Last week we considered how Jesus calls individuals who 1) Are not ready to follow as well as 2) individuals who are reluctant to follow. We observed that when Jesus calls such people, there are crazy mess ups and showings of unenthusiastic obedience. Yet Jesus still choses to call people like us. Jesus goes with us each step of the way, journeying with us, helping us become the person he wants us to be, and using us whether we are ready or not, willing or not.
This is good news for us as individuals. We should be happy and encouraged that Jesus treats us with such generosity and grace. It is my hope that this helps us find the inspiration and motivation to follow Jesus in this early part of 2018.
But is that it? Jesus calls us and we simply follow? Yes Jesus helps us, but is there no human agency? Is there nothing for you or me to do? Following Jesus has got to mean something right? And if it does not cost us or require us to do anything to follow, then I cannot image that it carries much meaning. Today’s passage addresses that issue.
Did you ever have a conversation with someone that started off something like this: “You’re a Christian right? As a Christian, are you allowed/supposed to… __________?” You can fill in the blank with whatever. I’m sure that some of the blanks bordered on the ridiculous. But I am also sure there were some blanks that made you actually go, “Hmm…”
Before I was introduced to my wife, my friends took me out and tried to help me meet potential partners. “You have to go where the girls are,” said one of my friends as he took me to various clubs and bars. I’d strike up a conversation with someone and it would invariably go this way: “So, what do you do? I’m a pastor. Are you supposed to be here?” I couldn’t take it anymore and refused to further put myself in such situations.
In my example, going on the assumption that a pastor is supposed to be “more Christian” than most, the question was: is a pastor allowed to hang out at a bar? Is a pastor allowed to drink? To hit on women while drinking? Hopefully the situation comes across as comical and the levity allows us to engage the issue. What can and can’t Christians do? The Apostle Paul offers an answer from two perspectives: knowledge and love.
Did you know that Paul wrote this verse in his letter to the church in Philippi: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight (Philippians 1:9).” Here Paul is saying that love will grow as your knowledge of the beloved grows. The more you know about the person of your affections, the better you can love him or her. To Paul, love and knowledge go hand in hand. This idea is a major part of my premarital counseling: You must know your spouse to love your spouse.
Yet in today’s passage, it seems that he is placing love and knowledge at odds with one another: “’Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1).’” Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up. Based on this verse, it should be easy to conclude that Paul values love over knowledge. Assuming that Paul is not into giving mixed messages, how are we supposed to reconcile these two seemingly adversarial messages? Are we to choose knowledge or love?
Paul chooses knowledge first: “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1).’” Paul indicates that what we know matters. In today’s Scripture passage, Paul is specifically dealing with the question of whether Christians are allowed to eat food sacrificed to idols. In verse 4 Paul continues down the line of what we know: “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 (1 Corinthians 8:4).’” He points out two pieces of knowledge: 1) No idol in the world really exists and 2) There is no God but one.
If idols do not really exist, and if God is the only God that does exist, then according to the knowledge we have, Christians can eat foods sacrificed to “so called idols” because they are a figment of the imagination; the idols are not real. How important is this knowledge?! Only God is real. Only God exists. This knowledge is a game changer!
But Paul also adds that how much we know also matters – and some know more than others: “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 (1 Corinthians 8:7).” This is an important point Paul brings up. Maybe you know this information. The danger lies in the misconception that you might believe everyone else understands this. The plain truth is that those who do not know this information cannot understand – no matter how much you believe they should.
Paul does not even try to say that everyone SHOULD understand. He is already resigned to accept the fact that while the knowledge is good and true, there are people who will not accept it out of sheer habit and custom. Paul accepts they are accustomed to and still think the old way.
This, however, is not easy for Paul because he has knowledge. In the following verse he says: “’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 (1 Corinthians 8:8).’” He has knowledge of this. For him, his knowledge ALLOWS him to eat that meat. In his own mind and conscience, he is totally, 100% justified in eating food that has been “sacrificed to idols” – that don’t even exist.
But this is not the final conclusion Paul draws: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak (1 Corinthians 8:9).” After creating a strong argument as to why he CAN eat food sacrificed to idols, he steps into the shoes of those who are not where he is. It is clear that Paul is right. He is not wrong, he is right. Yet he gives up his right to be right. Why?
He explains: “So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ (1 Corinthians 8:11-12).” Paul fully understands the importance of knowledge. Knowledge helps him love God more. But if he were to simply compare what he knows with what someone else does, that would puff him up (i.e. his ego). Rather than comparing, Paul USES his knowledge of God to help him love Jesus more and properly. He is able to understand that Jesus is loved when we love others.
Hence Paul concludes: “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 (1 Corinthians 8:13).” Because of his knowledge, Paul had every right to eat meat. Yet this same knowledge helps him understand that he can love Jesus better by loving others. Paul shows us what it means to follow Jesus in a meaningful way. There is human agency. There are choices and costs associated with following Jesus – even though Jesus helps us each step of the way.
Let me close with two exhortations from today’s passage.
1. Grow in knowledge. In the negative way, as Paul said it, knowledge puffs up. It puffs up your ego when you compare what you know with what others know. Okay, so you know more – good for you. Looked at in a positive way, growing in knowledge helps us love God more. Knowledge of God makes God bigger. It makes God’s plan grander. Knowledge of God allows us to love God in more diverse, inclusive, and radical ways. The more we know the heart of God the more we can please God and bring God joy. Knowledge makes us bigger. It helps us to grow.
How do you grow in knowledge? Study. Bible study. Read. Listen. Discuss. Question. Membership Class is starts next week. In these three classes, we discuss why we do what we do – looking at theology and history. We discuss how we do things – how our congregation and leadership is set up, how decisions are made. And we share stories – who we are and where we came from. While I want to invite visitors to strongly consider becoming a part of this community, the class also serves as a refresher for our members who have been here for many years and maybe could sit in to see how things might have changed.
Confirmation class is going to start in the season of Lent. Foundational teachings about the Christian faith in the Reformed tradition. Class is open to adults who have not been confirmed or baptized but is also open to any believer who wishes to refresh or reaffirm their faith – if you’ve felt that you have been “far from God for some time.” Come and audit it.
In the Easter season, we are looking to have more regular Sunday Bible studies with the focus on teaching individuals to teach. We will do our best to take away the mystique of Bible study and making it accessible to all. Please be on the lookout for that. Grow in knowledge.
2. Love generously. You are loved. Jesus loves you so much and is so gracious to you. He is with you every step of the way. As you learn more about him and fall more in love remember the best way to show your love to a parent is to be kind and good that parent’s children. God is a parent. God has many children. Love them all. Love the ones same as you and especially those different than you. For whether you choose to withhold your love from them, God never does. God lavishes it upon them.
Because we are loved, we can love others at a seeming cost to us. No expense was spared for God to love us. When we learn more of that, the more we are willing to spend on others. The less we will withhold of ourselves. Even if we are right, we will be willing to deny ourselves that right for the sake of another.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.