Text: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13
Do you have your ritual meal planned for tonight’s festivities? The chicken wings, the chips, the dip, the pizza…. All to sit down together and engage in the great American pastime- Competition! We LOVE to pick sides and root, root, root for our side to win. Whether you watch the Superbowl, the Superbowl commercials, or even do like I do and watch Downton Abbey with a pot of tea and English biscuits, rest assured, you’ll be rooting for one team, one ad, one character to win it all! There’s drama in competition, drama which will surely keep us all talking come Monday.
But what happens when a competition turns into a conflict? What happens when there’s a scandal like deflate-gate? When there are grievous fouls? What happens when things get ugly, when words are said that can’t be unsaid, when actions are taken from a place of angry impulsivity or prideful superiority? I know there are some serious rivalries in football, but rivalries appear in various ways in our culture. When they were trying to build the casino in Gettysburg a few years ago, there were passionate feelings in this community on both sides of the proposal. The lines were drawn, community divided.
Sadly, politics is not the only place we see the ugliness of division. The Church has a long history of division. For those who profess no religious affiliation or that they are “done” with organized religion, it’s often the petty in-fighting, the squabbling, the contrary-to-the gospel behavior that presents the greatest stumbling block to their desire to be a part of a faith community.
Some churches battle it out over weekly communion. For others, the issue is what worship book to use or whether or not there should be a flag in the worship space. Others battle it out over how to welcome our LGBTQ brothers and sisters or over who should be allowed to be married in the church building. Others are STILL wrestling with the ELCA’s 2009 decision to ordain gay clergy. And I’m sure as the ELCA explores allowing unbaptized persons to receive communion, yet another battle will unfold. As human beings, we love drawing our lines in the sand, but we often do this to the detriment of our relationships with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ and neighbors in the community. These kinds of church arguments are nothing new. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church proves that!
The conflict in chapter 8, which we read today, concerns whether or not Christians are free to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. This may seem like a foreign concept to us –the church of the 21st century! But Paul’s counsel to the church at Corinth is certainly wise counsel to us today as we discern how to navigate controversial issues as a community!
Imagine for a moment that you are a Jewish Christian like St. Paul. For us today, these are the easier shoes for us to inhabit in this argument. You’ve grown up surrounded by Greco-Roman culture, but you have thousands of years of history behind your Faith that tells you that your God is THE God. You know that the pagans think they’re worshiping their gods and goddesses by sacrificing meat to their statues in their temples and then participating in sacred meals together, but their religion is powerless in your understanding. The leftover meat is sold in the marketplace and you feel no guilt about buying it because you don’t believe their gods exist and you certainly don’t consider it a sign of reverence if you feed that meat to your hungry family! It’s not holy meat, it’s just a hamburger!
Now, imagine you’re a Gentile Christian. You’ve abandoned the faith you were raised in for this new religious movement that worships the God of Israel and believes that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead and is God’s only Son who saves you from your sins and calls you to follow him. You are committed to your new faith, you’ve been dragged from death into new life through the sacrament of Baptism and you’ve received the Holy Spirit. You celebrate a new kind of sacred meal now, with bread and wine, in a local house Church, but you see reminders all around you of the faith in which you were raised. You remember all of the sacred festivals you participated in, all of the feasts. You remember the religious experiences you had in the temple, the sacred feelings they aroused in you. But that’s all gone now, because you’re a new creation in Christ. You understand that taking up your cross means sacrificing your social status. You can’t go to your neighbor’s house for dinner anymore or to that fancy work party because you know that they’ll expect you to eat their food and it’s been tainted by the gods you still believe exist, the gods you left behind to follow Christ. You used to LOVE meat. What a status symbol! But, the only butcher in the market place sells leftovers from temple sacrifices. To eat that meat would be backsliding. It would be worshiping a false God. You’ve come too far. To protect your conscience, you eat lentils, rice, and salad now. Your neighbors and coworkers laugh at you and think you’re a fool. Your social status plummets. What’s worse, your Monotheistic-raised Christian brothers and sisters and the elders in the community don’t understand you at all! They ALSO think you’re a fool. They all eat the meat with clean conscience! They try to tell you that it’s just a hamburger, that it doesn’t mean anything, that the statues of Apollo are just hunks of rock… but you have a history with those hunks of rock and you’re trying really hard to leave that part of yourself in your past.
Two different perspectives, two different sets of life experiences, causing friction within the community of faith! Both groups are trying to live out their faith as authentically as possible. Both groups are faithful followers of Christ, but they are not living peacefully as Christ’s body. Paul urges the church to build up the body which has been wounded in the heat of conflict.
Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up,but love builds up.”
The church is a diverse body with diverse perspectives –it always has been as we read in Paul’s letters! But diverse does not have to mean divisive! For our Corinthian Christians, those who came from a Monotheistic background and those who had been Christians the longest and were comfortable in their Faith found themselves trying to enlighten their ignorant brothers and sisters. They were trying to prove that their position was the “Right” position, the only acceptable position, the most faithful position to hold.
How many times in our arguments today do we catch ourselves trying to “enlighten our ignorant brothers or sisters”? How many times do we use our Bibles as our weapons of war, launching one verse after another at our opponent to PROVE the Biblical validity of our stance. But it doesn’t have to be “us” vs. “them” –whomever “they” may be. According to Paul, and yes, according to Jesus, there’s room in Christ’s body for diversity. There should NEVER be “us” vs. “them” in the body of Christ, but always “we” navigating disagreements together with the Holy Spirit to guide us in discernment. Do not sacrifice your relationships for the sake of your ideology. Paul’s response to the Corinthian’s squabble over idol meat is basically this: if you have to choose between being right and being loving, err on the side of being loving.
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. For Paul, love is not a feeling! Paul’s talking about Jesus’ love here. Knowledge puffs us up, it makes us prideful. We feel good about ourselves when we think we have all the answers and we delight in sharing that superior knowledge with others, but Jesus’ love is humble. It builds relationships. It crosses borders. Love replaces division with dialogue. It opens doors for new growth and for change, trusting that God might just be trying to do a new thing.
Are you a stumbling block or a building block? I have a strong sense that we’re all probably a little of both from time to time. We are, after all, both saint and sinner. We strive to love, and we often fall short, we often have to have the last word, but that doesn’t mean we give up! And the good news of our faith is that we don’t strive to love one another in isolation. It’s not up to us to do it all.
As Church, we STILL gather around a sacred meal together. In spite of our shortcomings, in spite of our stubbornness Christ meets us around this table in the flesh, forgives us all our sins, and creates us anew to live as community. As we eat Christ’s body around this table, we learn anew how to be Christ’s body. The Holy Spirit touches us, nourishes our faith, and increases our ability to love and when necessary to let go. Amen.
Text: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13