All Things are not Beneficial

1 Corinthians 10:23 – 11:1

This is the final installment of our 4 week I Corinthians series. We have not covered the whole book but we have gotten to the heart of Paul. Next to Jesus, we know more about the apostle Paul than any other person in the New Testament. He is a critical Christian figure for us to know. So let’s learn a little more about this important missionary.

He was born a Roman Citizen and named Saul in the city of Tarsus to a privileged Jewish family. Few people had citizenship but it was much desired because it came with privileges and rights not afforded to non-citizens. His citizenship saved him from some beatings and prolonged his life by years.

Saul was born around the same time as Jesus. He received a good education and could speak and write in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. Paul studied in Jerusalem under the important and well respected Rabbi Gamaliel I. Saul was educated as a Pharisee, one of four sects of Judaism that was about 300 years old at the time. Pharisees strictly followed the Jewish law and, in an attempt to do so, separated themselves from their non-Jewish neighbors as much as possible. Pharisees were lay leaders in the synagogues and they taught Scripture. Like all Pharisees, Saul learned a trade. He became a tentmaker. Saul was a zealous advocate and strict observer of the Jewish Law and became a fervent persecutor of Jews who followed Jesus.

As you all know, shortly after the stoning of Stephen, Saul encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and had a dramatic divine awakening. In that encounter with Christ, he was called to be an apostle and was renamed Paul. He did not convert from Judaism to Christianity. He switched from being an avid persecutor of Jews who followed Jesus to being an avid follower of Jesus. He was no longer a Pharisee but he never stopped being a Jew. It was not until after Paul’s death that Christianity separated from Judaism.

After his conversion experience, Paul spent years learning about Jesus and the new traditions of the Damascus church. He did not know Jesus when he was alive, so Paul had a lot to learn. As he learned, he began to teach spreading the Gospel in the Damascus region. After about 14 years he began to travel to new areas that were primarily Gentile in Asia and Europe. He started churches everywhere he went. Growing up in Tarsus, Paul was accustomed, as a Jew, to being in the minority. He knew how to live and work and get along in the Gentile world. This served him well as a missionary but his success with the Gentiles caused some tensions with the Jerusalem Jewish followers which resulted in a meeting, called “the Jerusalem Conference,” where issues about Gentile converts were debated. For instance, should Gentiles be required to learn and follow Jewish food laws? Paul said, “of course not.” But Jews in Jerusalem thought Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism before they could be part of “the Way.”

Paul tried to make amends with the Jerusalem church by taking a money collection from Gentile churches and presenting it personally as a symbol of unity. But, unfortunately, while he was in Jerusalem he was arrested. He spent two years in prison in Jerusalem, and was transferred to Rome, where he spent two more years under house arrest. Tradition tells us, he was then executed in Rome.

As we read Paul’s letters for understanding, we must remember that every letter was written by a pastor in response to a situation that required a theological explanation. Most of his letters were pastor letters to churches he had started. None was written FOR the Bible or to a church in 2013. We must know the historical situation in order to make sense of these letters for our lives.

Paul’s letters are like sermons. He crafted them knowing that they would be read to the congregation. Whether they were written to an individual like Philemon or to the whole church like I Corinthians, they would have been read aloud in church. Unfortunately, in translation from Greek to English, we lose a lot of the rhetorical features that make Paul’s letters so interesting. We also lose some of the power of the message by only reading passages instead of the whole letter.

Each letter has a particular purpose and audience. 1 Thessalonians is the first of Paul’s letters that we have and Romans is the last. The letters are in order from longest to shortest in the Bible. Romans is a very long letter, Philemon is very short. Romans was written to a congregation that Paul had never met. Philemon was written to a man and his house-church in Colossae whom Paul knew well. Romans is deep and its purposes many, Philemon is singular in purpose – asking Philemon to receive a runaway slave as a brother instead of a slave. It is an excellent read.

While it is almost impossible to choose ONE passage from one of Paul’s letters that best captures his theology, our passage today represents Paul very well. Let’s read together from I Corinthians, chapter 10, beginning at verse 23.

—Around 17 years after the death of Jesus the Christ, Paul preached and taught the gospel to a group of Gentiles and Jews in Corinth, which was the capital of Achaia, which is now Greece. After he preached and taught, a church was formed.  Three years later, while in Ephesus – his home base, Paul received news about the Corinthian church and a letter from them. Paul wrote a response to the reports and answered the questions they had about faith and worship.

The letter from the Corinthian church was concerned with how their new religion called “The Way” intersected with their day to day life. As you already know, the pagan religions required worship and sacrifice but that was it – it did not require them to change how they lived. In Roman cities, including Corinth, practically all the meat sold in the marketplace had been ritually slaughtered, “sacrificed to a god,” in connection with a pagan temple. Individuals and families would bring an animal and present it as an offering to the god they worshipped. The animal would be slaughtered and divided between the family and the temple priest. The priest sold the extra meat to a butcher to pay his or her bills and the meat was then sold to the public. When a family went to purchase meat for dinner there would be a sign telling to which god this meat had been sacrificed. —Members of “The Way” no longer believed in the pagan gods, but were they allowed to purchase sacrificial meat? What if a non-Christian served them this meat in their home, at say, a dinner party or wedding reception?

Paul begins to answer their questions in chapter 8, “We know that a false god isn’t anything in this world and there is no God except for the one God…. We’re not missing out if we don’t eat, and we don’t have any advantage if we do eat.” He goes on to caution that this “freedom” to eat any meat might be a problem for the faith of others. He says, “Suppose someone sees you eating in an idol’s temple. You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers.” Paul reminds them and us AGAIN that everything for Christians must be first thought through in love for others. The issue is not the food but how eating it might affect the faith of other people, how eating it might keep them from knowing God.

In all things, in all things we are to build up “others”, we are to seek goodness for others whether they are Jews or Greeks or Christians, we do “everything for the glory of God” by thinking of the needs of others.

The Corinthians wanted to know how their faith should affect what they ate. We need to be asking the same question. How should my faith affect what I eat? My family has been wrestling with that same question for years. And when we have answered it truthfully, we have had to make major changes in our diet. When we have been true to God by putting other’s best interest before our own desires, we had to give up many things.

We have learned, as a family that what is easiest and most convenient is often not the best for other people, animals or creation. The United States has the cheapest food in the world but it comes with a big price which is paid by the animals that live in very poor conditions, by creation through the depletion of trees to grow the grain for feed and land and water overwhelmed by animal waste, and by the workers who work under poor conditions. And a big price is paid by small farmers who have had to sell their farms because they cannot compete in with cheap meat.

My family continues to be convicted by Paul’s words and we have changed where we shop and where we eat but it did not happen overnight. We purchase local meat that was ethically raised. Our flour and cornmeal, cheese, bread, milk and honey are all local. Our eggs are our own. And during the growing season, we eat from our garden and buy from local vegetable farmers. The changes in our eating and shopping habits have come with some sacrifice. No more McDonalds or Chick-fila, no more soda. The way we eat has changed because of our faith.

Paul believed that being a Christian should affect everything—how you talk, how you act, what you buy, what you eat—how you live. Paul believed that everything should be centered in the love of God which requires our focus to be not on ourselves – not on what is easy or cheap or convenient.  Paul said, in Christ we have freedom but, “all things are not beneficial….look out for each other…. and remember “the earth and all that is in it belongs to the Lord.”

Paul closes this section by telling the church at Corinth to follow his example. Through the ages – many people have struggled with what Paul’s “arrogance.” But isn’t that what we should all be able to say? Paul was attempting to walk the walk. He was not a “do as I say, not as I do” leader. On the issue of food he said, “If food caused the downfall of my brother or sister, I won’t eat meat ever again or else I may cause my brother or sister to fall.”

Paul never claimed to be perfect, but he taught by example. Paul tried to live as Christ called him to live – not for his own well being but for others.

We should all want to be able to say to others, “Want to know how to follow Jesus? Follow my example. Do as I do.”

Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. It is a time that as individual followers and as a church we focus on our walk with Christ. We repent of our sins and we actively seek God through prayer and meditation.

Many Christians give something up for the 40 days of Lent, like soda or fast food. Many Christians take something on like volunteering or practicing a Sabbath.

We are all very blessed. We are blessed to have choices in what we eat or drink, in what we do during with our free time, in being able to openly worship. A lot of people in the world do not have these choices.

We are blessed with choices and with free will.

And we are blessed to follow the One who calls us to the highest standards, to make decisions based on the well being of others, to live with meaning and purpose, to live sacrificially.

In all things we are to build up, in ALL things we are to build up…