Sunday, February 28, 2016

Freedom and Tradition

Just outside of the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island is a wonderful place called Goldstream Park. Known for its ancient gold mine, Goldstream Park is also the home of a beautiful clear-water stream that is the playground for children in the summer, and the habitat of a large number of spawning salmon in the late fall. In the parking lot beside the picnic area, there are thousand-year-old trees eight feet in diameter. But towering over the stream is Mount Finlayson. Though Mount Finlayson is only a little more than 400 meters above sea level, there is a sign at its foot that reads:
Mt. Finlayson trail access is steep slippery and rugged.
Trails are poorly marked at this time, and are not suitable for small children.

As you climb higher and higher on that mountain, on the one hand there is a drive to press on, to get to the summit. But on the other hand, the vista is magnificent, and on a clear day, the view of the city of Victoria is spectacular. So taking the time to turn around and take it all in -- taking the time to appreciate how far you’ve come, is sometimes quite fulfilling.

As you know, for the last eight weeks, we’ve been walking through the book of first Corinthians. And it has been rough going in some spots. So at this point in the series, I hope you don’t mind if we start with a bit of a review. Almost like hesitating on the slope of a mountain to catch your breath and take in the view.

In the first six chapters of this epistle, we see Paul addressing those things that he considers important: He isn’t impressed, for example, with divisions in the church or incest or lawsuits among believers. In the next six chapters, Paul is answering questions that the people of the church have been asking: questions, for example, about marriage and spiritual gifts (a topic we’ll get to in a couple of weeks).

Along the way, we see a number of “reversals” -- that is, Paul is looking at things in a remarkably different way than the church of Corinth expected. Listen again to 1:27,28:

God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.

But these reversals should not be very surprising. In Isaiah 55:9, God says “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

And, of course, the folks in Corinth in the first century were influenced by the world’s standards and priorities and causes, in exactly the same way that we find ourselves influenced today. And (just like today), those influences are so very often precisely counter to the direction that God would have us go.

Now I'm going to be a little brave (and perhaps a bit crazy) and try to summarize the first nine chapters of first Corinthians in two slides: on one hand, Paul considers behavior: what is good, what is right, what is true. This “horizontal” dimension is, of course, just as important today as it has always been. But in a second (“vertical”) dimension, Paul is simultaneously addressing the themes of freedom and wisdom and power. And we discover that the wisdom and freedom and power from God are demonstrated in unexpected ways. That is, interesting lessons are to be found at the intersection of these two dimensions.

Let’s consider a very quick summary of the second “vertical” dimension:

  1. The Corinthians recognize that there is a wisdom to be found in Christ. But Paul warns that if the church is tempted to focus on wisdom itself rather than the source of that wisdom, the whole point of wisdom could be lost. And we should be aware that God’s wisdom is far greater than what most people would recognize as wisdom. He writes (1:25): “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom
  2. The Corinthians recognize that there is a freedom to be found in Christ. But Paul warns that if the church is tempted to focus on freedom itself rather than the source of that freedom, the whole point of freedom could be lost. And we should be aware that God’s freedom is far greater than what most people would recognize as freedom. As Jesus said (John 8:36) “If the Son sets you free, then you will be free indeed.
  3. The Corinthians recognize that there is a power to be found in Christ. But Paul warns that if the church is tempted to focus on power itself rather than the source of that power, the whole point of power could be lost. And we should be aware that God’s power is both far greater and far more subtle than what most people would recognize as power. Back to 1:25 -- “The weakness of God is greater than man’s strength.

In each case, the principle is deeper than folks usually appreciate, and there are some surprises in the application of those principles; surprises for the church in Corinth, and perhaps surprises even for the church in Pointe-Claire as well.

This we see when we consider that other dimension -- our behavior. And this is where it gets really interesting. You see, there is a primitive misunderstanding of the gospel that Jesus came to make us better people by giving us some good rules to live by. As if we trade the Old Testament Law for a New Testament Law. We don’t, you know. That’s not what the gospel is about at all. If the church is tempted to focus on behavior itself rather than the one who enables us to behave correctly, the whole point of behaving well could be lost. Because the rules by themselves have no power to change us, nor are we, in ourselves, capable of effecting the necessary change. Paul makes this clear in Colossians 2:(21-23) “These rules,” he writes, “ ... and ... regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom ... but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

And that brings us to our text this morning. But before we dive into it, it will likely help to explain the situation in Corinth at the time this was written. You see, there were some in the church who were really, really uncomfortable going to the butcher. That’s right: the butcher. Why? Because in most Roman cities, buying meat meant buying meat that had been sacrificed to an idol. And that meant participating in idol worship, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, it would seem that the majority of the church in Corinth argued just the opposite: “an idol is nothing at all in this world” Paul quotes them as saying in chapter eight. These people were arguing that they now have a freedom in Christ to eat whatever they want!

Sounds simple enough. But it’s more complicated than that. You see, the pagan temples were also the places that well-connected folk met and mingled. Being important in Corinth meant hosting your share of parties and participating in all the right gatherings as well. Inevitably, these meetings were attended by the pagan priests and involved a ritualistic element to them.

But as if that didn’t make it tricky enough, the plot is thickened by Church history. Back in Acts chapter 15, when the church was just starting to branch out beyond the Jewish community, this issue had come up before. And it was such a big deal, that they had the first church council in history. The big names were all there, including Paul. That event resulted in the first church document: a letter outlining the council’s conclusion on the matter. And this is what that letter said: “it [seems] good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols....” (and there are a few others, but this is the first one, and the one we are considering here)

So the precedent has been set: abstaining from eating food sacrificed to idols has been a requirement. But the challenge is on: the church is claiming that idols aren’t real, and so (they claim that) in a culture that sacrifices all meat to idols, idols shouldn’t force everyone to become vegetarians.

So how does Paul respond? How does this very interesting example of church history become resolved? Well - for starters, it is both interesting and instructive that Paul takes a full three chapters to respond. It is a difficult issue and it requires a careful response.

On one hand, Paul warns the Corinthians to be careful of associating with idols. In the first part of chapter ten, Paul recounts the history of the Jewish people. Four times he repeats that they all received the same blessings, and four times he repeats that some of them received a harsh judgment due to their being seduced into idolatry. And Paul insists that this history is an example to his readers (and to us!), and he ends with the strong warning (v14) “Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.”

The members of the church in Corinth are saying that idols aren’t real. And as we will soon see, Paul is in agreement on this point. But while idols are just carvings of stone, Paul also knows that idolatry is very real indeed; and he knows that it is every bit as much a temptation to the “enlightened” people of Corinth (and, I might add, of Pointe-Claire) as it has always been throughout history. Indeed, whenever any good thing becomes disconnected from God, and when it is set up as good-in-itself, it becomes an idol. Freedom can easily become an idol. Knowledge can easily become an idol. Power can easily become an idol. Wealth can easily become an idol. And before Paul finishes addressing the topic, he wants this to be very clear. But here is his punchline.

Verses 24-33 “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it...
(v31) So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (end of v33) For [we should] not seek[ our] own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

And then, in the first verse of the next chapter, Paul says “follow my example, even as I follow the example of Christ.” If you were here last week, you appreciate what chapter nine was all about: Paul was intentionally setting aside all his rights and privileges for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This is the example Paul is referring to. And he is following the example of Christ who laid down his life down for the sake of the world.

But isn’t this fascinating? Paul isn’t applying a blanket principle. Paul isn’t invoking the precedent on the matter. The folks wanting to exercise their freedom aren’t wrong. But their freedom isn’t the highest value, says Paul. The folks afraid of eating meat aren’t right. But they are of greater value than the freedom of the others. Too often, people make the mistake of thinking that if someone is wrong on any point that they suddenly lose their value. Paul is making it clear that this kind of thinking is a terrible mistake. As Paul has been arguing consistently throughout this letter, the worth of those people, however wrong they might be, is even sufficient to make us change our behavior, however right we might be. I wonder what kind of impact the church would have in this world if we understood this fully.

Please also notice: if we were to imagine (incorrectly) that the gospel was all about ethics, then it would certainly look like Paul’s response to the Corinthian question was wishy-washy: a “don’t ask; don’t tell” policy about where meat comes from. But that’s just it: short of the love of God in Christ, ethical concerns are just not the heart of the gospel at all. And Paul’s response is a very wise (and pragmatic) solution to a difficult situation.

At the beginning of this letter, Paul addressed divisions in the church, and everyone is expecting him to take sides -- after all, one of the factions was using his name as its banner. But he didn’t. Instead, the gospel demands a radical unity. Here we see a similar dynamic in action. Some were convinced that Paul would take their side. But he only partly does. Yes: they are right that we are free to eat anything. Yes: they are right that a pagan ritual has no power against the children of God. But there is a bigger principle at work here. Paul opens the passage with it “No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.” And he closes the passage with it “For [we should] not seek[ our] own good, but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

Yes: we have a radical freedom, but that doesn’t mean that a radical exercise of that freedom is appropriate. Instead, we are called to exercise self-discipline rather that the radical exercise of freedom. As you recall from the previous chapter, Paul challenges us to behave like athletes training for the games. Paul would like us to appreciate that God does not give us freedom for freedom’s sake. And we see this lesson elsewhere in the New Testament, too:

Galatians 5:13 “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
1 Peter 2:16 “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil.

A radical exercise of freedom is of no value in itself. In fact, it could very well get us into deep trouble. Rather, the Spirit of God working in our lives permits us to live according to those most challenging of verses (Phil 2:3,4):

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

Now it is really important to understand this lesson as we step across the threshold of chapter 11. Because there, we read (verse 2):

I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.

Hmmm: tradition -- that’s considered a bad word in some circles these days. There seem to be some in our society that imagine that any support for tradition is backward, and any break from tradition is “progress”. But anyone with a number of decades of life experience knows that tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, tradition can be a very positive influence toward stability and well-being. And considering Paul has a great desire for Christian unity in the Corinthian church, it is no surprise that he commends them for adopting at least some traditions. After all, traditions are a shared habit -- something that everyone can have in common. And, as long as we don’t make idols out of those traditions (a mistake churches throughout the centuries have occasionally made), traditions aren’t so bad.

As the prophet Jeremiah writes: “This is what the Lord says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

After all, when everyone follows tradition, it is easier to get along. When everyone wants to break with tradition, they inevitably all end up going their own ways -- remember how Tolstoy famously put it about families? The same is true for churches: “All [healthy churches] are alike; each [unhealthy church] is [unhealthy] in its own way.”

But at the same time, we could legitimately say if we are tempted to focus on traditions themselves rather the reason for tradition, then the whole point of those traditions could be lost. But if we seek for the good of all, particularly working toward their salvation, we will find that tradition can be a force for their benefit.

Having said that, the particular tradition that Paul is referring to in our passage is not a small point of contention in our day and age (verse 3):

I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.

But as easy as it is to bring our prejudices to bear on this verse, let’s please permit the Bible to speak for itself on this point. Let’s examine those places that make reference to Christ as the head of the church. After all, this is the explicit model that Paul gives for the headship of man toward woman.

There are five other times in Paul’s writings that he mentions the headship of Christ toward the church. And if we pay attention to those passages, we’ll discover the same dynamic at work here as we’ve seen in 1 Corinthians already a number of times. That is, Paul doesn’t come down on one side or the other. He gives enough support to the traditional idea that to be a “head” is to be the authority. But he also qualifies it in a radical way that requires us to consider it carefully. Here are three representative passages:

  1. Colossians 1:18 – “[Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” Clearly, there is an authority element of this “head” business. But let’s read on: “For God was pleased to ... reconcile to himself all things [through Christ], whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” And so we see that this supremacy is expressed in a sacrificial death and a ministry of reconciliation. Similar to this passage is Ephesians 1:22.
  2. Ephesians 4:16 – “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Here we see that the role of the head is to be the source of life and growth and stability. This is similarly indicated in Colossians 2:19.
  3. Ephesians 5:"(23)Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior...(29)Christ feeds and cares for his body the church" We can add an element of provision to this role.

So given that Paul defines the “head” role of the man toward the woman by the “head” role of Christ toward the church, what we have is a very radical form of headship -- one where authority is expressed in sacrificial love.

So just like we saw earlier that while we have freedom, care must be taken in the exercise of that freedom -- because the good of others is the highest value, here was also see that while a man might have authority, care must be taken in the exercise of that authority -- because the good of others (in this case his wife) is the highest value. And if we are tempted to focus on authority itself rather than the source of that authority, then the whole point of that authority could be lost. (likely, both those who turn their authority into a power-trip and those who are offended by the very idea are both making this same mistake) As Peter wrote about freedom, “do not use your authority as a cover-up for evil.”

At this point in our hike through the book of first Corinthians, we might have come to a difficult stretch. At a time like that, if you look back, it is only to remind oneself how far one’s come. But when the hike is challenging, it is also important to look forward, and consider the goal of all that effort.

And this morning, I would like to remind you that Paul has been developing an argument from the very beginning. As we saw from the discussion about eating meat, life is complicated, and the scripture is both faithful to the complications of life, and appropriate to it. And in the details of life, it is rarely as simple as “you people are right” and “you people are wrong”. The Kingdom of God doesn’t work according to the world’s rules. Wisdom and freedom are found in God, but their best expression has in mind the well-being of others. Tradition and authority are received from God, but their best expression also has in mind the well-being of others.

But in the next few weeks, as we approach the ‘summit’ of the book, we’ll be able to appreciate where Paul has been going all along. At the end of chapter 12, there is the promise of a “more excellent way” or (to put it another way) a “better path”. And when we discover the markings indicating that “better path” we’ll realize that this is what has been Paul’s focus from the beginning. Remember how he starts that following chapter? It could have been “If I have all wisdom, but have not love, I am nothing; If I have all freedom, but have not love, I am nothing; If I have all power, but have not love, I am nothing.Wisdom, ethics, freedom, authority, tradition -- they all take a second seat to the principle of love -- that we might consider each other before we consider ourselves. I’m looking forward to the rest of the hike.