“Yielding for the Good of the Neighbor”
Sermon: Year B, Epiphany 4
Text: I Corinthians 8:1–13
Preached: January 28, 2018 at Immanuel Lutheran Church, Evanston, Illinois
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, who gives us power. AMEN

If you want to get the typical American going, get us talking about questions of personal freedom. We will defend to the death our right to say whatever we want to say, where we want to say it, when we want to say it. “It’s a free country,” we say. People will go to the barricades over questions of gun ownership and the right to bear arms. No matter where we are on the political spectrum, as a people we generally will push back at anything that smacks of a limitation on our liberty to go where we want to go, do what we want to do, say what we want to say, be who we want to be. Much of the language of political discussion in our society is centered on issues of personal freedom, personal liberty, and that is often the essence of our political debate: “It’s a free country. No one is going to tell me that I can’t….” It’s how we define ourselves as a people, in many ways.

That love of personal freedom up against the potentially oppressive nature of government can be a very, very good thing, something we can be proud of, something that is a force for good. History provides us with example after example of the ways in which people with power and authority oppress those without power or authority, and that ability to hold in check oppressive power over others is part of the genius of the political system that we live under. But the reality is that we live in a drastically polarized society. More and more, there are two starkly defined sides, screaming angry slogans at one another. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground anymore. Compromise is scorned as weakness, and people plant their feet and refuse to move.

So what do we do when rights are in conflict? What do we do when my personal liberty or bound conscience bumps up against your personal liberty, your bound conscience? How do we negotiate that? Because when you have two parties, each of whom for very good reasons is convinced of their position, each side refusing to budge because they “know” they are right, what do you do? You can’t go to the extremes, on the one hand saying, “Anything goes, I’m going to do exactly as I please,” because therein lies anarchy and chaos, nor on the other hand can you say, “Nothing goes, and if I don’t like it, nobody gets to do it,” because therein lies oppression. So, what to do? And more specifically, how do we as Christians, as followers of Christ, deal with questions of liberty and conscience?

One illustration of this, I think, is the current debate over those bakers who, out of their religious convictions, are facing legal ramifications over their refusal to sell wedding cakes to gay and lesbian couples. One side sees this refusal as a clear expression of religious liberty, and is willing to go to the judicial and legislative barricades over it to prevent government from intruding upon their freedom of religion. The other side of the debate sees the refusal as unlawful discrimination against an entire class of people simply because of who they are, and they’re also willing to go to the judicial and legislative barricades to require that all people be treated equally. And now several states are considering laws that would allow medical personnel and pharmacists and mental health workers to refuse to serve people on the basis of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Some argue that such laws are necessary to protect individual religious freedom, while others argue that they are a thinly veiled attack on LGBT people, giving doctors and nurses the right to discriminate in deciding who will receive care. (And we’ve already seen cases of this, such as the pediatrician who refused to treat the child of a lesbian couple.)

Another question is gun control. One side is firmly convinced that any limitation on gun ownership is an attack on personal liberty and opens the way to tyranny. “You’ll get my guns when you pry them from my cold, dead hands.” (We love our slogans, don’t we?) The other side is convinced that guns are a scourge that is devastating our society, numbing us to violence, and argue for reducing the number of guns. So, how do we address that? How are we to respond, as Christians, when faced with these polarizing questions in our society?

I think the passage from First Corinthians we heard a few moments ago gives us some clues, though it might not be obvious at first what the relationship might be. It must be said right up front that this passage was not written to address political and societal debates on liberty and freedom, because it was written in a time and place where such questions were understood in very different ways, as far as the individual’s relationship to government was concerned. The idea of political and personal liberty was not even part of the conceptual framework. So Paul is not directly addressing the questions I’m raising…but I think we can find a useful lesson here, nonetheless.

Instead, this passage was addressed to a congregation that was roiled with internal conflict. We hear all the language in there about idols and sacrifice and meat, and we don’t really have the context to understand what’s going on. How is this related? Well, here’s the situation they were facing, as best we can make it out. It seems the question of individual freedom in Christ had become a major point of contention for the Corinthian church. All the way through this letter, the Apostle Paul is addressing the problems he has apparently been hearing about. It would seem that people in the congregation had written to Paul asking him to play referee in what was going on there, and others had sent a delegation to him. Apparently there was some pretty fierce scrimmaging going on, to use a football analogy as we come up to Super Bowl Sunday, all in the name of freedom. Factions had formed, each with their own fiercely held positions, and each with their slogans. If you look at the parts in quotation marks in the passage, those appear to be the slogans and arguments that people were making, according to scholars.

Their worship had become a free-for-all, with people popping up in the middle of everything to prophesy or speak in tongues, simply because they felt they had the right to. People were engaging in all sorts of sexual promiscuity and license, claiming that they were no longer under the restrictions of the Law. The richer folks in the congregation were coming to the Eucharist, which was a full meal in those days, and were scarfing down all the food and guzzling the wine to the point of getting soused, claiming their right to come and enjoy the meal before the poorer people and slaves in the assembly could even get off work and get there to join in. There were struggles and factions formed over which pastor had baptized whom, and whose teaching they were going to follow. They were arguing over the role of women in worship and leadership. They were even questioning the authority of Paul as an apostle, with different groups forming parties of a sort that were loyal to other teachers and apostles. The whole place was caught up in “Nobody is going to tell me what to do. I’m free in Christ!”

In the passage we heard, the argument was over whether or not Christians could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. In Corinth, there were temples all over the place, with animal sacrifice going on everywhere. After the sacrifice was complete, the meat would either be sold in the marketplace or be served at public banquets, so that the temples served almost as restaurants. Some of the Christians were eating this meat regularly, on the grounds that they were free to do so, because they knew the idols weren’t real, and so their action had no meaning—and besides, nobody was going to tell them what they could and could not do. They were free. Other Christians in the congregation were scandalized, because eating or even touching meat that had been sacrificed to other gods was expressly forbidden by Scripture—it was against God’s law. They wanted Paul to crack down and forbid this practice.

So what does Paul do? He doesn’t forbid eating meat sacrificed to idols—even though the Law of Moses called it an abomination worthy of death. Nor does he simply say, “You are free in Christ—knock yourselves out, don’t let anybody tell you what you can and can’t do.” No, he reframes the argument and says, “There’s more to consider than being right.” He changes the argument from, “I have the right to, and you can’t stop me,” or “If I don’t think you should do it, you shouldn’t do it” to a different ethic, something based not on me and my personal freedom, but instead considering the questions in terms of what shows love for the neighbor. He says, “Yes, absolutely, you have total freedom in Christ. You are free. But you also have a responsibility to your brother or sister. If your actions and words, exercised in freedom, cause them to stumble, or bring harm to them, then you should willingly choose not to exercise your liberty out of love for them.” The question is no longer, “What do I have the right to do?” but rather, “What shows Christ’s love?”
How different would our take be on societal questions if we as Christians operated not out of a sense of “I’m free, and you can’t make me,” but instead considered that we can make the choice to limit ourselves for the good of the neighbor, even when we are convinced that we’re right? So in the case of the bakers and the wedding cakes, what if those Christian bakers who are opposed to same-sex marriage thought to themselves, “You know, my religious conviction is that this is wrong…but to demonstrate the love of Christ, I’m going to bake those women the most awesome cake I am capable of baking, and I’m going to give it to them as a token of love for them as people for whom Christ also died”?
The question as Paul frames it is not, “I’m right, and you guys don’t understand, so I’m going to dig in my heels,” but rather it’s a question of “How do I demonstrate love and concern for my neighbor, even if that means that I choose a path of willingly limiting myself for the good of the neighbor?” And you see, that’s really a position of greater freedom than either extreme offers us, because it is the freedom of positively choosing that which will serve others so that they can see in us the love of Christ. Are we prepared to grab hold of that kind of freedom? AMEN