1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (4th Sunday after the Epiphany—Series B)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
January 29, 2012
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text this morning is the Epistle lesson recorded in 1 Corinthians 8:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”– 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. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
Today our Lord in His Word teaches us something of great importance as to how we live as Christians. It is a lesson in the proper, God-pleasing use of the freedom we have through our Lord Jesus Christ. But before we can look at how God wants us to use our Christian freedom, we first have to understand what our Christian freedom is and what it is not.
Galatians 5:1 says, “For freedom Christ has set us free.” From this we know that Christ Jesus is the one who gained our freedom. Christ has set us free! From what have we been set free? Romans 8:2 tells us. “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
Because we are by nature sinful and unclean we are condemned to death. It is God’s Law that so condemns us. “If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you . . . . But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish.” (Deuteronomy 30:16-18) God’s Word also echoes this in Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul who sins shall die.”
It boils down to the fact that if we fail to keep God’s Law, His Commandments, perfectly, we sin. The consequence of sin is death. But in order to save us from both sin and death God sent His own Son Jesus in our likeness so that He might fulfill the righteous requirement of the Law for us. Jesus kept God’s Law perfectly in our place as our substitute. That means that you and I get the credit for having kept the Law perfectly. In exchange, Jesus took our sins and failures to keep the Law on our own. He suffered our hell and our death on the cross, winning our complete forgiveness and our freedom from sin and death.
Christ has freed us from the oppression of sin and death. He has freed us from the need to earn salvation by what we do. We have been set free from the punishment we deserve because Christ did it all for us! Christ entered into the prison of our fallen, sin-filled world. He was subjected to the sentence of death for our sin and suffered capital punishment on the cross in our place winning our freedom.
But Jesus, through His sacrificial death and glorious resurrection on the third day, has also freed us for a life of discipleship. Real freedom is not the kind of absolute freedom to live however we want. True freedom is to live life as God intends us to live—to live a life of love for God and for other people. It is how we show love to our brothers and sisters in Christ that is especially at the heart of our Epistle text. We are to use our Christian freedom in love for those who are not at the same point we are spiritually. We are not to use this holy freedom to lead the weaker brother or sister into a crisis of conscience or to lead them into guilt.
As we then get into our text, Paul says that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds us.” What does knowledge and love have to do with properly exercising Christian freedom? And what in the world does all this have to do with food offered to idols? And does any of this have much to do with us in 21st Century America?
In the first century, many pagan Greeks and Romans no longer attributed any significance to the old myths and gods like Zeus, Aphrodite, Hermes, and so on. But they continued to go to their temples for social reasons. Once they became Christians, it was easy to rationalize that, after all, no gods really inhabited these temples, the idols on show were merely wood and stone, and the sacrificial food was just plain old food, a part of the one true God’s creation. They argued, then, that they could continue to accept invitations to dine in these sanctuaries, thereby avoiding a painful breach with friends from their pagan past.
Paul would concede, “Yes, you and I know about idol-foods. We know that they are just food. And these so-called gods have no real existence and no real power.” From the standpoint of Christian knowledge, there should be no problem eating this idol-food in the company of friends. But the question that is at the heart of the matter is, “Just because I know the reality and have spiritual maturity in this matter, does it mean that others are where I am at? In exercising my Christian freedom, am I doing so based on knowledge or is it based on love for the brother or sister in Christ who doesn’t yet have this knowledge and understanding?
Paul is point-blank here. “Not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” In other words, some of the Corinthians are not yet free from the emotional pull of their former attachment to idols. As soon as they give in to pressure from friends and join them for a meal in an idol’s temple, the old associations begin to reassert themselves. They find they are not able to regard the food simply as a gift from the Creator. The food has been offered to idols. So their conscience is defiled. They eat the food and go home feeling guilty because they have participated, at least outwardly, in worship of a false god.
What then guides our freedom in Christ in situations like this? Do we exercise our Christian freedom based on our knowledge or based on our love and concern for those weaker in faith and understanding? Paul’s choice was clear. “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” Paul had the Christian knowledge to know that food offered to an idol is nothing. “We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do.” Paul could use his Christian freedom to eat or not to eat. But what is the best use of his freedom in Christ in light of a brother or sister in Christ? Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.
Let me give you an example. Is there anything in the Bible that says Christians cannot drink alcohol? No, there isn’t. In fact, our Lord Jesus Himself drank wine. (The Bible does say that we are to do things in all moderation and that we are not to become drunk. Drunkenness is sin, not simply drinking a beer or a glass of wine as long as you are 21. Drinking under the age of 21 would also be sinful because it breaks the 4th Commandment since we would not be showing proper honor to the authorities who have set up the laws to protect us.) But back to the topic. Can I, as a pastor, drink if I so choose? Do I have that Christian freedom? Of course. But for the sake of the brother or sister in Christ who doesn’t feel that pastors (or even Christians) should be drinking, I do not drink at social functions. It’s not because I can’t. It’s because I don’t want to use my Christian freedom to give offense.
As Christian believers in Jesus who desire to show the love of Christ, it is never appropriate to flaunt one’s Christian freedom. In doing so, we might be leading a vulnerable sister or brother to do something against her or his conscience. To do that is to sin against Christ Himself. I remember years ago that one of our now former members thought it no problem to go and see movies that were inappropriate for Christians, movies that flaunted promiscuity, excessive violence, and so on. Her thought was, “I am knowledgeable enough and strong enough in my faith to handle it.” But what about the Christian who was offended that this person would go and see such a movie and then worship in church the next day as if nothing was wrong? Just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. To love the weaker brother or sister is more Christ-like that to use your freedom in Christ.
If drinking alcohol would cause someone to stumble and drink when they don’t feel it is right to do so, then we don’t drink. If going to a movie would cause offense to someone, we won’t go to that movie. If a brother or sister would be upset at our looking up the daily horoscope, then we don’t look up the horoscope. We do not use our Christian freedom to sin against our brothers and sisters in Christ, wounding their consciences when they are weak, and so sin against Jesus ourselves. No, we show Christian love at all times, not allowing ourselves to be puffed up with knowledge so that we become personally responsible for jeopardizing a sister’s or brother’s salvation.
Preserving a good conscience is part of our high responsibility as believers in Jesus. We have been forgiven of our sins by Christ and have been given the freedom of Christ to live and to serve God and to love and serve our neighbor. As we do so, we also strive to keep others in the congregation from the burden of a stained conscience. This is what it means to exercise Christian freedom in love. God forgive us in Christ for the times we have failed. And God grant us in Christ the power and the ability and the desire to use the freedom we have been given in Christ to love our brothers and sisters in such ways as to never cause them to stumble in their faith. Amen.