Stay at the Table: January 31, 2021

January 31, 2021

 Year B, Epiphany 4                                             1 Corinthians 8                                                  

          Often times we read scripture and it’s easy to see how it relates to our life.  But today’s readings seem completely irrelevant to us.  In the Gospel reading, Jesus exorcized a demon from a man…not something we encounter much today.  In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul addressed the big argument over meat sacrificed to idols.  Now, I have had a few people tell me they thought they were possessed.  It’s rare, but it happens.  But I have never once had someone express concern over meat being sacrificed to idols.   

          Yet, like so much of the Bible, there is 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 is helpful 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.  For the Jewish converts, it was an easier transition.

Corinth was an epicenter of pagan worship.  You go to Hampton to sail and eat crabs.  You went to Corinth to be in a community of people who worshipped multiple gods and did it in a fairly big way.  While the Christian community was growing, it was still a small community and one that was fairly new.  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.” 

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 would even attend pagan ceremonies and eat the meat they knew had been sacrificed. 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 tension between those who were eating the meat and those who were not.

          The issue itself is not relevant to us.  The way Paul addressed the issue and encouraged the Corinthians to handle it is absolutely relevant.  First of all, Paul never pretended to be unbiased or neutral. 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 have the same education. They might have a different background where they were more attached to pagan rituals– making it more difficult to completely ignore where the meat came from. For those new Christians, it would have been deeply distressing to see other Christians doing something that seemed un-Christian to them.  He concluded by asking, is it really worth it to eat meat if you are going to destroy your sister or brother in Christ?

          What is interesting is that he didn’t dismiss those who felt they could not eat meat. It’s true he labeled them as “weak,” but I don’t think he meant it as an insult.  Because in the end, he chose to associate himself with the weak by promising not to eat meat.  While he didn’t agree with them, he felt that it was more important to love them and support them, rather than prove he was right.  He did this because he thought it would help them become better Christians instead of encouraging them to return to their idol worshipping ways. 

          It’s easy to read this and conclude that Paul was simply trying to keep this fledgling community together by convincing people not to offend one another.  But that’s not the case.  If he simply didn’t want to offend, he would have encouraged them to stop talking about it, or to stop eating together.  That would have solved it, right?  Just stop eating meals together and you don’t have to worry about what everyone is eating.  But Paul knew that sharing a meal was critical in a Christian community. It’s what Jesus did with his disciples.  And it’s one of the last things he asked of his disciples.  And let’s not forget, Paul never worried about offending people. He said some terribly offensive things.  Paul’s letters were consistently encouraging the church to be a place to talk about hard things. 

          That is something I fear we have lost.  We have a really hard time talking about hard things.  We do it when we have to.  But we also avoid it as much as we can.  And if the church isn’t a place to have difficult conversations, where are we having them? Social media?? The News?  We all watch different news channels.  There are rarely differing opinions unless it’s the token conservative or token liberal. There is no real conversation happening in the places where we often turn for news and information.  Instead community is torn apart by bickering and misunderstanding one another. 

          If the church doesn’t talk about hard things like racism, homophobia, sexism, government, mask wearing…then who is?  We are leaving these important conversations to social influencers on Instagram who are far more interested in selling us something than creating or maintaining a community.

          Paul wasn’t worried about offending people because he knew the Christian community was strong enough to have arguments and disagreements.  What he was afraid of was alienating people which might lead them back to idol worship.  In the church, when we alienate people, they don’t usually turn to idol worship, not literally at least.  However it’s still something we try to avoid. 

          How do we have these hard conversations without alienating people? I struggle with this, especially lately.  But I have seen it happen.  I saw it with our Sacred Ground series where Democrats and Republicans talked about politics.  Some people’s feelings got hurt and that was regretful, but to their credit, no one walked away from the conversation.  Right now we have a commission of people talking about the confederate memorial. There is a wide array of opinions, yet they listen and speak respectfully and they are going to find a compromise. I have no doubt about that. 

          This can work—but you have to stay at the table, even when you are hurt and irritated, even when you think, “How could a Christian possibly say that?” Because I can guarantee you, whatever side you are on…there is some merit on the other side as well.  We are called to love our enemies.  That’s hard.  Let’s start by loving our friends or acquaintances who disagree with us. Jesus doesn’t care who is right.  He only cares about how we love those we think are wrong. One way we do this is to stay at the table.

Photo by Elliott Stallion