Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 28, 2018
1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Commentary
A few years back a colleague of mine was a pastor in the Greater Toronto Area. The Lectionary called for a sermon on 1 Corinthians 8 and so my friend did his level best to translate these ancient words into a contemporary setting. Mostly he worked hard to take the “food sacrificed to idols” line of thought and find modern-day analogies since (he reasoned) this specific topic does not come up in people’s lives much (if ever). So he hit on a few analogies, talked about them in the context of the bottom line of Paul’s advice here to be mindful of weaker folks who may take offense at this or that, and said “Amen.”
Afterwards while shaking hands at the church door, a young college-aged woman from his congregation came up and said. “So, thanks for the sermon and all. But I was just wondering: I am dating this Hindu guy and go with him sometimes to the Temple on Friday nights. They have all this food laid out on a kind of table in front of pictures of Vishnu and stuff and after dedicating it all to the gods, they then have a potluck. So I was just wondering: is it OK that I eat that food or not? I mean, a lot of it is pretty tasty but . . .”
Perhaps some things need less modern-day translation than we think!
It is pretty common knowledge that 1 Corinthians is Paul’s letter of reply to a long-ish letter he had received from Corinth. Reading between the lines of Paul’s letter, we can discern the laundry list of issues, questions, and controversies that the Corinthian Christians asked their founding pastor to weigh in on. A lot of their questions resonate readily enough yet today: what about spiritual gifts? What is the best way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper? What about people who seem to want to spiritualize the meaning of the resurrection? What about issues related to sexual morality and practices?
A few other issues start, however, to stray out of our usual zones of thinking in the church. Is marriage a good idea just generally or should we abstain? Is it OK to take our disagreements about worship and file lawsuits against each other in Federal District Court? And then there is this one about food sacrificed to idols in chapter 8. Despite my friend’s experience in Toronto, the truth is that the question that vexed the Corinthians enough to bring it before the Apostle Paul is probably not foremost in anyone’s mind in our congregations at any given moment.
But in that polytheistic Greek culture 2,000 years ago it really was an issue. Any number of members of the small Corinthian congregation were no doubt related to people who still went to pagan temples where gifts of food and drink were offered up to the gods who, presumably, blessed that food and so sanctified its eating to the worshipers. And some Corinthian church members went along with their friends and relatives but wondered about the propriety of it all given their firm belief now in Jesus as the only true Lord. But if some of the congregation’s members had not turned over this question in their minds on their own initiative, soon enough they were assailed by fellow church members who were scandalized by this. “Eat Aphrodite’s feta cheese salad and you are as good as worshiping her! Consume that spanakopita offered up to Zeus and you may as well be Zeus’s lackey!”
“Oh come on,” some folks tried to say in response. “There is no such being as Zeus, Hermes, or Aphrodite so chill out! Offering up these foods to these non-existent gods means no more than offering up food to a blank wall. Food’s food. Jesus is Lord of my heart and that’s all I need to know. Whatever I put in my mouth does not affect what’s true in my heart.”
Well, that didn’t sit so well with many in the congregation and so the question got kicked clear up to Pastor Paul. And as a good pastor, Paul tried to see the issue from all sides. Yes, on the one hand, all those Greek gods really were nothing. And if you know that and accept that, then you are not likely to be spiritually harmed by eating a lamb shank offered up to Dionysius. And if just KNOWING the right stuff and acting accordingly were the only thing to consider here, then that is the end of the conversation.
But on the other hand . . . what if LOVE and not heady spiritual knowledge is the main thing in the Body of Christ? And if so, what if love tells you to stop rolling your eyes over the sister or brother who is so shaken up by your eating food offered to idols and instead just stop eating the food?
“This kind of food will neither bring you closer to Jesus nor drive you farther from him, true enough” Paul as much as says. “But if it is tripping up someone else and affecting their own walk with Christ, then knock it off for their sake. It’s not always the most important thing in life to be right. Most of the time the most important thing is to be loving. And considerate. So go buy some souvlaki from a neutral street vendor and leave the temple stuff alone for the sake of unity in the Body.”
Paul ultimately invokes here language that he speaks of also elsewhere in his letters, referring to those scandalized by this food business as “weaker.” Maybe he could use “immature” or “ignorant” but the problem with that language is: no one ever wants to be labeled as “weaker.” And that is particularly true when the person doing the labeling is thereby implying “I am the stronger, more mature Christian here.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve never found that to go over very well.
And probably we should indeed not say that overtly to anyone. Nor ought we stay silent but yet walk around with a smug look on our faces and with puffed-out chests as much as to convey this to the “weaker” brother after all. No, Paul says, you do anything like that and you are sinning. Oh, and by the way: you are sinning AGAINST CHRIST. So put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Whether the issue is something many of us find arcane like food sacrificed to idols or more contemporary issues like consuming alcohol or not, smoking or not, going to certain movies or not, eating out or shopping on Sundays or not—fill in the blank—let’s admit this is both a delicate and a hard subject area. And let’s admit it is difficult because those who take a more progressive point-of-view are powerfully tempted to feel superior to those who “just can’t handle” this or that. And let’s admit further that the idea that in certain situations I should sacrifice myself by abstaining from some practice that I just KNOW is perfectly acceptable is also powerfully difficult to do. And while we’re at it, let’s double-down on the difficulty factor here by pointing out that sometimes those “weaker” folks toward whom Paul calls us to be so deferential are not infrequently on their own moralistic high horses casting down judgment on others from on high. And THAT does not always sit so well, either, and–if anything–tempts some of us to engage in some practice just to spite those legalistic Pharisee types! “You think it’s wrong for me to have a martini!!?? Well, I’ll drink to that! (Boo-Yah!)”
There may be no easy answers here. So what it may all boil down to his Paul’s bottom line question that he would have each of us—the offended and the offender in any given situation—ask of ourselves: What is the loving thing to do here in Christ? We may or may not find the answer to that question terribly obvious in any given circumstance.
But it is at least the right question to ask in the Body of Christ.
The luminous film Babette’s Feast gives the viewer a curious reversal on traditional ways of thinking about “weaker” and “stronger” members in the Body of Christ. My colleague Roy Anker has been publishing a lot of wonderful “Movies for Preaching” pieces on the CEP website. He has three on this film, of which this particular one may be most apt to look at in this connection.
In the film, a tiny, vaguely sectarian-like band of Christians on a remote Danish island have, of late, fallen on hard times of bickering and even some animosity among the congregation’s small flock of believers. The head of the community are two sisters, the daughters of the now-deceased founding pastor. Early in the film they take in a bedraggled French woman who had fled from violence in Paris, a violence that killed her husband and child. Babette, it turns out, is a gourmet chef who once wowed Europe with her culinary creations at the famed Café Anglais. But in her exile, she becomes the chief cook and bottle-washer to the two sisters, reduced to making the thin gruel and other ascetic, bland culinary fare to which the sisters are accustomed.
Years later, Babette discovers she won a lottery in France, netting her a small fortune. But she decides (secretly initially) to expend the entire sum cooking a lavish dinner for the sisters and their entire tiny congregation out of gratitude for all they had done for her. Through a comedy of errors, the sisters conclude that there is something spiritually amiss—almost devilish—about this fancy feast, and these fears only deepen as the ingredients start to arrive in Babette’s kitchen: a live turtle, live quails, exotic mushrooms. But the sisters cannot deny how much they love Babette and so take counsel with the entire congregation. In the end, they decide that out of love for Babette, they will consume the multi-course feast but not enjoy it at all. They will be as people without tastebuds for one evening to avoid any spiritual pitfalls yet honor the French woman they care for.
Well and of course the food—and no small volume of alcohol—works its magic on the church members after all and by evening’s end, they somehow find their fractured fellowship restored, singing a doxology hand-in-hand under the stars. They sacrificed their scruples out of love, Christ-like love. And unity is the result. And when the sisters soon learn that Babette spent her entire fortune out of her love for THEM, the circle of fellowship widens still more.
Among many luminous things, it is all in all a fine example of what can happen when love for the “weaker” sister—or the “stronger” sister as the case may be—leads to something downright God-glorifying.
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