The 4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
28 January, AD 2018
St Michael’s Church, O’Fallon, IL
Proper: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
✠ ✠ ✠
Unexpectedly, I had to get a new phone the other day. And one of the things that’s new to me about this phone is that you can’t change the battery when it starts to wear out. When it’s completely dead, it’s time to get a new phone. So I did a bit of research into proper charging procedures, because everybody has something different to say about that. Should I charge it overnight, like I’ve always done, or is that not a good thing any more? I found a user forum for my particular phone and read the comments. Now if you’re not familiar with online user forums, you need to know that nobody’s an expert, they’re just users of the product, some with more knowledge than others. So mixed in with the helpful comments, you’re liable to find some quite wrong information, and even some outright BS, which is what I found the other day.
A guy who called himself VALUED CONTRIBUTOR (ELITE), obviously wanting to impress people with his vast knowledge, advised that you should always let your phone go completely dead, and then only charge it for about an hour and a half, and that if you leave it plugged in overnight you’ll actually be force-feeding it electricity that it can’t handle, and you’d end up frying your phone. Other people quickly weighed in and blew apart every bit of that guy’s advice. And finally someone said, “I’m a little bit in awe of [VALUED CONTRIBUTOR (ELITE)’s] ability to be just so exceptionally wrong and inaccurate, almost failing to stumble on anything correct in the entirety of his lengthy finger vomit.”
I think St Paul would have liked that last comment, since he had things like that to say about people who were trying to pass off their own bad ideas as a good reading of the Gospel (cf Gal 5:1-15). Then I found another online forum where somebody shared some information they’d got from a tech support guy, all of which shot down everything VALUED CONTRIBUTOR (ELITE) had said. That’s a lot like what Paul is dealing with in today’s second lesson. He’s like the tech support guy correcting everybody’s uninformed opinions. And that’s the presenting issue that he’s dealing with in this passage– speculating as to whether it’s ok to eat meat that’s been sacrificed to idols, false gods. It was a case of everybody doing what was right in their own eyes instead of seeking guidance from someone who would know the right thing to do.
You may be wondering why this even became an issue in the first place. Why would the Christians be put in a position where they needed to eat that kind of meat? Why couldn’t they just go to the Walmart Supercenter out by the interstate and get meat that hadn’t been used in pagan worship? It’s like this: Corinth was a very large Greek city with a mixed population of Romans, Greeks and Jews, and a small but growing Christian population. In fact, St Paul himself evangelized and baptized the chief of the local synagogue, which caused quite a scandal. Corinth was also the site of the temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation, known by the Romans as Venus. So it was a largely pagan city, with a good-sized Jewish population. Wherever there was a major temple, there was a pretty significant livestock trade going on, because people came from far and wide to offer animal sacrifices to the god of that temple. And since Aphrodite didn’t consume the meat herself, it was eaten by the priests and the worshippers and whomever they invited, which could well have included their Jewish and Christian friends and relatives. I imagine a lot of those feasts would have been part of wedding celebrations, given that love and procreation were Aphrodite’s domain. The leftover meat was then sold to the butchers to resell to the public in their shops. So there was a really good chance that whatever anyone bought from the butchers had previously been offered in worship to Aphrodite, or one of the other gods. And on top of this, most people didn’t eat meat every day like we do. It was a rare treat. So to be invited to that kind of feast, or to have enough spare change to buy meat from the butcher was a hard thing to pass up.
Now concerning this kind of food, Paul says, “we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge’ [and] This ‘knowledge’ puffs up.” (Grk= to become inflated with pride, to get a swelled head). There was a bit of snobbery in the Corinthian church. Some of its members believed themselves to have a stronger faith, and to be more enlightened about certain things than others whom they saw as having weaker faith and being somewhat darkened in their understanding. So they just needed to be dragged into the light by those who knew better. And this caused a serious conflict within the congregation. At issue was the fact that because Christians know Aphrodite is just a myth, and that there are no other gods besides the God and Father of Jesus Christ, then sitting down to pagan feasts, and buying meat from the butchers that had previously been sacrificed, really ought to be a non-issue. But to those who were seen as weak in faith, attending those celebrations and eating that meat appeared to be a participation in pagan religion. They saw it as an act of worship, and therefore a betrayal of Jesus, no different than offering a pinch of incense on the altar of Caesar in order to avoid persecution. It was a sell-out.
You’ll notice that “we have knowledge” is in quotation marks. Biblical scholars think it was a slogan used by the group who had no problem eating such meat. So Paul is addressing them in this passage. “We all possess knowledge,” he says to them. All of us know there is no god but God. “For even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth– as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’”– Aphrodite being one of the many “so-called gods”; Nero, Augustus and all the other Roman emperors called themselves lords. But none of them are any such thing, Paul says. The gods of Greece and Rome are imaginary, and the caesars are just men. “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” So yes, this really should be a non-issue.
However, Paul goes on to say, not everybody sees it this way. Some of the Christians in Corinth used to be pagans. They don’t have a strong faith just yet, because they haven’t yet been fully convinced that those gods aren’t real. Every new convert is like that. They’ve said yes to Jesus, but they still have to sort through all their former beliefs and practices and figure out which ones they have to toss and which ones are okay to hold on to. So they still see eating that food as really participating in pagan worship. And maybe, as they grow stronger in faith, they’ll still see it as a betrayal of Jesus, which would be okay if it helps keep them from falling back into idolatry.
What’s not okay, Paul says, is that those whose faith is stronger, who think they know better, keep on eating pagan meat, knowing it upsets the weaker ones. So what’s really at issue here is not meat that’s been sacrificed to idols, but a lack of charity, the love that Christians ought to have for one another in all circumstances. St John Chrysostom says that the root of all the problems in the Corinthian church “was not their lack of knowledge, but their lack of love and lack of concern for their neighbor” (Hom. on 1Cor, 20, ad loc.) “We all have knowledge,” Paul says to the ones who are puffed up. You don’t know any more than anybody else in the congregation. In fact, there’s one very important thing the rest know that you don’t, which is that you don’t respect them.
Sure, we know that the gods of the pagans aren’t real, and that the humans they acknowledge as lord– the emperors– don’t have any supernatural powers at all. And we believe in one God, the Father who is the source of our existence; we confess that Jesus is Lord and the means of our existence. But not everybody among you knows that, not deep down, not yet. So they need your forbearance. These are your brothers and sisters in Christ, after all, who look to you, their elders in the faith, as examples and as mentors. And if you’re not mindful of that, then you’re sending the message that you don’t really care about them. “If you love them,” Chrysostom says, “far from being aloof and looking down on them, you will strive to have them share your insights.” And you’ll also have a care for where they are in their spiritual walk, and not do anything that may do them harm.
“This was the cause of the divisions in that church,” Chrysostom says, and of all the disorder for which St Paul was rebuking them. Paul urges them to think about what matters most. If indulging your taste for meat is going to undermine the faith of your weaker brother or sister, then leave the meat alone. “Food isn’t going to bring us close to God,” he says, “We’re no worse off if we don’t eat, and no better off if we do. Just be careful that your choices don’t somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” “For by your knowledge,” he says, by your thinking that you know better than they do, “those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.”
This is where he comes to the heart of the matter. Christ died for the sins of us all. By taking flesh and becoming one of us, Jesus exposed the arrogance and the foolishness of the world for what it is. “For the wisdom of this world is folly with God,” Paul says earlier in this same letter that we’re reading from (1Cor 3:19). That’s what led those Christians in Corinth to foolishly choose self-indulgence over charity. It was a rare thing to have a nice bit of steak, but the faith of a brother or sister in Christ is far more precious than meat. Helping as many people into the kingdom of God is far more important that satisfying the desires of the flesh, or pushing a particular agenda.
Now we can apply this lesson to all kinds of issues in the Church, some of them seemingly bigger or more important than others. Politics is a particularly nasty one in this country. Some Christians, as much as anyone else, will argue with each other, and won’t stop no matter what it does to their personal relationship, while others who witness it are deeply disturbed by it. I understand that one or two people have left St Michael’s because of it. That’s shameful. Church is where we pray for our politicians and leaders, not where we argue over what they do. So maybe we need to declare this place a politics-free zone.
Another thing that happens in churches quite often is that people grumble about the noise little kids make, and complain that they ought to be banished to the nursery or some other ghetto. When I was in seminary, a woman in the church I was assigned to insisted that the rector make one young family go to a different service because the noise their little girl made, which wasn’t very much, kept her from enjoying the choir’s “performance.” The rector refused. That’s how churches drive people away and give themselves a bad reputation. And then they complain that they’re not getting any new people.
In terms of wrecking the faith of some people, those things are equally bad, and equally as important as the issues that cause whole denominations to split and disintegrate, since what’s at stake in them all is the faith of some of our brothers and sister, and the lack of love expressed by others. In all such instances, as Paul says, we sin against members of our family, we wound their consciences, and in all of it, we sin against Christ. “Therefore,” Paul says, “if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” If arguing or condemning one another over politics, or crabbing about kid noise, or giving new members the cold shoulder, or any number of other negative behaviors is a cause of someone’s falling, or leaving, let’s just train ourselves not to behave that way. That’s what St Paul was working hard to do in both of his problem churches, Corinth and Galatia. And that’s what we all need to be working on all the time in all our churches, even in the friendliest and most welcoming ones like this one. Because when you’re a Christian, you don’t just say you love everybody; you do it. In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Ian C. Wetmore+