(1 Cor. 8:1-13)
Okay, so just what is Paul talking about in this scripture passage? There are those with knowledge and those without knowledge. There are those who think eating food sacrificed to idols is allright and those who don’t think it’s allright. There are the strong and there are the weak. But, just what kind of knowledge is he talking about? What is food sacrificed to idols? What makes someone strong and what makes someone weak? Just what is Paul talking about in this scripture passage?
In the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul is writing to a church that he established in Corinth, which was a Greek city under Roman rule. The church consisted of mostly pagan converts, but it also had a few Jewish converts. The people in the church were new Christians who were struggling to understand how their new way of life as Christians fit in with their old way of life. The issue Paul is addressing in this section of his letter is eating food sacrificed to pagan idols. Food sacrificed to idols was meat. As in the Old Testament, an animal would be sacrificed on an altar. The leftover meat was then either eaten by the people attending the sacrifice during a communal meal, or sold in markets associated with the pagan temples.
Meat was not a regular part of the diet of first-century people. If they could afford it, they could buy meat in the markets that were associated with pagan temples. Or, they could go to the sacrifices and eat the meat that was left over. Either way, they were eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods. Before the Christians in Corinth became Christian, eating sacrificed meat wasn’t a problem because the pagan gods were their gods and they believed in them. Now that they were Christians, however, and believed that there was only one true God, the God of Jesus Christ, what were they to do about eating the meat sacrificed to idols? Could they or couldn’t they eat it and remain faithful Christians?
Well, some of the Corinthian Christians, those who had a lot of spiritual knowledge and a strong faith, understood that the pagan gods didn’t really exist, so the meat couldn’t really be sacrificed to them, so it didn’t matter if you ate it. You weren’t eating meat sacrificed to idols because there were no idols. There were other Corinthian Christians, however, those who had less spiritual knowledge and thus had weak faith, who still believed that the meat belonged to the idols. They thought it was wrong to eat meat that belonged to an idol, so if they ate such meat they were going against their own conscience. Their conscience was thus defiled by their behavior. If they went against their conscience and did something they thought was wrong, they were, in effect, sinning. Their experience was that they had done something wrong, that they had sinned.
At this point, you might be thinking, “What does this have to do with us? We don’t know anyone who sacrifices animals to pagan gods and eats the meat that is left over. This really has nothing to do with us.” Good point. You’re right. Eating or not eating meat sacrificed to idols doesn’t really have anything to do with us. But we have other issues in our churches today, other differences that divide us and produce conflict. We have liberal Christians and conservative Christians. We have traditional Christians and contemporary Christians. We have elderly Christians from the GI Generation, older Christians from the Silent Generation, middle-aged Christians from the Baby Boomers Generation, adult Christians from the X Generation, young adult Christians from Generation Y/Millenials, adolescent Christians from Generation Z/Boomlets, and so on, right down to baby Christians, who are carving out yet another generation. Each generation has its way of being in life. You might find the different characteristics of each generation interesting. Members of the GI Generation, those born between 1901 and 1926, are confident and conformist. The Silent Generation, those born between 1927 and 1945, are facilitators and mediators who like to work on committees and join clubs. They build and support institutions. The Baby Boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964, are suspicious of institutions. They support crusades and causes over institutions. They love to organize, legislate, and mobilize as long as its for a cause. The X Generation, those born between 1965 and 1980, are independent and prefer short-term commitments to long-term commitments. They emphasize joy and freedom rather than legalism, focusing on relationships and community rather than institutions or causes. Generation Y/Millenials, those born between 1981 and 2001, are adaptable, technologically savvy, learning oriented, multi-cultural and high achievers. Generation Z/Boomlets, those after 2001, are cynical, private, entrepreneurial, multi-taskers, hyper aware, and technology-reliant.
Of course, these are general descriptions and don't apply to every single person born in a particular generation. But we can see that each generation as a group is quite different from the others. When you put generations together that focus on different things and work in different ways – as you do in a church – you can get conflict. No generation is doing things wrong; they’re all just doing things differently. But if someone is doing things differently, it can feel like that person is doing things wrong.
I’m sure that the Corinthian Christians who believed that eating meat sacrificed to idols was okay thought that the Corinthian Christians who believed that eating meat sacrificed to idols was not okay were wrong. And I’m sure that the Corinthian Christians who believed that eating meat sacrificed to idols was not okay thought that the Corinthian Christians who believed that eating meat sacrificed to idols was okay were wrong. Can't you hear them talking about each other?
Here's what the Corinthian Christians with more spiritual knowledge and strong faith might say:
“Oh, there they go again, whining about meat sacrificed to idols. When will they grow up and realize it doesn’t mean anything? They’re so wimpy! If it weren’t for them, we could go to the temples and eat meat whenever we wanted to. But they’ll just make a big deal out of it!”
And here's what the Corinthian Christians with less spiritual knowledge and weak faith might say:
“I can’t believe how arrogant those meat-eaters are! They think they know everything. Well, they just don’t understand the implications of what they’re doing. They’ll burn in hell, just as sure as I’m standing here now.”
Meanwhile, while all this bickering and back-biting is going on, Paul is far away, doing ministry in Ephesus, and he gets word about the conflicts that the Corinthian Christians are having. Some of the Corinthian’s write to him to ask him his opinion on the issues about which they’re arguing. And Paul – probably banging his head against a wall all the while – responds by saying, “It’s not an issue of who’s right and who’s wrong, who has more spiritual knowledge and who has less spiritual knowledge, who has strong faith and who has weak faith. You guys are focusing on the wrong issues.” Paul brings them back to the real issue, which is love:
“It is true, of course, that ‘all of us have knowledge,’ as they say. Such knowledge, however, puffs a person up with pride; but love builds up. Whoever thinks he knows something really doesn’t know as he out to know. But the person who loves God is known by him.”
The issue is love, the kind of love God has for us that has been revealed in Jesus Christ and that has created the Christian community through the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul is talking about the kind of love that enables Jew and Greek, free and slave, male and female to exist together in unity and equality (Gal. 3:28). The kind of love that embraces and holds together diversity. And Paul gives a specific definition of this love in 1 Corinthians 13: "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (4-7).
The way that this kind of love takes action in the case of whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols is in being sensitive to the spiritual and psychological condition of fellow church members. Paul actually agrees with the Corinthian Christians who think its allright to eat meat sacrificed to idols. He agrees that “food . . . will not improve our relation with God; we shall not lose anything if we do not eat, nor shall we gain anything if we do eat” (1 Cor. 8:8). Even so, he admonishes them to be careful not to harm those who feel differently. He’s worried about the spiritual and psychological state of the Corinthian Christians who still worry about eating meat sacrificed to idols. If they’re swayed by their fellow meat-eating Christians, eat meat, and then are anguished by doing so, then the meat-eating Christians will have sinned against Christ and against their brothers and sisters.
Paul is asking the Corinthian Christians to be compassionate, to sympathize with each brother and sister, regardless of how legitimate are his or her feelings. In a Christian community, what is at stake is not only what we, as individuals, feel and do, but what each person in the community feels or does. The condition of each member of the community matters, because all are one. As Jesus said in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Let's revisit the Corinthian Christians who were talking about each other and rewrite what they said to reflect Paul’s advice. From the Corinthian Christians with more spiritual knowledge and strong faith we might hear:
“Has Chloe talked to you lately? She’s been really worried about whether she should eat meat sacrificed to idols now that she’s a Christian. She’s worried that she’ll be sinning against God if she does. I’m worried that if she sees me eating temple meat she’ll do it, too, and then torture herself afterward. I don’t think I’m going to eat the temple meat until she feels better about it. I think I’ll offer to meet with her regularly and discuss it until she gets it worked out. Maybe I can help her to see that she doesn’t have to worry about it. I want her to have peace of mind, the peace that Jesus gives us.”
This conversation reflects Paul’s advice. The person isn’t blaming Chloe. She’s not putting her down. She’s respecting the condition that Chloe is in. She’s also not avoiding Chloe or giving up what she herself believes in. Instead, she’s going to engage Chloe in conversation about the subject so that Chloe can work out her feelings and understand why the meat-eating Christians don't think it's wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols. The diversity isn’t glossed over or ignored. Instead, it’s honored within an atmosphere of love and compassion.
From the Corinthian Christians with less spiritual knowledge and weak faith we might hear:
“I can’t understand how they can eat meat sacrificed to idols and not feel like they’re doing something wrong. I know that there is only one true God, but I can’t help but feel like I’m acknowledging other gods when I eat temple meat. I wonder if one of them would be willing to talk to me about what she believes. Maybe I would learn something that would help me resolve the conflict between what my head tells me and what my heart tells me.”
Although this person doesn’t understand how the meat-eaters can do what they do and not feel bad, he doesn’t get self-righteous and judgmental. Instead, he acknowledges his inner conflict and considers asking for help in resolving it.
Neither side is rigid in its position. Both acknowledge that there is a conflict but, rather than get defensive, each side looks for a course of action that acknowledges both positions and the feelings of those on both sides. The atmosphere that is created is one of flexibility and movement rather than rigidity and fixedness. Within an atmosphere of flexibility and movement, the Holy Spirit has room to move through the community to bring transformation and resolution.
When we let go of our positions and get down off of our soapboxes long enough to consider the “other,” to love the “other,” to try to understand the “other, God has room to enter. While our hearts and hands are grasping at what we want, they’re closed to God, but when we let go of what we want long enough to open our hearts and hands, God can fill them with what God wants – which is, ultimately, what we want! Ultimately, we're not interested in proving that we're right and someone else is wrong, that we have more spiritual knowledge and someone else has less, that we have strong faith and someone else has weak faith; what we're really interested in doing is discerning the will of God and following it! Because, in our heart of hearts, in our mind of minds, in our soul of souls, we know that whatever the conflict, the real issue is love, the kind of love God has for us, that kind of love that has been revealed in Jesus Christ and that has created the Christian community through the power of the Holy Spirit. The kind of love that builds up.
As Paul says at the end of his first letter to the Corinthians, “let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:14). Only love brings resolution, only love brings reconciliation, only love brings transformation, only love brings peace, because love is from God and with God all things are possible. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, January 24, 2016, the Third Sunday After Epiphany.
 Information re. meat in first-century Greco-Roman culture is from The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, by Luke T. Johnson (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986, 281).