True Freedom

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All beef, chicken and lamb sold to fans at Wembley Stadium is prepared in accordance with strict Islamic law.  Rugby fans at Twickenham and horse racing enthusiasts at Ascot who want chicken can only buy halal chicken.  In Tower Hamlets, in east London, over 100 schools only use halal meat.  The same is true of some hospitals in London and Staffordshire, and some of Britain's biggest hotel and restaurant groups also use high proportions of halal meat.  How do you feel about that?  How should we feel about that?

What about some other questions: is it okay for Christians to drink alcohol, or eat fast food, or go clubbing, or smoke, or go shopping on Sundays? Should Christians send their children to regular schools or schools with a Christian ethos, or should we home-school our children? Bottle-feeding or breast-feeding? What about trick-or-treating at Halloween? Which issues are matters of right and wrong, and which are matters of choice?  How do we make good choices in these issues that bombard us every day?  How can we think through the ways we should react to the culture and society around us?

The Christians in Corinth were in a similar position.  They had to figure out how to react to the culture of Corinth.  They were under considerable social pressure to attend sacrificial feasts at pagan temples, and besides that, much of the meat sold at the market and served up at homes had come from these sacrifices.  Pagan temples were a bit like public restaurants for the community, and the Christians had all been going there long before they heard of the Apostle Paul or Jesus Christ.  So they were divided on the issue.

One group, the apparently strong Christians, knew fine well that idols aren't real and that food doesn't bring us near to God, or take us away from him.  Christian life for the strong was about freedom and rights.    "Of course we're free to join in with the temple feasts.  In fact to deny ourselves, to stay away, is just to mope along in a cloud of bondage, leading a sub-Christian life. As for Paul, he needs to get a backbone.  He behaves one way with the Jews and another way with the Greeks – he seems to be a real people-pleaser.  In fact we've written to Paul to tell him what we think of him."

Another group, the apparently weak Christians, well they weren't so sure about going back to join in the temple feasts, but they were persuaded by the strong, so they went along, against their better judgement.  In fact they enjoyed themselves in the end and started coming more often after that.  We saw that in chapter 8.

One last group, the particular Christians, the moral fuss-pots, well they would hardly have anything to do with anything.  There's no way they'd go to the temple feasts, and when they bought their meat at the market they made doubly sure to check the label and ask the butcher.  In fact, when they collected their non-sacrificed steaks, they made sure to take from the middle of the pile, because the ones at the edge had probably been touching the lamb chops from the temple.  More than that, they're thinking that if the strong and the weak are going to go to the temple feasts, then maybe it's time to start a new denomination for people who don't do that sort of thing.

It was pretty confusing.  Who was right and how could they know?

The last few chapters have been addressing this whole area of Christian freedom.  Paul wrote chapter 8 to the strong, condemning them for leading the weak into idol worship.  Yes, the strong were right that the idols were nothing, but the weak didn't know that.  The strong bullied the weak into going against their consciences, instead of lovingly encouraging them in godliness and maturity.

Paul also wrote chapter 9 to the strong, replying to their letter, affirming his authority as an apostle, showing that his actions, including his contextualised behaviour, were carefully designed to promote the gospel, not dishonestly, not timidly but humbly.

In fact, chapter 10, the strong had better watch out, because they're starting to look like the Israelites in the desert, complacent and arrogant, falling easily into idol worship, and look how that turned out for those Israelites.

Today, as we put 1 Corinthians on ice until next year, we come to the conclusion of this long answer about gospel freedom.  And the big idea Paul concludes with is this: True freedom is in Jesus and for Jesus.  We've got two points to consider:

1) Christians are not free to pursue idols

2) Christians are freed to pursue the glory of God and the good of others

1) Christians are not free to pursue idols

    14Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

Coming out of last week's passage, v14, still addressing the strong who are in danger of complacency like the Israelites, Paul says, "Flee from idolatry".  V15: you guys are sensible, you've got all the knowledge, you judge as I lay out the argument.

First, v16, think about Holy Communion.  As we share the wine, symbolising Christ's blood, we have vertical fellowship with Christ.  As we share the bread, symbolising his body, we have horizontal fellowship with Christians, and v17, that's neat because we are the body of Christ, many members united together. We're the new loaf, not to be contaminated with the yeast from the old batch, ch6.

By the way, we're not actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Jesus.  We're symbolising, we're remembering Jesus' death on the cross in our place.  Those serving the elements later this morning will say, "…feed on him in your heart by faith…" not 'feed on him in your mouth by chewing'. But the eating and drinking is significant because in Holy Communion we don't just look at the elements to remember, we eat and drink to participate – we participate in Christ, in unity with one another.  V18:

    18Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?

We've thought about Holy Communion; now rewind to Old Testament sacrifices.  They worked the same way.  As certain sacrifices were carved up to be eaten together, those present expressed fellowship   both with God and with the people of God.

But hang on, Paul, say the strong Corinthians.  We're talking about pagan temples and we know that idols are fake and empty, so what does it matter if we eat at the temple feasts?  V19:

19Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons. 22Are we trying to arouse the Lord's jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

The pagan feasts follow the same principle as Holy Communion and Old Testament sacrifices.  Eating at the pagan temple feasts expresses fellowship with a false god and its followers.  It's participation in false worship, in unity with false worshippers.  Yes, the idols are false, but the worship is real and worship of anything except the one true God is demonic. Behind the false worship is evil, spiritual reality.

Our culture doesn't really believe in demons and the devil.  But time and again in the historical gospel accounts, Jesus encounters speaking, sentient demons that manifested themselves in ways that can't be explained away as seizures and superstition.

Paul is saying, "Yes, the idols are false but the vertical worship is real and the horizontal fellowship is real.  Behind false idols and false worship are real demons, so you must flee idolatry. You can't have it both ways.  You can't participate in Christ with the church and in idolatry with idolaters."  Christians are not free to pursue idols.

The rubber really hits the road on this if you're from a country or a community or a family in which another religion is the cultural and religious norm.  You become a Christian and now you want to meet with Christians at church and not with Muslims at the mosque.  You want to join the joy of a family occasion at the Hindu temple, but can you join in the religious activities there?  Then there's pressure for churches to join in multi-faith services and activities in the spirit of tolerance and mutual understanding.

At the secular end, will you worship your career in fellowship with your colleagues, or will you keep work in its place, showing your co-workers that you live for more than your job? Will you worship entertainment in fellowship with your mates, or will you keep rest in its place, showing your friends that you live for more than the weekend? Will you worship relationships in fellowship with those close to you, or will you show that you value relationship with your heavenly Father more than any other? Those are just some obvious thoughts to get you started.  Christians are not free to pursue idols, so flee from idolatry.

2) Christians are freed to pursue the glory of God and the good of others

     23"Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. 24Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.

'Everything is permissible' – it's that t-shirt slogan of the strong from chapter 6.  The thing is, it's sort of the truth: in Jesus, we are free, free from the obligations and the penalties of the Jewish law, free in so many ways.  But it's not the whole truth: exercising our freedom is not an end in itself.  Our freedom is to be harnessed for the good of others. Paul then opens up the argument to address those particular Christians, the fussy moralists, v25:

    25Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."

27If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.

Eat the food.  It's only food.  It all belongs to God. So don't interrogate the butcher when you pop in for a ham.  And don't quiz your boss as he lifts a juicy burger off the barbecue for you.  It's only food.  So you've got a forkful of juicy steak on its way to your mouth.  You're rejoicing that through Jesus your ignorance is bliss… and then someone chips in, "This has been offered in sacrifice,"… v28:

 …then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake— 29the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours.

If you eat, you appear to disobey Christ, because your host believes that the meat has been sacrificed to a real god.  He assumes you've gone against your conscience so he feels guilty for causing you to sin. Or perhaps he wants you to eat to show that you're really still one of them – you're not serious about this Jesus stuff. Or perhaps it's a weak Christian who reveals the source of the meat, in which case we're back to the line of chapter 8: we don't eat because we don't want to prompt another Christian to go against conscience. Now it's the impact on the host or the other guests that swings the decision.  V31:

     31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

11.1Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.

Our freedom should be harnessed to glorify God and seek the good of others. This is the pattern of Paul.  He wasn't being wet and wobbly in chapter 9 when he adapted his behaviour to suit the company.  He was acting for the sake of the gospel.  That means he was acting for the sake of present company – that they might be saved – and for the sake of God – that he might be glorified.

It's Paul's pattern, and it's also the pattern of Jesus.  He made himself nothing, of no reputation.  He was born as a tiny baby, born as a Jew, putting himself under the law of God.  He humbled himself to obedience to death on a cross precisely for the sake of the lost and for the sake of the glory of God.

True freedom is in Jesus and for Jesus.  Christians are not free to pursue idols.  Instead we have been freed to pursue the glory of God and the good of others.  We've been liberated from the law, not for licence but to pursue godliness, or as Paul says, to follow Christ's law. Not only that but with the Holy Spirit dwelling in us we're given a new nature that desires godliness and we're empowered to pursue it as God carries on his work in us towards completion.  True freedom is in Jesus and for Jesus.

So what about those hot potatoes we started with – shopping on Sundays, alcohol, Halloween.  Well we can't deal with them all now, but let's take Halal meat as a worked example. Halal meat is from animals slaughtered in a particular way by a Muslim butcher who recites certain words or verses at the time.  For time we'll ignore the animal welfare concerns and the murkiness of big businesses switching to Halal meat in secret.  The question is this: can we eat it?

First, does the bible comment?  I hope by now you're thinking, "Why yes, in 1 Corinthians 10."  What does it say? First up, don't join in with religious activities of false religion.  Maybe in this case it could be some Muslim students inviting friends to join in the feast at the end of Ramadan.  Don't participate in false worship.

Outside of the religious context it's a matter of freedom. Don't worry where your meat comes from, just eat with thankfulness.  Our God is the one true creator, everything belongs to him and food doesn't affect our unity with him through Jesus.  You're free to eat.

But there are three reasons not to eat:

Don't go against your conscience.  If you think it's sinful to eat and you eat, then you sin, because you've gone against your conscience. If eating Halal meat would cause difficulty for other Christians who don't understand that we are free to eat, then don't eat.  Harness your freedom for their good, because you don't want them to stumble. If eating Halal meat would cause confusion for non-Christians who don't understand that we are free to eat, then don't eat.  We don't want to send mixed messages about allegiance to Jesus.  Harness your freedom for their good, because you don't want to put them off the gospel.

And whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. I want to finish with three principles:

Recognising Christian freedom is vital – Christianity is about relationship, not rules.  There's a lot that the bible doesn't comment on, and if the bible doesn't rule it out then we're free in that area. Recognising Christian discipline is vital – not everything is beneficial.  Exercising our freedom is not an end in itself. We must know our bibles.  The bible is where we find God's non-negotiables, the areas in which we are not free.  And the bible is also where we find God's wisdom and guidance, the principles by which we can harness our freedom for the glory of God and the good of others.

Further Reading

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, has written this helpful article, which covers the topic of halal meat in more detail, drawing on 1 Corinthians 8-10 and some other bible texts, as well as the organisation's wider research of Islam in the world.

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