Monday, August 19, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Freedom

Preached on Sunday, August 18, 2013

Scripture readings: Genesis 2:8-17; 1 Corinthians 8:1-3; 10:23-11:1

When I was eighteen, my good friend Danny met Jesus. He received a new life from Jesus. Danny had been raised a Catholic, and (for all I knew) he had been a serious Catholic. But this experience of Christ came to him in the setting of a Pentecostal prayer meeting.
Summer Vacation June 2013:
Town & Country - Live Oak CA, Sutter County, Butte County
So Danny became a Pentecostal. This meant that, if I was going to hang around with Danny, I had to also hang around with his new Pentecostal friends. This was tricky, because I was sort of a lapsed Presbyterian-Methodist type kid.
When the change in Danny took place, I was having a tricky time with myself. I was sorting out an old, fifth grade commitment to Christ. I was grieving over a calling to the ministry that first came to me when I was twelve. I was in the process of retracing my steps and surrendering to Jesus in a new way (although I had never stopped loving him). Because of Danny, I was also sorting out my relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Well, I wasn’t sorting things out. Jesus was sorting me out.
I had to let Jesus have his say. I came back to the church. I recommitted my life to Christ. I experienced being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues (as I continue to do to this day).
I still had to get along with Danny’s friends and this was not always easy. I liked his Pentecostal friends and they seemed to like me; except that we didn’t agree about a lot of strange things.
I remember talking to one of these kids and the conversation drifted into the subject of dancing. This kid said he didn’t dance.
I laughed and said, “Neither do I: I’m a terrible dancer!” Then he became very solemn and said: no, he didn’t dance, because he was a Christian. Christians didn’t dance. Dancing was a dangerous, slippery slope.
I didn’t dance because I was a terrible dancer. Dancing only embarrassed me. I would have danced if I felt freedom doing it.
A few years later, when I was in seminary, I met a girl named Donna, who was one of my fellow students. Donna loved to dance, and I loved to be with Donna. With our friends, we would go to a real disco place in Dubuque where they had a genuine disco floor lighted from underneath. The place even had a giant mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling and strobe lights. It was the seventies, even in Dubuque, Iowa.
I would dance on that disco floor with Donna, and she would have this big smile on her face. Maybe she was smiling because liked me, or maybe she smiled because I looked so funny, or maybe her smile came from a combination of both. She was doing what she loved, and I was with her.
I refused to care what I looked like because all of this made me happy, and I was thankful to God when I danced with Donna. I was blessed on what some Christians would have called a dangerous, slippery slope.
This relates to three chapters in First Corinthians where Paul writes about the problem of eating the meat that came from an animal sacrifice made in a pagan temple. Greek and Roman towns were full of temples to the gods and goddess of the ancient world. Not all the meat from those sacrifices could be eaten by the priests in those temples, or by the people who offered their sacrifices there. It wouldn’t keep, and so it was sold in the markets. The price of meat always went say down during the big pagan holidays.
Should a Christian eat the meat that came from those worship sacrifices that so many people made in their temples: to Juno, or Jupiter, or Venus, or Apollo, or Pomona? Should a Christian not eat such meat?
Paul says not to eat a sacrificial meal within a pagan temple. That would mean getting involved in pagan worship. That much should be clear.
But, what about just going to the meat market? Everyone knew that most of the product there came from the temples. What about going to the home of some old family friends or relatives who were not Christians, and eating the meat they might have gotten from making a sacrifice in a pagan temple?
Paul said (and I paraphrase), “Don’t worry about it. The claim of Christ over any part of God’s creation is infinitely stronger than any other association, even with the ancient gods.” (This is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 10:25.) “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (1 Corinthians 10:25 and Psalm 24:1) Eat and don’t worry about it.
But what if someone brought up the matter of where the meat came from? Maybe the host was a good, honest host. They felt a need to warn you before you took a bite because they cared about you. They didn’t want you to go wrong or get in trouble with your God.
Maybe the warning would come from a fellow Christian at the meal who was “in the know” and nervous about what they should do. They wanted to know what you would do.
In that case Paul told his friends not to eat. This was because they should take seriously the consciences of the ones who warned them.
The ones who had warned them might be Christians who still felt the influences of the old gods that they had left behind. They felt this influence as a powerful thing; a hard thing to change a hard thing to do without.
Because of your casual attitude, they might share the meal and be tricked by the memories and the influences of their old gods. They might stumble into losing their faith.
The ones who had warned you might be your non-Christian friends or family members. They might see you knowingly eating pagan meat and think that you were not serious about your own departure from the gods. If you, as a Christian, didn’t take your own new life seriously, then why should they; why should anyone else?
And so that pagan meat was a slippery slope. If it showed that Christians were just like anyone else, why bother. Or it might lead vulnerable Christians to temptations they couldn’t handle. Paul said that we should be careful about the influence our lives have on others.
For my old non-dancing friends dancing was a slippery slope. Dancing could lead to risky and tempting situations. Dancing could lead you to absorb immoral ideas from the songs and have those ideas creep into your life. If it had no slippery effect on you, then your dancing might still have a slippery effect on others.
Paul said that meat didn’t really matter, and yet it might matter to someone, and that was what mattered. We know very well that meat offered to idols is not an issue because we shop in places like Wal-Mart, or Costco, or Win-co.
For us, the issues are other things: what and how we drink; how we relate to the opposite sex; what we watch on television or the internet; how we do business; how we talk and function in the church or in the community. Even if we don’t mean anything by it, even if we don’t find our selves on a slippery slope where we are getting out of control, it still can have an effect on others. Paul wanted us to deal with the dangers of freedom and realize that the freedom of the Christian life is a path that requires us to be thankful and joyful, and also to think.
This is the bigger issue that wanted us to understand. “Why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?” (1 Corinthians 10:29) In other words, why should my freedom be restricted by how another person might react to my free actions?
If my non-dancing friends had seen the way I danced with Donna they might have laughed at what a klutz I was. They might have seen that there was no slippery slope except for my own feet.
Or they still could have taken it seriously. They could have been scandalized by it: “And you’re going into the ministry! Oh, but you’re a Presbyterian, so you don’t count!”
Why should I even care what they thought? Whatever they thought wouldn’t be my problem. It would be their problem.
What if “what should I care” was the right way to think about it? What if they were being narrow, and judging, and self righteous? Now that would be a dangerous, slippery slope! Their huffiness might turn out to be their own slippery slope to sin and hell. They might see foolish I was, and how much wiser they were, and that be much worse for them than it would be for me.
It would have been a matter of how much they knew (or thought they knew), and how much they did not love. Paul wrote, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) They might have been tempted to know good and evil the way they thought that God knows it without trying to love the way God loves.
This is an old, old sin. It’s as old as the Garden of Eden. There were two trees at the center of the garden: the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And they were both good trees with good fruit, but the Tree of the Knowledge of God and Evil was both good and dangerous.
We know that both trees were good because everything that God had made was good. Everything in Eden was good. There were rivers in the garden. The rivers (like the forbidden fruit) were both good and dangerous; but they were not nearly as dangerous as the goodness of the knowledge of good and evil, and so they were not forbidden.
Knowledge is a good thing. The serpent (the Devil) told the truth there. But knowledge, in the Bible, means intimacy with the things you know.
If we become intimate with evil (even when we are also intimate with goodness at the same time) we are in danger. We don’t know how to do it they same way that God does.
Our intimacy with evil divides us from God, and from others, and even from our own well-being. If we choose the knowledge of evil over and against the protective warnings of God then we end up choosing knowledge and experience over God. We choose knowledge over love.
Paul found that the Christians in Corinth were tempted to choose knowledge over love. They were tempted to choose their spiritual knowledge of the real harmlessness of meat offered to idols over the well being of others. They were choosing their mature Christian freedom over their love of others for whom Christ died; and so they managed to choose the knowledge of Christ over the love of Christ that had saved them.
In a sense (by choosing knowledge over love) they had even chosen not to think. Their priorities were in serious trouble.
It was the sin of Eden, where Adam and Eve chose a forbidden good over their love for God and for each other. Their knowledge of good and evil came from their resistance to trusting and loving. This changed them to the core of their being and altered human nature. Their nature because human nature as we know it today.
They traded their trust in God for an intimacy that they supposed would make them like God. And yet their choice made them less like God than God had created them.
Their own choice vandalized the image of God within them. It made them less than they had been before. It made them less able to love each other. It made them less able to do each other good.
Because of their choice, we want the knowledge of our rights more than we want what is good for others. We want to think what we want, and to say what we want, and to do what we want. We are our own little gods (and “God knows best”)
It is the nature of God to gear what he thinks, and says, and does in order to do us good. God shapes what he thinks, and says, and does in order to restore us to fellowship and harmony with him and with each other. God came down from the bliss, and the happiness, and the freedom of heaven, in Jesus, to redemptively love us on the cross.
God truly knew good and evil as no one else can. He had true intimacy with both. God’s intimacy with good and evil meant, for him, doing us good by bearing on the cross the evil that we had chosen for ourselves.
For God, knowing good and evil meant saving us from sin like a bystander might run into the earthly hell of a burning building in order to save a child trapped in the fire. God chose to know our evil in order to save us because we were trapped by a fire that we (as humans) had set for ourselves.
This is the measure of God’s love on the cross. We do not always love the cross when Jesus gives us the freedom to take up the cross and follow him.
Our cross often consists of caring about the good of others and thinking, saying, and doing what we hope will bring glory to God in the lives of others. This is very hard and inconvenient. So this becomes a cross we don’t want.
Our biggest worry is about how other people are interfering with our freedom instead of using our freedom for the good of others. This is often the freedom of serving others as opposed to the freedom of judging them.
This freedom of following Jesus for the good of others is one of the highest forms of freedom. If we could see this freedom as God sees it, it might have all the beauty of a dance. It doesn’t shout, “I will do this because I can!” It doesn‘t come from the non-dancers on the sidelines who shout, “I judge, because I know what good and evil is!” The highest form of freedom serves and shouts, “I will do this because I love!”
It’s a freedom like a dance. But you never do it because you can, you do it because (even though you really can’t) it is the dance of Jesus. Even though you can’t dance, you will dance because it gives you joy to do it with him. That is the kind of dance I did with Donna.

Paul wrote: “For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:33-11:1) That is how God measures his own freedom. That is where we see that freedom measured out for us on the cross. Let’s use this freedom for the love of Jesus.

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