Sunday 1 February 2015
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
I was originally planning on preaching on the text from Mark this morning, and how the demons seem to know who Jesus is even when no one else does, including his own disciples. But the epistle lesson, the letter from Paul to the Corinthians, kept calling to me. So you’re not getting the originally scheduled sermon, “I Know Who You Are,” you’re getting a sermon on this very strange text about idol meat.
It seems very foreign, doesn’t it? Meat sacrificed to idols. What is Paul even talking about? And this isn’t the only place that Paul talks about idol meat. Why would he spend so much time on such a strange issue?
So, this is going to require some background information. Because the world that this argument about idol meat comes from is a very different world than our own. Paul considers himself the Apostle to the Gentiles. He’s a Jew, like all of Jesus’s early disciples, but he has a new mission to reach out non-Jews and to bring them into the fold of the Jewish God.
And the people Paul is reaching out to are practitioners of a variety of religious observances. They practice what we usually call paganism. They worship the traditional gods. The Greek gods: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hades, Aphrodite. The Roman gods: Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Minerva, Mars, Venus, Mercury, Vulcan, Janus. Five our months and all of the planets in our solar system are still named after Roman gods. And other eastern gods, like Isis and Mithras.
And while practices varied from place to place and from tradition to tradition, a very common feature in ancient religion was the sacrifice of animals to the gods. Remember, this is also how the God of the bible was worshiped at this time in history, with animal sacrifice. Ancient Corinth had temples dedicated to Aphrodite, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes, Venus, Isis, Demeter, and the divine Emperor.
Not only was animal sacrifice common in a Roman colony like Corinth, nearly all meat available in the city would have been sacrificed to one god or another. Unless you could find a kosher Jewish butcher, chances are that any meat you could buy would have been sacrificed to a god before it was sold. What is more, many poor people—probably the majority of people—could not afford to buy their own meat. But on religious festivals, meat that had been sacrificed to the gods would be provided free to the public, usually being paid for by one of the leading men of the city.
So now we can begin to see why the issue of meat sacrificed to idols would have been a real issue in Paul’s time. If you were going to eat meat at all, it would have been hard to get any that had not been sacrificed to an idol. So if you ate that meat, did it mean that you were worshiping Apollo, or Mars, or whoever? Did it mean that you were worship a god other than the one, true God?
But there is another layer of complexity in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The church in Corinth was different than any of Paul’s other churches. What’s different in Corinth is that the congregation there is of mixed backgrounds. Paul refers to the two groups as the weak and the strong. Like any letter between people who know each other, there are many things that don’t have to be explained, because both the sender and the recipient already know what it is that is being discussed. Paul never explains exactly what he means by the weak and the strong. Presumably the the people in Corinth would have had no trouble figuring out what he meant.
So we don’t know for sure, but scholars’ best guess goes something like this. The strong are well-to-do people. They are used to rubbing elbows with the other movers and shakers in town. They are educated in rhetoric and philosophy. They have the skill and the resources to get their way in court. They have the leisure to get together in the middle of the day. They enjoy sharing a nice meal with their peers. They have a voice and power in the community.
The weak, on the other hand, are the working class. They are slaves or servants. They work all day, every day. They don’t have leisure time. They don’t have education. They never get to sit down to sumptuous meals. They are just simple, ordinary people.
In this section of the letter, Paul is speaking to the strong. He identifies himself with the strong, and he says, we know that all those statues that people make their sacrifices to, they’re just statues. All those traditional gods, they aren’t real. Zeus, Mars, Isis—they’re all just fairy tales. Being educated in philosophy, the strong were already suspicious of the myths of the traditional gods. Even before Paul came around, they tended to believe in one God, formless, beyond matter, that created the entire material world.
The weak, though, didn’t have this advanced knowledge. Before they had come to Christ, they had taken the traditional gods very seriously. How else could they make sense of a world that kept them oppressed while a few at the top benefitted except that it was the capricious action of fickle gods. Even now that they worshipped the Christian God, they still thought the old gods had power, that they were some kind of lesser gods or demons.
So Paul tells the strong, yes, we all know that the gods those idols represent are fake. Of course eating meat that has been sacrificed to an idol won’t cause you any harm. Of course you are free to eat the meat offered to you at swanky parties or during religious festivals. It doesn’t mean anything because those gods aren’t real.
But, Paul says, the weak don’t know that. They still remember going to those gods with their most basic needs. They used to depend on those gods for their very survival. For them, coming to Christ and to the Christian God means disowning the traditional gods. They don’t have the benefit of your philosophical training to understand that those myths about the gods are just fanciful tales. They really believed.
And so, Paul says, while strong people may have the freedom in Christ to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols, they should not exercise that freedom. They should limit their own freedom for the benefit of their brothers and sisters in Christ. And specifically, they should limit their own freedom for the benefit of those who are below them on the social ladder.
Which brings us to the reason that this passage about the now obscure practice of animal sacrifice still has meaning for us today. Because what Paul is telling the believers in Corinth is that, in some sense, we are responsible to each other. We have responsibility for the faith of our sisters and brothers. When we decide how to use our freedom, it matters how our freedom affects others.
Martin wrote: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” That sentiment comes from Paul.
And part of the reason is that Christ does not so much call us alone to be Christians as Christ calls us together to be the Church. If we look at each of the call stories in the bible, there is not one that happens outside the context of community. Noah does not get called without his family. Samuel does not get called without Eli. Peter does not get called without Andrew, James, and John. Paul does not get called without Ananias and the rest of the Christian community in Damascus.
We often seem to focus on the experience of individual believers. What does God ask of me? What is the significance of my baptism? How can I receive grace? How is my personal relationship with Jesus?
But in truth, we are not Christians alone. We cannot be. Even the most solitary of monks and or have the support of a community. And our Christian ideals are not just about how we act individually, they are about how we act as the church. How do we treat each other? What do we share together? How do we support one another? What are we able to do together in the world?
And to be the church as God calls us to be, we have to be thoughtful about how we interact with each other. There will be times when, for the sake of our sister or brother, we might have to act differently than we would otherwise. If my behavior is causing someone else to stumble, then I should think very seriously about changing that behavior for the sake of my sister or brother. And that is all the more true when I am in a position of power. But I don’t get to turn that around and use it as a cudgel. It’s not okay for me to try to get my own way by insisting that anything other than the way I want would cause me to stumble. Living together in community is not about demands and conformity. It is about grace. It is about getting over myself so that I can be a part of what God is doing with us. It is about showing love for one another, not only when we agree, but especially when we disagree.
Thankfully, we don’t have to do it alone. The Holy Spirit works in us to make us more loving, to heal our hard-heartedness, to open us to the needs of our neighbors. Thanks be to God, who creates us in infinite variety and draws us together in one family.