4 Epiphany/Lectionary 4
February 1, 2009
1 Corinthians 8
Grace, Mercy, and Peace be to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians
calls the Christians there to reconsider how they live as children of God.
In response to the question, “Can Christians eat meat sacrificed to a pagan god?,”
Paul writes thirteen powerful verses about the nature of Christian freedom,
a freedom that is rooted in knowledge of salvation, yes,
but which is shaped by an ethic of love for neighbor
and a concern for the church’s public witness.
Corinth was a large, bustling, culturally diverse Greek city
the site of numerous pagan temples
and populated by people from all over the Mediterranean,
owing to its location as a commercial and cultural crossroads.
The Christians at Corinth were a religious minority – a very small minority –
yet were themselves a diverse community,
coming to Christ from different perspectives, histories and experiences,
most notably as Jewish Christians – Corinth is known to have had a synagogue –
but also as converts to Christianity from the many pagan cults
and belief systems that thrived in that city.
These Christians were divided
as to whether it was permissible to eat meat sacrificed to a pagan god.
Think about that question for a minute –
is it permissible for a follower of Christ to eat meat sacrificed to a pagan god?
Are you kidding me?
Imagine how our community might respond if the Arlington County Schools announced
that their new vendor for hot dogs and hamburgers was a firm called
Pagan Sacrificial Meats, Incorporated!
Do you think there’d be just a little bit of concern . . . or outrage?
Well, the cultural and historical contexts are different, for sure.
1st century Corinth was quite a different place than 21st century Arlington.
You see, much of the meat in the market in those days was sacrificed in those pagan temples,
and Christians often gathered with others – Christian and pagan –
in social clubs that met in these pagan temples,
sharing food that, yes, was sacrificed to pagan gods.
So . . . so they wanted Paul to give them some guidance.
Can Christians eat meat sacrificed to a pagan god?
Some in the Corinthian community were skittish about the whole idea,
perhaps especially those who had just converted from paganism to Christianity,
for eating such meat was part and parcel of their former practice as pagans,
yet now called to a new life in Christ, they were uncomfortable eating that meat,
lest they backslide in their faith and return to their pagan beliefs and practices.
But then others in the community at Corinth
likely those who came from a Jewish background,
people whose beliefs had long been of the monotheistic variety,
boldly professed their freedom from such superstitions,
claiming that they could eat such meat because there is only one God,
and thus this meat sacrificed to a pagan god is not really sacrificed to anything at all.
“We know there are no pagan gods or idols,” they might say.
“We know there is only one God, whose son is our Lord Jesus Christ.
We know that meat is meat, no matter how you slice it . . . so let’s eat!”
Of course, from a theological perspective this group of Christians –
whom Paul refers to as those “with knowledge,” –
is completely correct.
Eating meat sacrificed to a pagan god is not problematic,
since those pagan gods don’t really exist and there is only one God –
the God whom we worship and whose Son is the Lord –
there is only one God who provides the meat in the first place.
We are free to eat meat sacrificed to a pagan god.
Paul agrees with the argument of these “knowledgeable Christians,” saying in vs. 6,
“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.”
Nothing exists outside of our God. Period. Pagan gods are of no consequence.
Go ahead. Eat that meat.
What Good News that must have been to those Christians,
a tiny minority in a milieu populated with pagan gods and diverse practices.
What a sense of freedom such words must have given them,
that they needn’t worry about the meat and the spiritual world that surrounded them,
for their faith and life was grounded in Christ.
However . . . however, having such knowledge and freedom to eat is not enough.
Paul rebukes the theological hubris of these knowledgeable Christians,
saying right at the top, in verse 1 of our reading:
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
It is not enough to do what is theologically permissible,
to be guided only by what is theologically correct.
The exercise of theology – indeed, of all Chrisitan living –
must be rooted in knowledge of God and his salvation, yes –
that’s why Christian Education for all ages, is so important –
but theology and Christian living,
must also be shaped by an ethic of love for your neighbor.
From vs. 7 and following,
St Paul calls those knowledgeable Christians
to step into the shoes of the newer members of their Christian community,
of those – Paul uses the term “weak” – members for whom
backsliding into paganism is all too possible,
and he cautions them not to allow the way they practice their faith –
as appropriate as it may be on the surface–
to become a stumbling block to the weak.
What if others see you knowledgeable Christians eating in the pagan temple,
Paul asks in vs. 10,
might that not encourage the weak Christians to do the same?
Yet, in the fragile state of their faith, of their movement from paganism toward Christ,
eating in a temple might be just about the worst thing that they could do.
By eating in the temple – a perfectly permissible act in abstract –
you destroy your brother in faith.
Paul writes, “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.”
Let me, for a moment, name the awkwardness many of us might feel
at Paul’s characterization of some Christians as “weak.”
When I read that word I squirm quite uncomfortably.
Such language – so-and-so is a weak Christian, so-and-so is a strong Christian –
can be very problematic, judgmental, and lead us to a variety of sins . . .
Yet on the other hand, what I like about this language –
even if it lacks a certain 21st century tact or Lake Woebegone modesty –
is that it acknowledges that some in the community are new to the faith,
that some are less familiar and less formed
by the e
xperience of being in the church.
This kind of language doesn’t expect that everyone is in the same place
in their journey with Christ,
or that all in the church share a uniform experience of faith.
Rather, this language and Paul’s argument in this chapter remind us that
the church and its long-standing members are called to constantly be aware of
those who are outside the bounds of the church,
or those who are at the periphery,
or those who are new to or young in the faith . . .
The long-standing members of the church, then, are called to adapt their ways,
out of love and concern for those newcomers to the faith and to the community,
so that those newcomers might not walk away, or be led astray,
by the actions of long-standing church members.
Consider the newcomer and their needs, Paul tells the church at Corinth.
Of course, this call to consider the newcomer,
to consider the ones who stand at the edge, or even beyond the edge, of our community,
is nothing unique to the 8th chapter of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians.
So much of the Biblical witness tells us of a God who crosses those boundaries,
who welcomes the outsider, who blurs the lines of who is in and who is out . . .
In two weeks we’ll hear the wonderful story from 2 Kings of the Assyrian general Naaman,
an outsider, an enemy of the chosen people of God,
who nonetheless receives God’s healing and blessing.
In today’s Gospel text we hear a story of God’s healing,
of Jesus casting out a demon from a sick man,
restoring him to health, bringing him back into the community.
From the Old Testament hospitality laws,
where honoring and caring for the foreigner was sacrosanct,
To the New Testament promise that in Christ there are no divisions –
no male or female, no Greek or Jew, no slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus –
throughout the Biblical witness we see that God calls all people to be his people,
God blurs those lines that we create,
God expands the ring of inclusion,
God pitches an extremely big tent.
And it begins with God’s act toward each and every one of us,
with that initial act of embrace and forgiveness in baptism,
that gift of grace and love that God extends to us, freely.
For we are quite unlike God,
in our mortality, our brokenness, our imperfections, our limitations.
Yes, by our nature we are outsiders to God,
outsiders on account of our sin and brokenness.
We are weak compared to God’s knowledge and strength.
Or, to use Luther’s words, we are beggars who can approach God only with open hands.
Yet this God, who is everything that humanity is not,
is not content to stay in the hallowed halls of heaven,
but rather God chooses to come to us,
to break the boundaries of heaven and earth to unite all creation in his love.
Yes, God comes to us, beacons us, welcomes us.
God promises to make and remake us,
to forgive us and renew us and lead us,
to fill us with good things,
to make us into his body,
to be with us.
Dear friends, this is the Good News:
that God breaks the boundaries,
God reaches beyond the perfection of heaven to the imperfection of humanity,
God takes on our experience. God walks in our shoes.
God considers us all, and welcomes us in
The Lord’s table is always ready,
everyone – both within and beyond these walls – is welcome.
Thanks be to God. Amen.