I Corinthians 10:23-11:1
September 18, 2016
“Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” Have you ever heard that question before?
Think about it. Has this ever happened to you? You are in a discussion about something, and you’re seeking to assert your viewpoint or your opinion. And you’re sure you’re right about it! And maybe you were right! But because of it, there became a rift between you and that person.
That can easily happen, can’t it? We humans can be very proud of our opinions and viewpoints, can’t we? And there are times when that question is very helpful to ask ourselves! “Would we rather be right, or would we rather be happy?”
Well, I think Paul has his own version of that in our scripture for today. He said to the Corinthians, “All things are ‘lawful,’ but not all things are ‘helpful.’” “All things are ‘lawful,’ but not all things ‘build up.’” In other words, “There may be things that are right and correct and legal, but they may not be ‘helpful,’ or they may not ‘build people up.’” In fact, we can tear people down by our “right-ness,” can’t we! And notice, I didn’t say “righteousness.” That’s something else, isn’t it! Righteousness is a good thing! I said “right-ness.” I’m talking about our being correct or right all the time!
In Seminary, I took Presbyterian Polity, which is the governance of the Presbyterian Church. And I took the course with my favorite professor, Dr. Armstrong. (You may remember him. He preached at my installation service 11 years ago!) Well, I’ll never forget him introducing us to the Book of Order. And if you don’t know it, the Book of Order is part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church. It’s the part that tells us “how we do things.” Well, Dr. Armstrong said this. “If you don’t use this book pastorally, that is, if you use it “legalistically,” it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on!” I’ve always remembered those words! And they go along with Paul’s words to the Corinthians. “All things are lawful, but not all things build up.”
I try to remember that whenever I believe I’m right about something in the church. I try to keep in mind, “is how I’m handling this ‘helpful?’” “Does it ‘build up?’” I try to remember, that asserting one’s “right-ness” about something may not be good for the relationship with another person!
Well, Paul had to deal with a big controversy in those days. And that was the context for this passage in I Corinthians. You see, the Jewish people still practiced animal sacrifices. But when they made their sacrifices, they didn’t sacrifice the whole animal. They kept the edible parts as their food. That practice was not just a matter of killing and burning animals, it was their food system. Just imagine if the way we obtained our food involved dedicating everything about it to God!
I wanted to make that clear if you didn’t already know it. Because sometimes we look back on the practice of animal sacrifice and see it as cruel. But it was really their very “religious” way of obtaining their food! It was an example of how much they were “steeped” in their religion. (I daresay much more than we are!) And it was a good thing.
The problem was, the Jewish people were not the only ones who did that! There were some pagan religions who also practiced animal sacrifice. And their sacrifices also produced the food for their people to eat. Well, the problem was that often some of the meat from those sacrifices ended up being sold in the market places. And the Jewish people believed that it was wrong for them to eat meat that came from animals sacrificed to pagan Gods. (And so did many of the early Christians.) Here then, is one of several places in the New Testament where Paul was trying to answer that particular controversy!
Well, as he grew in his leadership in the early Church, Paul became more and more interested in teaching the people to “build up” one another. “Edification” was a big word for him! That’s what he wanted the most for his people. He wanted them to be concerned for each other. He wanted them to think of more about their relationships with others, than about whether things were “lawful” or not. He wanted them to think of being “happy,” rather than just being “right.”
If you think about it, that was amazing coming from this Pharisee. The Pharisees were about the most “legalistic” people there were! Their constant concern was about keeping the Law – the Torah, and keeping it to the letter! If you remember, they were accused by Jesus of “keeping the letter of the Law, but forsaking the spirit of the Law.” I don’t think we can imagine the freedom Paul felt when he gave up that intense practice!
Now for him, the “spirit” of the Law was that the Law was made for the people not the people for the Law. Perhaps he was there when Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Perhaps those words rang in his mind for years, and then became part of his new life.
So here Paul gives them his guidance, which I think “rings” of that kind of “Spirit.” He says, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” If we hold on to those things, those legalistic rules, and it divides us from neighbor, something is lost. Relationships are lost.
“Besides,” he says, now giving his own opinion, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” That comes from Psalm 24, by the way. The Revised Standard says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Paul was saying that if you buy and eat, not caring where the food came from, it doesn’t stand in the way of anything. It doesn’t hurt you. Again, that was quite a statement, coming from a Pharisee!
Then he gives some practical advice. And try to imagine yourself in this situation. He says, “If you’re at someone’s house, don’t question.” “Don’t raise the issue.” But, if someone does, if someone “presses” the issue, and tells you the meat was part of a sacrifice, that’s then the tricky part. And what he essentially tells them is, “Give thought to how you can “seek that person’s good.” If he’s offering you something to make an issue out of it, think about why. Is he promoting his belief about it? Is he seeking your support? There are a lot of reasons someone might press an issue with us, aren’t there? The bottom line with Paul is to seek that person’s good. Using the words he started with, “Seek that which is helpful.” “Seek that which builds up.”
Then he gets to the bottom line. Not only seek to build up others, but to build also the kingdom of God. In fact, as he says, “Do all to the Glory of God.” And why? Because what you do, and how you interact with others, reflects on God’s kingdom.
Do you ever consider that? That’s quite a responsibility, isn’t it? Your actions, your words, reflect on the kingdom of God! That’s a responsibility that some people choose to avoid. They choose not to think about it, as if it doesn’t exist. But that responsibility does exist, whether we think it does or not! Our words and actions reflect on the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is built on us!
Think about that! If someone says they are disillusioned with the Church, or as I’ve often heard it, they have a “disdain for organized religion,” is that usually a reaction to the policies of the religion, or is it usually a reaction to the people who are part of that religion? Which do you think it is? It’s more often the people involved in that religion! That’s us! What we do, what we say, builds up or tears down the kingdom. It builds up or tears down the people within it, and it builds up or tears down the image people have of it looking at it from the outside! Yikes!
The way we treat one another that does both of those things! When we have conflict, it hurts our fellowship, yes. But it also hurts our image in other people’s eyes! So Paul says, “Do everything to God’s glory!” And how did that “live out” in him? He said, “Give no offense to Jews or Greeks, or to the Church of God.” (Well, that about covers the three main segments of their society!) “I try to please all people,” he said. “I don’t seek my own advantage, but that of others – that they may be saved.”
Did you get that? It doesn’t say “so they will be saved,” but so that they “may” be. The possibility is open, if we do what’s right by them. But that door may be closed if we don’t. That little statement goes by quickly, but it’s important! So it’s not just so the image of the Church – the kingdom – is “built up.” It’s so people may be brought into the kingdom!
One of my favorite personal quotes comes from a time even before I started to think about ministry. That’s a long time ago! And the quote is this. “There are times I’m glad I’m already a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, because looking in from the outside, I wouldn’t want to join!” Think about that! “There are times I’m glad I’m already a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, because looking in from the outside, I wouldn’t want to join!”
So, this is a relatively short passage we’re dealing with today, but it’s an important one. Not everything that is “lawful” is “helpful” or “builds up.” Those are the things we need to concentrate on in the Church. We need to seek the good of others, not just our own understanding. We need to know our words and actions count in the kingdom of God! They can affect the building up of each other here. And they can affect the image of the Church that others have of us.
So, may we seek the Glory of God in all we do, not our own glory. May we seek the good of others. May we be the “light of the world” to them, as Jesus said. May we be the light that points to his light.
Eternal God, we seek the power of your spirit, so that we can do what we’ve been thinking about today. Help us to grow in our ability to build up each other, as we seek to build the church and make it the light of your Glory to the world around us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, and for the sake of his kingdom, Amen.