Paul was a better letter writer than I. He did a much better job of keeping in contact with former congregations and friends than I do – Christmas cards notwithstanding. The Bible contains more literature by Paul than by any other writer. I think it is interesting that history has preserved all these letters FROM Paul TO, but it has not preserved even one letter from anyone else TO Paul.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian congregation was written in response to what he knew was going on there. So, it is conceivable that Paul could have been responding to a letter which went something like this:
“Dear Paul, This congregation hasn’t been the same since you left and you should know it. All the progress you made while you were here is going right down the tubes. The trouble is those pious conservatives who want to impose their morality on us. You taught us good and well that Christ liberated us from the law.
Paul, just the other day my wife and I were invited over to a temple dinner with Eronemus and his wife. You know them, Paul. They aren’t Christian. They still worship the moon god, Artemis, as I once did. Should I give up my old friends because they aren’t Christian? Some of my best friends are pagan. It is their custom to gather in their temple to eat the meat of animals which have been sacrificed to their gods. I have been criticized by the pious poops in this congregation for eating the meat Eronemus served me.
But, Paul, why should I feel guilty about that? All of us here possess knowledge. We Christians here at Corinth know that those Greek gods don’t have any real existence. We know there is no god but one. So, when WE eat the meat WE know in OUR minds that we are not worshiping THEIR moon god. If Christ liberated us from law, then why should I subject myself to some silly rules about not eating meat offered to foreign gods? I will await your reply. Your humble servant, Oamigood”
I may have made up the letter, but I didn’t make up the situation. There was a debate going on in the congregation about the matter of Christians eating meat which had been used in the worship of pagan gods. The Christian community was a pretty intellectual bunch and they thought highly of themselves for it. Many of them felt that it didn’t matter what one DID as long as one’s mind was in the right place.
When Paul wrote his letter back to them – the letter which has come to us as I Corinthians, he said to them this; “You are forgetting one thing. Knowledge puffs up. But love builds up.” Paul wasn’t interested in hearing how smart the Corinthians were. How intellectual. How discerning. There is something greater than your knowledge, Paul was telling them, and that is love. Love. Paul wrote them a letter about love.
Now, when Paul wrote them about love he had a choice of three Greek words he could have used. He could have used the Greek word PHILIA – the type of love which is found in a friendship. Philia is brotherly love. He could have used EROS, meaning a tangible, sensual, sexual love. Instead, he chose to use another Greek word with the Corinthian congregation – AGAPE. Agape is a very rich word. A special word. Agape is loving someone else so much that they become more important than you. It is not Agape if YOU are made better by it. But it is Agape if THE OTHER person is made better by it. In Agape two things are more important than you: The other person and the community. Love.
As a matter of fact, Paul said, “Anyone who loves God is known by him.” The Corinthians might have expected him to say, “Anyone who loves God knows God.” But Paul turns it around the way it should be. The object of our relationship with God isn’t to know God – it is to be known BY him. Be loved by God. And to love one another. That is Paul’s message.
“YOU may know it is harmless to eat meat in the pagan temples,” Paul was telling them. “It may do YOU no harm. But you have to consider what may happen to the other person if you just go ahead and do what YOU want.” You see, there was the possibility that eating the meat of a pagan God would rouse up some old beliefs in that God. There was the possibility that a newbie to the faith – someone who had just switched from worshiping Isis to worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who had come to the earth in the form of Jesus Christ – there was the possibility that this new Christian could be very confused by watching veteran Christians eating meat which had been offered to idols.
Paul was saying to them – and here is the lesson for us – there is nothing that you do which you do in isolation. Everything you do has an implication for someone else. Say what you want about individual freedom and privacy and all of that – but other people see what you do and are influenced by it. Yes, a Christian is free to do what he or she pleases – just so long as it conforms to agape, just so long as it does no harm to another person by setting the wrong example. That’s why liberty is never really freedom to do what we want, but it is always freedom to do what we should. And that rule is the same whether we’re talking about American liberty or Christian liberty. It’s not freedom to do as we like, but freedom to do as we ought.
It was in this understanding of liberty that Paul announced his personal decision; “if food is a couse of my brother’s falling, then I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.”
We can apply this same ethic to many situations today. For instance, a Christian does not necessarily violate his love of God when he or she drinks a beer or has a mixed drink. However, when that is done in the presence of an alcoholic who could very easily be tempted to return to the bottle, then the harm is done and the Christian principle of Agape love is violated. We are livng in an age where the sexual act can be separated from the function of reproduction. Christians are faced with a very large liberty – that of sex for the purpose of pleasure only. That second Greek word applies to this: Eros. Eros is not a bad thing unless it is separated from Agape – love for the other person. When sex is engaged in selfishly – without any regard for the emotions or feeling of the other person – in can (and usually does) damage the other person. That is why Eros by itself is bad and pornographic. But when combined with the ethic of Agape – a true love for the other individual, it is something very lovely indeed.
Paul’s ethic is an Agape ethic. Whenever we do anything, are we doing it because of our love for God and our love for neighbor? Do we understand that we influence our neighbor by what we do and the example we set? Remember always that Christ put you over himself. What you “think” about this is of little consequence, because other people can’t see what you “think.” However others can see what you do. But how you LOVE God is of crucial importance because, unlike knowledge, you can never keep love to yourself.
Text: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13