Choosing the Side of Love
Year B, Epiphany 4
Last week I preached about how important it is to consider the Bible as more than an old book about people who lived a very long time ago. It is a book for us and about us. We are to read ourselves into the pages of the Bible. And that worked really well last week when we were talking about how to be disciples of Christ. It’s a bit more of a stretch when you look at the readings this Sunday. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is about eating meat that is sacrificed to idols. Mark’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus freeing a man from an unclean spirit, essentially an exorcism. While St. John’s and Hampton are pretty exciting places, I have not once had to tell someone not to sacrifice an animal to another god, nor have I had to do any exorcisms. It’s hard to read ourselves into these stories which seem completely normal in the Bible, but irrelevant for our lives today.
Yet, like so much of the Bible, there is much more to these stories than meets the eye. In fact, I would venture to say that this part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is probably one of the most relevant things that Paul tells us for our lives today. To understand why that is true, it might help to know a little about Corinth and the Corinthian people. At the time when Paul was writing his letter, Corinth was a diverse and cultured urban center. Most of the people were not Jewish. Thus when they became followers of Christ, they were converting to a very different way of life.
Corinth was an epicenter of pagan worship. You go to Hampton to sail and eat crabs. You go to Corinth to be in a community of people who worship multiple gods and do it in a fairly big way. The majority of the people were pagans. While the Christian community was growing, it was still a small community and one that was fairly new. There were no cradle Christians yet. These people were just learning about Jesus. It was unlikely that there was a central place for Christian discourse. The various small groups of Christians most likely lived in different parts of the city and then came together once a week for common worship. The new Christians (and they probably did not even call themselves Christian at this point) were very different from one another. Some were wealthy and well educated. Some were not.
The issue that Paul was addressing was meat that was offered to idols as a sacrifice. You might wonder how big of an issue this could possibly be. If you don’t want to eat meat sacrificed to idols, don’t go to the temple. However, it was not always clear where meat came from. After an animal was sacrificed, some of it would be burned, but the left overs were often sold in the market. And unlike our grocery store, there were no packages or signs telling you where the meat was coming from. It didn’t say: “grass fed”, “organic”, “local” or “sacrificed to idols in the local temple.” People did not always know where their meat was coming from.
Some people thought it would be safer to avoid all meat together. That way they could be sure that they were not inadvertently part of any idol worship, which kind of makes sense. But there were other people who ate whatever meat they wanted to. They figured that since these gods weren’t real anyways, what difference did it make if they ate meat offered to these fake gods—these false idols? This created some tension between those who were eating the meat and those who were not and were horrified by those who were.
It is pretty clear where Paul stood on this issue. He agreed with the argument that since there was only one God, then it was pointless to worry about what food is or is not sacrificed to those fake gods. He even complimented the people who had used that argument- for their knowledge and religious understanding. But he then added that there are some people who simply aren’t there yet. They might not be as educated. They might not be as worldly, and to them it’s troubling to see the other Christians doing something that is so clearly against the rules. He concluded by asking, is it really worth it to eat meat if you are going to destroy your sister or brother in Christ?
Some people read this and think that Paul is warning us not to offend people so as to maintain peace in the community. A very small part of that is true. Paul is concerned about the community. For him, the most important thing is not whether we are right, but how we love one another. Early on in this reading he said, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” When he said this, he was not talking about knowledge in general, but the kind of religious knowledge that leads us to judge others who do not have the same knowledge. “Puffs up” means exactly what it sounds like. This kind of knowledge inflates our ego, but doesn’t do a lot of good for the people whose lack of knowledge we might be judging. But love…love builds the community. It creates stronger relationships in the community so that no one person is superior to others.
Yes, Paul cares about the health of the community. Yet he was not worried about offending people. Paul said all kinds of things that were probably construed as offensive. That’s not why he was telling people to refrain from meat. He was worried about people being led off the Christian path. Those who were eating meat might have had a more developed Christian faith, or maybe just another perspective. But the others for some reason could not see past the fact that this meat was tainted. Perhaps they still had family and friends who were pagans and they were afraid that if they ate meat, it would lead them back to the temple, back to the place they were before they heard about Jesus. Their relationship with Jesus might have been a little more fragile.
Paul was not worried about offending them. He was worried about destroying them. He wrote, “For if others see you…eating in the temple of an idol, might they not…be encouraged to eat food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.” Paul was afraid that the weak believers would be tempted to go back to their old way of life. They wouldn’t just eat the meat, they would go back to idol worship and in Paul’s eyes, that would be the end of their life. So no, Paul was not worried about merely upsetting people. In fact, Paul wanted people to discuss things, even the hard things. That is one of the reasons why he wrote all of these letters. It was not just so he could share his knowledge, but so people would be encouraged to discuss these things.
How is this relevant? There are occasionally times, even today when Christians disagree. There are even times when Episcopalians disagree. It is usually pretty clear who is right. We are. Yet even if we are right, Paul is telling us that being right isn’t always the most important thing. What is most important is that we love one another and care for one another. We support one another on our Christian journey. That does not mean that we shouldn’t talk about the hard things because we do not want to hurt one another. We talk about the hard things, but we do that with humility. The church has condoned slavery, segregation, anti-Semitism, and sexism (just to name a few). We have been wrong in some pretty big ways. Odds are, we will be wrong again. Let’s decide now that we won’t let ourselves or our community be defeated by pride. Let us choose a side, and let that side always be love.