Reflections for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Well, here’s a situation you probably aren’t going to run into this week: meat sacrificed to idols.
But that was just grocery shopping in Corinth. The life of that mercantile hub was suffused with religion—with public devotions and festivals in honor of local gods and the wider pantheon of gods, with the the constant sacrificing of animals in the temples of the city. That’s where most of the meat available to buy in the marketplace came from.
The church in Corinth came to be through Paul’s preaching. Paul: a Jew out on the road carrying the good news of Jesus for Gentiles. And the essential heart of his message was that the spirit and power of Christ made it possible for Gentiles to live in right relationship with God. That meant accepting the God of Israel, and acceptance the God of Israel meant abandoning worship of other gods. That’s bedrock.
And Paul had preached Gentile’s inclusion in God’s covenant promises to Israel without circumcisions, without the food prohibitions of Judaism. Eat what you like.
But what about meat from animals sacrificed to other gods? Some of the believers did to eat it, maybe even in the temples, and there seems to have been uncertainty in the church over whether this was seemly, because those who did eat had an argument that Paul quotes back to them: “no idol in the world really exists.”
For them, eating meat sacrificed to an idol that doesn’t exist, is just eating meat. If anything, it became a celebration of their knowledge that “there is no God but one.” And the spiritual elite among the Corinthian believers seem to have appreciated that kind of thing.
And Paul responds “right; we know that there is one God above all powers, and one Christ through whom are all things birthed into being, and through who’s spirit we are becoming something new.”
But in this world dominated by Roman power and Greek culture, acceptance of an imported God almost never meant rejection of others. People saw the cosmos populated with a host of divinities. Many would have reflexively translated whatever Paul said into something that fit their cosmology, and simply incorporated the Jewish God and his Christ alongside the worship of other divinities. Paul knows this, and he worries about it.
His concern is that if believers, who know that meat sacrificed to other gods is just meat, eat it, others may understand their actions differently: as a witness the worship of other gods is still possible. And he goes after the those who claim “knowledge” and spiritual attainment for a failure of love.
When Paul takes this same problem up a second time later in this same letter, he warns them to flee away from the worship in the temples, but then suggests that, if you’re in the marketplace, go ahead and buy the meat that’s for sale, but don’t ask where it came from. And if you go to dinner with those who do not believe, eat the meat they serve it without asking questions about it unless they tell you its a sacrifice. Why? Because the witness of their behavior may confirm others in continuing religious practices.
Paul is saying that the Christian life is less about knowledge than it is about participation. Participation in the life of a body: the body created through Christ’s life and death, and humankind as a body.
Christ set aside all other possibilities of God’s freedom to accept the weakness of the human form, human relations, human death for the sake of God’s beloved. He shaped his human life, his sacrifice, as a gift. And that’s why Paul appeals to that gift in reasoning with the Corinthians; you are wounding, you are contributing to the destruction of those for whom Christ died. And if the goal of human life is to share in the life of God with their brothers and sisters as one family, then this wounding damages their own participation in Christ. He names it sin.
God chose limitless, intimate, commitment to the mess of humanity; God is fundamentally, radically, for us– that’s the way Rowan Williams thinks about this. I once got the hear the former Archbishop of Canterbury talking about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian who hung by the dying Nazi regime in 1945, struggled to decide whether to participate in the plot against Hitler, and to understand the meaning the Church in the face of structural evil.
Bonhoeffer ultimately concluded that the Church bears witness that the human capacity for relationship gains its full expression in Jesus—in the light shone by Christ. Bonhoeffer came to understand, and I quote here, that “by embracing this world, God shows us that routine forms of human life are a way of participating in divine life. The life of grace is the life of ordinary human sociality, revealed through the incarnation.” We participate in the life and work of Jesus as we live for one other, day by day.
So Paul says he will never eat meat—he would rather never eat meat than cause one of them to fall.
The punchline is clear: Paul was called, we are called, to understand our liberty–and lets recognize that we among all the world’s people, we who love liberty, struggle to do this–to understand the whole concept of liberty through the example of Jesus’ love. And if something about the way we live in the expansiveness of our freedom damages our brother, it wounds us.
What does that look like?
Martyrs died rather than damage the hope of others by backing out. But Paul is talking about grocery shopping. So I’ll tell you that I someone who doesn’t drink alcohol. He has no personal history of struggle. No worry about the disposition of his genes. He doesn’t believe that drinking, or even drunkenness is inherently wrong. He’s free. But he decided that he couldn’t know if the people he was with were struggling. And he didn’t want his example to damage them. Its not my choice, but its faithful to what Paul is teaching. I know a worshipping community that gathers to celebrate the Eucharist every week and the priest announces this is grape juice for those of us in recovery and those of us who should be. That isn’t my choice, but its faithful to what Paul is teaching.
And we’re maybe in closest touch with what Paul’s talking about when we recognize that our actions could damage another, and we start to rationalize in defense of our freedom and question whether the cost of the safest path is worth it, because who knows if it actually helps. And Paul doesn’t know, really, if his course of action will make a difference or not. Is there a causal connection between his eating meat and the destruction of a brother? Maybe, but that’s unknowable. The point is: “I would rather. These are my brothers.”