Seasoned With Love,           1 Corinthians 8:1-13,    February 1, 2009

Subtitle: How to become an “It Depends” church.

For the Corinthians, eating temple meat might be a sin for one person and a freedom for another. But there is another sin mentioned in this passage: putting one's personal freedom above communal deference.  The key ingredient in
Paul’s community recipe is in verse 1: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Paul values a demonstration of love over a demonstration of knowledge with the insistence on personal freedom. You may know something is OK, but is it right in this particular circumstance? Is it kind, appropriate or considerate among these people?

The “knowledge-puffs-up” issue was a huge problem in
Corinth. These gifted and knowledgeable Christians knew it all and didn’t hesitate to let their Christian brothers and sisters who were struggling with some moral and ethical issues, know it. They were puffed up: snobby and smug Christians.
Story: A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, “Lord, I would like to know what heaven and hell are like.”

The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and made the holy man’s mouth water.

The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms, and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handles were longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.

The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering.

The Lord said, “You have seen hell.” They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man’s mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking.

The holy man said, “I don’t understand.”

“It is simple,” said the Lord. “It requires but one skill. You see they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves.” ///

This is the problem Paul addresses in our text. These people are trying to feed themselves with long-handled spoons inlaid with pride and knowledge. Paul here has an important suggestion: Why not try feeding each other, and while you’re at it, season the food with love.

The problem of the gray areas

Paul walks the Corinthians through a theological kitchen to give them a few pointers. First, there is only one God, and therefore idols of so-called gods are actually powerless pieces of stone (vv. 4-6). Some people know this truth, but other believers (“weak") don’t understand the powerlessness of idols, and therefore eating meat sacrificed to one would be a sin for them (v. 7). Therefore, the same action can be a sin for one person and not for another.

Unless someone has either read this passage or traveled to an animistic Cambodian village, he or she has probably not given a second thought to meat sacrificed to idols in a temple. However, Puritan America's moral/ethical code was well described with the catchy jingle: “Don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t chew and don’t go with girls that do.”
That doesn’t play as well today, but the church will always have gray areas to deal with. Take, for example, a $10 buy-in poker game. Listening to non-Christian music. Watching R-rated movies. Swearing. Frank discussions of our questions and doubts about the faith.

Other possibilities of gray areas might be theological:
  • the doctrine of atonement about which evangelical and mainline Christians may disagree; concepts of heaven and hell;
  • how one reads the Scriptures — literal/metaphoric/sacred stories;
  • the Eucharist table — table of abundant hospitality (decorated as such), the Calvinist table focused only on wine and bread, or the occasional table or every week/day;
  • baptism — sprinkle/dunk/splash in the name of “Jesus” or in the name of “Father, Son, Holy Ghost;
  • how congregants live their daily lives, i.e., should we associate with non-Christians;
  • if a congregation identifies smoking and drinking as problems,
  • how does that congregation stand with those in trouble or those who seek treatment, and do we ignore the struggles, do we ritualize the accomplishments.

The truth is, we may even disagree that some of these things even are gray areas. Others might believe there are no gray areas whatsoever.

While all things might be lawful (as
Paul might put it), our respect and love for each other may in some cases limit our freedom. His exact words are — in another text but on the same subject: ‘“All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24).
So what do we love more? The beer or the alcoholic? The shorts or the person who can’t worship because we are wearing them? Our rights or our peers?

Certain actions have great power and impact on some people’s lives and faith while they don’t on others. The point is not to get lost in how to handle each of the gray areas, but to identify them as opportunities to demonstrate an important Christ-like virtue.

Rather than debating gray areas,
Paul is saying that the community of faith needs to become an “It Depends” community with integrity. A better way of thinking about the text, instead of “gray areas,” is “it depends areas.” If I’m a vegetarian, eating meat is a problem. If I’m a cattle rancher or feed lot owner, the more people who eat meat, the better for me. If I’m Jewish, I eat kosher; if I’m Islamic, I have my own code of lawful and forbidden.
The problem for Paul in the letter to the Corinthians doesn’t seem to be the choice itself, but what the choice does —if it alienates the others in the church from Christ. The risk was that they will fall back into legalistic, non-life-giving ways of life. Often these are merely social or cultural mores.
The real challenge for us is when there are no clear choices. What does the church have to say when there are no clear choices? What example are we setting to those around us? Are we publically arguing over gray areas, or are we honoring one another out of deference and Christian love?

Here are 3 principles to help us move toward a theology of “It Depends”:

(1) First, gray areas can exist within a community, but should not exist within an individual. Implicit in this text is the idea that people have developed convictions on the meat issue. In discussing unclean foods in Romans 14,
Paul says, “But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v. 23).
Often, Xian maturity is viewed as sin management & possession of Christian knowledge. How does this text counter those definitions of maturity?
In gray areas, we each must agree with God on what is right or not right for us. What we call gray areas are often cultural or geographical. Paul says we must be convinced in our own minds and hearts before God. and only then may we be free to disagree with a clear conscience. But, we are only accountable for our own individual actions-- not for our neighbors.

(2) Second, gray areas like those mentioned above do not necessarily apply to those who don’t believe. Does it make sense to hold someone who doesn’t know
Jesus to an ethic derived from Scripture? If the nonbeliever enters a morning service grubby and smelling of booze, what do we say? Can we rightly impose, or expect, Christian morality from non-believers?

(3) Finally, we need to remember that deference — the respect and love we show — in a gray area is not a concession one makes. (It’s not a pious personal sacrifice.) It is a response of stewardship and worship. Romans 12 calls believers to be living sacrifices,
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual(reasonable) act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will (vs.1-2)
Our choices are a demonstration of our love of God over ourselves. Steward ship of our lives, and all God has given us, reveals our love for God and each other to the world.

• How are we the “weak believer?” In other words, what are the idols that should be powerless to us, but in our weakness they cause us to stumble?

 Carl Jung once traveled to America and visited with a Taos Pueblo medicine man, Ochwiay Biano, "Mountain Lake." While they talked of their two cultures, this Indian shaman said an interesting thing: "We think that they [the whites] are mad." Jung asked why. "They say that they think with their heads." "Why, of course. What do you think with?" Jung replied. "We think here," the native American said, indicating his heart.
The heart of Paul's message is care for each other more than outward appearances and behaviors. Turn 'gray areas' into 'it depends areas' and live in God's freedom and grace. Amen.
Rev. RosemaryStelz

And now, be with us and, O God, help us not to despise what we do not understand.

--William Penn (1644-1718), Quaker leader and founder of Pennsylvania.
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