Friday, July 06, 2007

Is Christ Divided? session 9

Is Christ Divided?
Notes for the house groups on 1 Corinthians.

Week eight, beginning Sunday 8 July: 1 Corinthians 8

Main themes: Acceptable behaviour and conscience
Scandal (revisited)

Click 'full post' for text.

Questions to prompt discussion

1.What is the equivalent of an 'idol-feast' in our present time? That is, what are the idols of our present age, and how are they celebrated?
2.In the light of the answer to that question - are there things which Christians presently do without thinking which may in fact be harmful? And even if they are not harmful, are they ways in which the distinctiveness of the Christian witness is compromised?
3.To what extent should the behaviour of a Christian be governed by the effect of that behaviour on another Christian? Is Paul embracing a scale of faith, ie different categories of Christian belief?
4.How do you understand the term 'sacrifice'? Is there a single 'Biblical' understanding of it? And how does it relate to understanding both the Last Supper and the crucifixion?

Supplementary thoughts:
Here Paul is beginning a sequence which runs through to the end of chapter 11 and includes his teaching on the Lord's Supper - so this is quite important! Bear this in mind as the context for what Paul is teaching with regard to 'idol feasts'.

An idol is anything placed in the position of God. In the Corinthian context (and the Old Testament context) this could be something tangible, eg the Golden Calf, a representation of the Emperor, but it doesn't have to be - beliefs and world-views can also be idolatrous. The key point concerns how much importance something is given, how valuable something is perceived to be. Anything given excessive importance, in an individual's life or by the wider culture, is an idol. A Christian perceives that there is no final reality for an 'idol' - because there is only one God who is in charge of all things - but idolatry is undoubtedly a very real phenomenon with spiritual consequences, and this is something which Paul is concerned to emphasise (see chapter 10).

In the context of Corinth, the ways in which the idol-feast worked needs to be clarified. A sacrifice was essentially a big feast and celebration, which took place often within the temple itself - there was a separate 'dining area', which could be compared to a posh restaurant today. There would often be an excess of meat generated from the sacrifice (after the deity, ie the priests, had their share, and the family had theirs) which was then placed on general sale in the market. These feasts often had a very important societal function, and the implication from Paul's letter is that some of the Corinthian church members were continuing to take part in these feasts in order to preserve their position in the wider society. There was also the possibility of something darker - some sacrifices were more Dionysian, ie it wasn't simply a feasting but also an initiation into 'mysteries' and the use of cultic prostitution, which Paul criticises elsewhere (chapter 6 here, also Romans 1). Note that "punishment" is not a necessary element of sacrifice.

The 'stumbling block' of verse 9 is an important concept, which I tried to introduce in session 2, but my presentation of the point wasn't especially clear! There is a group of concepts in the New Testament which hang together, and need to be understood together, involving who Satan is and how he works - the stumbling block (in Greek: the skandalon) is a key part of this. Essentially Satan is the 'prince of this world' (John 12.31, 14.11, 14.30, 16.11). This does NOT mean that Satan created this physical world, over against God who created the spiritual world - that is gnosticism and absolutely opposed to Christian faith. No, Satan is the 'prince of this world' in the sense of being in charge of worldly things, worldly perspectives. Satan is literally 'the accuser', and the way in which a false group cohesion is fostered is through the exclusion of scapegoats, the ones who carry the sin of the wider group. In particular, Satan is in charge of 'the herd', or the 'group mentality' which seeks a scapegoat on which to lay the problems of the group (think of the role of the Jews in 1930s Germany, a good example of the Satanic perspective being given free reign). Finally, the stumbling-block is precisely the 'scandal', ie that which is offensive to this worldly mentality, this 'group think'. The point of Christian faith is that, through identification with Christ on the cross - the scapegoat crucified by the world - we are set free from these worldly patterns of thought. Therefore one hallmark of a Christian is precisely not "taking offence" - for the taking of offence is worldly judgement. As a redeemed sinner there is no place to stand over against a neighbour, thus there can be no exclusion, that exclusion which ultimately leads to murder (cf John 8.44). There are many places in the New Testament where this concept is used, although the translations often obscure the continuity (sometimes skandalon is translated as 'offence' or 'offend'): Ps 118.22 (quoted in Mk 12.10/Lk 20) Isaiah 8.12-15, 1 Peter 2 4-10 - if we can be 'not offended' by the cross - then we are saved
2.Mt 11.6 - "blessed is the one who takes no offence at me" - ie is not scandalised by Jesus
3.Mt 9.42 - whoever causes one of these little ones to be scandalised....
4.Mt 5.29 - if your right eye causes you to sin, literally 'if your eye causes you to be scandalised' pluck it out
5.Jn 16.1 - "these things I have told you so that you will not be scandalised" (go astray)
6.Jn 6.53-61 - teaching about communion - "Does this offend you?" - communion shares in the scandal of the cross

With regard to its use here in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is rebuking the elders of the Corinthian church for effectively giving Satan a renewed foothold in the life of the faithful: 'be careful that your freedom doesn't scandalise', otherwise the weak will be destroyed (verse 11) by being caught up in the world, they will 'fall into sin' (verse 13).

Notes on verses
v1 'puffs up' - makes arrogant, (consistent theme: cf 4.6, 4.19, 5.2, 13.4)
v3 note the passive sense of being known by God
v6 a very early creedal statement of Christ's divinity
v11 note the emphasis upon weakness and recall the second half of chapter 1

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