Jan.18, 2009 Annual Meeting 1Cor.8

How 'agreeable' are you feeling today? Here's an activity designed to highlight how we can agree in some things but not in others. Let's use this space along the west wall; I'm going to read some statements. If you agree, come up near the front; if you disagree, head back towards the back, near the sound table. Ready? Don't be afraid to differ - we're not marking these!

"It's always wrong to watch R-rated movies." (agree/disagree)

"It's OK to have a glass of wine or beer now and then."

"It's acceptable to hold a dance in the church hall." (supposing we had one)

"Abortion is always a wrong choice."

"It's OK to work on Sunday."

"If your Hindu friend invites you to a religious ceremony at their temple, you should go."

"It's wrong to intentionally remove someone from life support."

"It's OK to marry a non-Christian if you really love him."

"Safe injection sites for addicts are a good idea."

"In poker it doesn't matter whether you use chips or real money."

[OK, that's it, thank you - now I have my sermon topics for the next few weeks! j/k]

Wasn't that interesting? Did you expect more or less agreement than what we saw? Is there something wrong with us as a church if we don't all agree 100%? The reality is that in the Christian church, we claim to believe in absolute truth, yet often you run into believers who disagree with you about something that - to you - seems obvious. What's our response? Do we 'agree to disagree', or do we take it upon ourselves as our God-given duty to 'set them straight once and for all'? Are there other factors to consider beside the simple truth?

One of the beautiful things about the Christian faith is the basis it gives for absolute truth, for being certain about life's origin, purpose, and destiny in a world that has rapidly shifting values. In 1Corinthians 8 Paul articulates some things that we can know absolutely as Christians to be true. V4b, "We know that...there is no God but one." And v6, "...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."

The Bible begins in Genesis by identifying God as the creator of everything. No 'demiurge' or subordinate gods as in the Greek system, by which matter itself is tainted, something evil or less than godly. Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic, holding there is one supreme Being who has identified Himself to prophets and most exactly in His Son Jesus. No competition as amongst other religions with dozens or hundreds of gods. "For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen." (Rom 11:36) John's gospel tells how Jesus had a part in the Heavenly Father's creative work: "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." (Jn 1:3) It's co-operative, a unity; God is God, Yahweh is one. Deuteronomy 4(39) says, "Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other."

A corollary or resulting thought from this is that idols really are just empty statues or pictures of something that doesn't really exist. There were lots of idols around in Paul's day. An online article states, "The large number of Roman gods can most likely be explained by the pantheistic belief of 'numen,' which holds that gods and spirits inhabit places, objects and living things. The early Romans believed that everything in nature was inhabited by numina." (http://www.allabouthistory.org/roman-gods.htm)

That would be similar in some ways to another religion, prevalent in over 20 countries around the world, called "animism", which is "a belief that a soul or spirit existed in every object, even if it was inanimate" (http://www.themystica.com/mystica/articles/a/animism.htm)

Various sources estimate the number of Hindu gods and goddesses as 330 million - that's a lot!

But believing God to be the Almighty, all-powerful, subjugates other idols to lifeless wooden statues or images that don't really exist. So Paul can say in v4, "We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world..." What a freedom from fear and needless obligations that must have brought to the Gentiles of Corinth! Now, Paul does make a distinction between nonexistent idols and the actual spirit-world: in chapter 10(20) he warns Christians not to participate in idol-worship because "the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons", and one can't partner both with them and with the Lord. But belief in the one true God knocks the breath and power out of idolatry.

A third pivotal truth Paul states is found in v8: "food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do." This was a radical departure from the dietary taboos of religions, including Judaism. This stems back to our Lord Jesus who in Mark 7(18f) told the disciples, "'Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him 'unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." [Mark notes] In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean.'" That's huge considering how important food is in many religions! What freedom our Lord was conveying to the church. When controversy arose about such matters in the early church, the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 stood by Jesus' teaching and placed the barest minimum of restrictions - believers were to abstain "from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals [which would not have had the blood drained from it], and from sexual immorality." (Acts 15:29) No distinguishing of 'clean' and 'unclean' animals, pork or beef. Paul evidently interpreted the first restriction as meaning not taking part directly at the table in idol-worship.

God's revelation by His Spirit through His word written provides such certainty and freedom from burdening superstition. We can know the essential things about life 'for sure' because God tells us so. Peter wrote, "His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him [coming to understand and know Him] who called us by his own glory and goodness.Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises...For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." (2Pet 1:3f,21)

Likewise, Paul described this amazing process by which God reveals to us His mind on things through the apostles: "...no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words." (1Co 2:11ff) Praise God for transmitting to us His spiritual truths so that we may come to understand His wisdom, His approach in thinking about things. What God tells us to be true we can know for certain, as a sure point of reference.

Wonderful as knowledge is, Paul injects a note of caution about it in v2: "The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know." Those who are truly wise and learned, really knowledgeable, may actually be quite humble, because they have begun to be aware how much they don't know. Isaac Newton remarked that he was only gathering pebbles on the shore of the ocean of truth.

The Bible does give us a solid basis for absolute truth. But there are very smart people who know all about religious things but are rather unbearable because they've become proud. Jesus reserved some of His harshest criticism for the Pharisees and teachers of the law, those who were 'in the know' - religious experts - yet had not a bit of compassion for widows, and were short on mercy, not lifting a finger to help those in need (Mt 23:4,23; Lk 20:47). So Paul says in v1, "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up." Knowledge puffs up - the Greek verb is phussioo, sounds like what it means: to inflate, puff up, make proud. Full of hot air; to put on an air of superiority. When it came to religious controversy, as in the idol-sacrifice issue, "Each was disposed to look down upon the other: the one in scorn of the other's ignorance, the other in horror of the other's heresy and daring." (Robinson's Word Pictures)

Knowledge puffs up - makes us feel important - but love builds up, "it is love that strengthens the church" (NLT). Love puts a foundation under the other person, is supportive, not tearing down or constantly critical. Love matters more to God than head knowledge: v3, the person "who loves God is known by God," is 'the one whom God recognizes' (NLT). The apostle John had much to say about the significance of love; he went so far as to say, "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God IS love." (1Jn 4:8)

Knowledge is valuable; it's a treasure to have insight into God's revealed truth, that puts a rock under your feet. But when it comes to Christianity, knowledge is a distant second. The Master said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you" - are the smartest? Are unbeatable at 'So you want to be a millionaire'? Can win every argument or debate by your vast knowledge? No, 'they'll know we are Christians by our LOVE' (Jn 13:35). That's His 'new command', Love one another.

So although I may be absolutely right, doctrinally correct, completely justified in my 'idol-sacrifice-sold-in-the-market meat-eating' stance, backed up undeniably by the word of the apostles and even Christ Jesus Himself - yet my freedom is limited by my brother's or sister's weak conscience. If they have scruples about it - if they object - if seeing me go ahead is going to encourage them to do something against their conscience - I'd better find a plan 'B'. Paul outlines this in verses 7 and 10-11: "Some people are still so accustomed to (or so 'used to') idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled (or violated)." "For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge."

Conscience is huge - even when it's weak, or immature: it's a God-given gauge by which we distinguish between right and wrong. To push the limits with my freedom and 'knowledge' may tempt another person to go against their conscience, and lead to their ruin if they were to extend that disobedience into other areas. So love means that, out of respect for the other person's misgivings, I hold back, even though as far as I'm concerned it would be OK.

V12 contains a principle which is very profound in Christianity: "When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ." Huh? To cause another person to stumble is as if I were sinning against Jesus Himself? He cares about that person with the weak conscience - that 'newbie' in the faith - just as much as He cares about you with your Bible-college degree (or equivalent). Maybe Paul was remembering that little dialogue when he was knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus by that figure in light: "Who are you, Lord?" "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." (Acts 9:5) Christ identifies with His people, His 'little ones'; this 'weak brother, for whom Christ died.' (11)

So, Paul concludes in v13 by determining he will never eat meat again if it might cause his brother or sister in faith to trip over a wire in conscience, so to speak. Love doesn't go around trying to make people stumble; instead love looks out for them, makes allowances, acts in a way that harmonizes with where they're at in their faith-walk. See the last part of chapter 10 for a similar emphasis: "...I try to please everybody in every way.For I am not seeking my own good [love 'seeks not its own', 1Cor.13:5] BUT the good of many, so that they may be saved." (1Co 10:33)

Congregational meetings are an ideal time to make application of what we've been talking about - to put into practice love 'building up' rather than just 'being right'. Property matters especially have this strange ability to become pitched battles; folks get very attached to buildings and material things their money (or their grandmothers') was donated toward. So let's consciously practise love during our discussion (even if we're sure the other person doesn't have a clue what it's about). We don't have a pantheon of Greek or Roman gods competing with the message of Jesus today, but unfortunately many congregations have let their beloved church buildings become an idol to which the ministry and mission is sacrificed for the sake of maintenance.

I heard of a congregation that moved into an existing building and were debating whether to put in pews or chairs. The pastor and church leaders were convinced chairs were the better option, for reasons of flexibility, multi-use, and comfort. But others in the congregation - not leaders or well-researched - felt pews were best. In deference to these 'weaker brothers', the pastor and church leaders agreed to install pews. That says a lot about their spiritual maturity and love; I'd be hard-pressed to do that!

Commentator Kenneth Chafin writes, "...I have often seen people with problems of conscience over something that to me seemed relatively innocent but that did not to them because of their past associations. I met Tom when I was in Las Vegas conducting a School of Evangelism during a Billy Graham Crusade. Tom was a recent convert to Christianity, having come into the church out of a lifetime of involvement in the gambling industry. He had been a very successful dealer at the blackjack table at one of the casinos. As a new Christian anxious to grow in the faith, he had enrolled as a layman in the school, and this is how we met.

"At one of the intermission times, Tom cornered me and asked for help in what he considered to be a very big problem. The weekend before he and his wife had attended a marriage enrichment retreat sponsored by his church. During the recreation periods different couples took advantage of all the various free-time activities -- swimming, skiing, hiking, and just sitting around visiting. What had really upset Tom was that when he went back into the lodge to pick up his sweater, he noticed two of the couples sitting at a table playing cards. As he recounted the experience to me he said, 'So much of my life has been involved in playing cards as a part of the gambling industry that I not only couldn't bring myself to play, I really wonder if it's wise for any serious Christian to play cards.' His situation was very similar to the one in which Paul was confronted by the Corinthians: it was an activity that one group of Christians could participate in without any problem and yet another group from the same church could not because it violated their consciences."

Knowledge puffs up; love builds up. Christ's sacrifice for us and for others prompts us to act in love and deference to the 'Toms' and other brothers or sisters with consciences affected by their history. Though we may be absolutely right, let's make allowance for them, and build them up rather than trip them up. Let's pray.