I Corinthians 8:1-3
In these COVID times, we have debated the meaning of freedom in a democratic society. We are a country that has prized rugged individualism – like many of you, I grew up with John Wayne and the Marlboro Man – and this individualistic streak had led to tensions about whether bars, gyms, and restaurants should be open during a time of pandemic. Pastors have protested infringement on First Amendment rights, when governments seek to limit worship attendance or shut down public spaces, including churches, in response to the pandemic. Masks and safe distancing have become political, and people have rallied against rules requiring masks. Even former teen actor Kirk Cameron sponsored maskless Christmas carols on a California beach to protest what he perceived to be an attack on Christianity by public officials who put safety and public health over unrestricted worship.
In the light of this time of protest and pandemic, Paul’s discussion of food sacrificed to idols seems irrelevant. I don’t recall ever eating a pot roast sacrificed to Hera or Zeus, or enjoying a plate of enchiladas sacrificed to Poseidon or Mercury or Athena or Hades? I didn’t toast Thanos or Thor or Wotan on New Year’s Eve!
Yet, beneath this apparent era piece from the hand of Paul is a guide to responsible freedom and relationships. After noting that the ancient gods and their and their statues are idols with no power over us, Paul asserts that what we do in public and our civic relationships should be guided by our love for our neighbors, especially those who look up to us and who might be harmed by behaviors we perceive as innocent or unimportant.
Paul is saying that although Christians are not hemmed in by social mores or religious rituals, our responsibility to God’s children should be at the heart of our behavior and lifestyle. Your freedom ends when it may harm another whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Though we are freed in Christ, Paul asserts that our religious freedom is not absolute. Nor are any other of our freedoms as Christians. Property or gun rights are not absolute. The freedom to choose not to wear a mask is not absolute. The freedom consume is not absolute. For followers of Jesus, all these freedoms are judged by their impact on others.
Many of us don’t drink around people who have substance use issues. Others of us modify our conversation themes around our children and grandchildren. We want to be good influences. We don’t want to add to their anxiety. We want to be good ancestors of younger generations.
Paul’s point is that our lives are not our own to do with as we wish. He is not weighing in on private behaviors, but he is saying that whatever is public, and there is a thin line between public and private, must bring the wellbeing of others into account and add to the health of our communities. That our freedom is always intended to support the wellbeing of others.
We are part of an intricate fabric of interdependence. What I do radiates beyond myself to shape those around me, the nation, the environment, and the planet.
Paul is suggesting that we use our freedom with mindfulness and intentionality. That we ask, “what kind of influence will we have on others?” What kind of person do I want to be? And let that guide my actions.
Though I fail often, I try to be guided by the question, “what would Jesus do? What does God want me to do? Am I doing something beautiful for God?” in my daily decision making regarding domestic and professional life, finances, relationships with friends, family, and citizenship.
What we do matters? Let your freedom bring joy and the healing to the world!
Today, in this time of pandemic and protest, our sense of freedom must include larger and larger circles of concern. It must include sacrifice as well as self-expression. Our lifestyles can be a matter of life and death to species and generations beyond ourselves. Our failure to see our economic or racial privilege can lead to violence and poverty and the perpetuation of systemic injustice and racism in our courts and businesses. Our fixation on our nation first to the exclusion of other nations may lead to millions of deaths from malnutrition and pandemic.
Paul is not presenting us with an either-or choice. We can act freely and we can also be responsible to others. As Paul says in Galatians, “for freedom Christ has set us free, don’t subject yourself again to bondage.” Be creative, enjoy your life, express yourself. Also be responsible: consider the impact of your lifestyle and behavior on others, reflect on our nation’s priorities and their impact on the wellbeing of our citizens and the planet.
This may mean sacrifice. It does mean going beyond rugged individualism and self-interest. You can take great initiative, explore unknown lands, use our imaginations and then create something wonderful and still care for your neighbor.
Yes, be free and be loving. Grace abounds and you can be a source of grace to children, neighbors, friends, and our community by acts of responsible freedom and genuine kindness. Thanks be to God.