32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). 37He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
Generally, I leave it up to personal preference whether you read along or not in the Bible. For today’s reading I’d recommend that you open the Bible and follow along. We’re reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8 and you’ll find it on page 171 of the New Testament in the pew Bible. What I want to point out in this passage is that this letter is really a letter. It is part of an active correspondence between Paul and members of the church in Corinth, a community Paul founded and lived in for a year and a half. As you look at the passage you’ll notice that there are several places where there are quotations; the first instance is in the first line: “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols, we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’”
Scholars believe that these quotes were from a letter Paul received from Christians in Corinth. They either made statements or asked questions that Paul is directly responding to. We do this a lot when we’re writing emails to each other. We’ll often copy and paste quotes from the person we’re replying to, and Paul does the same thing here.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now 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.
It’s easy to feel like the stories in the Bible are so old, that things were so different then that the message doesn’t apply now. We feel like they were closer to Jesus because they lived a long time ago. Something about the distance in time makes it seem like they achieved feats of spiritual power we can’t even dream of today.
In reality, though, people of that time were a lot like us. They worked hard to support their families. They worried about their kids and their finances. They thought about how to succeed in their business or how to impress their supervisor. They sometimes argued with their neighbors or disagreed with their spouse. Like now, being a Christian was part of a person’s story; they also had other roles in life that sometimes supported and other times challenged their identity as a Christian.
Paul is getting at that conflict in the passage we just read from his letter to the Corinthians. In the first century, the culture overall was pagan. Judaism was a well recognized, minority faith, but most people, including many who weren’t especially religious, were pagan. Christians made a choice to be different.
The culture as a whole was religious, and religious in a way Christians rejected, so it was a challenge to be a Christian and a member of society at the same time. The particular issue Paul is talking about in this passage is meat sacrificed to idols. This passage is part of a longer section about meat and idolatry that takes up the next three chapters. We only have time for this part t today, but Paul’s argument will make more sense if you read from the beginning of chapter 8 through the first verse in chapter 11 when you get home.
This is a challenging concept for us now since pagan worship isn’t an issue anymore. Then, however, most people were pagan and much of the social life of the city was built around pagan festivals and pagan temples. Even more than now, life was social, and a person’s opportunities had a lot to do with whom he or she knew and how they cultivated those relationships. For members of the church, especially those in business, pagan celebrations would have been tempting networking and social opportunities, even though they didn’t worship those gods anymore.
The folks writing to Paul argue that since they know that the pagan gods aren’t really gods, they can go to their temples without betraying their faith. In chapter 10, Paul goes on to argue that this isn’t really true because God demands our full allegiance, so any kind of worship of other gods is off limits. Here his argument is about how going to the temple might hurt the faith of others in the community, so we’ll keep our attention on that part.
The Corinthian church was a mixed congregation. While most Christians in Corinth and elsewhere were poor, a few were wealthy and some were middle and working class. Some of the divisions about religious questions had a lot to do with economic situation or education level. Those with more education seemed to think of themselves as above pagan superstition and looked down on others who didn’t know as much. For philosophically minded Corinthians, knowledge meant freedom from superstition and from being enslaved to the physical world.
Paul certainly valued education too, but knowledge wasn’t the most important thing for him. As he puts it at the beginning of the passage, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” We aren’t saved by what we know, but by God’s love in Jesus Christ. And we don’t grow in faith by showing off our knowledge to others, but by loving other people.
Faith isn’t about getting the right answer to a theological or academic question. When we’re making a decision about how to act, the most important question is what is most loving and most beneficial to the community.
The question at stake here isn’t just whether or not it will compromise my faith to go to a pagan temple, the more important question is whether it could lead someone else in the community down the wrong path. For us pagan temples aren’t a temptation, but the principle is still important. I see this at work everywhere. In fact, this section of First Corinthians is a huge part of how I think about being a Christian. So let’s think about some modern examples.
Our culture is so much about our rights, but Paul calls us to look instead at how we can help others. We think that we have a right to speak our mind, and that’s true. But we also need to think about how what we want to say might impact others. That’s worth thinking about in terms of avoiding hurting someone else’s feelings as well as hurting someone else’s faith.
It’s important to bring faith outside the walls of the church, including places like the Boulevard. At the same time, people are watching. While I don’t have a problem with alcohol, many people do, so it’s important for me to watch my behavior if I’m leading a church discussion at the Boulevard so I don’t trip someone else up.
It’s the same thing with going to church. Believe it or not, your friends and coworkers are looking at you to see what it means to be a Christian. Maybe you are spiritually strong enough that you don’t need to be in church regularly. But if your friends see you putting other things ahead of church on your priorities list, that’s going to make them think church isn’t important and that they don’t need to make time for it.
It’s important in church too. Maybe a certain style of music or prayer or sermon isn’t your favorite. While I do want to know about that so I can plan worship that works for everyone over the course of the year, we have to make sure everyone is fed spiritually. And we need to put folks struggling the most first in that respect. Decision making in the church isn’t about earning a bigger vote by working hard; it’s about working together to build up the community
That means church is the opposite of a meritocracy where the people with the most skills and strength dominate. We’re supposed to be an upside down economy where we think most about what other people need, especially the newest or weakest members of the faith, and then later on about what we want. Ann Philbrick, who did our leadership training for New Beginnings put it well. She said, “Mature believers are willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of the gospel.” That means if something we’re doing here is reaching new people for Christ, but it’s not your favorite, we need your support anyway.
That doesn’t mean grinding yourself into the ground with church stuff you don’t enjoy. Joy is a huge part of following God’s calling in our life and God has given you your gifts and interests for a reason. But it does mean thinking about what other people need as well as what we want.
A lot of people think about religion as a bunch of rules they have to follow, and that’s not right either. Paul gives us a better way forward. It’s not about following an old set of rules or doing what other people say we should do, but it’s also not just doing what we want either. Being a Christian means following Jesus Christ and being part of a community that is bound together in love. And that means other people are just as important as we are. So when we think about our choices, the question isn’t so much “What do we have to do?” or, “What do I want to do?” Instead, maybe the best question is, “How can I love my neighbor with this choice?”
That’s not the same as, “What does my neighbor want me to do?” If we think about the example of going to the pagan temple, maybe our neighbor wants us to go to the temple so they can feel alright about doing it too. The point isn’t making everyone happy in the short term. It’s not about the lowest common denominator. It’s about contributing to an atmosphere where everyone can be their best, where everyone can grow in faith, where it’s easier to do the right thing.
That means pushing ourselves not to make the easier choice but the choice that reflects our faith most clearly. Most of all, it means putting our community before ourselves. That’s what we see in the brief snapshot from Acts that Sally read a few minutes ago. Luke tells us that the believers were so committed to their community that they sold their possessions so everyone would have enough.
We know that this wasn’t the case for everyone in the church in the first century. Actually, in the very next chapter of Acts Peter tells members of the community that they have a right to their property, but they have to be honest. The point of sharing this vision from Acts isn’t so make us feel guilty about the fact that we don’t share anything now. It’s not about guilt, after all; it’s all about love.
Instead my point is to hold up a vision of a community where people love each other deeply. What would it be like to belong to a community like that? How wonderful would it be to care about each other enough to stop worrying about ourselves? How amazing would it be to think about what would bless other people most? What kind of community would encourage you to be your best? What would a church look like that invited your deepest commitment and encouraged the same from everyone else?
How can we build a church where we think about other’s needs ahead of our desires, not because we feel guilty, but because we love each other? Picture that dream church of commitment and joy and love. Allow that dream to grow in your heart and let’s start building the dream together.
Thanks be to God.