What Is Paul Talking About? Part 3

During the Sundays of Epiphany, I chose to preach on the Epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. Since these readings can be difficult to understand (even for preachers), each week I asked the question, “What in the world is Paul talking about?” I am deeply indebted to the Concordia Commentary on 1 Corinthians written by the Rev. Dr. Gregory Lockwood. This sermon is based on 1 Corinthians 8.

Words of Focus- “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” 1 Corinthians 8:1a

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we continue today with part 3 of a 4-part sermon series on 1 Corinthians, a letter that can cause some misunderstanding and confusion as to what in the world Paul is talking about, hence, the title of this series.

Let’s begin by reviewing the purpose of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church was a church divided over many issues. Remember that they were all recent converts to the faith. Christianity had not been around for very long at all. Therefore, these Christians were wrestling with their new faith and the implications that it had for their everyday lives. 1 Corinthians reveals to us a people trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he said that his followers should live “in the world, but not of the world.”

1 cor christ crucifiedThroughout this letter, Paul encourages the church to greater unity with each other and that unity was to be centered on the message of Christ crucified- foolishness to the world, but to those who are being saved, the very power of God. For Paul, the cross changes everything. It changes how we think, how we act, how we talk, how we live. Paul uses the message of the cross to navigate through the many issues that the Corinthian Church was dealing with.

We see the implications of the cross in our reading for today from 1 Corinthians 8. The issue that Paul is dealing with in this chapter, and really, chapters 9 and 10 as well, is eating. In Chapter 7, Paul addresses concerns and questions about marriage and the single life. Now he is switching to another concern that the church had most likely written to him about. They wanted to know if they should eat food that had been offered to idols.

Now concerning food offered to idols… What exactly is going on in Corinth?

In the city of Corinth, there were many temples in which pagan ceremonies and sacrifices would take place. Many of the Christians in Corinth would have most likely participated in these ceremonies before they converted. Outside many of these temples, there were large courtyards and eating areas. The ceremonies and sacrifices would not take place in these areas. However, the food that had been offered as a sacrifice to the idols was served for people to eat.

Many of the Corinthian Christians, while not participating in the ceremonies and sacrifices, would have still been invited to these courtyards by their pagan friends for meals and even birthday or wedding celebrations. And apparently, many of the Corinthian Christians regularly participated in the social events in the temple courtyards, which would include eating the food served, food which had originally served the purpose of idol worship. Some Christians thought this was fine. They knew, they had “knowledge,” that the idols were false gods and figured that meat was meat. Eating that meat would not harm them. Others did not share that view. They thought that eating the food sacrificed to idols implied worshiping that idol. They were unable to separate the food from idol worship, and so when they participated or saw other Christians participating, it would cause their faith in the true God to be weakened or even destroyed.

The church was seeking Paul’s advice. How do we live in the world but not of it in this situation?

life together knowledge loveRight away, in verse 1, Paul lays the foundation for his response. “Knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. In other words, even though some of you Christians have more knowledge than others, your knowledge is causing you to be prideful and selfish to the detriment of the church. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. Paul is differentiating between selfish pride and sacrificial love. Love, in all cases, trumps knowledge, as Paul will make clear later in 1 Corinthians 13: 1-2 “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

What we see going on here in 1 Corinthians 8 is a discussion about Christian freedom. Because of Christ crucified, a Christian is free from the condemnation of the Law. The Law can no longer condemn them. But are there limits to Christian freedom? We know we are not free to sin, but what about those things that the Law does not forbid or demand? We see this discussion take place in several of Paul’s other letters, especially concerning circumcision. Was a Gentile Christian required to still be circumcised? Paul ruled “No.” A Christian is free to remain uncircumcised.

So many of the Gentiles in Corinth, those who had knowledge, argued that they were also free to eat meat sacrificed to idols. So keeping in mind this phrase, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” let’s see what Paul had to say about this issue.

First, Paul affirms the “knowledge” of those who would eat the food sacrificed to idols. They argued that they could do so because they knew the idols were false gods. And Paul agrees with their knowledge. We know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

In other words, Paul does not have a problem with Christians eating food sacrificed to idols because those false gods do not exist and cannot exert and power. There is one God and one Lord. A Christian is indeed free to eat the idol-food on these grounds.

However, Paul continues, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. The “weaker” Christian is more easily offended by any participation in anything associated with paganism and idol worship. By eating the food, they would stumble in their faith and pick up their old pagan practices and beliefs.

Notice how Paul does not try to educate the weak so that they have all knowledge. “Come on! Quit being so weak, you big babies.” He knew that they were infants in the faith and needed to be treated as such. So he instead instructs all Christians, especially those who considered themselves wise or strong, to act in love, a love that builds up others in Christ.

agnus day knowledge lovePaul knows that “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Food or drink for those in Christ Jesus was a matter of no importance. But if a person’s faith was at stake, then Christians do not act according to freedom and knowledge, but rather, according to love. “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weakFor if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? Paul goes so far to say that a person who values his personal freedom more than his brother in Christ that he is sinning against him. He is being selfish and prideful. And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

Do you see how for Paul everything centers on unity in the faith, the body of Christ being built up? Paul then puts himself forward as an example. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. If Paul became aware that something as inconsequential as food was nevertheless ruining his brother, he would become a vegetarian for eternity. Why? “Because that’s my brother.” Without question, his brother’s eternal welfare is far more important than food.

Could you say the same? I already threw some of you off when I mentioned being a vegetarian. “Sorry, but if it comes down to my brother or sister in Christ or a bacon cheeseburger, I’m going with the cheeseburger.” But what can we learn from 1 Corinthians 8 since we obviously do not have the same issue regarding idol-food and pagan temples?

Well, I think we can go back to Paul’s foundational verse. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Rather than insisting on our own way out of selfish pride, perhaps a Christian’s first question before acting should not be “What am I going to get out of this?” but rather “How does this benefit my neighbor, especially my brother or sister in Christ?” Again, this is a radical change in thinking. This is foolishness to the world. Rather than seeking personal pleasure at all costs, a disciple of Jesus seeks the welfare of others at all costs, even if it means personal sacrifice on their part.

Martin Luther, writing on Christian freedom, put it this way. 1. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to all.” 2. “A Christian is a perfectly free dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Well which is it? It’s both. A Christian is not to take pride in their freedom or their knowledge and rub it in people’s face, but rather use that freedom and knowledge in love and service toward others.

Examples: A Christian is perfectly free to enjoy drinking alcohol; however, someone who works extensively with alcoholics would refrain from drinking in their presence, lest they cause their brother or sister to stumble. They would not throw their Christian freedom in their face. (I did make the point in my sermon that I would not apply the same principle to “teetotalers.” There is a huge difference between someone who wrongly interprets the Bible and an alcoholic.) You would not invite a gambling addict to accompany you to the casino.

This may sound just like common sense, so let me try this principle out. Just because you can do something, does not mean that you always should. And how do you determine whether you should or should not do something? Love for others is the guiding principle, not selfish satisfaction. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The Lord wants his church to be built up as a community, and that can only happen when its members display unselfish love for one another.

Such love will be patterned on the example of Christ who died for the weak. See here we are again, rounding back to Paul’s main theme: Christ crucified.

Paul doesn’t set out to prove his knowledge. “I decided to know nothing among you except Christ crucified,” he says. And “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” It is the Lord Jesus Christ who provides the perfect example of one who is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of others. In the sight of God, there is no one who is more superior to anyone else. There is no one righteous, not even one. We are all deserving of God’s wrath and eternal punishment. All of us, in our original state of sin, had no knowledge of God. But he knew us. And he loved us, even though we are unlovable. God shows his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Here’s the more amazing part: while we continue to sin and act selfishly and fight amongst ourselves, God still loves and forgives us through Jesus.

Rom-5-8 while still sinnersWe are all in the same boat, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. We are all sinners saved by nothing else but the amazing grace of God poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit through the death of Jesus. It is that knowledge, the knowledge of God’s unconditional love for you and for all people, the knowledge of Christ crucified for you, which inspires your loving attitude toward others. It’s all about Christ crucified. If Jesus willingly sacrificed himself for the weakest brother, shouldn’t you be willing to forgo certain luxuries out of loving consideration for your brothers and sisters?

That is what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 8. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Let us pray: Lord God, once again we are challenged by your words for us today. We see that without your help and strength and your grace, we are nothing and can do nothing right. Send us Your Holy Spirit to encourage us and enable us to love sacrificially as you have loved us through Jesus. Keep us from selfish pride and build us up into a church known for its love. Amen.

How Should a Christian Vote? Pt. 3

Election Day is tomorrow! So let’s draw some conclusions! If you would like to read Part 2, you can click here.

I have spent a lot of time laying the foundation of the Lutheran understanding of church and state. Let’s begin by reviewing what has been said so far.

The Bible teaches that God works in two different ways here on earth. He works in His right hand kingdom, and He works in His left hand kingdom. The right hand kingdom is the church. What is God’s purpose in the church? Justification- that all mankind would be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth. How does God accomplish His purposes in the church? Through His Word of Law and Gospel. However, the Gospel always predominates in the church.

God’s left hand kingdom is the state. God has established human authority in this world and has given earthly governments the power to wield the sword- to punish wrong-doing. What is God’s purpose in His right hand kingdom, the state? Justice- that good behavior would be rewarded and evil behavior be punished. The state should be concerned with good order. How does God accomplish His purposes in the state? Through the Law. The Gospel has no place in the state. The Gospel belongs to the church alone.

Remember that both church and state belong to God and matter to God. And while they must be kept distinct, they do not have to be kept separate. And while they can cooperate, they must never be confused. In Part 2, I described a book called Christ and Culture which explains different ways that Christians have tried to reconcile church and state. Martin Luther’s explanation of the Two Kingdoms of God falls best under the category of “Christ and Culture in Paradox.” Christians live with a foot in both church and state. We recognize the primacy of the church and the Gospel, but we also can have something to say about the state.

After all, we are involved in “Left-hand Kingdom” stuff all of the time, even in the church. Schools fall under the category of “state” as do voters’ meetings. Both have to do with human authority and establishing good order. It may surprise you to know that the Bible does not endorse one form of government over another. Democracy is not a God-given right. God can work through dictators and republics and empires. The Church of Jesus has been able to survive and thrive in any form of government.

That being said, we are blessed to live in the United States of America in which “We, the people,” have an opportunity to vote for candidates and laws that we feel best represent us and our values.

However, can we truly “Vote the Bible” as some Christians claim? What does that look like? Are you really casting a vote for God when you check one candidate or the other? How much freedom does a Christian have in the voting booth? What can help guide the Christian who seeks to be active in the state by casting their vote?

Let’s turn to Martin Luther again. Luther has this great quote on Christian Freedom: “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.” There’s another one of our lovely, Lutheran paradoxes. What does this mean? As people living under grace, freed from the demands and condemnation of the Law, we are not obligated to anyone or anything. Christ is our one and only Master. However, as people who have been given a new life in Christ, we have also been given a purpose. We are not here on our own, and we are not to live for our own benefit. We live for the benefit of our neighbors.

So the only guidance that we get from Scripture in terms of voting is the “law of love.” You have been freed from the demands of the Law. Salvation is yours. Eternal life is yours. You are secure in Christ’s arms forever. You have nothing to worry about or fear. You are free. And it is because of this security and freedom that a Christian can then turn their attention to their neighbor and their neighbors’ needs.

This turns voting in our elections on its head a little bit. Most often, people vote for the candidate that they believe will be better for themselves and their own life. They want a candidate that will ensure their own future. The union worker votes for the candidate that will defend the power of the union so that they can keep their job and be secure. The rich business owner votes for the candidate that they feel will best protect their assets and wealth. Voting is mostly self-serving. Voting actually exercises power over other people. Your vote is an attempt for you to get your way. (If anyone actually tells you that you shouldn’t try to impose your beliefs in the public sphere, ask them if they vote in elections. That’s exactly what voting is- trying to impose your beliefs and opinions on others.)

As a Christian, we are liberated from this self-centered way of thinking. Our future is secure. Christ is Lord. He is in control. So as Christians go into the voting booth, they are free to vote not for themselves and their own way of life, they are free to consider “Which candidate or law best serves my neighbor?”

Granted, we can answer this in several ways. First of all, we have to ask “Who is my neighbor?” All people in this world are our neighbors. However, I think we can narrow this down a little bit more. Who does God seem to have the most concern for in this world? God, over and over again, says that He cares for the downtrodden: the widows, the orphans, the poor and sick. In other words, God is concerned that those who are lowest in society also have justice!

Again, there are many different opinions on how we can help the downtrodden. Some people believe that the government should be more involved. But if giving is forced, is it really giving? Others feel that help for the lowliest in the world are best served through the generosity of others. But what if people are not generous enough, and those who are in need still don’t get the justice they deserve? There are no easy answers here, and I am not going to give you my own opinion.

However, I believe that one issue cannot be ignored by Christians. If we are to look out for the lowliest in the world, those who cannot defend themselves, then we must turn our attention to the lives of the unborn. Who is more helpless than a human being in the womb? And yet, these human beings are being destroyed, and they cannot speak up for themselves. For me, the sanctity of human life and the horror of abortion have become the number one issue when it comes to voting. I hope and pray that someday the abortion laws in this country will be reversed, but for now, I will vote for the candidates and laws that I believe will limit abortion as much as possible. At the same time, we cannot rely on the government to right this wrong. It has to be done in relationship, and that is where the Christian carries the most influence. It is about educating others about the sanctity of human life, which means that Christians must be informed on this subject. Click here to read an article by Scott Klusendorf, president of the Life Training Institute. This helps clarify some of the issues on abortion. Again, if we truly live by the law of love as Christians, caring for our neighbor, I do not believe that we can ignore the horrors of abortion.

So now you have a basic framework with which to sort through some of these issues. We have to be careful to maintain the distinction but not the separation of church and state. Our goal is not a “Christian” nation. Our goal is a just and moral nation. But how do we determine morals? As Christians, we believe in a divine moral law-giver. God establishes morals and justice and values, so in that sense, yes, we can vote “Pro-God.”

I’m going to leave you with a few more links and helpful material on these issues.

Here is a great summary of what took me three, probably confusing, posts to write.

Basically the government rules by the sword, punishing the evildoer to keep law and order; that is to keep everyone from turning on their neighbor. And the church has the Gospel, not compelling men to believe but by granting faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. So, for example, a political candidate who wishes to legislate belief in the Gospel (using the sword of the state) is mixing the two spheres by which God reigns in creation.

So, the Gospel does not compel you to pick a Christian candidate. If it did, and anyone who preaches this is preaching a false Gospel, you might end up electing an incompetent politician (though he remains a Christian). Rather the Gospel frees you from any law in picking a candidate except the law of love. Your neighbor is your chief concern in choosing a candidate; who will best serve his interests.

This is no easy task in a fallen world. You have your first article gifts to be discerning about who you vote for (First article refers to the first article of the creed which confesses God as creator of all things, including giving you a brain). So, you can pray discernment from God as you weigh each candidate or even political party. Yes, that means being an informed voter or you are not serving your neighbor.

For more information on the HHS mandate which limits religious liberty, check out this website provided by our church body, the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod. http://www.lcms.org/freetobefaithful

I also promised to talk about the “pro-Israel” part of the church marquee sign that I saw in town. To be brief, there is no spiritual or Biblical reason to “vote for Israel.” This is a purely political issue. For a better explanation, read this.

Finally, I encourage all of you to keep Psalm 146 in your hearts and minds on Election Day.

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord, O my soul!

2 I will praise the Lord as long as I live;

I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Put not your trust in princes,

in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.

4 When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;

on that very day his plans perish.

5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord his God,

6 who made heaven and earth,

the sea, and all that is in them,

who keeps faith forever;

7 who executes justice for the oppressed,

who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;

8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;

the Lord loves the righteous.

9 The Lord watches over the sojourners;

he upholds the widow and the fatherless,

but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The Lord will reign forever,

your God, O Zion, to all generations.

Praise the Lord!