"THE EXERCISE OF FREEDOM"
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 28, 2018
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. . . . Sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.
1 Corinthians 8:9; 12 (ESV)
The matter of Christian freedom has always been a relevant topic in the Christian Church. As a matter of fact, it comprises the theme of an entire book of the New Testament: the apostle Paul's Letter to the Galatians. Christians have always struggled with what the theologians call "adiaphora"--indifferent things--things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Scriptures. What are we do in situations where there is no clear delineation of right and wrong? As Christians we are free in indifferent matters under the Gospel of Christ and as Christians we are also obligated to love one another. For this reason, things that are not wrong in themselves can become very wrong under certain circumstances. Our text for this morning reminds us that we need to be concerned not only about our rights and freedom, but also about the faith and spiritual well-being of our fellow believers in the Lord Jesus--particularly those whose faith may be weaker or less mature than our own.
The particular situation that Paul was addressing at Corinth was the matter of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. In a pagan culture it was not at all unusual to find such food products for sale at the local market. The Christians in that city were given no specific command from the Lord regarding this practice, so in an objective sense there was nothing wrong with it. Those who were knowledgeable enough to know that false gods were really no gods at all had no misgivings whatsoever about eating meat that had been sacrificed to false gods. They knew that false religion was nothing more than superstition and that, since false gods didn't exist, they certainly couldn't harm those who had "stolen" their offerings or exert any power over those who had unwittingly participated in their worship by eating the sacrificed meat. Today we might compare the Corinthian dilemma with things like consuming alcohol in the presence of an alcoholic or buying and reading a book or a newspaper that is known to be blatantly anti-Christian or staying at a hotel or eating at a restaurant that is owned by people who have publicly taken an anti-Christian position. These things certainly aren't wrong in themselves, but they can perhaps cause offense to a weaker brother or sister. There are two principles at work here--two issues that we have to give consideration to in the matter of Christian freedom: These two issues are knowledge and love.
We are shortchanging what God is saying through Paul if we think that the words of this passage are somehow putting knowledge and love up against each other in such a way that knowledge must be rejected in favor of love--or vice versa. The apostle is not telling us here that we should shun knowledge. On the contrary, we are to pursue all the spiritual knowledge that we can get, each day learning more about the Lord and His will--what He has done for us and what He desires to do for others through us. We are not called to be blissfully ignorant. Neither are we called to learn just the bare essentials--just what we need to get by--and then stop. It is sad indeed that, for a great number of traditional Lutherans, studying the Word of God ended when they were confirmed. The Holy Spirit desires for us to grow continually in our knowledge of God's will, and the Spirit reveals that will to us in the inspired Word.
But it isn't knowledge merely for knowledge's sake that we should be pursuing. We are to grow in God's grace so that we might be active in proclaiming His grace--in word and deed--to those who haven't yet experienced it. I know that it sounds like an old cliché, but it's true nevertheless: We have been saved to serve. Jesus died to redeem you and me from sin and death and He sent His Holy Spirit to call us to faith in Christ for a reason: so that we might be His. If we are truly His, we don't live for ourselves anymore. We live for the One who has redeemed us and called us, seeking always to know and do His will. And His will is that we serve Him by serving others in His name--serve them especially by making known to them the riches of His grace. Any interests of our own must always be subordinated to His will. That's what it means to belong to Him.
Not only are we to pursue knowledge; we are to pursue love as well. This is very difficult for us to do, because love doesn't come to us naturally. In essence love is selflessness, but we are by nature selfish. Love demands that we focus on someone else, but we are self-centered by nature. Love is unconditional, but we always want to know what's in it for us. The only way that we can even begin to know what love is, let alone to love others, is to contemplate the love that Christ has for us. In Him we see perfect love: love that gives and gives and gives, regardless of the personal sacrifice required; love that is directed totally and complete toward the other at the expense of any and all self-interest; love that never ends no matter how often it appears to be wasted on those to whom it is directed. Jesus wasn't kidding when He told His disciples (and us): "Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34). The love of Jesus for lost sinners like us is the only motivation and strength that we have as we seek to show love toward one another and others.
As we apply this love to our relationship with fellow believers (especially those who are weak in faith or those whose faith is immature), we need to bear in mind that love is first and foremost concerned about the welfare of the one who is loved. There can be no room for arrogance or egotism in our love for the weaker brother or sister. No matter how much smarter or more sophisticated we may think we are, that person's salvation and spiritual health are of paramount importance. The blood of Christ that has redeemed us and that we plead before the judgment throne of God is the very same blood of Christ that has redeemed the weaker ones. To make light of another's weaknesses is to make light of the blood of Christ that was shed on the cross for all of us.
The key to all of this is using our knowledge--particularly our knowledge of our Christian freedom in the Gospel--for the sake of love. Because we know better, we ought to be willing to forego some of our freedom in the Gospel in favor of the higher purpose of building up those who are weaker in faith. The Christ who lived and died to save us all has blessed us all with the same Spirit, who through Word and Sacrament has created and nurtured faith in us all, so that we might be one in Him. That Spirit of God, working through the Gospel, continually builds us up in unity as together we proclaim to an enslaved world the freedom that matters the most: the freedom from sin and death that the Lord and Savior of sinners has purchased for us all with His own blood and has given to us through His Spirit.
May the God who caused light to shine out of darkness cause you to increase and abound in love toward one another and toward all people, as His love abounds for us; and may the glory of His Son be manifested to you and in you, that you may be witnesses to all nations now and until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.