so he delivers a piece of advice to the Corinthians. And what he advocates is that Christians should exhibit both Christian liberty and Christian charity. Now what do I mean by this? Well, Paul’s sympathies here clearly seem to lie with those who favor a looser interpretation of the laws. “Food will not bring us close to God,” says Paul. “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Clearly, at least as far as what he believes in his head, Paul advocates a looser interpretation of the laws. He seems to know that this behavior is perfectly admissible for Christians to take part in. In short, he advocates for Christian liberty.
But, while his head may favor liberty, hi s heart favors charity. That is, he favors people exercising their Christian liberty in a spirit of Christian charity. Because while there were some Christians who were just fine with eating whatever, whenever, there were also some Christians for whom their consciences would not permit them to eat. Many of these Christians had been idol worshipers before they became Christians, and they understood the darkness of idol worship. They understood the way in which worshiping an idol could suck the life right out of you, that bowing the knee before a God of clay or bronze was the depth of spiritual slavery and dehumanized anyone who did it. Let me read for you a passage about these people written by Tom Wright, an Anglican bishop:
(speaking of worshiping at idol temples…)
They knew what went on there—the dark sense of mystery and fear, the sense that in feasting at the god’s table you were really eating and drinking the god himself, taking his life to be your own life; and then the drink, the casting off moral restraint, the girls and boys waiting round the back to do whatever you wanted in return for a little extra payment to the god…and once you had shared in that dark but powerful world on a regular basis, perhaps for many people it would be difficult, in your memory and imagination, to separate part of it from the whole thing. Now that you had become a Christian you would feel you had been rescued from the world of darkness and brought out into the light. True worship wasn’t like that; truly human living wasn’t like that. You had escaped. You were free.
And, looking back, you wouldn’t be able to split that old world up into different bits. You wouldn’t be able to say that this bit was all right while that bit was wicked. The very smell for the meat that you used to eat in the temple, with the priests chanting and the drink and the prostitutes waiting for you, would bring it all back.
Some Christians, you see, simply could not eat this meat because it would bring back all the pain from their past. It could well challenge them to go back to that old way of living. Paul’s point is that those whose consciences are not troubled by eating meat should go ahead and eat, but they should never lord it over those who would not like they’re somehow more spiritual than them. Indeed, people who by eating meat would be tempted to go back to the idols should not eat meat. It would be wrong for them to willingly do something that might lead them astray, even if it didn’t threaten to lead others astray. So those who are comfortable eating meat should do so but not in a rude way that makes it a test of spirituality. Instead, motivated by charity and love for their fellow Christians, they should abstain from eating meat around them so as to not tempt them with their old life.
It is a marvelous example of the church at the crossroads being called to bear with their differences gladly. How could this lesson impact this church at the crossroads? I can think of a few main ways.
1. It challenges us to sort out what is essential and what is not. While Paul counsels
this group to learn to live together despite their differences on this issue, Paul does not counsel this on every issue. Some issues—like the resurrection, for instance—Paul counsels that the church needs to draw a line in the sand. He does not say, “If some of you believe Jesus has been risen from the dead, and some of you don’t, find a way to work it out and live together.” No—he says, you have to believe in the Resurrection to be a Christian! If Christ is not raised from the dead, he says, we are of all people most to be pitied! He says that it is important--for the way the church speaks to the world--that the church must speak with a united voice on the issue of the Resurrection. If the church speaks with a muddled voice on the issue of the Resurrection, the church will fail the world. So sometimes the church must speak with a united voice. But many times we must drop our gloves and disagree civilly with each other. In fact, we often say more to the world in the way we disagree civilly with each other than we could if we insist on everybody agreeing all the time.
Some issues, says Paul, are essentials. These are the glue that holds us together. Things like the simple faith that Paul has counseled—Christ crucified, risen and coming again—these things are our glue. When we each root ourselves in these essentials, when we allow ourselves to be shaped and molded by them, when we give those things priority and say, “I’m going to give this simple faith priority in my life and allow it to be the No. 1 thing…” when we do this, we find ourselves able to deal with a lot of diversity gracefully at the crossroads. Sometimes, agreeing on the essentials helps us to come to greater agreement on the non-essentials. And sometimes, agreeing on the essentials helps us to live civilly even though we do not agree on the non-essentials.
2. I also think this story about meat being sacrificed to idols helps our church at the crossroads because it helps us to understand each other better. I hate the words liberal and conservative because they mean different things to different people. But it’s important for us to realize that some people tend towards the conservative and some people tend toward the liberal, not just because they’re trying to be ornery. Some people tend toward the liberal because they want people to know the freedom that comes in Christ, and it’s important to them not to compromise that freedom. Some people tend toward the conservative because they realize how deep the darkness is, and they just don’t want to trifle with it, even if it means sacrificing a bit of freedom.
3. This leads to my third point. This lesson also encourages us to go headlong in the pursuit for truth. While it is true that some of us may wind up more liberal than others, and some of us may wind up more conservative than others, that is no excuse for just believing whatever is convenient. Whatever we believe should be well-thought through, tested by Scripture, and figured out in community with others, respecting the thoughts and opinions of the whole community. We should not favor a looser interpretation of the rules just because that’s convenient and we don’t like rules—and nor should we be more conservative because we’re reactionary. No matter how we come down, it should be because we have done our best to think with the mind of Christ and were helped in that by our brothers and sisters.
And that, my friend, is a great strength of a church at the crossroads While it can be frustrating to have so many ideas flowing in and out, it also increases our chances of bumping into the truth. May it happen here, and may this church at the crossroads live out the liberty and the charity so dear to Paul’s heart.