I Cor. 8:1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.[a] 4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. 7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. 9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
Focus verse: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (v.9)
The rainy season in the mountain highlands of Kenya had lasted longer than it should, with no sign of rain in sight. The last waterhole had just about dried up, and no amount of digging in the creek beds by the badgers or the aardvarks could turn up anything more liquid than mud, as far down as they could dig. The birds that could soar and find water far away, such as the eagles, hawks and buzzards, had already left, long before. Only the owl stayed around. Wise as he was, he knew wherein lay the animals’ hope of finding water. If they could all migrate to the lowlands, to where all the water from their upland refuge flowed, the might find water, or at least, river bottoms in which a little digging by the badgers and the aardvarks might uncover water. But between their highland refuge and the lowlands, there lay one very dangerous and difficult obstacle: humans, and their livestock.
So the owl went first to the badgers and the aardvarks and said, “We must go down, past the homes and herds of humans and their livestocks, to the lowlands, if we are to find water and survive this drought. Are you willing to run that risk, and, once there, to dig in the mud and the river bottoms to find water for all of us?
The badgers and the aardvarks said “Yes, if the other animals will guide us and protect us.”
Then the owl went to the lions, the leopards, the cheetahs and the hyenas, and said, “We must travel together past the homes and herds of humans and their livestock, to the lowlands, if we are to find water and survive this drought. Are you willing to run that risk, defend the other animals, and, when necessary, chase away men and their livestock, so that all of us animals might pass through and get to water? If so, then the badgers and the aardvarks will dig wells in the river beds where they are most likely to find water.”
The lions, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas agreed to this plan.
Then the owl went to the gazelles, the antelopes, the wildebeest and the springbok, told them the plan, and asked, “Are you willing to run the risks, and even to range far and wide with your speed and agility, to find the best way to the lowlands, report back, and be our guides?”
The gazelles, the antelopes, the wildebeest and the springbok thought about it a while and said to the owl, “No, we won’t. Not if the lions, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas are going too. Our only defense against them is speed and distance, and if your plan compromises that, what makes you think they would ever restrain themselves from eating us? Do you think they even could?”
And that’s the $64,000 question, not only for the animals, but whenever any group of people get together: How will the strong relate to the weak, without injuring or overpowering them? Because whenever two or more people get together, more often than not, there are silent, internal calculations being made as to who is up, who is down, who is strong, who is weak, who is more likely to get his or her way, who is more likely to defer, who leads, who follows, in effect, who are the lions, and who are the lambs? You can watch this being sorted out in the body language, the tone of voice, the words chosen and used, whether people are being authoritative towards others, or deferential, assertive or receptive. That might be related to personality traits, whether one is more sensitive and receptive than another to begin with. Or it might be related to rank and titles like Officer, President, or Doctor.
This is not always bad, either. If someone is drag racing down your street while children are playing in the front yards, a police officer would be most welcome. The emergency room is no place to insist on a level playing field between patient and doctor. And there are times for those who can to compete, excel and triumph, like runners on an Olympic track, or people starting a business.
But there are other times when words like “we” and “together” are more important than “me” or “alone.” When I was in Boy Scouts, and our troop would take a long day hike of 10 to 20 miles, we didn’t need to be rocket scientists to figure out why the Scoutmaster would put the youngest and shortest boys at the front of the line, and gave the biggest, heaviest loads to the oldest, strongest, tallest and fastest guys, and placed them toward the back of the line. Yes, it slowed them down. But it also spared them the time, anger and anxiety of looking for young and frightened stragglers, or worse, the lost.
But this week I read in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about a Chinese father who was sentenced to jail because he ran a website for other parents of children who suffered the way his infant son did. His son was poisoned and nearly died from contaminated commercial baby formula, made in China. His website gave information on how to recognize symptoms of poisoning, what brands were likely contaminated, and how to seek compensation from the businesses and the government agencies involved. And for that he was charged, tried and imprisoned for inciting disorder.
To me that’s an open-and-shut case of lions preying on the lambs, to protect their own power, even to increase it. And its the easiest, most automatic thing in the world for the strong in any group to do: to use their strength to keep gathering more strength at the expense of the weak. That all too often describes the ways in which groups, businesses and even nations organize themselves: as rivers in which power flows upward, in the direction of more power.
Sometimes, we don’t even recognize that its happening; sometimes it happens for even the best of intentions. I had quite a surprising and startling education in this some years back when the two former biggest Mennonite denominations, the former General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Church, both of which had both U.S. and Canadian conferences and churches, integrated to become our one new denomination, the one we’re in. And then, at the very same time, that one new emerging denomination split to become Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Most of us U.S. Delegates at that conference in Wichita never saw it coming. What was that about?
The answer: for years, the minority of Canadian Mennonite churches, conferences and delegates had been chafing under a preponderance of U.S.-related business and agenda. Not because anyone was being intentionally bad or abusive, but because the U.S. just has more people, and more resources. So our needs, our agendas and our proposals often took up most of the time and resources, leaving little for uniquely Canadian agendas, ideas and needs. As a U.S. delegate, I was clueless about that. I came to see that they were right: that they should be our equal partner denomination, rather than risk becoming a Canadian branch of a U.S. denomination. Which goes to show how, whenever there’s an imbalance of power between two people or two partner groups, the one with the most power is often unaware of how his or her or their power is affecting the weaker, less powerful party. Meanwhile, the weaker, less powerful party is often aware of little else.
But don’t despair; it doesn’t mean that we must continually keep breaking down into churches of one, families of one, and businesses of one, so that the lambs of this world might have refuge from the lions. Into this divided, warring world, in which so often the winner takes all in terms of power, comes Jesus, who is both the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and the Lamb of God, and who knows exactly when to be one or the other. That’s what the Spirit is teaching us too, as a community “baptized by one Spirit into One body.”
Into this lion-eat-lamb world also comes his kingdom, in which the lion will lie down with the lamb, to protect the lamb, not to eat it. A kingdom in which the social mountains and hills will be made low, and the valleys of poverty and powerlessness will be lifted up. In this kingdom, lions will still be the wonderful, powerful, awe-inspiring creatures they were meant to be: they’ll just learn when to retract their claws, and use them to defend the lambs, not eat them. Meanwhile, lambs will remain the beautiful, cuddly creatures they are, even while they grow claws and learn to roar with the lions, for the sake of God’s honor. Thus together they’ll both become more like Jesus, the Lamb of God and the Lion of Judah. A community with relationships like that would be truly revolutionary, in the best sense of the word. The world is to get its first glimpse of this revolutionary new kingdom in the church of Jesus Christ.
And that’s what Paul was trying to teach his Corinthian Christian friends. At first blush, one might think that this passage, chapter 8, is about eating meat versus vegetarianism. But the meat in question here is just a case study of a deeper, broader principle: how the strong and the weak can benefit each other, rather than one becoming food for the other; how people can use power, so that everyone has more power.
The meat up for contention was from animals sacrificed to idols. Think of a weekly prime rib dinner at the temple of the goddess of love, or the god of war, all you can eat for a price you can afford. For some Christians, what was the big deal with that? Meat with your neighbors and at a good price? Who cares why it was butchered in the first place? Food is just food, especially for the people blessed with special “knowledge,” some sort of revelation that said it was okay to eat.
And maybe they were right. But Paul doesn’t go head-to-head with them on this argument, to tell them whether they’re right or wrong on their own terms. Instead, Paul asks a question that they had entirely left out of the calculation. Namely, “So, what will be the effect of your liberty to eat such meat on your brother or sister in Christ?”
Oh……That’s precisely the kind of question that the lions of Corinth would overlook. And that’s precisely the kind of question that Paul wants them to begin thinking about all the time: Not only, Is this okay or not in itself? but, Even if it is okay, what will be the effect on other people, especially weaker people with needs? Yes, as Christians, we have rights. But “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Paul says.
Learning to think in those terms is a bit like learning a new language, or a new level of mathematics, not easy or automatic, but do-able, even rewarding, and absolutely crucial if the church of Jesus Christ is going to be the world’s first glimpse of God’s kingdom. And asking such a question would de-activate, even avoid, many of the tensions and dissensions within their churches.
We’ve done a few things on those terms here, at Emmanuel Mennonite Church. We don’t make everyone who joins sign a teetotaler’s pledge against any and all consumption of alcohol, but we do serve grape juice for communion, so that this is a safe place for all recovering alcoholics. More importantly, we have an abuse-prevention and response policy for safeguarding our congregation, not because we have ever suspected anyone of having abused children or the vulnerable, but in order to protect them now and in the future, as well as to protect our teachers against even the hint or false allegation of abuse. And to serve notice to any human predators who might come here looking for vulnerable children, that they should repent or move on: there are lions here watching out for our lambs, and these lions can roar, and have claws, in the form of our policy and procedures.
But as time passes, as this church grows, new needs and new situations will arise. And they will require that we learn to see when the lambs are bleeding, and can hear when they are bleating, that the lions learn to use their claws on things that threaten the lambs, rather than on the lambs themselves. It also means that the lambs, whose faith requires more rules and restrictions, learn to bulk up and cut their lion-like brothers and sisters some slack, if they don’t always restrict themselves as severely. And that they serve and protect like lions, too., whenever possible. In effect, today’s passage calls us all to become literate and considerate of how our uses of personal power affect others. That’s a key feature of Christian spiritual maturity. The main point of what all I’m saying is, that being the church of Jesus Christ means we recognize and use our personal power and rights for the sake of things bigger than our own immediate interests and desires.
And if this all sounds like the God is clipping all our wings on behalf of the neediest and most demanding, consider just who are the weak and the strong. Are we not all both the weak and the strong? Some of the most lion-like people we’ve ever met are probably roaring and baring with their claws out of pain and fear, the same fear that keeps the lamb-like people meek, quiet and withdrawn, the fear of being overwhelmed and overrun by others, the fear of being judged and found wanting and rejected, the fear of coming up short in society’s winner-takes-all free-for-all of power, and being handicapped, vulnerable and victims forever after. And so they keep us at claw’s length. But inside, all of us have weak, bruised and broken parts of ourselves that we hesitate to show, lest some human lion see that as an invitation to attack. Underneath the fur—I mean, the skin–lions and lambs are all much the same. They just have different ways of dealing with their vulnerability.
The good news of the gospel this morning is that Jesus, the Lion and the Lamb, has invaded this lion-eat-lamb world, bringing into it a kingdom in which its safe for us to be the weak and vulnerable lambs that we all are, and in which he is fitting us with the strength, the gifts and the might to become mighty lions on behalf of his lambs, on behalf of his kingdom, and on behalf of his world. If we haven’t joined this kingdom yet, why not? Talk with me about it. I won’t bite.