I Corinthians 10:14-31
August 16, 2015
Again, the way the Holy Spirit often works, this passage sort of “jumped out at me” this week. And it turns out that this is a bit of a prequel to the passage we read for Communion a couple of weeks ago. If you remember that, we read that day Paul’s thoughts on the Lord’s Supper from I Corinthians 11.
As I said then, this letter is one in which Paul was going through a long list of subjects. And those subjects had to do with the various problems and controversies that were facing this young Church in Corinth. And Corinth was a very cosmopolitan city. It was situated right on that little isthmus of land that connected Northern and Southern Greece. It was a “crossroads” city. Everything passed through there. So it was the center of many cultures, religions, businesses and trades, and a lot of wealth!
Well, in this passage for today, Paul was tackling a tough subject. And this is one that comes up in a number of places in the New Testament. Because this was a major point of controversy in the first century Church.
The subject at hand had to do with eating meat rom animals that had been sacrificed to idols. There were a lot of pagan religions around. And here in this passage we hear him cautioning the people not to be involved with them. We can understand that part. But the problem arose when people went to the market to buy food. Because some of the meat that was for sale in the marketplace came from animals that had been sacrificed in those pagan rituals.
In those days, it wasn’t just the Jews who practiced animal sacrifice. There were a number of pagan religions which did that. And that whole thing may sound barbaric to you. But if you aren’t aware, animal sacrifices were not simply a matter of burning up the whole animal. I didn’t know that when I was younger, and this did seem barbaric and wasteful to me.
But that’s not the case. Animal sacrifice was actually a way for those people to blend their religion with their food supply system. Animals would be sacrificed at the altar, yes, but only the non edible parts would be burned. The edible parts were saved, and became part of their food supply. That way their sustenance and their religion went hand in hand! That made a lot more sense to me when I learned that.
It was like the time I went skiing in Jackson, Wyoming. Anybody ever been there? That’s an amazing part of our country. I got to ski in the Tetons! Jackson ski area has the highest vertical drop in the lower 48 states!
Anyway, in the area around Jackson, there are huge herds of elk. And in the town of Jackson, there are elk antlers everywhere. They made chandeliers out of them in restaurants. They decorated with them. They made coat hooks, and door handles, sculptures – anything you can imagine. There was even a huge archway of wired-together elk antlers over the street coming into town.
Well, I remember how I was just imagining all the hunters going out and shooting all those elk. I was hoping at least that they ate them, and they weren’t just shooting them for sport. Well, one evening after skiing, my buddy and I were in a restaurant, and I asked our server about the antlers. (We were sitting under an antler chandelier!) I said, “Are there that many hunters around here?” “Because I kind of feel bad about all the elk that had to have been killed to get all of those antlers.” And she said, “Oh no, the elk shed them every year! We just go around and pick them up!”
Well, I felt so much better about it after that! And it’s the same with the animal sacrifices in the ancient world! The altars of Israel were like their meat markets. And their food system was blessed in that ritual! Just imagine if we had that kind of religious connection when we went grocery shopping.
The problem was, that in the marketplaces in various towns, there was meat for sale that came from pagan sacrifices. And that was a huge dilemma for the early Christians. It became a big controversy. And this passage was Paul’s answer. This was his advice to those people.
Again, he begins by advising them not to be involved in pagan practices. (That was sort of a “given.”) But as far as the meat in the marketplace, he told them that he wasn’t really concerned about that. The problem was, that he knew some people were concerned. And while he might have been able to convince some that this was not a spiritual problem, there were going to be some for whom it always would be. So that was the dilemma. He was dealing with the differing beliefs about this controversy.
That’s “right up our alley” as Presbyterians! If you come to one of my membership classes, you will hear me talk about the “Historic Principles” of our Church. And one of those principles says that we believe that “People of good conscience can differ.” And another one of those principles says that “God alone is Lord of the conscience!” In other words, we are a denomination that recognizes the differences among us. And we have committed ourselves, over the years, to struggle with those differences, and to love each other, rather than having just one set of doctrines that everybody is compelled to follow. That’s who we are!
Paul, (who I believe would have made a good Presbyterian!) gave them his thoughts. He said that he would refrain from eating the “questionable meat” when he was around someone for whom it was an issue. But he added that he would do that – “for his conscience, [the other person’s conscience] not mine.” Do you get that? It wasn’t for Paul’s conscience that he would refrain, but for the other person’s. You may remember in the book of Romans how he advised the people not to do anything that would “cause their brother to stumble.” (Romans 14:13-23) That’s the same thing. So, it’s a matter of, “Refrain from whatever practice it might be, when you are around someone for whom it’s an issue.”
Think about the modern day equivalent of this. There are probably many. But one would certainly be the “partaking of adult beverages.” Alcohol has been a issue for church people throughout the history of the Church. For some it’s of no concern, but for others it is. So how do we deal with it? Certainly we can all see the wisdom of refraining in the company of an alcoholic. But what about when we’re around those who simply think it’s unholy? It still boggles my mind to think that we actually amended the U.S. Constitution to ban alcohol! The Temperance movement was that strong in this nation.
But what about now? In the Church, a person can be completely fine with responsible “indulgence.” But they can find themselves around someone who is not! And in that case, it would be easy to think, “Hey, I’m fine with this. If this other person isn’t, that’s their problem.” Paul said, “No.” “It’s not just their problem.” “It’s your problem, too!”
You see, Paul was concerned about the people’s relationship with each other. Here in our passage he said, “Let no one seek [only] his own good, but [also]the good of his neighbor.” That’s why he used these words here. “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” The problem in these cases comes when we see our position as right, and we get caught up that. The problem comes when we are concerned only about, our own “rightness.” (Which is different than “righteousness!”) When we do that, we can find ourselves thinking, “Hey I’m right in the way I’m dealing with this. I don’t care about you.” Paul is telling us we must care!
And by the way, this is not a one-way street! Those who do take part in whatever the issue might be, are not the only ones called on to love those who disagree. Those who do not take part, are called to love those who do! And so a question for the church has always been, “How do we love those who do things we wouldn’t approve of?” That was a huge question for people in Paul’s time. And it is in our time, too.
As I said, there are any number of things that we could use as examples of this. We could make a rather interesting list of things that might be thought of differently between ourselves and others of our brothers and sisters in Christ – those of other denominations, and even those within our own. But in all of that, I’d like us to think of Paul and his thoughts on this. We must always be concerned for each other!
So I’d like to close with this. There is a little acronym I heard years ago, and I’ve used many times since. It is the acronym T.H.I.N.K. (People usually want to grab a pen when they hear this.) I’d love to tell you this is mine, but it’s not. Though I did “tweak” it a little. And this acronym contains a part of the message of Paul for today.
Here it is: Before you speak, you should THINK! Is what you are about to say, “True?” (That’s the “T.”) Is it “Helpful?” (That’s my tweak and it’s the one that’s part of this passage.) Is it “Important” to say? Is it “Necessary” to say? And is it “Kind?” Is it true, helpful(!), important, necessary, kind.
And remember, there are things that are lawful and even righteous, but we need to think of them in ways that are helpful. So that all of the body of Christ is edified!
Eternal God, whose love and Grace are truly amazing, help us to love to love one another and to be gracious in our thoughts and our words. May everything we do, and how we do it, upbuild the body of Christ here on earth, and shine your light out into the world. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.