“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols” is quite a way to start a sentence. Of course those words were written at a different time and place, and, it seems, they were in response to a direct question that some of those church goers had back in Corinth. (A reminder that St. Paul had gone around establishing churches, including this one in Corinth.) Some leader there had this issue come up that was causing all sorts of anxiety in their congregation: Was it okay or not okay to eat meat that had been previously offered to idols? Perhaps in a couple thousand years the modern church’s conversations about what sort of music is appropriate for worship will seem just as ridiculous to the people in the future as this one from Corinth seems to us today, but I suspect for them it was no laughing matter. (On music in the church, listen to Senator Raphael Warnock’s response when asked how he, as a pastor, could work toward bipartisanship in Congress: “If you’ve ever had to get the folks who like anthems and [the] folks who like contemporary gospel music to work together, you’re ready for anything.”)
A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 8.
And I bet I know what may be now dawning on you: “Is Phil really using this text for the basis for his Annual Meeting sermon? Food sacrificed to idols?” Yes, friends, I am. But before you change that dial or go scrolling on your social media feed—in the past you’d just have to sit in the pew and look at the stained glass if you lost interest, but now…—so let me tell you my thinking. It’s because of the next words that emerge from St. Paul’s pen onto that page written so long ago. “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Paul salvages this text from historic obscurity and irrelevancy by spinning it to the gospel truth. It’s all about love.
So a bit more background on why this was such a big deal before bringing it to the 21st century. Back then there wasn’t refrigeration, of course, and so meat from an animal needed to be eaten soon after the animal’s death or be cured with salt. In addition to that, eating meat for a meal was more of special thing, a celebration, and not an everyday reality. Animals could provide milk, cheese, or eggs, so why would you turn one into dinner when it was providing you with income?
However, burnt offerings were common. The call of religions to either atone for sins or to appease the deity through ritual sacrifice took place during that time. While these sacrifices for Judaism in Jerusalem ended around 60AD due to the destruction of the temple, they did continue on in other religious traditions. People would come before altars dedicated to idols and present a costly animal that was supposedly expected by the gods. After this was done, the leftover meat—now cooked—was available for purchase.
In the Corinthian church it seems there were two groups of people. The more well-educated, more well-off group who argued that if these idols didn’t really exist—there is just one God, after all—then food offered to them was just food. And if you could get a deal on local bar-b-cue to bring to the church potluck, why wouldn’t you grab it? The other group were more of your blue collar folks who had grown up going with their parents to various altars to make those sacrifices. They still associated even the smell of that sizzling meat with a past they had left behind in order to follow Jesus. And so to see some church members eating that food cavalierly in the parish hall caused them confusion and pain. Should they be eating that food offered to idols too? Or might that lead them back into their former life?
And that’s when Paul entered the chat. “Look,” he said, “I know that food offered to false idols is just food, and that there is only one God, one Lord Jesus Christ.” These words must have pleased those knowledgable ones who had worked out the logic for themselves. But then he goes on to write this, “However, if food offered to an idol causes a sister or brother to stumble in their faith, why would you eat it? Food doesn’t bring us any closer to God. So don’t use that liberty of yours to become a stumbling block for others, or else you might destroy their faith.” And then Paul throws down the gauntlet, “And as such, if food is the cause of their falling, I will never eat meat again! I care too much for them and their faith to let what I eat get in the way.”
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
One of the idols we cherish in our modern day is that of our rugged individualism. “You can’t make me wear a mask! It goes against my rights as an American!” (See, I told you we’d get to the 21st century.) We frequently believe that our perceived needs and those of our family take precedence over others’ needs. Case in point: who gets vaccinated and when and what role will privilege, money or other resources play into that? We have come to expect that it is indeed all about us, and so when it comes to limiting our own liberties for the good of others, well, it’s no so easy. So, how might we eschew this idol of ours, as we know “no idol in the world exists” for there is just one God? And Paul tells the Corinthians—and us—that it’s not about what you may know, but how you love. As one commentator put it, “Being certain of what is right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, is not sufficient, even if one’s position is correct. Love is greater than knowledge.”
Love has been the central tenant this past year for us here at St. Mark’s. We determined to move to online worship sooner than many others because we cared for all of our parishioners, and especially the more vulnerable among us. We chose to only worship outdoors when we could regather since we saw it as the safest option. The Sunshine Group—begun just last year at this time–jumped in to provide notes of encouragement, meals, and other rays of light too many in our midst, showing the love of this community. Crafty folks in our parish have continued to knit prayer shawls for those in need—and those blankets have continued to go out at a substantial rate. People have called one another, online gatherings have been hosted, children and youth group members have sent out handmade cards.
Starting last summer, we began to study racial injustice in our society to discover what we could learn by hearing other people’s stories through a film series. This in turn led to the formation of a group of parishioners exploring racial justice and reconciliation using the Episcopal Church’s program called “Sacred Ground.” This work has been ongoing these past 4 months, and those involved are exploring both their own implicit bias and that of our country. We have much work to do.
What I’ve seen and experienced this past year—as hard and as horrible as it has been—is our deliberately choosing of love over knowledge. Of lifting each other up over having to prove our ideas were right. Of giving of ourselves in big and small ways in order to be the body of Christ in the present time.
20th century Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote these words in a letter to Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Workers Movement: “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy if anything can.” As followers of Jesus we are given the job to love others. Our job is not to see if their reasoning is right, if they agree fully with our point of view, or even if they deserve our love. If something a small as eating meat at a meal will cause someone to stumble, then choose not to eat meat. It’s as simple as that.
You may still think this is a ridiculous example, but it literally happened to me a number of years ago. I was working at a hi-tech company at the time, and Lent was about to begin. One of my co-workers knew that the spiritual life was important to me, and he had grown up Roman Catholic. He mentioned how he had decided not to eat meat on Fridays that year just like he did with his family growing up, and how he knew I wouldn’t be eating meat either, providing him with solidarity at work. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I hadn’t planned on giving up meat on Fridays that year—how we Episcopalians are more savvy than Roman Catholics in our Lenten disciplines, and that we all didn’t do the same thing. I just told him that I look forward to having lunch with him those weeks of Lent. I ate a lot of tuna sandwiches that year, but it was worth it to encourage a co-worker in his fledgling faith.
Friends, let’s head St. Paul’s words: knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Let us choose love. Let St. Mark’s become even more a place that embodies the call to love fully without wondering if the recipient of that love deserves it. Let us live lives of generosity and hope and joy and be the kind of people that we ourselves cherish. Let us build each other up with Jesus’ love.