Comeback, Week 1 — The “The Rules Of Re-Entry” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Should have been delivered 20 years ago.  And then again 10 years ago.  And then again five years ago.  It touches on sometimes so deeply Christian and yet almost un-American that I found it too easy to put on the backburner;
  • Was likely to antagonize some on the right side of the political spectrum and alienate others on the left;
  • Drew parallels between “meat sacrificed to idols” and “masks worn during pandemic”;
  • Landed at this bottom line:  God is not impressed with the strength of your opinion but with the depth of your sacrifice. 


So in space travel, as you may know but none of you have actually DONE, RE-ENTRY is more dangerous than exit. Coming BACK is harder than going OUT. You see, launching out, mathematically speaking is relatively easy (as if anything is easy in … rocket science). You gotta have thrust, propulsion, explosion, and bam there’s enough to get out of the atmosphere. Coming back? Whew! If you go too fast the ship burns up like a meteor; if you go too slow it bounces off the atmosphere and back into space. The former is what happened to Columbia and the latter is what they were scared would happen to Apollo 13. The speed, angle, and piloting has to be just right and that’s why the rules for re-entry are both extensive and extensively followed.

You know, we’ve been in a space oddity for a few months, haven’t we? Launched out of the atmosphere, into the nether regions of outer space, a realm and an existence none of us knew about or were prepared for, and I just want you to know that as a congregation re-entry will be much more precarious that departure was. Coming down – or back – really will be the hardest thing, both as individuals and as a church community. So I want to talk to you a few minutes about some rules for re-entry – rules you have likely never thought of but desperately need to hear. Because although we are a large & diverse body, we are made up of individuals and opinions and backgrounds and potentials and I don’t want to burn up and break apart as we come back too quickly. But I don’t want to lose our good momentum and bounce off the atmosphere and wander into the weightlessness of church mediocrity if we go too slow.

And to do all that we’re going to move from the Space Age to the bronze age, from Cape Canaveral to Corinth, and from rocket ships to meat sacrificed to idols. And it’s all going to work, I promise! Here’s what was going on in the ancient city of Corinth, where idol worship was rampant and where meat was a delicacy. In the pagan religions, they would take some meat, offer it as a sacrifice to, say, the goddess Aphrodite or the god Hermes, and then later take that same meat and eat it. Aphrodite, I love you so much here’s my filet! Oh, my bad, I need it back now. Guess what? This STILL HAPPENS IN India as in this photo (AV, Thayer), the temple in the back was the first stop for the meat that the restaurant in the front served.

But here was the dilemma in the church world. Half of the people in the Corinthian church had NO PROBLEM with eating that meat themselves since they knew that the idols to whom they’d been sacrificed weren’t real anyway! Fake gods, good meat, good God let’s eat!!! I’m not gonna let it go to waste, so give me seconds please. And these confident folk had strong opinions on their freedom to eat what they wanted. As you might suspect.

But the OTHER half of the church was extremely bothered. Maybe they had worshipped idols themselves and so felt residual guilt. Or maybe they just couldn’t rid themselves of the negative connotations associated with that dedicated meat. Whatever, it was a huge deal to this group and, get this, not only could they not eat the meat but were extremely bothered to be around people who did! By the way, this was enough of an issue to Paul himself that he addresses it not only in the letter to the Corinthians, but also in his epic to the Romans, where he deals with the SAME subject using the SAME language AND reaches the SAME conclusion.

So: what to do? On a matter that’s admittedly “gray” – Scripture is silent, the Great Tradition is silent – what do you do. When you’re dealing with issues of strong conviction – MEAT! NO MEAT! – but that are not at the center of the faith, what do you do. Because this crisis in Corinth & Rome didn’t have to do with Jesus, heaven, hell, sex, marriage, salvation – the core stuff – but the gray matter. In some ways it reminds me of my arrival in Monroe 30 years ago now. And I’d never lived in a place where mowing the lawn on Sunday was a violation of deeply held conviction. I was like “I already work on what you’re calling the Sabbath (which, biblically, was Saturday!) so it’s not a deal to me but to you, yes. Or in other areas, things like drinking alcohol, attending movies, even listening to rock music … these gray areas with strong opinions. How do you hold a church together in the midst of opinion strength?

Well, Paul’s answer TO BOTH CHURCHES is overlooked, underappreciated, deeply part of who I am and yet rarely taught because it is so … un-American? Look at the answer in I Cor 8:9:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.

Your rights are their stumbling block. Look at Romans 14:13:

13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.

Huh, there’s that stumbling block language again. Then Romans 14:15:

15 If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.

Brother DISTRESSED. Back to I Corinthians at 8:11:

11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.

Brother DESTROYED. Either their faith in Christ, the church, their self-confidence – all of it – destroyed. Relational collateral. And Paul’s summary? Given AS ONE WHO HAS A STRONG OPINION HIMSELF THAT IT’S OK TO EAT THE MEAT? I Cor 8:13:

13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

And again Romans 14:21:

21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.

Same thing. Oh Lord … you have the right, you just don’t use it.

You have the opinion, you just don’t express it. In how the church interacts with itself, you don’t tell people to “get over it,” or “deal with it,” or “it’s my right.” All that IS American, it IS constitutional … it’s just not Christian. Or biblical. Guess which has priority for us?

Because here’s the takeaway, the rule for re-entry: God is not impressed with the strength of your opinion but with the depth of your sacrifice. In the USA we demand our rights. In the church we already have them … and choose not to use them. The greatest evidence of the Gospel freedom you have is the restraint you show in using it. You may have the right to your opinion, but in church land you have the privilege not to express it!   God is not impressed with the strength of your opinion but with the depth of your sacrifice.

Do I really have to make you think very hard to realize the way this truth intersects with life today and those of us preparing for re-entry? It’s this: MASK. Our world has quickly divided into Mask Wearers and Mask Refusers with Mask Shaming going on on both sides. So in church, we’ll return over the next several weeks and a number of you (and I’m one of you!!!) are like “I’m not wearing that. I’m not sick. It’s annoying. It’s probably going to be disproven anyway. IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH IT, DEAL WITH IT.” Guess what?   God is not impressed with the strength of your opinion but with the depth of your sacrifice.

The biblical truth, the Xn attitude, the way we deal with each other in LifeGroups and ServeTeams and most especially Worship Gathering is: “my preferences surrender to your comfort.” That is 100 % Paul (and 0% Patrick Henry, but we study Paul more anyway). Paul could have said “I like meat. If you have a problem with my filet, that’s your deal not mine. Deal with it.” But did he? No! It’s I Cor 8:13:

13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

Whoa. That’s not representative of the nation but it is of the kingdom. Which is where our citizenship is anyway. And if our citizenship is there we get to act like the citizens we are.

Some of you have never heard this before. That’s in part on me. I haven’t done a lot of teaching on the macro level on how we treat each other inside because by and large we do a pretty good job and there have been plenty of other things for me to talk about. But this time is too important, this re-entry too precarious, and the biblical principle too clear for me not to. Because you mask averse, the more you say IN THE CHURCH that those who you’re making uncomfortable need to “get over it” the more you show … you do.   God is not impressed with the strength of your opinion but with the depth of your sacrifice.

But guess what? All you folks who wear masks and you’re pretty upset with those who don’t, especially if they’d come to a church gathering mask-less .. you’re not off the hook either. What does Paul say in Romans 14:10:

10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister[a]? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

You don’t know what causes someone to decide what they do … could be asthma. Could be claustrophobia, could be a skin condition, could be a suspicion that it’s not gonna matter anyway. They’re not being insensitive, nor do they want people to die. I mean how often have we had to pivot in all this … remember how early on it was just wash your hands while singing the ABCs? Then that quickly escalated to stay at home orders and lockdown! We are all building a plane in mid-air and I personally choose to believe that mask wearing is not a sign of moral superiority any more than mask refusing is a sign of social wisdom. My great win will be when we return if I know some mask haters WEAR THEM BECAUSE YOU LOVE THE GOSPEL AND THE PEOPLE FOR WHOM JESUS DIED more than you love your own opinion!!! And my other great win will be if those of you who are admittedly more skittish see people maskless and react with joy and not judgment.   God is not impressed with the strength of your opinion but with the depth of your sacrifice.

Because the stakes are high, this shift from the right to have your opinion to the privilege of not expressing it. Meat eaters are stumbling blocks and destroyers of meat avoiders. Those of you who insist others “deal with” your rights & opinions do you know who you ultimately wrong? I Cor 8:12b:

you sin against Christ.

Oh you’re not just being a stumbling to another believer, you’re being blasphemous to the Savior. Gulp.   God is not impressed with the strength of your opinion but with the depth of your sacrifice.

Huh. Speaking of whom, do you know who else had opinions he didn’t feel obligated to express? Had rights he didn’t enforce? Had preferences that he surrendered to your needs. Yeah, the depth of his sacrifice, the laying aside of his rights, was all for your standing as his child. And I don’t tell you that to say some trite “be like Jesus” as if he is MERELY your role model. Oh no. I say it because I long for him to be your reigning king, animating you, breathing his life into yours, empowering you to live the kind of life you never could on your own – the kind of life where you don’t just tolerate but celebrate what kind of God we have who is  not impressed with the strength of your opinion but with the depth of your sacrifice.