February 1, 2015
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.
4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ 5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords-- 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. 10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.
I can see it happening. A room divided, split by a center aisle. One man stands up and begins to speak. He is nicely dressed, conservative and classic. The room quiets as he raises a hand to begin his speech. With each remark, half of the room erupts in applause as the other half scowls. Approving nods on one side met in equal number with eye rolls on the other. As the man finishes speaking he sits down. Many arms crossed. Anger builds. No one moves.
The question is, what room am I describing? A community center? Congress? A church?
I was describing a congregational meeting I attended in my childhood church, but it pretty easily describes the scene at the most recent State of the Union Address, doesn’t it? And we’ve all seen video of contentious town hall meetings, I’m sure. It doesn’t take long to think of a time when each of us might have experienced something similar – a house divided, a battle of wills, both sides convinced they are “right.”
So who will win? Who is right? What does the law say? What does scripture say? Which side has the better argument?
These are the questions Paul is addressing in his letter to the church in Corinth that we read as our scripture passage this morning. The people have come to him with a dispute about food. Should the people be allowed to eat meat that has come from animals sacrificed to idols?
Much like our society today, Corinth was a bustling multicultural community with a wide range of religious practices and social classes. The Corinthian church had a strong faction of well-educated, well-to-do, relatively sophisticated members who believed that Christians should be free to eat meat offered to idols. Their reasoning made sense – Idols don’t exist, for there is no God but our God. Therefore, meat sacrificed to idols who don’t exist shouldn’t be a problem! It appears that the social life of the upper classes in Corinth revolved around frequent feasts, banquets, celebrations and public events held in banquet halls connected to the temples of the idols, and the well-to-do shopped in meat markets connected with the temples. Those who might choose to avoid meat connected with idol sacrifice would virtually exclude themselves from participation in the social life of Corinthian society. For them, it made no sense to abstain from participation just because the meat had been dedicated to a non-existent entity. For as Jesus said, “The Lord our God is one!” (Mark 12:29)
But the Corinthian church also included more ordinary working people. Blue-collar workers with a tighter budget, they were less likely to purchase meat for their families. Further, many of them were relatively recent converts to Christianity and eating or shopping for meat connected with temples of idols threatened their faith by drawing them back to the idolatrous cultures they had only recently left behind. Meat sacrificed to idols was a slippery slope for them, and as scripture says, it is better to cut off your hand than to sin… (cf: Matthew 5:30)
So who is right? Would Paul side with the well-educated, and their thoughtful argument, or the working-class with their commitment to following the law?
Paul begins by acknowledging the well-reasoned argument. “We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge,” he quotes looking toward the right side of the room, as they nod their heads with smug smiles. Paul affirms the perspective of the well-educated, agreeing that it is factually right. Idols are fake, false. Food has nothing to do with salvation, idols have no real existence, and Christians are free from the Law anyway.
One side of the room cheers in agreement, while the other silently glares.
“But just because you are right (in fact), doesn’t mean you are right (in spirit)….”
Paul now has their rapt attention, as he turns the tables around unexpectedly.
“But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak.” (v. 9)
At the heart of Paul’s message is the understanding that Christian freedom is grounded in love, God’s love for us I Jesus Christ. As Martin Luther interpreted it, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” As Christians we are both subject to no one but Christ and at the same time responsible for one another through Christ. We are both separate and bound.
For that reason, Paul says, relationships are an element of equal importance to the facts of any particular disagreement. If something is factually true, but harms a relationship or a person, it requires deep prayer and critical thought. In other words, faith is rarely black-and-white. When conflict arises, it is important to give equal weight to prayer, scripture, critical thinking and the care of relationships and people.
What I appreciate about this text is that Paul practices what he preaches. While agreeing with the well-educated elite, he also comes down pretty hard on those who would use their knowledge and education to repress or control others. But let us not think that Paul is putting down knowledge and study. Instead, he is asking us to think critically beyond blindly following any law, to consider multiple perspectives, and not to run away from difficult conversations and disagreements. He says that even though he agrees that the kind of meat doesn’t matter, he would still become a vegetarian for the rest of his life rather than harm those who would be hurt by his eating idol meat.
Boom! The aisle has been crossed. A bridge built through Christ. Relationships over being right.
This past week I attended a meeting of District 3 clergy from our denomination. At one point the conversation turned to “Theology on Tap” groups that have been fairly successful in bringing young adults together for conversation and study about God. These groups, which meet in local bars or restaurants where beer is served, always include a question or topic for conversation that addresses some challenging element of faith.
I brought up a Disciples pastor in Portland who has become fairly well-known for his congregation’s Friday night “Beer and Hymns” gatherings in their fellowship hall in which they serve craft beer and belt out favorite hold hymns with an upbeat rhythm. It’s a new twist on an old tradition –one that has some raising eyebrows even while it brings in lots of young adults who hadn’t been seen around the church prior.
One of the other pastors in the group spoke up, “I like the idea,” he said, “but I’d be concerned about those for whom alcohol is a problem.” He raised a valid point. Holding a Bible study at a bar might exclude or be a problem for recovering alcoholics. “Beer and Hymns” might be a slippery slope for young adults just learning their limit or a place of real struggle for others. We agreed that beer in itself is not the problem, and that its appeal and connection to a younger generation was worth consideration. But we also agreed that it would be important to talk with recovering alcoholics about how they feel about such programs, to set boundaries, and take care to have plenty of alternatives available. In conversation about a topic with lots of grey-area, consensus was that people mattered most.
This all got me wondering – what are the “idol meat” debates of today? What other grey areas do Christians struggle with? Surely, there are plenty of times when we divide ourselves: attitudes about biblical authority (how literally do we read scripture, and how much weight does it have in the debate?), whether we support war or call for peace, gun control, termination of pregnancy, the church’s response to climate change, same-gender relationships and the growing support of gay marriage both in state law and congregational polity. There are many “idol meat” conversations happening in our churches today – conversations in which multiple perspective can be grounded in scripture, come to through prayer, and fervently argued. Multiple perspectives…from multiple people.
One biblical commentator writes, “Paul wants his Corinthians friends and all of us to know that being certain of what is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, is not sufficient, even if one’s position is correct. Love is greater than knowledge!...Paul’s point is that when we hurt others, we hurt Christ himself because we cause pain in his body, the church. To hurt those for whom Christ died is to commit sin. Above all else, we are called to show reconciling love in the church, and that has a direct bearing on what we do and how we do it.” (V. Bruce Rigdon, Feasting on the Word)
In the end, it’s not really about idol meat. This scripture passage that seems strange and antiquated on the surface has quite a bit of truth for us to hear. That as difficult questions arise in our faith community – whether and how we support different social issues, what we commit to publically as a whole and what we agree to disagree on within, whether we come to our convictions through prayer, extended study, individual interpretation, or personal experience, whether we’re fighting with a coworker…what matters most is not whether our prayer, study, interpretation and conviction is “right” (because, let’s face it – we might be “right” some of the time, but probably we won’t be all the time.) As Paul teaches us, it’s not about whether we’re “right” but whether our words, actions and commitments “build up” others and expand the circle of God’s love.
It’s not about the meat. It’s about the peas we share.
No, not the peas…
It’s about the peace of Christ, the love of God, and the breath of the Holy Spirit that connects us all…It’s about the ethic of love that should ground and guide us.
It’s about belonging to one another.
Please pass the peace.