Scripture: I Corinthians 8:1-13
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
This New Year began with a pastor calling in a janitor who was to be fired. Apparently, the janitor pulled out a gun and fired at the pastor who then pulled out his own gun and shot the janitor. Only the janitor was wounded. And only the janitor was charged with attempted murder. And, if you’re wondering, yes, this happened in Florida, at Living Water Church outside Orlando. People in the church and community are defending the pastor making the case that what he did was morally right and right in the eyes of God because it was self defense. [http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/breaking-news/os-pastor-shooting-self-defense-20141231-story.html] Myself, I find it hard to imagine how a pastor decides to go to work with a loaded gun. But there you have it. Frankly, I don’t think he’s read much of the New Testament, certainly not First Corinthians.
In the scripture we heard this morning, the writer is advising the people of the Corinthian faith community about how to make decisions based on their faith. The issue at hand is the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. The Roman religions involved worshipping many gods in the form of idols and sacrificing animals and bringing grain and other foods as offerings to those idols. The food was then eaten by the people in communal meals. Could Christians be part of those meals? Or would that be part of idol worship, something forbidden to Christians?
The way the discussion spins out, we learn how the decision whether or not to eat the food sacrificed to the idols is to be made. The writer is not against eating the meat sacrificed to idols because the meat is bad, or it was cursed, or it is a sin, or something like that. The writer is against eating the meat because of how eating meat sacrificed to idols will be perceived by others especially others in the faith community.
Apparently, there are those in the Christian community who are struggling to disentangle themselves from the Roman religious practices involving sacrifices to idols. It has been hard for them to give up that system of practices and relationships. They have become part of the Christian community and are leaving idol worship behind but that can be a difficult transition. The people are advised not to eat the meat sacrificed to idols because it would make things harder for those who are trying to leave that life behind. The outcome is to be determined by the effect the decision will have on others. They are to do what will be most helpful to the others in the community. Out of love and respect for the others in their faith community, they are to abstain. The decision is based on what is best for others. That is what is loving. That is love that builds up the community.
The reasoning is not based on moral teachings. It is not based on the Bible. It is not based on religious tradition. It is not based on legal principles of some kind. It is very practical. This will have an adverse effect on others so you are not to do it. You are to choose the path of love for others. And to eat that meat sacrificed to idols would not be loving toward those who are struggling to break free of that whole system of life.
The heart of the Christian life is concern for the community, for the wellbeing of the group, for the whole, for the needs of others. That is love which builds up. Behavior is determined not by a law code or by tradition or by authoritarian decree. Behavior is determined by the needs of the community and the good of those around you. The Christian faith is about promoting the lifestyle of love for others.
We see this in the tradition we have of the life and teachings of Jesus. He makes decisions based on the well-being of others and what is good for the community as a whole. He does not blindly follow religious dictates. His religious tradition forbade men speaking with women in public. We have stories of Jesus doing just that. Jesus’ religious tradition forbade eating with sinners. We have stories of Jesus doing just that. His tradition forbade working on the sabbath. We have stories of Jesus doing just that; healing and picking grain on the sabbath. His tradition forbade touching someone who was a leper. We have stories of Jesus doing just that. Jesus shows us that our deepest loyalty and commitment must be to love, love which builds up others and the community. That trumps all rules laws, dogmas, principles, and statutes.
Jesus knew the temptation for religious rules and practices to become idols in themselves. While the laws of Judaism were meant to bring people closer to God and form a strong community supportive of the weak, the following of the rules sometimes became more important than the outcome. The bottom line becomes the rule or the law and who has the power to enforce it. The bottom line is no longer love and the well being of the community and of creation. We see this same tendency in religion today. The rules or practices become more important than the outcome they were intended to foster. We see this is the fundamentalist expressions of all religions. The danger is that in the zeal for faith, we become structure legitimators, rule enforcers, line drawers, and become drunk with the power we feel in our righteousness.
We face many choices and decisions about how to live out our faith in our times. How do we embrace the Jesus life fully in all of our decisions and choices about every aspect of our lives? That is our calling as Christians who have been made a new creation and called to a new identity in Christ. How do we do this while avoiding the temptation to make our religion and its tenets an idol?
And how do we continually disentangle ourselves from the idols that surround us: the glorification of youth, sports and entertainment figures, the second amendment, religious dogma, the family, wealth, success, political ideology, and all the other things that people choose to give their worship and devotion?
These challenges have faced people of faith for eons. Our tradition gives us guidelines and some rules. We have the teachings of Jesus that have come to us in the New Testament. We have centuries of history in the life of the church to instruct us. But still, we, too, have to make decisions day in and day out about how we will live in the way of Jesus. What is good for the community? How will this be perceived by others? How do my decisions build up the community, help others, make the world a better place for all people, and contribute to the healing of divisions and injustice? These are the questions we need to be continually asking ourselves as we navigate the choices of our lives.
I recently heard of a mosque that was built adjacent to a Presbyterian Church and the two houses of worship share the parking lot that is between their facilities. This is a beautiful example of making a decision based on what is good for the community, on building others up in love. It makes a witness to the wider society about peace, mutual respect and cooperation. It undermines negative stereotypes of Muslims and of Christians.
Then there is the doctor who went to West Africa to help with the ebola crisis. He contracted the disease and came back to the US to be treated. He nearly died. Afterwards, he told of the excruciating experience of treating the ebola patients in Africa and of the moments of grace and hope. After his full recovery, Dr. Crozier is making plans to return to Africa to continue his work there. [The Christian Century, 1/7/15, p. 8] That is a decision based on what is good for the community, on the needs others, and on the perceptions of others. It speaks volumes not only of his faith, but to the people in Africa and to his community in the US. It is a testimony of selfless love, life lived for others, and commitment to the healing of the world.
Devoted to that kind of expression of Christianity, in that kind of community, we become a new creation, we are made whole, and the world is the better for it. Amen.
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