Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Hence, 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.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact 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.
It 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. ‘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. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For 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? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, NRSV)
Right now in America in general, and in the Episcopal Church perhaps especially, there is a great deal of self-assurance that we know what the “right side of history” is about many things. This self-assurance may, or may not, ultimately prove vindicated. This post is not about that. It is about how we live in our assurance as Christians. Today’s Daily Office reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians brings this issue into sharp focus.
The Apostle is especially concerned in this letter with a group of educated, self-assured Christians in the “parish” of Corinth. This group seems to have taken over the common life the community there, and they are pretty sure they know what side of history they are on: the right side. Again and again, Paul has to deal with the affects of their attitude, which stinks—as my mother would say—to “high heavens.” The problem is complex and has direct implications for our own day and setting.
This group at issue thought of themselves as advanced in their faith. They called this having a special knowledge. This knowledge gave them freedom to do many things that others in the Christian community—especially newer or more fragile members—thought scandalous. This group of Illuminati felt they didn’t need to be bound by the silly conventions and petty rules of those who were “unenlightened” with this knowledge—and they made that very clear to their fellow-Christians. This, in turn, led to name-calling, disruption, and division in the Corinthian Communion. Sound familiar?
Interestingly, Paul keeps saying that he agrees with them in part. He, too, has a knowledge that has led to a glorious liberty. But, unlike the scene in Corinth, the liberty he experiences doesn’t foment division or discord. Instead, it calls its practitioner to a profound level of self-offering. And that is what always intrigues me when I read this passage.
Paul wants the “advanced party” in Corinth to understand that knowledge and liberty cannot be pursued for themselves in the Christian community. To do so means taking our eyes off Christ and his work in and through the Body to gaze at a mirror: the mirror of our supposed accomplishments and maturity. This results in a fundamentally arrogant way of living with others in Christ, rather than in humility and love. As he lays the groundwork for the great Thirteenth Chapter of this letter, he notes that Christ gives us the example of love over and over again…but doesn’t speak of some holier-than-thou “knowledge,” even though he has every right to do so.
Paul then goes on to say that you can be as right as rain in your theology (there is, in fact, only one God, and getting all wigged out about eating meat dedicated to another deity beforehand is really an exercise in superstition), but totally wrong in your practice of the Gospel…and here practice trumps theology because the practice reveals your real appropriation of that theology. If one’s actions are offensive to a brother or sister in the faith, causing his or her faith to buckle, then we ought to realize that we are injuring one of those “little ones” Jesus was so concerned about in his teaching. This, in turn, must temper the use of our liberty.
Observing temperance in regard to a freedom does not mean abrogating that freedom, or even being ashamed of it: it does mean, though, that others may never get to that freedom if we misuse our own. And that is very important.
I remember going duck hunting as a teenager. I had never been around guns before then. Some folks used their guns very wisely; but a subset of the adults did not, and one young member of the group managed to very nearly blow off his head with a shotgun. It was frightening. If I were a slightly different person, I would have become a total anti-gun maniac. However, having a strong sense that misuse of something is not a sufficient argument for prohibiting it, I didn’t go in that direction. It did cross my mind, however! Eventually, I came to enjoy firing a gun for target practice, but my experience with the misuse of this liberty made me very wary of the costliness of such folly.
When we think we have “arrived” as Christians, when we believe that we “know” something and are thus “further evolved” than others (a phrase I truly detest), then St. Paul points out we know nothing. Such knowledge is actually contempt under a rhinestone halo; it is also just plain old sin—sin against another member of the Body, and (thus) sin against Christ himself. Do we hear this, in our assurance? I hope so.
But what about freedom? Isn't that important? Yes, it is. But Christians must relate to freedom differently, just as we must relate to everything else in a radically new way when we follow the Resurrected One. By learning to think about others first, we gain a totally new dimension to our freedom: we find out that ours is not just a freedom from, but a freedom to. That makes all the difference and marks it as Freedom in Christ. We have the freedom to love, to serve, to model, to learn, to grow in humility, and to become more and more like Christ rather than more and more a caricature of our bossy, obnoxious, death-bound egos. That is real freedom, real power.
I grew up in a University town. Many of the people we knew there were very well educated and quite self-assured in their opinions. However, many times they were dead wrong about things, because it turned out they really knew a lot about one or two areas, and very little about most everything else. But, because they defined themselves as “enlightened,” they knew they were right, unlike those ill-informed yahoos the next town over. In a way, they had become some of the most pig-ignorant people I have ever met, and totally uneducable. Unintentionally, they became the mirror-image of a fearful, uneducated bigot: a arrogant, educated bigot. Neither species is especially attractive or winning, especially when it purports to show forth Christ the Humble Servant.
Whether it be the use of alcohol, our approach to the Scriptures, sexuality, the following of ancient practices in the faith, or politics, St. Paul’s advice directs us to offer everything—even our liberty—to Christ in humility and love. When we do this, the Holy Spirit is given space and time to show the Mind of Christ in the Christian community. When we don’t do this, the Church looks as squalid, political, and hopeless as the culture around us.
So, the next time you take aim at a "weaker" Christian with your knowledge and liberty, just remember that what you may think is a bouquet of flowers looks an awful lot like a loaded gun to someone else…and put yourself in their shoes. It might turn out to be a lot safer for the Gospel in the Church and the world if we did!
Collect for Wednesday after the Third Sunday in Lent
Keep watch over your Church, O Lord, with your unfailing love; and, since it is grounded in human weakness and cannot maintain itself without your aid, protect it from all danger, and keep it in the way of salvation; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, for ever and ever. Amen.