02/01/15 Sermon (February 1, 2015)

posted Jun 24, 2015, 11:19 AM by David Hawkins

“The Stumbling Block of Liberty”

Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13,

1Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.

4Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.”

5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — 6yet 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.

7It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.8“Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.

9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?

11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Sermon: "The Stumbling Block of Liberty" Rev. David Hawkins

Well, we are having a potluck today after the worship service, and I have to ask the question: How many of you went out to the marketplace this morning, bought meat that had been sacrificed to idols, and brought it to church today to share with everybody? Come, hands up, I know that some of you must have been tempted. Nobody?

Well, that’s not really surprising. We don’t have that problem much anymore, do we? This scripture today is talking about a situation that we really can’t sympathize with. Paul’s words about meat sacrificed to idols don’t make any sense to us. It’s a warning against a custom that we simply don’t have to worry about.

That doesn’t mean his words have no meaning for us, however.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been listening in on Paul trying to help his congregation in Corinth come to grips with their newfound freedom in Christ. On one hand, he says, all things are lawful. On the other hand, not all things are beneficial. On one hand, he says, we are free from the law. On the other hand, we are bound to Christ.

The Church in Corinth knows just enough about Jesus Christ to get themselves in real trouble. They know just enough about freedom to demand their rights, but they don’t know enough about love to exercise their rights in a way that benefits the community.

And this is the problem for Paul. He’s not trying to institute a new code of behavior, a new set of laws, a Christian Torah for the church in Corinth. He’s trying to remind them that freedom without compassion destroys community. And knowledge without love destroys faith.

And when we think of it like that, maybe we know more about what Paul is talking about than we think.

The question is not about whether or not we should eat meat sacrificed to idols. The question is how do we exercise our Christian liberty without harming those around us? How do we live in freedom while at the same time recognizing that our actions have the capacity of doing great harm to the faith and practice of other people?

As many of you know, I spent many years in the military. While I was there, I learned many different colorful expressions, descriptive ways of talking that can turn the air blue. I can speak that kind of language fluently, creatively, even enthusiastically.

But I have to recognize that for some folks, a pastor who swears makes them question their own understanding of what it means to be a Christian. While a good curse word may be very satisfying, and at times much more accurate, swearing, as a pastor, for me, carries with with the risk of hindering another person’s faith. And so, while I might have the freedom to swear, I do my best not to. Not because I’m particularly righteous. But because I don’t want to hurt anybody.

Another example of being careful with Christian freedom is the issue of alcohol. I was talking to my friend and colleague Davis Price, who is a pastor down in Lubbock, about using actual wine for communion. He, like me, is in favor of it, and in fact, his church often has wine for communion. But he told me how a member of his congregation, who was an alcoholic, had a hard time with it in the beginning.

It turned out that when they first started using wine for communion, they would pass a tray with the cups with wine on the outer rim and the cups with grape juice in the middle. The problem was that the smell of the wine as it passed by the person who had had problems with alcohol was simply so compelling that he couldn’t really think of anything else. He wasn’t tempted to take a cup of wine, but his senses were filled with the smell of it, and he couldn’t focus on what the act of taking communion was all about, that is, being united with the body and and blood of Jesus Christ.

And so, Davis and the church found a different way to serve communion with wine that didn’t force this person to have the wine pass directly in front of him. This person wasn’t trying to prevent the church from serving alcohol. In fact, he agreed in principle with the idea of serving wine. But he simply couldn’t bear the smell of it. And so the church found a way around that.

We all have our own understanding of God. We all have our own ways of knowing and thinking about God. But sometimes our ways of thinking about God are different from those around us.

I remember once, in a different church, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a young girl, maybe around 11 years old in a Sunday School class. This girl’s mother had real problems with drugs, and her family was a mess. For some reason, though, the mother kept bringing the girl to church, and would drop her off while she did some Sunday shopping or whatever other errands she needed to do.

One Sunday morning before church, the Sunday School class was talking about angels, and the girl said that she had seen angels, and that they were taking care of her. The Sunday School teacher, bless her heart, told her that there was no such thing as real angels, that it was just a story, and that the girl hadn’t, couldn’t, really have seen any angels. Because they don’t exist.

The girl began crying, cried all through church, cried right up until the moment her mother picked her up, and we never saw her again after that.

We need to be careful with our freedom. We need to be careful with our knowledge. Freedom without compassion destroys community. And knowledge without love destroys faith. We are free to think what we like about swearing, about alcohol, about angels. Our salvation is not dependant on these things.

But, it’s not enough to be free. We also have be aware of the ways our lives are intertwined with those around us. It’s not enough to think we know about God. We also have to love others enough to let them know God in their own way, and not to wreck their understanding of faith through the thoughtless exercise of our own Christian liberty.  

This last weekend, I attended a Presbytery meeting down in Abilene, and I was reminded once again how grateful I am to be a part of a Church and a denomination that values relationship above doctrine, love and compassion above the need to be right. Not everybody at Presbytery thinks the same way I do, thank God. Not everybody there prays the same way, sings the same way, acts the same way. We all have particular ideas about worshipping God, and we all have pretty good reasons for the way we think.

But for Friday night and Saturday morning, one hundred pastors and elders of the church gathered to put aside the small things that divide us to sing hymns, to pray, to read scripture, and to celebrate the gift of the church, her ministry, her witness, and her amazing diversity.

And as look out at you all, I feel the same sense of joy that I felt yesterday at Presbytery. Not everybody here agrees with everybody else. We all have our different ways of thinking about God. We all have different ideas about what it means to be free in Christ.

But this church has found a way to live in community, to hold the values of love and compassion as been being as important, maybe even more so, than Christian Liberty. And in a world divided by religious doctrine, torn apart by the obsessive need to be right about God, this is indeed a precious gift.

Today, we celebrate the ultimate example of what it means to live in perfect freedom. In Jesus Christ, we learn everything we need to know about God: his love for us, he desire for us to be reconciled with him and with one another, and his invitation to live forever with him are all here at this table. This is what true knowledge of God looks like. A holy mystery, beyond our understanding, yet laid out before us, freely given to those who desire it.   

To the Lord who speaks to us,

and strengthens us,

and blesses us with peace,

be all glory and honor forever. Amen.