But I Was Right (January 31, 2021)
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13
“But I Was Right”
This passage isn’t actually about whether or not we can eat food that’s been sacrificed to idols. I’ve thought it was for quite a while, because it starts “now concerning the sacrificing of food to idols,” but it is not actually focused on the new believers that the Corinthians call the “weak in spirit,” I believe Paul’s parroting what the Corinthinans wrote to him. Rather, this verse talks about the actions of the stronger in spirit, the actions of the Corinthians; and by extension our actions in relation to those who are weak in spirit, who are new believers or even non-believers. This is a story about us and how we treat those we consider to be others.
What are we saying about those whom we view as lesser than us, spiritually or maybe societally? And what are we saying about those who we disagree with? What kind of tone do we use? What words are we saying? With the advent of social media, and particularly with its explosion in the last 5 to 10 years, we have changed how we speak to each other. And I’m not just talking about the words that we use in terms of text language. 10 years ago I would never have been able to use the phrase LOL or BRB in a sermon and have you guys know what I was saying, “laugh out loud” and “be right back” respectively. I would have to have actually said that. These text acronyms and text language have worked their way into our language. That’s true. Our language has changed in that sense, but that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m actually talking about is that we’ve gotten meaner.
With the advent of social media we begin to be able to talk to people across the country who we will never interact with again. And we were able to do it behind a false name, a pen name, and a profile picture of a cat. And things begin to get ugly, because we could get meaner and meaner and meaner and there was no real consequence to it. Unfortunately, that has begun to seep into society. Even those who are not on social media have begun to be impacted by the change in tone of those who are. We begin to talk to each other face-to-face about someone else, and we would use the same words. It started with just politicians and the elites out on the coasts. We began to add insults, and then little lines, little jabs in there as we were talking to each other in the coffee shop about “those Wall Street people.” But it continues down, and now we begin to talk about our neighbors in that same tone. And that has some real ramifications with Christians. When we start to believe that we are the “strong” Christians, and we begin to look at those “weak” Christians; when we think that we are the “right” Christians and we look at those “wrong” Christians, whether that’s liberals looking at conservatives or conservatives looking at liberals. We begin to look at those who think differently than us and we begin to believe that we have the right revelation, and those people might as well be satanic. And I didn’t make that up, I see that on Facebook. I think that’s the feeling that Paul is speaking to here.
There’s an image of spirituality, a spiritual life path, that I really like. It paints out a path of sanctification for us. It holds five steps, and a person walks along these five steps as they move forward in their life. Step one is the hardened heart or a closed heart, they’re almost anti-Christian. Not everyone is ever here. Step two is the open heart, or the softened heart, where they’re not a believer yet, but they are at least open to it. They might go to Christmas Eve if you pick them up. Then we move on to the new believer. This is the moment where you realized your salvation, some might say you were saved, but this is that moment where you converted, you become a Christian, you say the sinner's prayer, etc. This is a new convert, the one that Paul in another letter calls the “infant in the faith;” still needs spiritual milk, right, not able to take the real, solid food of the spirit. But they’re newly covered, and we celebrate that. Usually.
And then you begin to really study the Scriptures, and you begin to pray and begin to get into some spiritual disciplines, and God begins to work on you, and you become an adolescent in the faith. And here is where things can actually begin to break down, just like in real adolescence where you begin to question everything and you’re not quite sure who you are. So it is with the adolescence of the faith, you are going to question things, and you're wrestling with God and with the world and trying to find your place. Then finally, you move to step five, the spiritually mature. These are the adults in the faith, who are able to take the solid food of faith. And it’s their job to go back and pick up an infant, or even a softened heart, and pull them along.
And I like this image, but I particularly like it because it’s not up and down, it’s forward and backward. The reality, of course, is we can move along this in either direction. You can go from a soft heart to a hard heart; you can go from adolescence to needing the milk again, or even to questioning everything. And this is a great image when we recognize where we are and where someone else is and try to help them along. But the challenge and the problem begins when we start to look at this as one being better than the other, as one being spiritually strong and the other being spiritually weak to use the language of the Corinthians. The problem comes when we begin to start pulling splinters from other’s eyes. And in the same sense, I have noticed that we often will pull the splinters out of the other’s eyes in our political and theological disagreements. And I wonder how many logs we are ignoring in our own eyes. Personally, every time I stop in the middle of these arguments and think or go back over what I’ve said, I find another log.
Jesus states that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. It is not a sense of reversing the social order, I think, but rather of equalizing it. Saying that in heaven, or in the kingdom of God as it exists on earth, that no believer is better than another. There’s that age old question about a serial killer who accepts Christ on his deathbed, prays the sinner's prayer, and is converted on his deathbed, is he in heaven? Even with all the stuff he’s done? It’s the elder brother versus the prodigal son, that same argument.
There are things that we know good people do, and there are things that we know good people don’t do. It’s a clear dichotomy. But of course, in reality everything is nuanced, and what we think is clearly something good people would do, when looking at it from another perspective you might reconsider. Just look at what Paul is talking about here; Paul praises the Corinthians for having a feeling of freedom to engage with their world with such a faith that they are able to to walk into the temple of one of the the false gods around them and eat food that was dedicated to the temple without suffering a temptation to worship that false God. They’re so strong in their faith that they are able to thumb their nose at the false gods around them. And they are surrounded by it; Corinth was the Vegas of the area at the time. Paul praises them for that. That’s clearly what a “good Christian” would do.
Except he also then goes on to warn them that they may be a stumbling block to their neighbors. They may, in the action of feeling that freedom, actually be preventing a softened heart from moving to an infant Christian, or an infant Christian from moving to an adolescent Christian, or they may be tempting the adolescent Christian to fall back. And being a stumbling block is generally not something a good Christian would do. That is something to be avoided, you shall not be a stumbling block to your neighbor. Paul talks about the same action in both praising and reprimanding. So is it something a good person does or not?
The claim of liberty to do anything we want, the claim of an ultimate and unlimited freedom is a valid Christian claim, but it always has to be stated in the context of never being a stumbling block. We cannot be a stumbling block to those around us. As we are doing what we want, we have to keep a thought in mind for those around us. We have to keep the community in mind. The community context is always important to a Christian.
Sometimes we like to play Jesus in the world. We want to go out and we want to warn people that they’re going to Hell, and to repent and believe the good news. I talked about that last week. And there’s a place for that, because there is a judgment. Judgment is coming, and there is a warning to be had that judgment is coming. The problem is that too often we try to be the judge. And we’re not the judge. Jesus is the judge, we are the judged. And we need to stop trying to be the one judging. We have to remember that being right is less important than being loving. Our job as Christians is to take people to Jesus, and we get to the throne of Jesus we take them to the foot of the throne of Jesus; then our job is to kneel at the throne right next to them for we are no better than the one we just brought. And Jesus does his Jesus thing. That’s what it means to be loving over being knowledgeable. It is hard to throw stones when you’re washing feet.
When I was at Chippewa, one of my first weeks as counselor at Chippewa, we had these two kids, third grade. A little girl and a boy. The little girl was your stereotypical Christian, Cradle Christian, Sunday School adherent. She knew the answer to every question I asked before I finished asking. And she was never wrong, and no, she didn’t just answer “Jesus,” she actually knew the answer. A model of every Christian parent’s dream. Meanwhile, the boy did not want to be at camp Chippewa, he wanted to be at camp Wildwood, which was an adventure camp. And he let us know this. Several times a day. Instead of answering every question correctly in Bible Study, he would often try to get out of it. I remember one time that he asked to go to the bathroom, and about 15 to 20 minutes later I had the adult volunteer take over the Bible study so that I could go check up on him, and he was sitting on his bed reading a book (not the Bible). And this continued that the whole week.
And on Thursday, every Thursday at Camp Chippewa, there’s a chapel service for the whole camp. And we were walking back from the chapel service, and I was walking next to this girl. She pointed to the boy, and she said “why is he even here? What is he even getting out of this? He wants to be elsewhere, he won’t stop talking about it. He’s not even focused on God. What is he here for?” And I experienced one of the few moments that I am positive that the Holy Spirit spoke out of my mouth, because these were not my words, but I said “you can see where he is, or at least the outward appearance of where he is, but you don’t know where he started. It is possible that he has come miles closer to God during this week. Just because he has miles to go doesn’t mean he hasn’t come a long way.”
When we experience people in the world, we have choices. We can choose to be the judge, we can choose to be judgemental, we can choose to look down on those we think are the weak in the faith, we can choose to build ourselves up as the strong in the faith. Or we can choose to reach down and help them, and maybe even recognize that they can help us. I don’t know where you’re going this week, I don’t know what God has in store for you, but I have a mission for you. When you see someone that you think is struggling this week, don’t call them names, don’t type out what you really think about them and hit send, rather try to love them. If you see someone that you see is down, try to help them up instead of kicking them while they’re down. This is your mission this week. And every day, I want you to stop and think back on your day and see how you did? And no matter what you did, whether you did well or not, try and do better the next day. And in doing this we can truly be the body of Christ to Spring Hill. May that be so. Amen.