Life, I’m sorry to say, is not about us. It isn’t about me and it isn’t about you. But we can be tricked into thinking it is. I mean, we live inside this head, this body of ours. We look out through our eyes and we can turn around 360 degrees so that it looks like we are at the centre of everything. If life was a movie, it’s like we are the main character in our own autobiography. If life was a book, it’s like we are telling the story in our own first person narrative. On Wednesday night, we can be watching the soccer and Australia qualifies for the World Cup again. It’s like the best thing that ever happened to me. But the next day, we can drive up the main street of town, but we can’t find a parking place, and we think, why does this sort of thing always happen to me? We waste our lives worrying about what people think of us, never realising that most people hardly think about us at all. We are so caught up in being the hero of our own story, that we forget that we are only an extra or a minor character in other people’s stories.
Because life isn’t about me, although you already knew that. But it isn’t about you, either. Really, truly.
Today we are looking at the last of the five reformation slogans. To the glory of God alone. Previously, we’ve looked at Scripture alone, and how the books of the Bible are the final authority of the church’s faith and practice. Secondly, we looked at Christ alone. He is the king of kings and the lord of lord, the mediator between God and humanity, our only Saviour. Thirdly, we looked at grace alone. That our new life in Christ, our salvation is rooted in the mercy of God. We were dead in our sin, but God raised us to life with Christ. Fourthly, we looked at faith alone. God saves us by his grace, but his salvation is made ours through faith, not through any works. God saves us not because of what we’ve done, but despite what we have done.
But even then it is possible to fool ourselves into thinking that our salvation is all about us. That I have been saved from my hell, for my heaven where I will live forever with all the ones I love. It’s just another way we try to put ourselves in centre stage.
But even here our salvation is just a part of God’s victory over evil, of the renewal of his creation and the accomplishment of all his purposes. The Bible begins, “In the beginning God created”. And it ends with the prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” And in between we have only a very minor role to play in God’s story. Because life isn’t about me. And it isn’t about you. It’s about God. Life tells his story, and we are privileged to watch it unfold and to play our very small part in it.
Paul makes that clear in 1 Corinthians chapter 10. The believers at Corinth had asked Paul a question about meat. Meat has always been a sensitive issue. Every culture, every civilization ever has had its meat taboos. What animals can be eaten and what can’t be eaten. It’s a touchy subject at best because, although meat is an excellent source of protein, it is also a potentially dangerous source of disease. In our culture we eat herbivores and not carnivores. We are so controlled by these taboos that we aren’t even aware of them. But you only have to travel to south east Asia to find out that not everyone feels the same way. In many countries those meat taboos are enshrined in religious laws so that even when people don’t understand the rules, they keep them.
Now the specific issue in Corinth was that meat would be brought to the temples. Some of the meat would be offered as a sacrifice to the gods. The rest of the meat would be left with the priests who would eat some themselves and sell the rest to the butchers. So the question that Paul is answering in today’s passage is, Can we eat that meat? Can I go to the butcher and buy some meat and take it home and cook it and eat it? Can I go to a friend’s place and eat the meat he puts in front of me?
Earlier in chapter 10, Paul answers a very different question. There the issue is, If my friend is having a party for his god, for his idol, am I allowed to go? The answer then is No. But in our passage, the question simply is, Can I eat the meat? Can I eat the meat when there is no other religious context to the situation except the fact that the meat has probably been dedicated to a pagan god? Is the meat defiled by that dedication or is it just meat?
Paul begins with general principles in verses 23 and 24, like you would prepare the soil before planting the garden or like you would choose a canvas before painting a picture.
“Everything is permissible”, he says, but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”, but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
Our church Bibles put those words “everything is permissible” in inverted commas on the assumption that it sounds like a slogan that the Corinthian church was using. As if they were saying, “Christ has set me free. I can do whatever I want. I am free from the law, you can’t tell me what to do.” It’s probably true that there was a Corinthian slogan like that, because it’s not the sort of thing that the apostle Paul would say. Yes, we are set free by Christ. Yes, we are saved by grace. Yes, we are justified by faith and not by our good works. But we certainly haven’t been saved in order to do whatever we want. We are not saved by good works, but for good works.
So, yes, we have been set free. But we have been set free from the kind of self-centredness that thinks that everything revolves around us. And we have been set free for the true freedom that is found in service of the kingdom of God. The real essence of sin is rebellion against God. It is daring to sit on the throne of our life as if we were king or queen of our own little kingdom. But to come to faith in Christ, to trust him as saviour and Lord, is to abdicate from the throne, to step down and to put Christ upon it. To find our true humanity in escaping from the little bubble of our life that is all about my life and my family and people like me who think like I do, in order to discover a world full of people who aren’t like us who like us have been created in the image of God.
What Paul invites us to in verses 23 and 24, is to leave the way of self and to walk in the way of love. In which everything may be permissible, in which there may be a ton of things that you can do and are allowed to do, but which may not be good for you or for others. Paul’s appeal, in fact, is not to seek our own good at all. But rather to seek the good of others.
In Paul’s competitive age, it would have sounded as revolutionary as it does in our more selfish age. In the Roman empire of Paul’s day, a man was meant to look after himself first, to love his friends and to hate his enemies and to never miss a chance to score a point against a rival. Not to do so was not to be a real man.
But in Jesus Christ we find the pattern of our true humanity. In the man who never used his power to help himself, and who always used his time for others. Who gave his all for others. This is the love to which we are called. Life is not about coming first, but about sharing God’s victory with others.
Paul applies those principles in the rest of chapter 10.
“Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”
This is our freedom. Meat is just meat. Even if it was offered to an idol, it doesn’t carry with it any taint of idolatry. It’s just meat. Even if the shoulder was offered to Zeus and the leg was eaten by the priest of Aphrodite and the rump was served at a feast for Poseidon and you bought some chops, it’s just meat. You are free to enjoy this great source of protein. In fact, Paul quotes from the Old Testament. Psalm 24.
The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.
Meat and flesh don’t belong to the devil, they are a gift from the Lord. Halal meat is just meat. You might not like Halal meat because you think it is a capitulation to Islam. You might not like it because the money ends up at the Lakemba mosque and maybe funds terrorism. But if I eat it, it’s just meat. You can judge me, but would your accusation stand against me in God’s court room? To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten Halal meat, but I think I’ve eaten a Halal Mars Bar.
“If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.”
It’s just meat. Don’t even ask, Paul says, where it came from. Don’t ask you friend if she cursed the meal with voodoo or sang a hymn to Krishna while she cooked. The idolatry doesn’t stick to the food. Give thanks to God for it and enjoy it.
But the situation changes completely if there is another believer at the meal and they can’t cope with the Halal or the voodoo or the Lord Krishna. If they think the meat is tainted then you will never change their mind. And Paul urges us in that case to abstain from the meat. Not for your sake. There’s nothing wrong with the food. It can’t endanger your immortal soul. But for the sake of the weaker Christian brother or sister. Because what is the point of enjoying food if doing so injures another person?
As Paul says in Romans chapter 14,
“the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Or what is the point of destroying the work of God for the sake of food? I can eat the meat. I am allowed to eat the meat. Everything is permissible. But not everything is constructive. So if eating hurts a brother or sister then it undoes all the other good I’ve done. All I’ve done is shown everyone that my freedom is more important to me than anything else. Which is not the way of Jesus.
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
Now that is the way of Jesus who dedicated his life to his Father’s will, who served us in order to bring glory to his Father, who defeated sin and death, not to enjoy that victory all alone, but to share it with us, who did not make himself the centre of attention in order to leave us an example to follow. So if you can enjoy something and give thanks for it, because it is part of God’s good creation, go ahead. God is not a killjoy. Satan is the one who kills joy. Jesus went to a wedding and turned the water into wine. Jesus ate and drank with sinners and was called a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus loved life and loved all life. But if a Christian brother or sister has a particular scruple, then we are not to flaunt our freedom in their face as if our freedom is more important than love. Because nothing is more important than love. Because love shows that we know that life is not all about us. So whether you eat or drink or work or play or sit or stand or sleep do it all for the glory of God.
And so to wrap things up: the five alones of the Reformation tell a story. It is the story of the victory of God. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, who is revealed in Scripture alone. But all this happens from beginning to end, from “In the beginning God” to “Come, Lord Jesus, come” for the glory of God alone.