Monday, 20 June 2011

The radical freedom of the gospel

Sermon for 19 June 2011 - 1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1
For the last few weeks we’ve been looking at the same passage from 1 Corinthians. Beginning in 8:1, Paul started to address the issue of food offered to idols, and in chapter 10 he still dealing with it.
So what is it about this issue that takes him three chapters to achieve? And what has it got to do with us, given that we don’t have the same issues today?
A clue to the answer, and an indication of its importance, can be found in chapter 9. Paul might appear to be going off at a tangent about being an apostle and getting paid for it. If we look carefully, though, this is not a tangent at all, but essential to the same argument.
Compare, for example, 10:29 with 9:1. In 10:21, Paul asks,
... why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?
Notice he says, “my freedom”. In 9:1, however, he asks, “Am I not free?” The question about his apostleship has something to do with the exercise of his freedom.
Or again, 10:31, he says:
... whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
Compare this with what he says about himself in 9:23:
I do all this for the sake of the gospel ...
And especially, look at 10:32-33, and what Paul says about his own ministry there:
Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
And again, compare this with 9:19-22
... I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. [...] 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law ... so as to win those not having the law. 22 ... I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
The Nature and limits of Personal Freedom
And all this comes back to what we read in 10:23-24:
“Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. 24 Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
In fact, the phrase “Everything is permissible” has already come up twice before in the letter, in 6:1:
“Everything is permissible for me” — but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me” — but I will not be mastered by anything.
And the first thing to notice is that although Paul disagrees with some of the application, he never disagrees with the basic principle. What is at issue is not whether everything is permissible, but what we do about it. So in 10:23 he says, “‘Everything is permissible’ — but not everything is beneficial.”
But then in 10:33:
I am not seeking my own good [NIV, Gk ‘benefit’] but the good of many.
Or again in 10:23,
“‘Everything is permissible’ —but not everything is constructive” — literally, not everything ‘builds up’
But this was how he began this section, back in 8:1:
Knowledge puffs up, love builds up.
And we’ll come across the idea of ‘building up’ again in chapter 14, where it is central to the life of the Church, so in 14:12 he writes
Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.
So the theme in chapters 8-10, and the reason why it takes up so much space, is this: the Christian has a radical freedom: ‘everything is permissible’— but our freedom should be used in the service of others, and especially other believers with whom we are united in the body of Christ.
The many and the one
And this is why going to the meals in the temples is so wrong. It is not just that idolatry involves wrongdoing — though it does. It is not just that it is spiritually false — though it is. It is wrong, Paul says, because it is a betrayal of the community that ought to be our first concern. Look at 10:14-17,
Therefore, my dear friends [he concludes], flee from idolatry. [But then he continues:] 15 I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
What he is talking about, of course, is the community meal of the Church — what we would call ‘Holy Communion’. But this communion is not just a matter between us and Christ, it is a fellowship with one another, which he brings out in v 17,
Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
The sharing of one loaf in the Lord’s Supper is a symbol and reminder of the one body that we belong to. So in 12:27 we read,
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
The meal in the temple divides you from the community of Christians. Look back at 10:18:
Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?
People who offered a sacrifice would eat the meat of the animal, and so they would identify with the sacrifice. But in the Lord’s Supper there is also an identification with the body of the Church.
Now what happens if you go to the temple of idols and take part in meals made up of sacrifices to idols?
Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants [fellowship] with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.
“Is Zeus real?” Paul’s answer is no. “What about Mercury, the messenger of the gods, or Venus, the goddess of love?” Paul’s answer again would be no.
But behind these false idols is a spiritual reality which deceives people and turns them away from the true God. Table-fellowship with that is wrong, even if the idols aren’t real. And if you do otherwise because you deny the reality of idols you are pushing your luck:
Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
The issue of freedom
But this is not just about idols — which is why it is so important to us. It is about freedom and it is about fellowship, as vv 23-24 remind us:
“Everything is permissible”—but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”—but not everything is constructive. 24 Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
However, we really need to hear both sides of this, because we generally get both wrong. First, it really is about freedom, which Paul brings out with two applications. First, in vv 25-26:
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
And then secondly, in v 27:
If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.
This is the true freedom of a Christian! “Everything is permissible for me.” So we can eat anything.
Now you may think this is no big deal. But why can you eat anything? After all, the Old Testament Law has numerous restrictions on what you can eat. The typical Christian answer comes down to this: “Because since Christ died, the law has changed.”
Let me say, if that is your answer it is wrong —Christ did not change the law, he fulfilled it. And since he fulfilled it, we no longer live under the law.
And that has enormous implications for us, for our life as a community and for our witness to society.
Law and Gospel
What does government today think is the job of government? It is to bring about a fair and just society. And how do they aim to do that? By passing laws preventing this and enforcing that, and so on.
But what does the gospel say? “Everything is permissible for me.” Why? Because God did not make us to live under laws. Christ has fulfilled the law — and we are no longer under law but under grace.
And so we need to say to our society today, “You are going the wrong way! You are not making things better but worse — not because your laws are bad but because your basic assumption is wrong. The law is a dead end. And the more human society is built on law, the further away it is from the kingdom of God.”
Anarchy in the UK?
But isn’t this a recipe for anarchy in the UK? No, because of the principle Paul has been arguing all the way through. Look at v 28-9:
But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake — 29 the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours.
You personally are free to eat anything — not in the temple, because that is a breaking of fellowship with believers, but certainly at home, or in someone else’s home. So Paul continues in v 29-30:
For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
But here is where we need to hear the other thing the gospel says, which is that ‘I’ am not the centre of the universe, nor is my relationship with God the most important consideration. So Paul writes in v 31
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
But what does this mean? Vv 32-33 explain:
Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
This is what prevents anarchy. “I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many.” I should do what glorifies God, and what especially glorifies God is people being saved, so Paul finishes this section in 11:1:
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
What is the example of Christ? In his own words,
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk 10:42-45)
If Jesus lived like that, how much more should we — first, for the sake of his body which is the church, and secondly for the sake of all, so that they may be saved.
John Richardson
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  1. Stephen Bazlinton20 June 2011 at 18:04

    Yes John. The more our culture denies the doctrines of grace, the more we descend into the morass of bureaucratic box ticking and legalism and eventually totalitarianism. A culture that has lost its hope in Christ will try to save itself through law and this is true in every area of government today. How important it is to preach the gospel to every creature.

    Stephen Bazlinton

  2. Canon Andrew Godsall22 June 2011 at 12:37

    I wouldn't call this a sermon in any way shape or form. It's simply a string of texts forced together with some assumptions. I'd be a bit concerned to hear 'preaching' like this.
    Andrew Godsall, Exeter