Not Free Not to Love

by: Rev. Jason Radmacher

Text: First Corinthians 8:1-13

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:1-5)

The Apostle Paul delivered this stirring admonishment to Christians living in an ancient Greek city called Philippi in order to highlight the essential qualities of their community—a community gathered in Jesus’ name and proclaiming his Good News.

Paul indicates that these essential qualities include virtues like humility, self-sacrifice, and love; qualities, he points out, that Christians embody because we recognize them in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Paul continues,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

These verses from Philippians chapter 2 are some of Paul’s most treasured. The exhortations found here to leave selfishness and arrogance behind still resonate with us, reminding us that humility, self-sacrifice, and love are at the heart of our identity as Christians.

Likewise, Paul’s insights into the Christ who freely chooses to empty himself are also an invaluable contribution to the New Testament faith we profess.

We worship neither a victim of circumstance nor a prophet who paid the price for ticking off the wrong people, Paul reminds us, but God in the flesh who freely and willingly took up the cross out of love for us.

And then there’s this passage’s most significant revelation—in our relationships with one another, in our attitudes and conduct toward others, we aim no lower than to be like Christ.

Be humble and loving and self-sacrificing as Christ is humble, loving, and self-sacrificing, Paul urges. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

There’s little doubt that Philippians 2 is one of Paul’s notable contributions to Christian thought. In fact, it’s such a wonderfully distilled statement of theological belief and ethical expectation that, if it lacks anything, it lacks only a case study, a practical application of this teaching to a real world situation.

I propose to you this morning that, just a few years before writing Philippians, Paul provided just such a study in a letter to Christians living in another ancient Greek called Corinth. First Corinthians 8, which we’ve read this morning, is that case study.

On the surface, the issue encountered by the Corinthians—eating food sacrificed to pagan idols—seems far removed from our daily lives.

Labels like “Grass Fed,” “Organic,” and “From Farm to Table” mean something to us, but something that reads “Sacrificed to Zeus” or “Butchered on Apollo’s Altar” would just be nonsense.

However, if we follow Paul’s line of thought on this matter, we do find something relevant to our experience. We find a method for discerning what faithfulness looks like in our relationships and interactions. We find a real world application of what it means to love one another as Christ loves us.

At issue for the Corinthian Christians was the fact that the meat available to them in the marketplace had been butchered in rituals that honored gods and goddesses like Apollo, Aphrodite, and the Imperial Cult. Some Christians believed that this association with pagan worship tainted the meat and made it unfit for them to eat. Others argued that since there was only one god—the God revealed in Jesus Christ—whatever happened in the city’s temples amounted to nothing more than elaborate food prep.

“We worship the One and Only God,” the argument goes, “so how could this meat be tainted by its association with a deity that doesn’t even exist?”

There was a difference of opinion in the Corinthian Church. Unfortunately, rather than seek a constructive way forward together, the two sides drifted apart with the pro-meat camp apparently labeling the would-be vegetarians ignorant, stupid, foolish, and all the other things people call those with whom they disagree when they’re too lazy to make a more convincing argument.

Thankfully, someone in the church eventually had the good sense to ask Paul to settle the dispute.

“Paul, are we free to eat meat sacrificed to idols?” they asked.

“Yes, you are free to do so,” he replied, “but…”

[Yes, you are at free to do so, but] some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

They were free to eat the meat, but they were bound by a greater commandment.

They were free to eat, but they were not free not to love one another.

Whatever they did, therefore, Paul insisted that it be motivated by love.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up… But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Haven’t we heard something like this before?

Haven’t we heard about seeking a greater calling that satisfying one’s own desires?

Doesn’t it sound a lot like the Big Idea Paul shared with the Philippians?

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

Christians, you are not free not to love.

We are not free not to love.

Notice the radical way Paul has directed the Church forward. He doesn’t dismiss the existence of differences among the membership. He doesn’t assume that Christians will always agree and see the world in exactly the same way.

Rather, he says that when differences become apparent (and they will become apparent) Christ leads us first to ask, “How am I to love those with whom I disagree, those from whom I differ, those with whom I quarrel?”

How do I love you?

Not “How do I defeat you, prove you wrong, or win you over to my side?”

Paul wants us first to ask, “How do I love you and what does love look like here?” because Paul knows that Christ binds our wandering hearts.

We are not free not to love.

When addressing the church’s concern about food sacrificed to idols, Paul reframes the question—taking it out of the realm of who’s right and who’s wrong, of winners and losers—and steers it back toward a discussion about the loving relationships that should define what following Christ is all about.

He is far less concerned about what’s going into one’s stomach, than he is about the attitudes and actions arising from what’s in one’s heart.

Paul’s response to the Corinthian question pushes the congregation toward a more honest accounting of the way in which they’re answering the deepest, most basic question of the Faith that we share with them.

Are we loving others with the same love with which Jesus loves us, a love that brings down walls, builds up honest and genuine community, and encourages all whom it touches to live, and serve, and pray with the confidence that they, too, are children of God?

While Paul might have agreed with the logic behind the point that the people who wanted to eat the food made (and I think he did), he ultimately called the people to be righteous, not just right.

The hungry poor and the poor in spirit, the strong headed and the weak willed, the lonely and lost, the faithful and just—Paul knew that there is room for all at the table of God.

Gay and straight, the beaten down and bullied, the wanderers and the resolute—grace makes a way for all of these.

There’s even room here for you and me.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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