I Corinthians 8
8 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.[a]
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
“The Road to Hell is paved with abortionists.”
“Has the blood of Jesus washed away your sins?”
These sayings, along with several more like them, used to cover the sides of a bright red van in Flint, Michigan. That van belonged to my Dad.
As you may have guessed, my Dad and I disagreed about a lot of things….especially when it came to religion and politics.
I think all of us probably have someone in our lives that has a different understanding of what the Gospel means and how to live it out in the world.
In fact, I’ve noticed a significant increase in conflict between people of different political persuasions and belief systems since the Coronavirus started. There is no agreement on what the right thing to do is to help us move forward, and rather than working together to figure it out we have become a country divided.
The question becomes, how do we still love people that we have conflict with? Is it possible to disagree on the serious issues and still be in community with one another?
From the very inception of the Christian church, the body of Christ was dealing with this same problem. See, the earliest Christians did not have a blueprint for how to be a follower of Christ. The bulk of Paul’s letters are to groups of new Christians who are struggling with how to live as a new community of faith within a Greco-Roman context.
Understandably, issues arose. There are several examples of this throughout the New Testament, and at their core most of these debates were all about trying to figure out who was in and who was out. Who was right and who was wrong.
1 Corinthians 8 is Paul’s response to the people of Corinth who had written and asked him to settle one of these arguments. There was a disagreement among them about whether it was alright for Christians to eat meat that had been dedicated to an idol. Now, to us modern day Christians this debate doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. For the people of Corinth, however, it was. Meat was expensive, and the meat which was dedicated to idols could be obtained at a significant discount. Buying meat that had been part of one of these rituals might be the only opportunity that a family had to be able to afford eating meat.
On the other hand, these were a people who were still trying to understand how to live set apart from the world around them. If they ate meat which the majority of the population believed was dedicated to an idol, did this affect their faith? Did this influence their Christian witness in the world? Did it make a difference as to whether they were truly Christian or not?
We might not have the same problem today, but we do have similar issues. Some Christians choose not to drink alcohol as part of their religious beliefs, while other Christians see no problem drinking in moderation. Some Christians make a theological decision to be vegetarian, while others have no problem eating meat.
Different denominations of Christians argue as to who we can allow to be in leadership of the church. There is a debate raging about what we are supposed to do with issues like divorce, marriage equality, and economic disparity.
We can’t even agree on how to read the Bible. Should we read it literally, or with the understanding that it was written within a specific time and cultural context which influences the way it should be read and understood today?
The particulars of our debates may be different, but 2000 years later we are still trying to figure out the answers to questions about how people who are part of the body of Christ should behave and believe.
And Paul flips the script when he responds. Let’s read that verse one more time: He writes, “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.”
It’s important to note that Paul is not condemning education here. What we have to understand is that within this society, much like today, knowledge was associated with status in the community. If you were very knowledgeable, you were held in much higher esteem within society. And the Christians in Corinth were influenced by this same way of thinking.
There were Christians who believed that they had all of the knowledge about Christ and their faith, and because of that they held themselves as being of a higher status than the Christians who were more humble about having questions regarding their faith. These Christians expected Paul to agree with them, telling those with lesser knowledge that of course it was alright to eat food which was dedicated to an idol, since they knew that there was no other God than the one they followed.
But that’s not what Paul does. Rather than answer the question in a straight-forward way, he uses that opportunity to teach them a lesson about Christian love and community. He says that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The people of Corinth did not need greater knowledge, knowledge was being used to bully and demean others within the community. What the people of Corinth needed was more LOVE. Love forms relationships. Love builds communities. Love unites what knowledge can divide.
So, Paul says, when it comes to an issue like this one, where you know that you are no better off if you do eat the meat or you don’t eat the meat, it is better to support and love your family in Christ than it is to be viewed as having the “right answer.” It is more important to love them than it is to hold your own knowledge above them.
We have this idea that we have to always agree with each other in order to be in relationship with one another. We tend to flock to people who think like us, act like us, and worship like us. But just being around people who agree with us all the time makes it too easy to become complacent with our beliefs. It makes it too easy to be confident that we are always right, and that we don’t need to be challenged in what we believe. And when we do disagree, it can seem easier to push that other person away than it is to love them despite our differences, or to allow our own world view to be challenged.
But, if you being right about something takes away the opportunity for you to be in right relationship with someone, is it worth it?
Sometimes it is. Sometimes, the things that the other person is saying are SO cruel, SO discriminatory, or SO backwards that the loving thing to do is to challenge those attitudes. There is a place for holy dialogues surrounding issues of social justice, equality, and other matters of importance within the faith. In fact, these conversations are deeply important. But these interactions need to come from a place of love, not self-righteousness. They need to come from a desire to build up the community, not to hold yourself up above the rest.
I would argue that most of the time, sacrificing relationship in order to be right isn’t worth it. It is only through being in community with others that we grow in our faith, and can help others grow as well. Sometimes we can get so caught up in whether or not we agree on some issue that we miss out on the good news of the Gospel.
Jesus did not come to teach us how to craft the best argument, or how to most strictly follow the law. No, that was how the Pharisees lived. Rather, he came to show us a radical new way of living that was marked by unconditional love and grace. Love can and does transcend the particulars of our theology.
We live in a world that wants us to be divided—a world that separates us into categories like democrat and republican, conservative and liberal, good and evil. As far as the world is concerned, the relationship I had with my Dad probably shouldn’t have lasted. I am a liberal, gay woman who loves Jesus and progressive Christianity. He was a very conservative, pro-life, anti-gay activist who spent most of his time advocating for those beliefs.
When I was in my teens and early twenties I honestly believed that it would be impossible for me to continue to have a relationship with my Dad after I told him that I was gay. Although I came out to everyone else in my life in my late teens, it took me until I was 24 to tell my Dad. I was terrified, prepared for him to tell me that he wanted nothing more to do with me after that. Instead, he embraced me and told me that he would always love me, no matter what.
The thing is—he could have said that he believed so strongly that being gay was a sin that he no longer wanted to have a relationship with me. And I could have said that his attitudes towards the LGBT community and other social justice issues that I hold dear was too much of a barrier to our relationship.
Either one of us could have walked away. But both of us decided that love and family was more important, that our relationship was worth the struggle. Sometimes, we had to humble ourselves and hold back our opinions to stay in relationship. Other times, we had to stand up for what we believed in and have a difficult conversation. But through it all, we always tried to come back to love.
My Dad died suddenly and unexpectedly at the end of 2018, and I am so thankful that we didn’t allow our disagreements to sever our relationship. While I was writing this sermon I spent some time reflecting on my Dad’s life and on our relationship.
When I allowed myself to see it, I realized that despite our many, many theological differences, I could also learn a lot about what it means to be a Christian from my Dad.
When I was a kid, there was a woman stranded on the side of the road and my dad stopped the car to help her. He bought her gas, filled up her tank, and made sure that her car started before we went on our way. I doubt she cared whether or not he was a Biblical literalist in that moment, she cared that he was being compassionate towards her.
He also was very active in homeless ministry, and I remember going to the shelter with him and serving food to the folks who stayed there. I bet they could care less what his van said, because he was in there having conversations with them, honoring their humanity, and making sure they were fed.
I am thankful for the knowledge that despite our differences he loved me. Despite the pain and complication which existed in our relationship, I loved him.
He may not have ever made it to where I wanted him to be in his beliefs, but maybe that’s okay. Maybe just loving each other through our differences was enough.
Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Despite our differences, we are all part of the same body. A body that is beautiful within its diversity of identity and beliefs. When we refuse to acknowledge that God can be and IS at work within all of us, we place our own limitations on God.
I’ll leave you with a short, but powerful story that is frequently told by Tony Campolo. “The story is set in Heaven. Peter handles admissions at the pearly gates. Paul, acting as the administrator of the celestial kingdom, takes a monthly census of Heaven’s inhabitants. Each time Paul counts the number of people in Heaven, his number far exceeds the number of admittances that Peter has registered. This discrepancy mystifies them both for quite a while. Then, one day, Paul runs up to Peter and excitedly shouts, “Peter! Peter! I figured out why the numbers don’t match. I figured out there are so many more people in Heaven than you are letting in at the pearly gates. It’s Jesus! He keeps sneaking people over the wall!”May we be a people of inclusion, not exclusion. May we be people who value right relationships, not just being right. And may we be a people who are built on love, rather than puffed up by knowledge.