We live in an age of unprecedented rights and freedoms. We may groan at the amount of democracy being flung at us at the moment (local elections, European elections… a general election? Another referendum?) but at least it is a blessing to have the right to express our views.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has a website entitled ‘Know Your Rights’. It tells us that we have old-age rights, disability rights, gender reassignment rights, marriage and civil partnership rights, pregnancy and maternity rights, race discrimination rights, religious discrimination rights, sex discrimination rights and sexual orientation discrimination rights.
A quick Google for the phrase ‘know your rights’ will return results that will tell you your energy tariff rights, your financial rights, your consumer rights, your right of reply, your right to vote, your rights if you’re ever stopped by the police and the fact that, in 1982, The Clash had a hit single entitled ‘Know your rights’.
Our forbears from past centuries would be amazed at the kind of rights and freedoms we enjoy today. We have a number of refugees and asylum seekers in our city – and in our congregation – who can see the real value of the rights and freedoms we enjoy; they would love to have permission to live here because of them.
In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul wrote three chapters all about knowing your rights… and then choosing not to use them. It is a very counter-cultural passage but a deeply Christian one. Our culture says ‘Know your rights and use them’. Paul says ‘Know your rights and choose not to use them’.
Why? What could possibly be more important than my rights and freedoms? Answer: other people. Specifically, other people’s relationship with Jesus. A relationship with Jesus is such an important thing that Paul says he would be willing to give up various things he is free to do if it would help someone grow in their relationship with Christ or if it would help someone come to know Christ in the first place. He says he was willing to give up his freedom to eat meat, his right to a wage and his freedom from Old Testament rituals, all in order to help people hear about Christ and grow as Christians.
It’s a real challenge to our self-centredness which naturally asks the question ‘What would I prefer?’ Paul instead asks the question ‘What would most help you?’ He puts it like this:
…whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1)
At first sight it looks like he’s just trying to keep everyone happy. But look more closely. When Paul says ‘I try to please everybody’, what he means is ‘I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved’.
When this sinks in, it stops church becoming a club which exists to meet the preferences of its members. Church becomes a place where we start asking the question, ‘Are we doing all we can here to help people get to grips with Jesus and grow in their relationship with Him?’ Once we start asking that question, we might find ourselves coming up with some uncomfortable answers… But Paul presses us: he says ‘Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.’
And who can argue with that?
With love in Christ,