Introduction to the Reading

Epiphany is the season of the Church in which Jesus is revealed to the Gentiles.[1] The Epistle reading for today is from 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. What is so gripping about this passage, is that this is the revelation of ourselves to each other. It is an Epiphany of a different kind. It is the light of Christ revealing and, then, removing the root and branch of residual sin that can rip and tear apart Christian communities, even families. Give attention to the public reading of the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13:

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.[2]

“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever” (1 Peter 1:24b-25).

Into the Text

I will never forget the words of a friend of mine who was a prominent pastor in this nation. This man (not Dr. Kennedy) preferred mass evangelism over shepherding a Christian community. With a little cynical wit laced through with the pain of his own experience, he confessed, “You know, Christians are an acquired taste.”

Now, I do not share my late friend’s cynicism. But the Scripture today justifies much of his insight. For the Apostle, Paul’s directive in chapter eight of the First Epistle to the Corinthians makes us see ourselves for who we are and maybe even what we can become. The passages here are about spiritual pride.[3] Now, the apostle Paul does not use the word or phrase “spiritual pride,” any more than the Bible uses the word “Trinity,” but like the doctrine of the tri-unity of God, the spiritual pride of man is both observed and described. A brief definition of spiritual pride might be, “considering our relationship with God and his satisfaction with us, as superior to another based upon our knowledge and our practices.” The first-century Greek city of Corinth was a crossroad of civilization.[4] It was also a veritable den of iniquity, the Red-Light District of Amsterdam, or if you prefer, the Vieux Carré, of the first-century Roman-Greco civilization.[5] The Church that had been established through the preaching of St. Paul. The Church began within the synagogue at Corinth.[6] We learn in Acts Chapter 18 that the president of the synagogue, that is, the lay leader of the elected board, like our session, church council, vestry or board of deacons, had been converted.

“Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8).

Thus, we have a great number of Jewish Christians along with Gentile Christians brought together into a new non-hyphenated community.[7] But we all come with the residual sin of our fallen parents flowing through your veins. And even though we are redeemed the process of sanctification can take a while. It usually takes more than “just a while.”[8] It takes a lifetime. And as we move from receiving Christ to a maturity in Christ in which we mentor other new believers it is possible for us to become “puffed up,” to use the words of St. Paul, by our increasingly mature status. To be “puffed up” is a strategy we see in Creation, when an animal, maybe something like a blowfish, “puffs up” in order to make himself look more menacing to another blowfish or to a potential enemy. The fish is not really any bigger. But he has an appearance of being larger. So, Paul is saying that the fishbowl of Corinth was starting to look like a school of blowfish menacing each other with their apparent holiness. If that metaphor doesn’t work with you, choose your own self-inflating mental picture. But the problem was perfectly clear to Paul and it is something that each of us can understand. I am afraid that I have seen this in myself. Perhaps, you have, too. Now, the problems that faced Corinth were many, but one that Paul dealt with in Chapter Eight was this matter of food offered to idols. The food offered was being consumed by many who saw nothing wrong with it. But it bothered others who had come out of an idolatrous background.[9]

Paul in this passage explains what we know: that one is not commended to God nor is one impugned by God merely because of the food that one consumes.[10] The matter is neither here nor there. Yet, for those believers who came out of a system of idolatry, in the Gentiles case, and, though it is not dealt with specifically here, those Jewish believers who came out of a highly regimented theocratic tradition that was built into the first century rabbinical Judaism, the eating of certain foods generated a similar situation. This is what we are dealing with today in this passage. And while some of the contextualized issues may be foreign to us, there is an underlying universal spiritual value that is as relevant today as it was in the time when Paul wrote (what we have divided out) as 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. The question is this: what is the central message of God to us today from this passage? Could it not be this?

Because spiritual pride poses an ever-present threat at disrupting the unity of the Body of Christ, we must be intentional in eradicating spiritual pride in ourselves.

How so? God through 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 is calling us to the confession of our own spiritual pride. The major articles of this confession of sin are clearly laid out in the passage.

The first article of confession of spiritual pride comes from verse 1:

Confess the Possibility: spiritual pride is possible in each of us.

“Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.” This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up (verse 1).”

Knowledge of God and His Word is good. Indeed, we have a commission to go forward and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ so that men and women may have a knowledge of salvation. But the knowledge that St. Paul writes of here is a knowledge that has become weaponized. Some in the Corinthian church have used their knowledge, the knowledge that there is no spiritual merit in eating certain foods nor in avoiding other foods, to both self-inflate themselves and belittle others.  And this a great sin in the eyes of God who is the Father of all of us and who relates to us in perfect love. Now, I say again, the context of first-century Corinth and the deliverance of believers from both Gentile idolatry and rabbinical traditionalism is unique to that place and time.

Studying this has caused me to reflect upon how spiritual pride has disrupted the Body of Christ during my years of ministry. It would be the exact wrong approach to say, “Yes, I have seen spiritual pride in so many others,” without a primary step of self-examination. That goes even more for preachers. So, I must think, firstly, about how my own spiritual pride has potentially hurt the body of Christ. When I allow myself to confess it I grieve over the opportunities forfeited, the joy lost, and the short-lived gain that always spoiled before it could ever be “enjoyed.” But there is one case that I recall in which a person came out of a very idolatrous background. My parishioner was also a product of a strict but synchronistic Roman Catholic home — strict in the observances of holy days of obligation and in other matters related to activities that were perceived by this individual as earning his way to God and synchronistic with local legends that had no Biblical basis of fact.[12] He had heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and he understood that his relationship with God the Father had been established through the perfect life of our Lord Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death upon the cross.

As the gospel always does the knowledge of the truth of God’s plan for salvation created a fresh new framework for relating to God. What knowledge did not do was to help him relate to others. In fact, he was so critical of anyone in Roman Catholicism that he allowed his own experience and his own perceptions to create doubt about the sincerity of faith in Jesus in other people. Whenever I recognized the baptism that a person had received in the Roman Catholic Church, which is the ordinary practice of the Presbyterian Church in America, where I was ordained, this person and his wife into the life of our own Christian community based upon their rededication of faith, the reformed Roman Catholic, so zealous in his knowledge, accused me of heresy. I do admit that this is a far-fetched example albeit a very real example of how knowledge can puff up and how too many bluefish inbound fishbowl can create quite a mess. But what about this? Was a man justified in deriding another person and, additionally, accusing me of heterodoxy in my pastoral practices? As with so many other things in the life of the church and in the practice of ministry my goal had to be two go beneath the presenting issue to the real issue. In the real issue with this poor fellow was that he had felt denied of the grace of God and he had felt he had been tricked into believing that spiritual merit was earned through rigorous ritual. As a result, he suffered from the spiritual malady that I call “hardening of the categories.” He needed the stent of compassion to open up those spiritual arteries. It was my pastoral duty to bring him before the Holy Spirit who alone can conduct such an operation. The truth is, I could understand how he felt that way although it had not been my experience. Rather than rejoicing with someone who had re-dedicated their lives to Jesus Christ and recognizing what CS Lewis called “mere Christianity” or what we might also call, “The Apostles´ Creed Christianity,” this chap weaponized Biblical knowledge to minimize the Christian experience of another person.[13] Left unchecked, this veritable spiritual virus could have infected the entire body and created division. I intervened, and rather than calling him down I called him in: that is, I called him in closer to me that I might minister to him, help him to locate the woundedness that had festered in his soul, and seek God’s gracious and loving touch to bring healing of that wound. Over time, I saw how the Holy Spirit softened the man and allowed him two more nearly perfect his knowledge with God’s love.

Some of us today don’t need more knowledge. We need more of God’s love infused in our knowledge.

Read this passage further, and you will find the second article of our confession of spiritual pride that leads us to confession.

Confess Patience: God’s mercy that was patient with us will be shown to others.

I want to draw your attention to two distinct phrases that form the anchor for Paul’s teaching. The first is the phrase “we know…”[14] In the second phrase is “however, not all have this knowledge…” Between those two phrases lies St. Paul’s explanation and his admonition. The apostle is admitting what any mature believer would know, that there was no such thing as idols, there were no lords of the wind and sea, or gods of fertility, and so forth. Therefore, those people offering food offerings to fictional beings received no spiritual merit. The food was unchanged. Thus, to eat the food is, ordinarily, “no big deal.” Yet, when we move to the “however” of St. Paul’s argument, we understand that to that person it remains a “very big deal.” Paul reminded these sanctimonious and sadly self-righteous saints that the matter of eating food offered to idols was, in fact, quite disturbing to those who had come out of such idolatry. It could be that they carried a residual thinking, an impression, or just plain old wrongheaded information about this matter. So, the apostle Paul is calling other Christians to condescend to what he calls “the weaker conscience.” Let us be careful to say he is not ascribing impunity to those whose consciences our impacted by their own experience. He is merely stating a fact. Their conscience is much more sensitive the matter then, perhaps, the Jewish Christians. Though it is not dealt with here, we could reverse the matter and say that Gentiles might have chided Jewish believers on their own peculiar eating habits, habits that were completely out of the experience of, for example, a Greek person living in the first century. In fact, the issue of festivals will come up at a later point. Now here’s what we are getting

Let us recognize that there is the propensity for sin within our own spirits, a propensity that is characterized by seeing the rest of the Church through our own experience and making that experience, a very personal experience, the necessary standard by which God “must work” in all other people! This is not only wrong but absolutely ludicrous. Moreover, it presumes that we can restrict the freedom of Almighty God to do as he pleases. We know, for example, that in the Arab Muslim world, as well as in Hindu an Islamic India and Pakistan, many believers report coming to Christ through dreams and visions.[16] Now, this is out of our experience. But for one so removed from the things of God, our merciful heavenly Father uses all means to bring his elect home.

The final article of our confession concerning the sinful matter of spiritual pride requires that we:

Confess Providence: the salvation of the soul leads to the sanctification of the person.

Paul is not saying here that knowledge is wrong. He is saying that knowledge without love and understanding is wrong. He is teaching that sanctification is, as Eugene Peterson puts it in the title of his great book, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Over time, as we follow the Lord Jesus Christ, we move from babies taking our milk and formula to maturity and enjoying a full steak of belief. But never must we lose the compassion and mercy and tenderness that God showed to us. For if we do we are very likely to restrict the progress of others through the means of grace: Word, Sacrament, and Prayer.

I temember the words of the little child’s Sunday School construction project that I saw years ago when I was a young pastor and needed to learn to wait upon God to do His own work in the lives of His People. I was rushing from Sunday School to worship, putting my pastoral robe on, as I greeted people, and, made my way to my next scheduled place of Sunday service. But a little girl pulled on my robe. She smiled and said, “Pastor, look at my Sunday School project.” Ah, how God can send little children into our lives to quiet us down enough to hear His voice. I crouched down to see her and to inspect her project. It was a piece of blue construction paper. With glue and glitter, with crayons and creativity, the child had made a sign. She had pasted a magazine-cut-out of a bulldozer next to her childish rendering of the Bible. Over it, all were the carefully and somewhat unskillfully written words: “Please be patient. I am under construction. God is not finished with me yet.”

Slow down. Recognize that God is not in a hurry to create His masterpiece in the life of your child trying to find her place in this world, or your friend, struggling with alcoholism, or even you. God is just not finished with you yet.

Conclusion

We could summarize our teaching today by affirming that the church, that is, each of us, must be aware of the poison of spiritual pride and God’s antidote to it. The antidote is our confession and proper realignment of our spirits with God’s grace. This confession of sin encompasses the possibility of sin in ourselves, the certainty of the patience of God, and the process of sanctification in all of us, which is His Providential prerogative.

The Gospels of Mark and Luke, relate a striking story of a time when the disciples came upon another group of ministers casting out demons in the name of Jesus. They were indignant over this. They returned to Jesus with the news:

“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us’” (Mark 9:38).

Jesus replied that if they are not against us, then they are for us.[17] Jesus’ compassion and magnanimous patients are reflected in the words of the apostle Paul. For the apostle had sought to follow God through rigid religious ritual and even zealous persecution of those different than himself. Jesus intervened. Paul received knowledge of the true way to God, and that is through God’s grace in his Son our Savior Jesus Christ the Lord. And Paul would always remember that grace. He ministered out of the fullness of that grace running deep within his own soul.

The ultimate antidote for the poison of spiritual pride is the confession:

“Lord, you saved me where I was. You will save others where they are. Let us all go forward in that knowledge tempered by that grace until that Day when we are all perfected; when knowledge has married love and given birth to eternal life.”

For when we live out of the grace of God in our own lives, it is hard to suppose that we are superior to anyone else. Let spiritual pride die a quick death. Let grace and mercy rule out of the experience of Jesus’ love. This is my prayer for you. And for me.

In the name of the Father, in the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] See, e.g., Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). For a solid study on origins of a season of Epiphany in the life of the Church, see Dimitris J. Kyrtatas, “The Meaning of Christian Epiphany,” Illinois Classical Studies 29 (2004), http://www.jstor.org/stable/23065348.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, this sermon employs the ESV. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Esv), Containing the Old and New Testaments (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2011).

[3] There is a study of the subject within the field of the psychology of religion that is helpful: Fredrica R. Halligan, “Narcissism, Spiritual Pride, and Original Sin,” Journal of Religion and Health 36, no. 4 (1997), http://www.jstor.org/stable/27511173.

[4] For a study on the archeology of the city, see Edward Capps, “The Recent Excavations at Corinth,” The Biblical World 8, no. 3 (1896), http://www.jstor.org/stable/3140150.

[5] See “  2.4  Aspects of Culture at Corinth” in Ralph Bruce Terry, “An Analysis of Certain Features of Discourse in the New Testament Book of 1 Corinthians” (Dissertation, University of Texas at Arlington, 1993), accessed 28 January 2018, http://bible.ovc.edu/terry/dissertation/index.htm. “Sexual license was the rule rather than the exception in much of the ancient Mediterranean world. Hauck and Schulz write concerning Greek sexual ethics, “The main cause of prostitution is the Greek view of life which regards sexual intercourse as just as natural, necessary and justifiable as eating and drinking” (Kittel 1968, 4:582). Athenaeus devoted Book XIII of the Deipnosophists to extramarital sex among the Greeks. He indicates that prostitution was an established and respected function in Corinth. Athenaeus relates that whenever the city of Corinth would pray to Aphrodite in matters of grave importance, the people would “invite as many prostitutes as possible to join in their petitions, and these women [would] add their supplications to the goddess and later [be] present at the sacrifices” (Deipnosophists 13.573c). Further, it was the custom for the city to celebrate a festival of Aphrodite for the prostitutes (13.574b-c). The lyricist Pindar wrote in their honor: Young girls, who welcome many strangers with your hospitality, ministrants of Persuasion in rich Corinth—who on the altar send up in smoke the auburn tears of fresh frankincense the many times that ye fly in thought up to the Mother of the Loves, heavenly Aphrodite, upon you, my children, free from reproach, she hath bestowed the right to cull the soft beauty in your desired embraces. When Necessity requires it, all things are fair. (Athenaeus Deipnosophists 13.574a).”

[6]  See Ernest D. Burton and Apostle Paul, “The Correspondence of the Apostle Paul with the Church in Corinth,” The Biblical World 6, no. 4 (1895), http://www.jstor.org/stable/3149175; D.E. Garland, First Corinthians (Baker Publishing Group, 2003); Bruce M. Metzger, David Allan Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, Word Biblical Commentary.

[7] “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

[8] On a Reformed view of sanctification, see, e.g., Peter Toon, Justification and Sanctification (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1983).

[9] On the issue, the approach to it, and the fate of the matter of food offered to idols at Corinth, see John C. Brunt, “Rejected, Ignored, or Misunderstood? The Fate of Paul’s Approach to the Problem of Food Offered to Idols in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 31, no. 1 (1985), http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0028688500012959.

[10] I am indebted to the indisputably fine and enduring scholarship of the great Charles Hodge in my understanding of the text. See Charles Hodge, 1 Corinthians (Wheaton, Ill.; Nottingham: Crossway, 1996).

[11] For a study of first century rabbinical Judaism and its influence in this context, consider James Scott, “Analysis of Rabbinical Judaism,” The Old Testament Student 4, no. 8 (1885), http://www.jstor.org/stable/3157134; John Riches, The World of Jesus: First-Century Judaism in Crisis, Understanding Jesus Today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[12] For a study in this phenomenon consider “Index,” in Early Christian Ireland, ed. T. M. Charles-Edwards (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

[13] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (2017).

[14] οἴδαμεν from οἶδα (oida): vb. . . . 1. to know, possess information about . . .” From James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament)(Electronic Ed.). Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems (Inc, 1997).

[15] “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).

[16] See, e.g., Tom Doyle and Greg Webster, Dreams and Visions: Is Jesus Awakening the Muslim World? (Thomas Nelson Inc, 2012).

[17] In Luke 9:50: “But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.’” In Mark 9:39: “But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.’”