Epiphany 4B 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
I heard a story once about a group of missionaries living in Africa who had decided to set up a game of croquet in their front yard. Several of their neighbors who were people of the local tribes were very interested in the game and wanted to learn to play. The missionaries explained the game and gave each a mallet and a ball. As the game progressed, opportunity came for one of the players to take advantage of another by knocking the other person’s ball out of the court. One of the missionary carefully explained how to accomplish this, but his strategy was very confusing to the tribesman. “Why would I want to knock his ball out of the court?” he asked. “So you will be the one to win!” the missionary said. The man shook his head in bewilderment. His so-called “civilized” neighbor was suggesting something absurd. That kind of individual competition was not common in their culture where people survived, not by competing against one another to win individually, but by working together to win—to survive—as a group. The game continued, but nobody followed the advice of the missionaries. When a player successfully got through all the wickets, the game was not over for him. He went back and gave aid and advice to his friends. As the final player moved toward the last wicket, it had become a full team effort. And, when the last wicket was played, the “team” shouted happily, “We won!” “We won!”
An interesting little story to ponder this morning as we look at the text from 1st Corinthians. Keep that image in your mind—of the men working together to play the game—as we move on.
In today’s second lesson, Paul writes to the early Christians in the city of Corinth about several issues they originally contacted him to help settle. One of these topics we hear about today: whether or not it is ok to eat meat that has been sacrificed to an idol. Now, you might be thinking, ok, Pastor, what does that have to do with us in the 21st century?? It is kind of disgusting to think too much about and thankfully no one sacrifices animals any more and even if they did, the meat isn’t carried at Ingles or Harolds. Plus, we do not have the kinds of food laws that the Jews did, so this is one of those ancient practices that has nothing to do with us.
Well, maybe. But maybe not. It is possible that what Paul is telling the Corinthians has a lot to do with both the team players in the croquet story and with us today.
So, what is this all about? Corinth was a Roman city and as such was structured around pagan Roman worship. Animal sacrifice was part of this pagan worship and after the rituals were over, the meat was sold in the markets along with that of herders and farmers. If you were a citizen of Corinth, you shopped in those markets and had sacrificed meat as an option to purchase. Your friends might serve it if you went to someone’s house for dinner. Just like today, eating a meal together could have been a social activity, celebration, family event or a business activity. If you were poor, it is possible that the only time you ever tasted meat was when wealthy people held large public banquets where a meal was served at no charge. It was quite likely that meat which had been sacrificed to idols may have been on the menu. There was no way to know since it didn’t look any different from any other meat. If you were a Corinthian Christian, this might have posed a problem for you. Avoiding this kind of meat would not have been impossible but it certainly would have been a challenge. In fact, there were significant disagreements in the church about this and they wrote to Paul for answers. Is it or is it not OK to eat that kind of meat?
The Christian church in Corinth consisted of lots of different kinds of people. Some were converted Jews who had come to follow Jesus and believe that he was God. Some were converted pagans who use to worship the many Roman gods and goddesses—the same ones to whom the meat in question was sacrificed. One side of the argument, and we can gather this from the words Paul quotes in his letter, went something like this: because we know, as Christians, that these idols are just statues and not really gods, it does not matter. We are smart enough to know that the only real God is our God and, therefore, these sacrifices are not actually sacrifices to anything. Ergo: it is harmless to eat it. As Christians we have been freed from obeying all the strict food laws that were given to the Hebrews in the Old Testament. In light of this knowledge and freedom, we have nothing to fear from eating any meat, sacrificial or not, and should therefore be free to do as we please.
But there was another side to this as well. There were Christians in Corinth who were deeply offended by this. They believed it would be blasphemy to eat this meat sacrificed to pagan gods. To them, it was disgusting and sinful. How could a person claim to be a follower of Christ and still consume such pagan products? Meat that had been offered to any one of the pagan gods or goddesses was revolting to them and to think of consuming it was horrifying.
You can see how these two ideas would clash. One group saying it is no big deal because we know better. The other saying it was a horrible thing for any Christian to do. Where was the resolution? Paul’s response is very interesting. Yes, he says, you are indeed correct! There is only one God—our God. Yes, this sacrificed meat is not, in all actuality, sacrificed to anything. Idols are not real. He even says that, ultimately, you are no better for having not eaten the meat and no worse if you have. In a sense, it does not matter.
However, he does not stop there. Even though this is true, some people are deeply disturbed by this practice. He points to some who “have become so accustomed to idols until now” meaning those who had been converted from paganism. “They still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol.” It is possible, Paul tells them their weaker consciences, or we could perhaps think of this as someone who is as yet uncertain of what their faith means or calls them to do, are damaged by this practice. Not only by their own eating of this meat but by seeing their fellow Christians do so as well. So, in this way, those who exercise what is actually their freedom to eat whatever they wish, may harm the faith of someone else. In the end, Paul says he would rather choose to never eat meat of any kind again than to cause someone else to stumble in their faith.
Knowledge puffs up, he writes, but Love builds up. In other words: ok, you are right that you are free to do as you please, but the greater choice is to love your brother or sister in Christ more than you love this freedom. If others who are weaker see you consume this meat, they may decide to eat the same thing but still believing that it is still something sacrificed to idols. By so doing, your knowledge and freedom cause the downfall of someone else.
Paul is not talking about people who are just stubborn in their ways or people who are being willfully obstinate in their belief that idol sacrifices are blasphemous. He is talking about people who truly believe this! Most significantly, he writes, “When you thus sin against members of your family [that is, your brothers and sisters in Christ], and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” Perhaps freedom is not about doing what we please but about something else.
It would be easy to take this section of scripture and laminate it on top of whatever type of conflict or concern we encounter in the church. It is tempting to see ourselves as the one who knows better and the people on the other side of whatever issue concerns us at any given time as having weaker consciences or younger faith. But how do you know which of these sides is your side? The truth is, you may not ever know. We do not know which side of this issue was a new idea and which the tradition. We do not know if it was the church council who wanted to eat the sacrificed meat or if they were against it. Paul is also very careful not to say “New Christians” or “Life Long Christians” either. We do not know what those who were “weaker” or “stronger” actually looked like, what roles they played in the church or in society. What we do know is how Paul taught them to deal with the situation by putting the love of others ahead of personal freedom and privilege.
Martin Luther wrote, “The Christian is a perfectly free, lord of all and is subject to none. The Christian is a completely dutiful servant of all and is subject to all.” In other words, we are free in Christ. Law is no longer binding to us as it once was. We do not have to earn the love of God by performing or abstaining from certain acts. God loves us freely and does not require us to behave a certain way in order to get that love. However, right alongside that, we are bound to each other. In that free gift of love from God , we are also free to love one another. Free to concern ourselves not with our own needs but that of others. In a manner of speaking we are, in freedom, bound to one another’s needs.
This reminds me of something my father used to tell me when I was a little girl. He would say, “Rosemary, we are a family and that is something special. A family is like a football team: everyone has to work together in order to win. Can the quarterback or coach win the game?” “Well, not really,” I would say, “though they make a big difference! Or a really good kicker could win the game, too!” “Yes,” my dad would say, “and a big mistake by any one player could lose a game as well, but does any player win or lose on their own?” “No, of course not,” I said. “Well,” my dad would say, “that’s like us. We are a team. You see, we win or lose together. So when we disagree, it isn’t about my winning and you loosing or even the other way around. If you lose, then I lose too. If one wins, we all win. It takes all the players to even make a game in the first place. We have to work together just like they do in order to play the game. To be a family.”
Sounds a little like our story from the beginning, doesn’t it? This may be the kind of thing Paul was trying to teach the Corinthians and what Jesus tries to teach us. At the end of the text, Paul talks about how we treat our brothers and sisters and that language is very important. Jesus used the same words when he spoke of his followers. Our brothers and sisters; our family. It is something other than, or perhaps even greater than, our biological brothers and sisters. In our baptism we are made one family, one team. My father showed me and Luther and Paul are showing all of us that while we are free in Christ, we have love for one another in Christ as well. When one wins, we all win. We all win together.
So what does that look like for us at Shepherd of the Hills? What does that look like for our family here? Well, it means, to use my father’s words, we are a team. We win or lose together, not as individuals but as a whole. There is no I in team and, in a manner of speaking, there is no I in church either. It means that when we make decisions the issues we work with are important but our care for one another is of greater importance. It means that when we make choices for our actions we must consider not just what we want or are free to do, but we also consider what the rest of our family needs as well—the family into which we have been made through Jesus Christ.