[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, this past Sunday.]
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
I once took some youth from a church I was serving on a Group Workcamps mission trip.
Youth and adults from all around the country converged on a site in a small city where, for five days, we worshiped, had group Bible studies, prayed, ate, tried to sleep, fellowshipped, and had a lot of fun. Most of our days were filled with going out with groups of six or eight on various service projects, each group composed of a mixture of youth and adults from various churches. The group of six youth I led spent part of each day at a local nursing home, where we interacted with residents.
Among the residents was a woman in her late eighties we’ll call Doris. She was usually congenial and fun. But on our second day, we discovered that Doris was an Olympic-class grudge-holder and that if anything reminded her of her grudges against, say, some of the nursing home employees, she would slip into a torrent of cursing until you moved her to another subject.
Some boys found it funny to set Doris off whenever they could. I have to confess that I said little to stop them when this happened and I even found Doris’ outbursts a bit funny myself.
But then another pastor told us, “You guys are egging Doris on. You need to stop.”
He was right. The boys were taking advantage of Doris in a way, giving permission to her tirades and taking God’s name in vain.
And I had just stood by. Even if Doris was no longer responsible for her own words, those who prompted her to sin and I who watched were guilty of sin. I repented.
Jesus says that we disciples of Jesus Christ, who have been saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus, are under a solemn obligation not to cause others to sin. "Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come,” Jesus says. “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17:1-2)
Disciples of Jesus aren’t supposed to be moral vigilantes, telling others what to do and not to do. That was what the Pharisees of Jesus' day did. But no disciple of Jesus should ever want to cause other people to stumble into sin.
In today’s second lesson, 1 Corinthians 1:8-13, Paul shows us that Christians must also avoid tripping fellow Christians, those who may be less mature in the faith than we are, into behavior that, on its face, isn’t sinful. But the behavior may be sinful for that person weaker in the faith who look to us to provide them with a model of how to live as a Jesus-follower in everyday life.
Let me explain.
The first-century city of Corinth was rife with idol worship. People who worshiped false deities offered various foods to their idols.
After the offerings were made, there would be meals made of the food that had been sacrificed. Food prepared in this way was seen as continuing people’s worship of the idols.
Some of the food would end up going to people’s homes to be served in meals there. Even there, a connection to the idols would be retained in the minds of the families and guests who ate the foods brought from the sacrifice. Sometimes Christians would be invited to these meals, both those more mature in the faith and those whose coming to faith was more recent.
As Christians we know that all the little gods and godlets that people worship--from pieces of wood or stone to the forces of nature, from the money that the world bays for to the sex without marriage as ordained by God that many crave, from the accolades of the fickle crowd to lives of pleasure without purpose or accountability--all these idols and more are nothing.
Because the more mature Christians at Corinth knew that the idols worshiped in their town were nothing, they felt no hesitation about eating food that their idol-worshiping neighbors had brought from their places of worship. Food is food. Followers of Christ are free to eat any food that has come from God’s hand. (This does not include Tide detergent pods, which, it's feared, is a culinary rage these days!)
But in exercising their freedom, the Corinthian Christians more advanced in their faith, were confusing less mature Christians sitting at tables with them. These less spiritually mature Christians were converts to Christian faith. Christians teach and believe that there is only one God (one God in three persons). Their Christian mentors in the faith had taught them that, “You shall have no other gods before me” and that faith in Jesus is the only way to connect to the one true God of the whole universe. But these newer Christians wondered as they watched mature Christians eating food offered to idols if the teaching they'd received was true. Was the God they’d come to know through Jesus just one of many gods to be worshiped? It was confusing and risked seeing them fall into the sin of idolatry, carrying them away from God.
When the apostle Paul got wind of things, he was incensed. Look to our second lesson now to see what he wrote to the churches in Corinth, starting at verse 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.’...[then] 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. 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. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
If you have your Bibles with you, you might want to underline or highlight the last few words in verse 8: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”
“You have every right to eat that food,” Paul is saying. “But watch out that when you do it, you don’t cause those weaker in the faith or in willpower back into their old idolatrous habits.”
When Jesus Christ died and rose for us, He set us free from the harsh condemnation of the law, from works righteousness. He gives us the freedom to live.
But our freedom in Christ does not give us license to tempt others to sin, to put their eternal salvation at risk.
Look again at Paul’s words, starting at verse 10: “...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? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 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.”
The principle for us today? We need to avoid doing anything that harms another person's relationship with Jesus Christ or that lures them into sin.
You may say, “I would never do that.” Of course you wouldn’t do it intentionally. But the problem with us as disciples of Jesus is that we’re often unintentional about living out our faith.
Jesus calls us to use our freedom in Him intentionally for the good of others, whether they stand outside the faith or they are Christians.
So, for example, you and I know full well that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with drinking alcohol. (Beer is almost a third sacrament for we Lutherans. That's a joke.) Jesus drank wine and, despite the convoluted reasoning of some teetotaling Christians, we know that what He drank was real wine with a higher alcohol account than you or I would be accustomed to drinking. The Bible does warn against excess in drinking, but that’s it.
Nonetheless, I realized many years ago that although I was free to drink a glass of wine, I shouldn’t do it around people who I suspect or know have trouble with drinking. I don’t want to use my freedom to give license to others to engage in behaviors which would result in the sinful abuse of their bodies. Christ has set me free to love my neighbor, not to drive my neighbor away from Him!
In his essay, On Christian Freedom, Martin Luther writes: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”
As disciples of Jesus, we are set free from the bondage of sin, the condemnation of the Law, and death.
Confident of God’s grace given to all who trust in Christ and of our place in His kingdom, we’re also set free from thinking about ourselves and our own desires all the time.
We know that God has us in His loving hands, now and always, whatever happens. So we can think of others.
We can be intentional about sharing our faith with them.
We can be intentional about honoring Christ and loving and giving to others with no thought of being loved or of receiving in return.
And we’re free to think, “What can I do today or what can I avoid today to help a sister or brother in Christ grow strong in their faith? What can I do to draw them closer to Christ? How can be a faithful influencer for Christ in my everyday relationships?”
I invite you to do something this afternoon or tonight--there’s time, the only thing on TV today is the Pro Bowl and who cares about that?--and ask God to show you ways in which, this week, you can be an encouragement to deeper faith to your kids or grandkids or a Christian who’s newer to the faith.
Think of some Bible passage that might encourage them, that you could share with them.
After this reflection, jot some notes down for yourself, then seek out the opportunity to build others up in their discipleship.
This is we call "reaching in" at Living Water, the call to reach in to support and inspire our fellow believers.
It’s one great way we can use our freedom in Christ. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]