1 Corinthians 8
Meat sacrificed to false gods
8 Now concerning meat that has been sacrificed to a false god: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. 2 If anyone thinks they know something, they don’t yet know as much as they should know. 3 But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.
4 So concerning the actual food involved in these sacrifices to false gods, we know that a false god isn’t anything in this world, and that there is no God except for the one God. 5 Granted, there are so-called “gods,” in heaven and on the earth, as there are many gods and many lords. 6 However, for us believers,
There is one God the Father.
All things come from him, and we belong to him.
And there is one Lord Jesus Christ.
All things exist through him, and we live through him.
7 But not everybody knows this. Some are eating this food as though it really is food sacrificed to a real idol, because they were used to idol worship until now. Their conscience is weak because it has been damaged. 8 Food won’t bring us close to God. We’re not missing out if we don’t eat, and we don’t have any advantage if we do eat. 9 But watch out or else this freedom of yours might be a problem for those who are weak. 10 Suppose someone sees you (the person who has knowledge) eating in an idol’s temple. Won’t the person with a weak conscience be encouraged to eat the meat sacrificed to false gods? 11 The weak brother or sister for whom Christ died is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers and sisters and hurt their weak consciences this way. 13 This is why, if food causes 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.
Thoughts on the passage:
Here is something to think about, if you are “one in a million,” that means there are 7,500 people like you in the world. There are over 1,000 people like you in China alone and another 1,000 in India. Even in the United States there are still 300 people like you. Suddenly being one in a million doesn’t sound quite as special. As our population continues to grow and our horizons expand it is easier and easier to start to feel like our actions do not make a difference in the world. The tension we have to hold is that while we can feel small and insignificant, each of us is precious to God and each of us can make a difference in our world.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul takes a moment to address the reality that what we do does have an impact on the people around us. What Paul is specifically addressing is the tension that was arising because of differences within the cultural practices of Christians. Many Christians were Jews who had come to accept Christ. Their Christian faith was not so much a conversion from Judaism but a natural evolution of their faith. For them, many of the traditional cultural practices such as keeping kosher were still important. This include the prohibition of eating meat sacrificed to idols. For others, what you ate was not nearly as important. They saw such meat not as something sacred or profane, but just as food. Paul is reminding this second group that while they might be justified in their beliefs, what they do has an effect on the people around them. Their choices and their actions are bothering their fellow Christians. It might not seem like a big deal to them, but to others it is having a profound effect and Paul wants them to stop.
In our final week of specifically looking at the teachings of John Wesley, we are examining not a sermon of his, but rather one of his other writings. In addition to his preaching and teaching, Wesley wrote a lot about issues of the day. In “Thoughts on the Present Scarcity of Provisions,” Wesley looks at some of the economic challenges facing England. His focus is on the lack of grain for feed and food and therefore the rising costs. Not surprisingly this scarcity has a more profound effect on the poor who are already struggling to get enough food.
Wesley examines the problems and makes a number of suggestions. In each instance, he looks at a problem and shows how it is having an effect in other ways. For example, some grain prices are rising because rather than being used for food it is being used for alcohol. Another example is how the importing of thorough-bred horses from France for wealthy land-owners is causing a shortage of feed for other work horses. Over and over what is clear is that our actions have consequences not just for us but for those around us. Nothing Wesley says is particularly profound or something that an economist would not have been able to see. What motivates Wesley however is the economic effect of our actions are those who are most in need. If we fear God, as Wesley would hope we do, then we should be motivated to action.
The reality is that the more people there are around us, the less sense we have of our effects on others. It is easy far easier to feel alone in the midst of a crowded metropolis than it is in a small town, even if there are a million more people around you. I have seen this effect for myself in my life. When I was in Chicago, you did not smile or say hello to people, somewhat out of fear, but also because there are so many people that each individual gets lost in the crowd. When I moved to Baxter for my first appointment I was struck by how often we ran into people we knew out in the community. I had not had this experience living in the Cities. It might be because the Cities are so big that you do not run into people, but I think the other reason is that in the Cities we do not expect to run into people. I say this because I am still struck by how often I have gone to the State Fair or a baseball game and run into people from the small towns in greater Minnesota where I am serving. I think what is really the case is that in a smaller community we get used to seeing people rather than crowds and we can know people but we cannot know crowds.
While he does not say it explicitly, I think that Wesley is making the case that we need to see people rather than crowds. We need to remember that our actions have a real impact on people, even if it is people we never know or see. We need to think of them as people and not as a part of the faceless crowd of 7.5 billion people who share God’s earth with us. We need to listen to Paul when he reminds us that our actions may be received differently by the people around us and what might not be bad for us could be bad for others. Our goal is not only what is good for us, but what will benefit all of God’s children.
Maybe it goes without saying, but I will share again the story of a boy and the starfish. The boy is walking alone the beach and taking stranded starfish and casting them back into the ocean. There are thousands of starfish on the beach and the boy has only been able to put a few back in the ocean. When he is asked what the point is, he says that while what he is doing is not make a difference on the grand scheme of things, he is making a difference for the few starfish he has saved.
We cannot change the world on our own. There is nothing that you or I can do with our limited actions today or tomorrow to reverse climate change, to solve the problems of peace in the world, or to end global poverty. We are like that boy on the beach, we can make a difference to the people around us. Our actions can matter, especially when they are combined with the actions of others. Small actions of kindness can have huge ripples.
If you are still not convinced of the effects an individual can have, think about traffic. Imagine a bunch of cars driving down the highway at high speeds. One car taps on their breaks, just long enough for the car to slow and the lights to come on. The ripple effect of this single car slowly will permeate backwards, causing congestion as the cars behind react by breaking as well. One small action can have a big effect in the right circumstances.
As Christians, we are called to think about the effects of our actions. It can come in obvious ways, like being polite in our behavior and showing love to our neighbors, but it also comes in more hidden ways. In his writings, Wesley reminds us that our choices have economic impacts that are felt by far more people than just ourselves. What we do has an effect on others. Where we invest our money has an effect on others. Sometimes our actions do not have the desired effects we want either. We talked last week about packing food for starving people in the world. There are times that such packed food can be essential to the survival of people, such as following a disaster or drought. There are other times that is can have a negative effect. The abundance of food being shipped to Haiti and provided for free has had the adverse effect of limiting the ability of Haiti to grow economical. There is no need to grow food because well-intentioned Christians in the United States are giving it for free. Our efforts to help starving people may actually be contributing to it.
Knowing what to do is hard. There are times we can try our best to do the right thing and like in the case of Haiti, end up hurting rather than helping. We should not get depressed and stop trying. It is just a reminder that we need to keep trying and we need to keep being intentional about what we do. Does it take more time? Yes, but as Paul reminds us, our actions have effects for others as well. Our goal is not merely our own comfort or our own salvation, but the comfort of all and the salvation of all.
Questions to Ponder:
What is something you do that has a positive impact on those around you?
How could you be more deliberate in what you buy to benefit others?
How do you find ways to see others not as part of a crowd but as children of God?
God, as we look around us we see in each other’s faces your divine spark and your love. Help us to remember that we are connected together as a great web of humanity and as your family on earth. Bless us as we seek to be more mindful of each other and our needs. Help us to see the ways that our actions have ripples that can help or hurt your children. Forgive us when we fail and turn us always back towards your love and grace. Amen