Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
In 1 Corinthians 8, the apostle Paul begins addressing the controversy surrounding food offered to idols. Paul agrees in principle with some Corinthian believers that no harm comes from eating this food in and of itself. The problem is the potential harm done to weaker Christians who fear that eating this food amounts to idolatry. Instead of asserting our “rights,” Paul says we should do everything in the interest of love. Love matters more than anything—even including being “theologically correct.” This sermon explores some ways in which this principle applies to us today.
I preached this sermon the day after returning from the Dominican Republic. I’m pleased to say that it’s still delivered at a high energy level!
[To listen on the go, right-click on this link to download an MP3.]
It was February 1985. I had just gotten back from a weekend youth group retreat. On that retreat, my friend Chuck had had a dramatic conversion experience. He repented of his sins, accepted Christ as his personal Lord and Savior, and the following Wednesday night, during youth Bible study, he made an announcement to all of us in the youth group: He said that because of his newfound faith in Christ, as part of his repentance, he was going to get throw away his record collection, which mostly consisted of heavy metal and hard rock bands like Motley Crüe, Iron Maiden, Kiss, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC. He believed the messages in those records were unchristian—as I’m sure many of them were. But Chuck went further than that: From here on out, he said, he was only going to listen to Christian music. He even threw away his Beatles records—which broke my heart.
For at least the next year or so, our youth group was embroiled in controversy: should we or shouldn’t we listen to secular music?
I figured that eventually Chuck would mature in his Christian faith and change his mind, which he did. But in the meantime I knew about today’s scripture, including Paul’s words about not being a stumbling block. Would my love and passion for rock music be a stumbling block for Chuck?
And oftentimes that’s how Paul’s words are applied to situations today: For example, Christians of good faith have disagreed over the years about issues like drinking alcohol, or getting tattoos, smoking, or going to R-rated movies, or dancing, or figuring out how far Christians can “go” when they’re just dating. Heck, growing up, I lived down the street from some very strict Baptist neighbors who didn’t think Christians should watch TV. They didn’t own a TV. And their two sons, Wes and Tim, desperately wanted to watch TV. And I suppose if I didn’t want to be a stumbling block, I should have avoided watching TV with them. But I was a good friend… And watching The Dukes of Hazzard made them so happy, so I let them.
And this is the way we often think of this “stumbling block principle”: More mature Christians—stronger Christians—shouldn’t deliberately do anything to upset or offend less mature, or “weaker,” Christians.
But this really isn’t what Paul is talking about in today’s scripture. He’s talking about something far more serious than just offending or upsetting a weaker Christian. The stakes, for Paul, are much higher.
In chapter 8, as in previous chapters we’ve looked at in this sermon series, Paul is dealing with a controversial question that is dividing the the church at Corinth—a question about which they’ve written to Paul, seeking his advice and guidance: “Now concerning food offered to idols,” Paul writes in verse 1, introducing this new topic. What does this mean? Well, in a Roman city like Corinth, there were many pagan temples with idols representing different gods and goddesses. To appease these gods and win their favor, pagan people would come and offer food as a sacrifice to their idols.
But, believe it or not, the gods didn’t usually have a large appetite, so there was a lot of food left over. So people would come into the temple and enjoy a nice meal with friends—eating this food that had been offered to the gods. This was considered part of their worship.
But it wasn’t only worship. These temples were the restaurants of the ancient world, and many important business meals, civic functions, and celebrations took place in the temple—and all the food they ate had been sacrificed to the gods. Whatever food was left over from these temple meals was then sold in the marketplace. So most of the meat consumed in a city like Corinth would have been offered as a sacrifice to a pagan god or idol. That’s why many Jews who lived in these cities were vegetarians, because they didn’t want to risk committing idolatry.
In the same way, many Corinthian Christians, who themselves used to worship these same gods, and eat this same food, now abstained from doing so. But there were other Christians who knew better: These pagan gods that the Corinthians used to worship are really no gods at all. They have no power. They are nothing. “These gods have no real existence,” they tell Paul. And after all, “there is no God but one.”
Therefore, what’s the harm in eating meat sacrificed to idols? Meat is meat. In fact, what’s the harm in going into these pagan temples and taking part in these meals? We’re not worshiping their gods. We know these gods are nothing. Doing this thing won’t affect us, spiritually speaking.
That sounds perfectly reasonable, right? And Paul agrees with these principles—for the most part. He’s going to qualify his support for their position later in chapter 10. But for the most part, the strong believers at Corinth are right: these gods really don’t exist, so if some pagan priest believes he’s sacrificing this food to his god—who isn’t real in the first place—then it can’t possibly affect the food itself. Eating this food is harmless.
Except… the fact is that there are Christians in Corinth—the “weak” believers—who don’t see it that way. They may know in their heads that these old gods aren’t real, and the only true God is the one revealed by Jesus Christ and in scripture. But they haven’t quite convinced their hearts. It’s very likely that they still believe these gods have some power—even if their power doesn’t compare to God’s power. And if they believe these gods have power—even if it’s an untrue belief; even if this power is only in their imaginations—then guess what? These gods do have power over them!
It seems likely that the strong believers in Corinth were urging the weak believers to grow up and get with the program—to go to the temple and eat. “What’s the harm? It’s not like you have to worship these idols.” Which is like telling a recovering alcoholic to go to a particular bar—not for the booze, mind you—but because they serve the best club sandwich in town. It’s spirituality dangerous.
And this is why the stakes are so much higher than disagreeing about the type of music you listen to, or whether or not you drink alcohol, or whether or not you should get a tattoo, or whether or not you should smoke: by exercising their so-called “right” to eat food offered to idols, the strong believer may risk destroying the weak believer’s faith entirely—they may be giving the devil a foothold in the weak believer’s life to lure that person away from Christ, back into a life of idolatry, and back on the path to hell.
In the interest of love for your brother or sister, Paul says in so meant words, how could you possibly do this? Even if everything you believe about food sacrificed to idols is completely true—should you risk acting on that belief if it means causing that kind of spiritual harm? All because you want a good steak at a reasonable price? Where’s the love in that? For Paul, this whole issue is about love. As Paul says in verse 8, eating or not eating doesn’t matter to God; what matters is love. “Knowledge puffs up,” Paul says. But “love builds up.” It’s not what you know that counts—it’s that you are known by God. In other words, all your “knowledge” about spiritual matters, which you believe places you above your weaker brother or sister, counts for nothing if it doesn’t lead you to love God more; if it doesn’t lead you to love other people more.
You may be perfectly right, perfectly justified, in your opinion. You may have all the facts on your side. You may have all the good arguments and all the good logic. But if your opinion leads you to behave in an unloving way—an unchristian way—toward a brother or sister for whom Christ died, then, by all means, keep your opinion to yourself! At least until you can learn to express it in a loving way! You have missed the point of the gospel. The point is not to know something and to be right, the point is to love. The point is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself! The point is to have your life transformed by the love of Jesus Christ! Is that happening your life? If not, Paul says, then all your knowledge and all your right opinions and all your good arguments are worthless!
I’m preaching to myself here. Good heavens, I get so angry sometimes at my fellow Methodist ministers about their desire to change our church’s doctrine on sexuality. As you know, I believe they’re tragically mistaken. I believe God’s Word is perfectly clear about the sinfulness of homosexual behavior. And I believe that all of us pastors will be held accountable for false teaching. And I even believe that God has called me to use the mind he gave me to try to prevent our church from making that tragic mistake. But these people with whom I strongly disagree are also my brothers and sisters for whom Christ died. And sometimes I don’t treat them that way.
I was deeply hurt by one of these fellow clergy whom I used to consider a close friend. We had a huge argument on Facebook last year. But before it turned into a huge argument, I called him on his cell phone: I left a message and said, “Let’s talk about this like adults. We’re friends. What’s really going on here? Are you willing to trash a friendship over this?” He not only didn’t return that call, and a couple of more; he dropped me as a Facebook friend.
But I knew I would see him at Annual Conference, and I was pretty sure I wanted to punch him in the nose when I did see him. [Inside Out] I’m not proud of that! But I prayed about it. And I saw him, and he saw me—and I watched him change directions to avoid crossing my path. But I caught up with him. I shook his hand; asked him about how his new church was working out. And I literally blessed him instead of cursing him. And the look on his face… He was so surprised. And I was surprised. The anger was defused. The hurt was healed. He hugged me and thanked me.
This is a small gesture to you, probably—but for me, good heavens! It was honestly one of the most loving things I’ve done in my life. It was “one small step for a man,” but one giant leap for Brent White! It felt so good… to let go of that anger. To love. That’s what it’s all about. And this kind of love is a costly kind of love. What does Paul say here? That he’d rather give up meat entirely than cause his brother or sister to stumble. Christ-like love is costly.
Speaking of which, I can’t not mention what happened last week in the Dominican Republic. You’re going to hear a lot more about this this Wednesday night. And I’m going to show a video next week in church. But I think I speak for all of us who worked at the construction site when I say that that work kicked our tails! Now the other part of our team who did VBS—they worked hard in a different way. But honestly, I’ve been on mission trips before; I’ve never physically worked harder or more intensely over the course of four days than I did last week. It was hard. The Dominican Republic is a beautiful country, filled with friendly people—and crazy drivers—and it would be a beautiful place to vacation if you could stay in a nice resort on the beach.
But make no mistake: last week was not vacation. Not even a little!
On Friday, after all the hard work was done, we got to participate in baseball ministry that the missionary family helped organize. Young men from this community—including actual Major League prospects—get to play on a great baseball team, develop their skills, and as they do so, they also get to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. There were two churches represented on this mission trip—Hampton and a church from Princeton, New Jersey. Our missionary, Rick, encouraged volunteers from both churches to offer a testimony about what Christ has done in our lives. And it would be translated into Spanish so these teenage ball players could hear it.
An older man from the Princeton church spoke first. His name was Carmelino. He was a native of Guatemala. He talked about how, when he was a young man in Guatemala—the same age as these ball players—he loved soccer. And he was good. So good, in fact, that he played professionally—all over the world. He was even brought to the United States to play. He was—at least in the world of soccer at the time—famous. And he was making good money. He had fame, fortune, success—he thought he had it all. He didn’t think he needed anything else, including Jesus Christ. But none of his fame, fortune, or success could fill that emptiness inside until he found Christ. And he told these ball players—some of them current or future Major League prospects—that they needed Jesus too.
And I promise you, as he was issuing this challenge, he looked one of them in the eye, smiled, and pointed to him—as if to say, “I’m talking to you.”
A few minutes later, after our very own Derrick Carlisle and Matthew Chitwood gave testimonies connecting their love of baseball with their Christian faith, that young man prayed to receive Christ as his Savior and Lord. We all gathered round him, and laid our hands on him, as Carmelino led him in the sinner’s prayer.
Later that night, when we were debriefing as a group, I asked Carmelino, “Did you know that young man? You must have, right? The way you looked at him, pointed to him? You had at least talked beforehand, right? You had a relationship, right?” And he said, “No. I never met him. But the Holy Spirit was telling me that he was ready to receive Christ.”
Isn’t that remarkable? Right in front of us, we watched Carmelino make a difference for eternity! We watched Derrick Carlisle make a difference for eternity! We watched Matthew Chitwood make a difference for eternity!
Brothers and sisters, doesn’t that put everything else in perspective—all the things we fuss and fight and argue about and divide over? Don’t you want to make a difference for eternity here at Hampton UMC? Shouldn’t that be our primary focus at Hampton UMC? Shouldn’t we try to get those zombies to come back to our church—not so they can use our fellowship hall for lunch—but in order to get saved by the blood of Jesus Christ!
“By this,” Jesus said, “all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Let’s start with that. Amen?