4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 31, 2021
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
“Can, But Won’t”
Grace and peace to you in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. Today the sermon is based on the Epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians 8.
My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
Sometimes, even though we can do something, we don’t do it so that someone else doesn’t get hurt. I’d sum it up this way: “Yes, I can, but, no, I won’t.”
I remember when I was attending the Seminary and finances were an every-day concern for every student. However, God richly blessed and provided for me and I had more than enough. One day I received a letter from a Men’s Group in Illinois that wanted to send me $100 month in support. A classmate of mine had 4 children and was getting less monthly financial help than I was. I wrote back to the Men’s Group, thanked them for their offer, and then suggested they instead send the money every month to my classmate and friend. I never told him about it, reminding myself of Matthew 6:3 – “when you give…do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” I could have told him, but I chose not to. Can, but won’t.
The apostle Paul is setting forth that same principle in this Bible passage today: “Now concerning food offered to idols . . .” (v 1). I know these verses sound strange. Food sacrificed to idols. Not eating meat. What’s this all about? Back in Corinth, you would find all sorts of temples and shrines to various idols and false gods. Animals would be sacrificed and the meat of those animals would be split three ways. First, some would be left at the altar for the false god. Second, some would be eaten by people who worshiped there, often in special meals or celebrations. Third, the rest would be taken to the marketplace and sold.
Now, some of the members of that Corinthian congregation said, “We know those are false gods. We know the idols are just wood or gold or stone. We know there’s just one true God. We know this food isn’t going to get us any closer to Jesus or push us further away. It’s just plain food because those idols don’t really exist anyway. We can go ahead and eat this meat. Why not?” In the church, however, were some people who had been very involved in those kinds of sacrifices. They couldn’t separate the eating they were doing now from the eating they were doing when they were worshiping the false gods and idols before. So their conscience was hurt. Their conscience was weak because to eat this meat would lead them back to the idols and away from Jesus.
Paul steps into the situation. He isn’t talking about things that are definitely wrong here like the actual worship of idols. Of course that’s wrong. And he isn’t dealing with adultery, stealing, getting drunk, or other things that are forbidden. No, he’s talking about this gray area of whether we can eat this meat or not…an adiaphoron.
Paul says, “Yes, you can eat this meat, at least in the privacy of your home, since you know the idol is a fake, and you don’t at all mean to worship it.” But what about when you’re with other people at your home or eating at church as a congregation? Can you eat the meat that had been sacrificed to idols then? Well, here the principle we started with comes into play, “Yes, I can, but, no, I won’t because it might hurt someone I’m with.” See, they might think eating the meat that was sacrificed to idols means it’s okay to worship the idol too. Out of love for the brother or sister who could stumble, even though you could, you don’t. Can, but won’t.
Now, how could you apply this since we don’t have the same problem of meat sacrificed to idols today? Well, is it okay to have a glass of wine? Yes, of course it is. Now, we’re not talking about getting drunk. The Bible says that’s wrong. But we can have something to drink. But let’s take it to where the apostle Paul comes into play. Did you know that in the United States, 5% of adult Americans have an alcohol use disorder (2019)? That’s more than 14 million people. I once attended a family workshop for addicts at Glenmore Recovery Center. The facilitator asked family members to think of “triggers” for addicts, that is, things they see and experience that tempts the addict to use. We came up with a list of about 15-20 things. Then they brought the addicted family members in. They easily came up with 40 more triggers…things we would have never thought would trigger them to use, but there it was. We quickly found out that there are things we can have around, but probably shouldn’t. Can, but won’t.
How does this play out for those of us in church? Can you take a drink? Yes. But, if you know somebody is there who has troubles with alcohol, it’s the time to say: “No, I’m not going to drink. I’ll have water or juice or soda or whatever instead.” You say no because you don’t want to hurt someone by somehow encouraging that person to take a drink, which would lead to a fall back into problem drinking. I know I can, but for the sake of someone else, the love I have for my neighbor, my brother or sister in Christ, this time I won’t do it. Can, but won’t.
Some people have trouble with spending money. They can’t keep their credit cards in line, and they are in debt. If you have an opportunity to go out with that person and know the difficulty they have with finances, then the invitation is not to go shopping but to do something else. Could you go shopping? Yes. But for the sake of someone who could stumble into some sin, you don’t. The same holds true for gambling and sexuality and certain kinds of unhealthy foods. I can…but I won’t. For the sake of someone else.
There are other areas in life in which this same principle applies…can, but won’t. Despite how difficult things have been or may yet become, we can but we won’t give up. We can but we won’t stop praying. We can, but we won’t ever lose hope, for our hope in all of life’s challenges are found in Christ.
Jesus died for our brother or sister in the Church. He has died for you and me as well. Now Jesus could have opted out. He could have said, “I’ll just stay in heaven and not worry about the people in need of forgiveness.” He could have done that. But he didn’t. He did what we needed so we would become his brothers and sisters in his Church. We have only one Savior, one Lord, and his name is Jesus. By his sacrifice, he forgives us. As Jesus has sacrificed himself for us, he wants us to sacrifice our rights for others. In love, we do what we can to keep our brother or sister in Christ from stumbling into some sin by using a simple principle…Can, but won’t.