When Matt and I lived in Scotland for a year after we were married and had just graduated from seminary, I worked part time at a Church of Scotland Parish and Matt was studying for another Master’s Degree at the University of Edinburgh. A lovely couple from the church I was serving invited us over for lunch after worship one Sunday. I’ll never forget what was on the menu: Salmon Mousse. I’ll never forget it because it was the worst thing I had ever put in my mouth. But this couple was so kind, generous and hospitable, not just on that Sunday, but for the entire year that we were there. We didn’t want to offend them so in order to build them up as wonderful hosts, we ate the entire mousse despite how terrible it tasted.
For Paul, building up others is more than just not being rude, although that’s a part of it. He’s talking about putting the needs of others ahead of your own. At face value we are of course absolutely on board with this. We want to love and serve our neighbors. Upon deeper reflection, however, the individual is at the center in our culture. Personal freedom is very much in our DNA. Each person has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As Americans we are very much about personal freedom: “My rights” and “my well being.” This has permeated the way we talk about our faith as well. We refer to our “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
I want to make clear that God is indeed concerned about every individual’s well being. God cares about each person’s well being and is also concerned where each one of us is in our journey of faith. What Paul wants us to think about, however, is if we are we exercising our personal freedom for the benefit of ourselves and others? Are we exercising our personal freedom at the expense of the well being of another? How are we using our personal freedom to build others up?
Paul is challenging us to reframe the idea of “personal freedom.” Paul was ministering to a very multicultural church in Corinth. Those early believers were once separated by cultural barriers: Jew v. Gentile, rich v. poor, Roman citizen v. non Roman citizen etc. But now they have all come together in their shared belief of Jesus Christ who has shown them such cultural barriers do not exist in the body of Christ because each person is made in God’s image. Through Jesus Christ these early Christians have been freed up from the barriers that once separated them. In Christ they were now free to be in community with one another.
This was a big adjustment because they were used to adhering to the cultural barriers that had separated them for so long. Now they were trying to figure out not just what it would look like to worship together, but what it would look like to do life together.
This is why Paul uses the example of consuming meat that may or may not have been sacrificed to idols. We can’t really relate to this, but it was very much a struggle in Paul’s day. Archeologists have found 12 different temples erected to 12 different gods in the ancient city of Corinth. Idol worship was everywhere. Not only was there the temptation of worshipping other gods, but the ways in which these gods were worshipped could range from sacrificing an animal on an altar to sleeping with a prostitute.
This was what Paul was dealing with. If invited to a meal at someone’s home, where it couldn’t be confirmed that the meat came from an animal used for pagan sacrifice, you might either eat it or abstain, depending on who you were with. If you were with someone whose conscience was bothered by the possibility that the meat was from a pagan worship animal sacrifice then you wouldn’t eat the meat, so as to not place that person in a situation where their well being was at stake.That person could be headed down a slippery slope if they were encouraged to eat such meat as they could soon find themselves engaged in other forms of pagan worship such as sleeping with a prostitute.
Pastor Troy last week compared Corinth to Las Vegas and I’m going to stick with that analogy. If you had an opportunity to take a trip with friends, but one of your friends has an issue with gambling, Las Vegas would not be the best place to go. You yourself could be in Las Vegas and be fine to sit by the pool, attend a show, and enjoy shopping etc., because you don’t have an issue with gambling. Your friend who has a gambling issue could not do the same because the temptation to gambling is everywhere. There are literally slot machines in the Las Vegas airport.
The issue is not meat or money. As Paul said “everything is lawful,” but not everything is beneficial. Are we acting in a way that we are building others up? Are we exercising our freedom in a way that takes into account the well being of another? Freedom from a Christ-centered point of view is not about what we get to do, but about who do we get to love. In Christ, we have been freed up to love others. For when we love others we are glorifying God. When our actions aren’t showing love for another, we aren’t glorifying God
Getting back to the theme of our sermon series “State of our Union,” one way we can evaluate our union is to ask ourselves: “Are we using our freedom to love others well?” Unity, however, does not equal uniformity. While we can always agree that Jesus Christ is at the center of our worship and we strive to make God the center of our lives. We will still have disagreements. But in our disagreements how can we still show love and be committed to building one another up?
Sarah Stewart Holland and Beth Silvers were some of the featured speakers in the Calvin January series this past week. They wrote a book titled: “I think you’re wrong, but I’m listening.” The topic of their presentation was how to have grace-filled conversations during these divisive times. What stood out to me was their advice to consider “What is the rock in another’s shoes?” To take the time to truly listen to how another’s life experiences, culture, where they grew up etc., influenced their stance on a certain issue or how they view the world. In other words it’s important to listen to each other’s stories. It could be that at the end of it we still don’t agree, but in listening to one another we’ve communicated that we sincerely care about the other in taking the time to get to know their stories. We’ve still chosen to build one another up.
Building another up also doesn’t mean you sacrifice your own well being. If you struggle with alcohol you don’t have to drink that glass of wine offered to you at a friend’s house or agree to meet your friends at a bar.Building another up also doesn’t mean you sacrifice your Christian faith. Your well being should not have to be sacrificed or the well being of your faith. When I was a student chaplain at a psychiatric hospital the staff asked us to not do any Bible studies on Revelation as the content of Revelation can be detrimental to their struggle with their mental illness. I would argue that one doesn’t need to struggle with mental illness to have a bad experience studying Revelation. However, if the staff asked us to denounce Christ as God because many find him offensive, I would not be able to agree to it because that would be to deny what we believe.
It would do us good to follow Paul’s guidance in assessing how we are using our freedom. Are we living our freedom from our culture’s point of view or from the point of view of Jesus Christ? Are we exercising our freedom in a way that builds others up or what only builds us up? My hope and prayer for us all is that we would be aware of how we are freed in Christ to freely love others. For when we exercise freedom to love others our union with one another and with Christ will be stronger. Amen.