Loving by Example
(1 Corinthians 8: 1-13)

I like to compare becoming a new police officer to becoming a new Christian. When I decided I wanted to be a police officer for sure it was like being born again. I knew in my heart that was what I wanted to do. Fortunately, to become a Christian, there is no background investigation or polygraph examination. You must, however, go to the police academy for instruction on the rules of the department and the laws of your jurisdiction. Kind of like understanding some of the rules we have in our Book of Discipline and the Ten Commandments or, for the lack of a better term, Sunday School. When you graduate from the academy you get assigned to a training officer where you learn by doing and by observing. Hopefully, you don’t get assigned to one of those trainers who says; “forget all that stuff you learned in the academy, I’m going to show you how a real cop works the streets.” Kind of like, forget what the Bible says, I’m going to tell you what it really means.

When I graduated from the academy in 1977 I was assigned to several different training officers for the first six months and then for the next six months, while still on probation, I was assigned to officers at random which could change daily. I was fortunate because I had some very good training officers for my six months and learned a lot. The next six months was a little different. One officer I rode with had to have his afternoon cocktail at 4:00 p.m. Another officer, right after roll call, would go to the hole and hide out only responding to calls when assigned by the dispatcher. His theory was that if you didn’t do anything you couldn’t mess up and get fired. I didn’t adopt either of those two practices into the way I performed my job. When I became a training officer I understood that it was up to me to set an example for my rookies and to be careful not to do anything that would eventually get them into trouble once they were on their own. The last thing I wanted was to be called into Internal Affairs and asked if it was true that I had, in fact, taught my rookie to do something in a way not in keeping with department policy.

That’s what I take away from our scripture lesson for today. We must be responsible Christians keeping in mind that our actions must not cause a weaker or new Christian to stumble or sin. Our scripture comes from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth that, without Paul’s presence, had fallen into divisiveness and disorder resulting in many problems. In this part of the letter, Paul addresses the issue of eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. Although they knew the idols were phony and the pagan ritual of sacrificing to them was meaningless, the practice of eating such meat offended Christians with more sensitive consciences. Paul said that if a weaker or less mature believer misunderstood their actions, the should, out of consideration, avoid eating meat offered to idols. What Paul is telling his readers is that as mature Christians, people new to the faith learn by watching what we do, how we worship, how we live out our faith. If what we do causes them to sin or go astray then, out of love, we should refrain.

We know what the end goal is, but the question is by what means do we arrive? Does the end justify the means? I think for Christians the means or manner in which we attain our end goal, is extremely important. People watch how we Christians live our daily lives and from those observations they decide if they want to be one of us. Because we are Christians, because we have come to God in faith, we are free, but our Christian freedom doesn’t mean anything goes. In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, Ephesians 2: 8-10, he says; you are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives. There are expectations. Christian freedom then, is inseparably tied to Christian responsibility. There are surely consequences to our actions. New believers are often very sensitive to what is right or wrong, what they should or shouldn’t do in certain situations. Some actions may be perfectly alright for us to do, but may harm a Christian brother or sister who is still young in the faith and learning what the Christian life is all about.

As I wrote this sermon I struggled to come up with a good example to help explain what I think the scripture means. God provides. I was watching one of my favorite cable news programs and the moderator was talking to the son of a well-known theologian. He began expounding on how one political party was trying to do the right thing and how the other party was doing all they could to prevent it. He said that the party in opposition to his preferred party was violating the teachings of Jesus Christ according to his interpretation of the scripture. I am prone to scream and talk back to the television at times. Maybe one day they will come up with an interactive tv. In any event, I uttered something along the lines of how dare he twist the teachings of Jesus just to support his political leanings! Can you imagine what people who don’t like us think when they hear something like that? And how about the new Christians who now assume this guy speaks with moral authority just because of who his daddy is. There’s never an assess jawbone around with you need one. Dang Philistine needed a good clubbing.

Paul best describes this earlier in his letter when he told them that he gave them milk because they were not ready for solid food as they were mere infants in Christ. They were not spiritually healthy and mature. We see that often when somebody suddenly comes to Christ. It’s like the parable of the four soils. There’s the one soil where the seed takes root and quickly grows but because its roots are not deep it dries up and withers in the noon day heat. We must prepare the soil so they can take root, and in the meantime, we must be careful not of offend a sensitive or younger Christian or, by our example, cause him or her to sin.

In Paragraph 105, section 4, of our Book of Discipline, Our Theological Task, we are told; as United Methodists, we are called to identify the needs of individuals and of society and to address those needs out of resources of Christian faith in a way that is clear, convincing, and effective. Theology serves the church by interpreting the world’s needs and challenges to the church and by interpreting the gospel to the world. In other words, we can’t be sending mixed messages. We have to be clear and convincing in our message whether it be to new Christians or out in the mission field.

The Apostle Peter describes us in 1 Peter 2: 2 as being like newborn babies, craving pure spiritual milk, so that by it we may grow up in our salvation, now that we have tasted that the Lord is good. Just as children want to grow up and be like their big brother or sister or like their parents, so to do new Christians who are like spiritual newborn babies that want to grow up to be just like mature Christians. Once we see our need for God’s Word and begin to find nourishment in Christ, our spiritual appetite will increase, and we will start to mature.

Our duty to God is to teach correctly from His Word, helping Christians to understand what is right and wrong in God’s eyes. And when we love one another, our freedom should be less important to us than strengthening the faith of a brother or sister in Christ. The question is; how strong is your desire for God’s Word and are you willing to show your love by example?

Please pray with me.

Most gracious and loving God, we know that like children you guide us and teach us your ways. You stand by us as we learn the hard lessons of life. You bring us along like babies nurturing us and helping us to grow into the strong and healthy followers that you would have us be. Help us to learn from the wisdom of mature Christians the paths that we should follow and as we grow in our relationship to you keep us mindful of our obligation to teach and mentor new Christians in your ways and not do anything that would cause them to fall away from you and sin. We walk this journey together with those who have also come to know you giving us the strength to face the challenges of life as a people united by your love, mercy and grace. In the name of your precious son, who loves each one of us individually as a brother or a sister, we pray, amen.