Saturday, December 5, 2009

Knowledge Is Not Enough

This is sermon #20 from my First Corinthians series:

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Back in the 80's Lawrence Kasdan produced a movie which captured an almost mythic place among people of my generation. The Big Chill was about a group of "thirtysomething" people who had been friends in college, and were now reunited at the funeral of one of the group who had committed suicide. They stay together for the weekend and spend part of the time examining their lives.

One of the fellows writes for People magazine and another is a featured actor in a TV weekly drama. The writer had earlier done an article on the actor and had taken advantage of the friendship to get a revealing story. During the weekend the two get into a discussion in which the writer tries to excuse his actions. The actor then asks, "Why is it what you just said strikes me as a mess of rationalization?" Whereupon the writer answers, "Don't knock rationalization; where would we be without it? I don't know anyone who can get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations."

The writer could have been from Corinth. The Corinthians, you may remember, had written Paul a letter to which our 1 Corinthians is an answer. The letter from the Corinth Christians was full of rationalizations that tried to legitimize sub-Christian living. A few of their rationalizations went this way:

–– I belong to Paul/Apollos/Cephas (1:12)
–– All things are lawful for me (6:12)
–– Food for the stomach and the stomach for food (6:13)
–– It is good for a man not to touch a woman (7:1)
–– All of us possess knowledge (8:1)

Paul has, in turn, reminded them they are not ordinary people; they are people of the cross. The cross represents a wisdom the world does not understand. The world does not see beyond itself, but Christians know this world is not all there is.

One thing wrong with the Corinthians is their inability (or refusal) to connect what they know about Christ with a different way of living in the world. Paul has to confront them with being spiritual babies. He uses words like "carnal" and "fleshly" to describe them –– words that mean they are living as if they do not have the Holy Spirit. They are accepting immorality, they are tolerating Christians taking each other to court, they are trying to build a false spirituality that caters much more to self effort and self promotion than it does to actually following Jesus.

As chapter 8 begins Paul deals with yet another subject where the Corinthians are rationalizing Christian behavior. This time it is in the area of old relationships that had their basis in sinful identity. The specific situation is one that we have trouble identifying with today. The Corinthian world recognized many different gods. Christians call it idolatry because we believe in only one God, but that is not how the Corinthian culture saw it.

The worship of these so-called gods involved activity both directed toward the perceived deity as well as fellowship among the worshippers. This was accomplished by cooking meat dedicated to the "god." The smoke would ascend as incense and then the people would eat together the cooked meat.

The Christians at Corinth were arguing that it was alright for them to continue to go to those feasts. Maybe the food was that good. More likely there were still emotional ties –– friends and even family were still worshipping the false gods.... rituals and patterns that were familiar and "felt good." Their former way of life was woven into their consciousness. Paul knew they were only fooling themselves to say it didn't matter to return to the old hang-outs for merely a bite to eat. Rationalizing.

And what was the rationalization? A reality that no Christian would contest –– and Paul doesn't. The Corinthians said (v4), "we know there's no such thing as other gods, so why is it wrong to eat the meat?" The idea was that if idols are not real gods, then why should it matter if a Christian goes to the pagan temple to enjoy the food and festivities? They also said (v8), "food is merely food, and God doesn't care what we eat."

What do we say when other Christians show an understanding of truth but then apply it in a wrong way? Has it ever occurred to you that such is possible? You see, it's not good enough to know a certain Bible teaching or to understand a certain doctrine. Knowledge apart form appropriate application is useless. In the Old Testament Israel said God was the only true God; they knew in their minds that was true. On the other hand, the pagan people around them had more appealing religious practices. They had temple prostitutes who could make a man feel good. The compromise Israel opted for was to say the right things about God, but do what their pagan neighbors were doing. And it was compromise. Rationalization. What we do cannot escape the implication of what we believe. So for the Corinthians back then –– and for us today –– how we relate to this world and how we behave from day to day affects our faith (or shows the lack of it).

There is one big issue at stake here, along with two sub-implications that, together, form a second big issue for Christians living in a pagan environment. The first big issue is individualism. Individualism is a problem in the church today. Individualism in the context of Christian identity is a self-centered faith. And it shouldn't be surprising that self-centeredness is in the church –– look at our culture. Newsweek had an article about the trend of baby boomers coming back to religion. They look at churches from the perspective of shopping: they look for close, off-street parking, modern facilities, and an entertaining program. For them, faith itself is validated by its ability to make one "feel good." And many churches are growing by offering just that –– the parts of Christianity that make one feel good, with nothing being said about sin, personal responsibility and obedience.

One thing that made the Corinthians feel good was this word here in chapter 8: know-ledge. To simplify it and bring it to our day, it was enough to mentally possess the facts about who Jesus was and what he had done. One could then delve deeper and deeper into philosophical theology so that the further one went with profound speculations on Jesus and angels and Old Testament allegory, the more prestige such a person gained. Each person was free to develop alone. But speculations on Jesus and angels, profound or not, does not necessarily give one a relationship with God and his people.

Spiritual independence takes us in the wrong direction. Thinking we know something special.... thinking we know more than others only makes us proud. Spiritual independence and pride alienates us from God and other people –– just the opposite of what true Christian faith is supposed to do. So the word here –– the word to the Corinthians in their situation and the word to us –– the word to Christians trying to find their way in a pagan world, is that love is more important than knowledge. That is the second big thing here.

It's not that knowledge is of no value. The Corinthians, in fact, had come to recognize some important truths. Of course those "gods" were not real. Of course God's main concern with us is not what we eat. But... what does the Christian do with that knowledge? The Corinthian answer is to use knowledge for self-convenience; God's word through Paul is to let love work in your life instead of practicing an independent, self-centered knowledge –– a rationalization that uses truth to make life convenient for you.

What is it, then, that love does? In what way does love counter this individualistic approach to religious knowledge? Well, first of all, love validates knowledge. Love is what makes knowledge worthwhile. Love is how Christian knowledge is applied. That is the general truth –– the foundation on which a true life application can be made. It is stated in vs2,3: Anyone who claims to "know" does not yet have necessary knowledge; but if anyone loves, this one truly "knows."

This means a focus on knowledge only shows someone who doesn't even know enough to be on the right track. It is the person who loves who shows knowledge of Christ and his ways. The person who loves doesn't need to talk about profound things to convince others of spirituality; love is the validation of knowing Christ.

Now there are two ways Paul applied this to the Corinthians' specific situation. The first is in v7 where he acknowledges the difference between reality and perceived reality. Yes, it's true that Christians know there are no other gods –– but that is not what the pagans think. And so what do the pagan people think if they see Christians entering into the activities that are specifically connected with pagan ways? Well, they certainly do not see Christian truth. They do not see Christian distinctiveness. They are prevented from seeing their error if Christians are justifying it by their participation. Love will not do that to unbelievers.

The second thing that love considers are Christian believers who are new or weak and immature. In v9,10 Paul projects the likelihood that another Christian who does not have as much "knowledge" will see the all-knowing self-centered Christian individual participating in something that does not seem right. But if the immature person says, "Well, if he or she is such a strong Christian and can do that, it must be okay," and then follows the example –– but deep down thinks it's wrong, then one Christian has tempted another to sin. And the text says such sin could "destroy" that weak believer, meaning it could result in spiritual death all over again so the person is lost to Christ. Love does not do that to fellow Christians. Christian knowledge is never an excuse to rationalize our behavior for our own convenience.

To make the matter clear, Paul ends this chapter by saying he would give up his right to eat meat altogether if the choice was between his tastes and appetite compared to people who might connect his eating with idolatry. That is love. That is following Jesus. Jesus gave up his rights as God's Son and died for us when he had committed no wrong. Paul is following Jesus –– willing to give up a right that could be perfectly legitimated by using knowledge. But Paul is not willing to put his individual knowledge above the good of others and the call to follow Jesus. Love does not rationalize. Love reminds us that sometimes Christian knowledge is not enough.

Now that's the principle in this chapter, but how is it applied in our day and culture? We do not have temple parties with tasty meat that's been offered to some bogus god. I hesitate to dogmatically say this Corinthian situation corresponds to exactly this or that today. We have the principle, and the Spirit can apply it to each of us in different situations.

I will, however, be a bit bold and mention three possible contexts to help you think about how this truth could work today. The first is language. The world has its own way of talking. It is often crude; it is often loose with its references to God. Knowledge and rationalization might say, "Those are just words; they're mere things we use to express emotions –– everyone says them. God knows I love him. Besides, Jesus has died for all my sins." The bigger question, though, might be the witness you are giving if you say things the way the world around us does. Who are you siding with if you flippantly say "oh my God" the way so many people do who never think of God as they say it? Whose side does it appear you are on if you use the same four-letter expletives profane people use?

Another context might be music. I'm thinking particularly of young people now. You can rationalize and say you just like the music –– that you ignore the words, but whose side does it appear you are on, what do non-Christian friends think if you listen to AC/DC, Megadeath and such stuff? Should Christian young people go to concerts, dances or parties where that kind of music is the focus of the activity? I'll not answer that for you, but it deserves an honest answer before God.

The last present-day context I will suggest is perhaps the one I think comes closest to the context here in Corinthians. It's the subject of alcohol. Knowledge says the Bible does not teach total abstinence. Knowledge says the issue is not what one drinks, but rather its inordinate use. But what is the perceived reality? It doesn't take much observation to see how alcohol is used (abused) in our culture. The places and activities broadly associated with drinking are not so unlike the things that went on in Corinth at the temple feasts. So what does love say? What does love say about going out and drinking one with the boys –– even if you do not get drunk? Whose side will the unbeliever think you are on? What does love say about drinking in public where a weak Christian –– perhaps one who has struggled with alcohol –– will see you?

Whatever your reaction was to these things, let me ask you one question –– was your response based on knowledge or love? Do you most want to rationalize –– or obey our Lord, who modeled laying aside rights and said that the disciple would be like the master?

You see, as Christians, it's not what we know; it's who we love. Christian knowledge isn't enough. A juicy rationalization can always get around mere knowledge. Our Lord calls us to love. Others trust us to be Christians. Whose side are you on?

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