The book of I Corinthians is a letter, written by the Apostle Paul back to the new Christian church he had started in the city of Corinth. In much of it, Paul is responding to questions the new Christians of Corinth had written to him: “OK, Paul, you’ve moved on, and now certain situations have come up here that we’re not sure how to handle; how do we deal with these things?” So Paul writes back and advises them.

One of the questions they have asked has to do with the large number of temples to other gods in the city of Corinth. The new Christians knew, of course, that there’s only one true God, and that they’re not to participate in the worship of any other, false gods. Their question was: If you to the market and buy and eat meat that came from an animal that had been offered as a sacrifice to one of those false gods at one of those other temples, does that count as “participating in the worship” of that false god? Because that animal meat had been associated with false worship, should it be avoided by a faithful Christian?

Today’s passage is Paul’s answer.

I Corinthians 8: 1-13

Hebrews 5:11-6:1b

I understand, from conversations with many friends during the hundred years or so since I went to college, that the first experience I had with the Christian fellowship on campus my freshman year was not unusual; many of my friends, at a variety of different colleges, had a very similar first experience. Here we were, newcomers to college life, living on our own away from our parents for the first time, anxious to explore whatever life and college (two very different things) had to offer us.

So we wanted to try out everything—we would attend one club’s meeting over here, sign up for an activity over there, experiment with different groups trying to decide where we best fit, before settling down and pledging loyalty to any one of them. Most us of had had very positive experiences with our high school Christian fellowships, so it was natural for us to select as one of the first groups we visited the college Christian fellowship; that was an early step in our exploration of our new life.

My friends and I heard,   at our different Christian fellowships at our many different colleges, one very similar message. The message, to us eager explorers, was . . . don’t explore too much. “You’re new here,” we were told. “You don’t know it yet, but there are some bad people here, people who wish to undermine your young faith, to lead you astray. There’s wildness in some corners here; there’s irresponsible living; there’s even . . . fraternities” (ominous music). Yes! Fraternities! Those evil slime pits of partying and loud music and staying up late. “They’re bad, those fraternities. Animal houses, every one of them. You have to make a choice, young freshman, and you have to make it now: You can’t do both. Are you going to live the good Christian life, by joining our fellowship and coming to our meetings three nights a week, or are you going to place yourself in the Path of Temptation by exploring . . . fraternities? You can’t do both.” That was the message. At least, that’s how it sounded to me, in my days of wanting to explore.

The main problem with fraternities, I came to understand, was that some people drank beer there. Usually on the weekends; sometimes too much; often inviting any guests to join them. The legal drinking age was still 18 in many states way back then. The obvious reply then, to those who warned against fraternities, it seemed to us, back then, was this: “Well it wouldn’t hurt to explore the fraternities as long as we don’t drink too much then, would it? It won’t corrupt or endanger us just to visit, will it?—the way we’re visiting other campus groups.”

And the answer the Christian leaders gave to that went something like this: “Young freshman, you call yourself a Christian, don’t you? There are other people around who are young Christians or who might someday be consider becoming Christians, and they’re watching you. They might see you go into a fraternity. And even though you might be able to handle the visit yourself, and behave yourself, and maybe nothing will change you, their seeing a Christian going into a place like that will cause them to ‘stumble.’ Your visits will be a ‘stumbling block’ to them. Your behavior will cause them to fall. So you can’t go.”

And the Scripture passage quoted to support this conclusion was I Corinthians 8: “Be careful that this freedom of yours does not in any way turn into a stumbling block to trip those who are weak.” The important consideration, we were told, even if we wouldn’t be tempted into bad behavior ourselves, was not to let anyone else “stumble,” anyone who might be observing what we were doing. And that’s why we had to make a choice, in their opinion: to attend the college Christian fellowship or to explore fraternities. On a campus with thirty-three fraternities, there was not a single Christian fellowship member who belonged to a fraternity. They had all made a choice; they were two separate worlds.

The subject of fraternities is not the only one where the question of what other people might think if they see you comes up; I’m sure you can think of others. “What if ‘certain people’ see you going into or out of a bar? What if ‘certain people’ hear that you watched an R-rated movie or hear you using questionable language, or telling off-color or insulting jokes? What if ‘certain people’ see you associating with the ‘wrong’ kind of people? You mustn’t do such things,” it is sometimes said, “because by doing them you’ll cause other people to ‘stumble.’ They’ll see you doing something they think is bad, and it might undermine their faith. They might think, ‘And I thought she was a Christian.’ And they might not believe in Christianity any more.”

Since such things are said, and since they’re said with reference to I Corinthians 8, we better take a look at it today: What does that situation, and Paul’s answer, say to us about  our impact on the people around us, who might, quote, “stumble”?

Some of the Christians of Corinth, it appears from Paul’s letter, had arrived at their own conclusion about the meat, following reasoning that went like this: “We didn’t use to know the truth about God. We used to be like these other people who believe there are lots of different gods. But now we know better. Now we know that there’s only one God, that all those other things we used to believe in don’t really exist at all, that they’re just imaginary. So: knowing that those so-called ‘gods’ don’t exist, that they’re nothing, we can be sure they can’t possibly have any effect on this food that’s offered to them, right? You might as well wave it around in the air anywhere; food can’t be changed by something that doesn’t exist. It’s perfectly good food; nothing, we know, has happened to it, since other gods don’t exist. So as long as we know that, it ok to go ahead and eat it.”

Well that makes sense. And in verses 3 to 6, Paul agrees: they have a point. “We are all aware,” he writes, “that none of the false gods exist in reality.” We know this. But in verse 7, he presents another consideration, one the Corinthians may not have thought about: “However, not everybody has this knowledge.” Sure, we know, you and me, that those gods don’t exist, but some people, even after converting to  Christianity, aren’t so sure yet. They’re not as certain in their knowledge as we are; they aren’t as confident yet. “There are some,” he writes,” in whose consciences false gods still play a part.” Even though their logical brain is telling them “it’s ok, those gods don’t exist,” their conscience, which for years has been responding to a belief that they do exist, is still saying, “Whoa. Something’s not quite right here. This doesn’t feel right.”

You may have had similar experiences. Perhaps you were raised learning that a certain behavior just wasn’t right; it was drummed over and over into you: “It’s not right.” Then somewhere along the line as an adult you discover: “Hey! It’s okay after all.” “It’s okay for a woman to wear pants after all; the world won’t collapse.” “It’s okay to take walks in the evening after all; the night air won’t make you sick.” “It’s okay to call the pastor by his first name after all; God won’t strike me down.” Your brain learns that. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to wear pants in public for the first time. That doesn’t mean you’re not still a little nervous during that first evening walk. Because the conscience is still working overtime; the conscience hasn’t let go yet. After years and years of shunning a certain behavior, there’s still a built-in reaction there. It doesn’t switch off right away.

Paul calls attention to that reaction: “Some people haven’t reached the point  we have yet,” he says. “We know false gods don’t exist and we’re free to eat such food; in fact, if we were off by ourselves, we could. But we aren’t off by ourselves, and they don’t know as surely as we do yet. It still bothers them. Those people whose faith is not quite as secure as ours, whose faith is a bit vulnerable, whose faith is a bit weak, they’re not ready yet to see us associating with food that’s been part of a false religious ritual. That voice of conscience still operating in their heads is quite real.”

“So  our eating that food in front of them,” he goes on, “could make them stumble.” If we eat the food, they might eat it too and feel guilty, and we don’t want to make them feel guilty. Or if we say it’s okay, they might ignore their own conscience, and we don’t want to teach people to ignore their consciences. Or if they see us, as Christians, eating such food, they might conclude that Christians are hypocrites and lose faith in Christianity, and we don’t want them to lose faith.

“Yes, we have our knowledge that it’s ok,” Paul says. “Your reasoning is correct. But there’s something here that’s more important than knowledge. We live in a community with other people; and we are to care for them, to take care of them; we are to love them. The most important thing,” Paul says, “is to love them, and if we love them, we won’t do anything which hurts them: we won’t lead them to do something that makes them feel guilty afterwards; we won’t teach them to start ignoring their conscience; we won’t do something that makes them lose faith in Christianity. We won’t hurt them.”

“Your answer to the question, ‘Is the food harmless?’ is correct; it is. But it’s the wrong question. The right question is: What’s best for the wellbeing of everyone in the community? The right question isn’t ‘What do we know?’ but ‘How do we love?’ Love is more important than knowledge.”

So note carefully Paul’s final answer to the specific question about food, in verse 13. He doesn’t say “Yes, eat the food” or “No, don’t eat it.” He says “if.” If the food would in fact cause the downfall of a brother or sister, I wouldn’t eat the food. It’s up to the people of Corinth, as it is up to us, to make the particular call; we’re the ones in the middle of the situation. Would a particular behavior really cause some pain for some of our brothers or sisters? Would they really stumble, by having a guilty conscience, or learning to ignore their conscience, or losing their faith? Would it hurt the community of believers? If so, then don’t do it. If not, go ahead. But the important point is: be guided by your love for them, not your purely-logical deductive knowledge. Your first priority is your love for them. As Paul would write later in the letter: “Make love your aim.” Make love your aim.

Now this sermon has a “P.S.”:

P.S.: We had another Scripture reading this morning. If the passage from I Corinthians is about “stumblers,” about people whose downfall might be caused by others’ behavior, the passage from Hebrews seems to be written for “stumblers,” for people whose faith is weak. Directed at those whose faith is not yet mature enough to handle things like dedicated food, or fraternities.

The letter to the Hebrews acknowledges, as Paul did, that there are such Christians around. “No one who is still living on milk” it says, “is ready for solid food, still being a baby.” There is a difference between new, vulnerable Christians and trained, experienced, strong ones.

But there is also , immediately following, some instruction for these new ones: “Let us leave behind all the basic teaching and go on to completion. This is what we propose to do.” There comes a time, the passage suggests, to move ahead, to get to that solid food. You can’t get stuck in the young, vulnerable stage of faith; you can’t claim weakness and newness and immaturity forever. There comes a time to move ahead, to become adults, to become strong. “Let us leave behind the basic teaching,” the writer says, “without going over the fundamentals again and again.” You’re ready for this. It’s time. Let’s move ahead.

So yes, there’s a message in I Corinthians about watching out for those Christians who truly are weak or vulnerable, whose faith could be threatened by someone else’s actions; but there’s also a charge here in Hebrews directed at them: it’s your responsibility to grow up, to move along. Move along, people of Corinth—how long are you going to let this old idea of false gods get in the way? You know better now; you know they don’t exist.

Move along, campus Christians, who are trying to divide your world into two neat, simple parts—good and evil, us and them, Christians and fraternities. You know better than that; you know life’s not that simple. You know there ought to be fraternity brothers in the Christian fellowship, and Christians in the fraternities, and that freshmen ought to be free to at least look into both.

Move along, stumblers; you can’t claim to be new and weak and helpless forever. If you’re going to ask for love from your brothers and sisters—for their protection, for their strength—you’re going to have to love them back, by growing up and getting strong yourselves and not holding them back anymore. If you want them to keep you from stumbling, you better take steps yourself to stop stumbling too. Move along, stumblers; let us leave behind the basic teaching and go on to its completion.

Love is a two-way street here. We all watch out for each other. Those of us who think we’re knowledgeable and strong need to remind ourselves that love for our brothers and sisters is most important, not our knowledge of right and wrong. And those of us who want others to watch out for us need to move along, catch up, realize our potential, as soon as we are able, for the benefit of our brothers and sisters. Either way, as Paul says in verse 1, the community benefits, for “love is what builds up.”

Let us pray: All of us, God, new Christians and experienced Christians alike, still face situations like the ones the people of Corinth faced: we’re not sure what to do; we’re not sure what’s ok. Help us to remember to make love our first priority—caring for those around us, building up the community, allowing it to move ahead. Remind those of us who consider ourselves strong to watch out for the welfare of those who are not; remind those of us who are beginners that it is our responsibility to move ahead into mature faith with our sisters and brothers; remind us all to act first in love, we ask in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.