Sunday, February 18, 2018

Love Lifts Up (1 Corinthians 8.1-13)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; February 18, 2018 - 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

:: Sermon Audio (link) :: Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

::: Scripture and Music ::
CHOIR: Come, Bless the Lord (English)
For the Beauty of the Earth (DIX)
Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love (Colvin, Ghanian folk melody)
Holy Spirit (Getty/Townend)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) ::
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

It’s A.D. 55 and the temples to the Greek gods are thriving in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth. And attached to many of those Temples are markets where meat sacrificed to those gods is then served and consumed. Some Christians confidently ate and enjoyed meat from those markets. They were full up with the knowledge that there is only one true God. They were full up with the knowledge that salvation and reconciliation with God is through the sacrifice of Christ, not the blood of animals. Perhaps they had even heard that God told Peter that Christians were free from the old kosher food laws, now fulfilled in Christ. There were no such thing as other gods and there was nothing spiritually or morally good or bad about that meat; it could be enjoyed freely and confidently. Except Paul recognized a problem. There were new believers, young believers – and there were perhaps those interested in Christ from Judaism or paganism – who did not yet understand all those things. And when they saw Christians eating meat from those pagan markets it was confusing. Did they actually worship those other gods? Did they believe in those gods? Were they breaking God’s kosher commandments?

Paul walks through the very fine distinction between knowledge focused on self and knowledge focused on others. He writes in verse 2 that without that knowledge of the needs and situation of others (and concern for it), knowledge is limited and arrogant. Knowledge of the needs and situation of others combined with love edifies – it builds something. The example Paul gives around meat and idols is pretty foreign to us, so I want to consider some more modern examples of what he states at the end of the first verse. Paul writes, “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies.” I want to expand that in context to say: Knowledge without love is arrogant; knowledge with love edifies (builds up).

Southern Christianity

It may seem strange to start with a discussion of Southern Christianity, but that provides the most immediate parallel illustration to this passage. I grew up in the 80s in Greenville, South Carolina. At that point we still had “blue laws” – a kind of remnant of Old Testament commandments that had woven themselves into local culture and law. Gas stations could not be open on Sunday. Liquor stores could not be open. Movie theaters were open on Sunday afternoon, but my parents highly discouraged participating in commercial activity on Sunday. We were also home to Bob Jones University and several parallel offshoots or feeder schools. I had friends who, as Christians, were not allowed to dance, listen to rock music, own secular music, or any other number of ‘wordly’ things.

Other Christians did all those things, either enlightened by a modern culture that just kind of thought such religious excesses were ridiculous, or legitimately ‘free’ of such rules and regulations by an understanding of the grace of God and the particular saving work of Christ rather than the works of religious human beings. Paul would be the first to say that a Christian was indeed free to buy gas, listen to rock music, or dance freely. But his follow-up concern, as stated in today’s text, would have been two-fold for 1980s South Carolinian Christians.

First Paul would say that in exercising freedom in Christ, we must be mindful of encouraging another Christian to do something they believe to be sinful or illicit without providing the proper teaching or rationale for that freedom. Even if the act is not sinful, choosing to do what you think is sinful is damaging to soul and spirit. Said another way, the end does not justify the means. People should be encouraged to make right choices, not just have right outcomes.

Secondly, Paul would say that in exercising freedom in Christ, we must be wary of sending the wrong or a confusing message to someone watching who is not of faith. If a Greek onlooker saw a Christian eating meat at the market of Aphrodite, it would be logical to assume the Christian either believed in Aphrodite or wanted to offer her worship. To 1980s Robert, I think Paul would have said: be free in Christ, but do be mindful of who is watching you and what message your actions send to them.

A great modern example of this is Chick-Fil-A. The founder, Truett Cathy, determined that his stores would not be open on Sunday so that employees could have at least one day a week to rest and be with families. And that vision was born out of his Christian faith. To this day Chick-Fil-A observes this practice though it is now thoroughly counter-cultural.

But in an even more notable demonstration of today’s text, did you hear what happened just a few months ago when all the power went out in the Atlanta airport? Chick-Fil-A saw the need, saw others struggling and needing help, and they OPENED on Sunday. Now skeptics may describe that as a clever marketing ploy, but I think it was an authentic understanding and demonstration of Paul’s point of knowledge and love coming together to lift up others.

And really, that is Paul’s bottom line here: think of others first; put others first. That is the essence of love. And if you really have knowledge… if you know Jesus at all, you know that to be His intent for us.

Three Audiences

Moving forward to today and daily life, I can think of three audiences we need to have in mind as we live out our faith. The first is other people who are not believers. Paul teaches elsewhere that the message about Jesus – the message of the cross – is foolishness to those without faith. So all the more we need to be mindful of our words and behavior and the message they send. Interestingly enough, I think we probably get in more trouble witness-wise for our immature words and actions then we do for biblically-informed words and actions. But either way, Paul reminds us: the world is watching.

Secondly, we need to have in mind believers who are less spiritually mature. They may well be looking up to us for how to trust God and live in the world. I don’t want that to be a paralyzing burden – freezing up and saying or doing nothing doesn’t serve others well either. And I’d include children in this category. So often they are watching and taking mental notes. And we surely don’t want to lead them astray, even unintentionally.

Thirdly, ourselves! We need to recognize that we may simply not know as much as we think we know. And that’s one of the significant reasons Paul gives us to NOTICE and LOVE others. In doing so we may realize that our knowledge was lacking.

Love God. Love Others.

When it comes down to the heart of the message here, it is simply an application of the Great Commandment. When asked what was the greatest of the commandments, Jesus acknowledged that it was to love God with all we are and all we’ve got, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Paul says that knowledge of God is great. Spiritual maturity is great. But love is greater than knowledge. The truly wise and godly person has not harnessed knowledge for personal gain or even personal freedom, but for the sake of others. Whether God has granted you mental, physical, or emotional strength, or financial resources, or health, or stability, or any other number of blessings, love of God leads us to love of others, which harnesses all those blessings to say, “How can I bless you? How can I not cause you to stumble? How can I help you see and follow God? How can I bring blessing and grace into your life?”

Later in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 13 – the famous “love chapter” – Paul writes, “If I… know all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2) But if you do know Jesus, you DO have love. And love edifies; love builds up. Love blesses and gives. In fact, let me go back to Paul and 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (vv. 4-8a)

I don’t know that we pursue knowledge – certainly not spiritual knowledge – in the say Paul describes in today’s text. But we do have a concept of a “strong Christian” or a “mature believer” or a “good Christian” that is part of our cultural Christianity. Paul’s message: if your faith isn’t focused first on God, then others, you’ve missed something critical. Love lifts up. Christianity lifts up. Mature faith lifts up. Who has God put in your path and in your life for you to edify and love? And will you?