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Puffing Up or Building Up

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1 Corinthians 8:1-13

In the New Testament we have two letters from Paul to the church in Corinth.  They are accurately, if not creatively, called 1st and 2nd Corinthians.  Paul actually wrote four letters to the church in Corinth, but only two of them survived.  We know about the original existence of the others because of reference to those letters in the ones we have.  If we had all four letters, what we call 1st and 2nd Corinthians would actually be 2nd and 4th Corinthians!  And that doesn’t count the letters the church members wrote to Paul none of which survived.

Why so many letters?  Paul was the founder of the church at Corinth, so he had ongoing correspondence with them in order to guide, direct, instruct, inspire, and sometimes chastise them—and to settle arguments.  In the United Church of Christ, pastors are ethically forbidden from continuing to offer leadership to a church once they have left.  But the concept of pastoral boundaries is a modern invention.

In our passage for today Paul is responding to an argument about eating food that had been sacrificed to idols.  Hear now 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, from the Common English Bible translation.

Now concerning meat that has been sacrificed to a false god: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. If anyone thinks they know something, they don’t yet know as much as they should know. But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.

 So concerning the actual food involved in these sacrifices to false gods, we know that a false god isn’t anything in this world, and that there is no God except for the one God. Granted, there are so-called “gods,” in heaven and on the earth, as there are many gods and many lords. However, for us believers,

 There is one God the [Creator]. All things come from God, and we belong to God.

And there is one Lord Jesus Christ. All things exist through Christ, and we live through Christ.

 But not everybody knows this. Some are eating this food as though it really is food sacrificed to a real idol, because they were used to idol worship until now. Their conscience is weak because it has been damaged. Food won’t bring us close to God. We’re not missing out if we don’t eat, and we don’t have any advantage if we do eat. But watch out or else this freedom of yours might be a problem for those who are weak. Suppose someone sees you (the person who has knowledge) eating in an idol’s temple. Won’t the person with a weak conscience be encouraged to eat the meat sacrificed to false gods? The weak brother or sister for whom Christ died is destroyed by your knowledge. You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers and sisters and hurt their weak consciences this way. This is why, if food causes the downfall of my brother or sister, I won’t eat meat ever again, or else I may cause my brother or sister to fall.

According to scholars, “Corinth was known in the first century as the quintessential pagan town, and it would have been difficult for Christ believers in Corinth to live in a manner completely separate from the world around them.

When Paul deals with the community, he always tries to establish a behavior that takes into account both the fact that the Christ believers live inside the world, but are also clearly separate from it.”[1]  There seems to have been two different ways one might eat the meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  Paul doesn’t seem to distinguish between these two uses, but the people might have.  The first is in the pagan rituals in the temples, after the animals were sacrificed.  Undoubtedly, some members of the small Corinthian congregation had previously worshiped these idols, these false gods, and undoubtedly some of their family members still did.  So they no longer believed in these idols, but might still go to the feasts with their relatives.  You didn’t have to believe to eat the food.  Anybody can come to the church potluck.  But you didn’t have to enter the temple of an idol in order to get that meat.  The extra meat was sold in the marketplace for general consumption.   So even if you didn’t go so far as to enter the temple of a false god simply because you love the food, you would be eating the same thing if you bought it on the street.

Scholar Scott Hoezee says that some believers were scandalized by this, assailing those who ate the meat with comments like “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.”[2]

That may sound rather quaint to you, this concern about other gods.  We know that other gods don’t exist, so it seems foolish.  But “Suppose that there is a covered-dish supper at our church.  Someone brings a platter of food saying,

‘The local Satan-worshippers had a table set up at the mall giving away this food.   It’s delicious!’  Would you eat it in front of everyone?  There would be no actual power of Satan in the food. It would be fine to eat it.  But how might that be interpreted by others?  What impact might it have on [someone new to the church] or on someone who would take that to mean that there’s no real difference between things offered to Satan and things offered to God?”[3]  What do you think?  Would you eat a satan sandwich?  I have no idea what would be on a satan sandwich, but I’ll admit, it would feel weird to eat it.

Much more so in Paul’s time.  So when the people argued over this question, they sent it 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 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?  [Paul is pretty much saying:] “This kind of food will neither bring you closer to Jesus nor drive you farther from him, true enough.  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 from a neutral street vendor and leave the temple stuff alone for the sake of unity in the Body.”[4]

Now, as always with the scriptures, we have to ask: What does this mean to us today?  Most of us are not in the position of being tempted to eat meat that has been sacrificed to other gods.  And I have heard this scripture misused many times, especially to limit behaviors that the preacher thinks are questionable.  For example, it is taught in some Christian circles that this passage means Christians should not drink alcohol at all.  Sure, you might be able to drink alcohol occasionally without a problem, but others can’t, and you have to think of your weaker brother or sister, and not drink at all.  I have also heard it used to say that girls should not show much skin, because it might cause boys to have impure thoughts and if you are hurting their weak conscience then you are sinning against Christ.  It took me way too long to realize that girls are not responsible for their own bodies AND everyone else’s.

I have also heard this text used as an excuse for not dealing with difficult topics.  We don’t want to offend the “weaker” sibling in Christ who believes that homosexuality is a sin, so we’ll welcome everybody but let’s not publicize it.

Scholar William Loader points out that we can learn from Paul’s message, but it should not cease to be what it is—situational advice—and become a general rule for every situation.  He writes, “Sometimes it is necessary to do things which will cause offence to some.  This is not a general rule about avoiding upsetting people.  Such an approach could not make sense of the life of Jesus, let alone his death.”[5]

Like many things in life, it is a question of balance.  We have freedom in Christ, but to Paul, individual freedom should not override communal responsibility.  We know this.  It’s part of our society and culture.  During this pandemic we wear masks because our “freedoms” are not more importance than others’ well-being.  We have communal responsibility.

In the church, the responsibility is even greater.  Let’s go back to that alcohol analogy.  I do not think that drinking alcohol is a sin.  But let’s say that I meet a church member for dinner (or a backyard socially distanced barbecue), and when we sit down, the first thing the person tells me is that they are really struggling with their sobriety.  “I’ve been sober for six months, and I’m taking it one day at a time, but wow, each day is hard.  I want a drink so bad.  It is a constant struggle.”  And imagine that my response is to look at my glass and say, “Oh, wow!  I’ve already finished my first margarita.  Hold on while I get a refill.  Now, what were you saying?”  Drinking alcohol isn’t a problem for me because I’m not an alcoholic.  But ignoring the needs of a sibling in Christ—a sibling in humanity—that would be a problem.  It would put my desires above their needs.  To use the “s word” again, yes, that would be sinful.  It would separate me from others and from God.

This passage is telling us what is and is not enough.  Knowledge is not enough.  Some of these Corinthians had the knowledge that food sacrificed to idols wasn’t problematic.  But knowledge isn’t enough.  The NRSV translation says “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

If our goal was to build up one another in love, what would that look like?  What would that look like for us as individuals? as a church?

This scripture reminds me that we are all connected.  What I choose to do affects you, and what you choose to do affects me.  We are woven into one fabric, and as our prayer acknowledged earlier, sometimes we rend that fabric.  Sometimes it tears because of actions we took or didn’t take.  Sometimes it tears because we see things differently, and we head in different directions.

I was playing a computer game with my family recently.  In one of the mini-games, it was Jackie against the three of us.  Our little avatars on the game were all trying to pick up coins or something like that.  It was three against one—this was going to be easy.  But the three of us were all attached.  Joshua and Amelia had played this game before, so Joshua knew to let Amelia lead and he just followed wherever she went.  I did not do as well.  We went toward a corner to pick up these coins or whatever, and we missed one, so I tried to go back to get it.  But then we couldn’t go forward, and Amelia was yelling at me to stop because every time I pulled in one direction, my moves affected theirs.  We were tied together, and every action I took affected the others.

I wonder when we will realize this is true in real life, too.  From the way we spend our money to the way we drive in traffic to the way we speak to our children to the way we speak of others.  We are all connected, and knowledge is not enough.  Freedom is not enough.  Only love is enough.  Only love.

[1] Valerie Nicolet-Anderson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-81-13-3

[2] Scott Hoezee. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-4b-2/?term=%221%20Corinthians%208%22

[3] Frank L. Crouch https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-81-13

[4] Scott Hoezee. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-4b-2/?term=%221%20Corinthians%208%22

[5] William Loader. http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/BEpEpiphany4.htm

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