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Who’s Wrong, Who’s Right, Who’s Up, Who’s Down

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

January 28, 2018
1 Corinthians 8:1-13

A Reading from Paul’s First Letter to Corinth

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one.’ Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— 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.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. ‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

I should tell you up front that I feel bad for the Corinthians. You may already know that this Corinthian church is kind of a mess; Paul’s first letter to them, from which we just read, is infamously full of conflict resolution, so, to hear Paul write to them, the Corinthians are arguing about everything they can think of. They don’t agree on circumcision practices. They don’t agree on how to interact with the imperial and non-Christian culture outside their door. They don’t even agree on basic elements of how to break bread and share the cup together. This church has been having all the arguments that churches have, and the problem of course is that they’ve been having these arguments in the pages of scripture for two thousand years and for two thousand years preachers like me have been making them into exhibit number one in how not to be church together. You know, kids, don’t forget to love each other and forgive one another and don’t argue too much about the color of the carpet because you don’t want to end up like the Corinthians. To be honest at this point I just feel bad for them. And frankly if I were one of those original Corinthian churchgoers looking down at our modern religious landscape, what with our thirty thousand Protestant denominations, and our constant ability to fracture over details that even Paul would find unnecessarily pedantic, if I were watching us with Corinthian eyes, I would roll them about as far back into my head as Heaven would allow.

And yet we come back to these Corinthian stories again and again. This week I have noticed a habit of the lectionary, which is that, unlike Paul’s other letters, which usually show up in one chunk of Sundays somewhere in the three-year lectionary cycle, bits of 1 Corinthians show up every January, and the only reason I can think of is that the lectionary editors wanted to give preachers some good tools for talking about church on Congregational Meeting Sunday. But you have probably already noticed, even on this Congregational Meeting Sunday, that our text this morning feels particularly irrelevant — in 2018, we don’t sacrifice animals to idols as part of our religious practice, so what would we possibly care about what Paul says about whether or not we’re allowed to eat the meat that is generated from those sacrifices? I mean, the Gospel story for the day was about an exorcism, which sounds legitimately exciting, and this does not. And yet there is a story here, about being right and being wrong and being kind, and I can’t imagine a better one to tell on a day when we gather to be right and wrong and kind together.

The problem in Corinth is that basically every piece of meat for sale in town is the result of a temple sacrifice. Temple sacrifices were a major part of the cult of the Roman emperor, so, there’s a lot of it. And the good news is, this meat wasn’t burned to a crisp or left to rot; to the contrary, it provided much of the source material for the butchers who would then sell it back to the consuming public. The bad news is: there’s so much of this meat — frankly, the religious authorities have demanded such a high quantity of sacrifice, because of course it’s how they stay in business — that the market has been saturated. Which isn’t bad news I suppose if you’re just a carnivore looking for a good time. But the Corinthian church has a different kind of worry, because they’re not so sure about eating meat that has been marked with somebody else’s religious practice. Which I think is understandable. If I packed up a bunch of leftover UPC communion and took it over to the Jewish Community Center and offered it to them as a snack, they might look at me a little funny. Of course, for them, it would not really be the body and blood of Jesus Christ; it would be exactly what it looked like: some cheap red wine and a few pieces of King’s Hawaiian. But of course I can entirely imagine that our good Jewish brothers and sisters might not want to include food that had been part of our sacramental rite in their lunchtime buffet. It might feel a little sacrilegious. It might feel a bit like cheating. Or maybe it would just feel like cheap wine and leftover bread. Everyone might feel a little different about whether or not to have that snack.

Which is exactly the problem in the Corinthian church. Some of them are totally fine eating all the cheeseburgers in town — I mean, look, it’s not like we believe in the gods that these cows were sacrificed to; in fact we know those gods don’t exist, so it’s not like this cheeseburger has some magical theological properties, it’s still just a cheeseburger; I eat it with a clean conscience. And Paul wants to agree with these folks with all his heart, he really does. “We know that no idol in the world really exists,” he says; he gets it. It’s not a special cheeseburger. It’s just a cheeseburger, and you’ve got the right to eat it if you want to. You’re not breaking any kind of theological law. But. The problem is, it’s not just about your rights. It’s about the well-being of the whole community. And what if, Paul says. Stick with me for a second. Because not everybody in the church is on the same theological page. What if you’re sitting next to somebody who still thinks that your cheeseburger does have some theological properties? And then they see you eating it like a regular pagan, and now you are setting a bad example, without meaning to. And so they begin to rethink some of the other parts of Christian life that actually are pretty important. And now your cheeseburger has gotten in the way of that person’s relationship with 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.”

One semester in seminary I had this afternoon class in pastoral care, starting at 2:00 in the afternoon, this big intro class, so there are a hundred people in this open lecture hall listening to a professor who was a fabulous theologian of pastoral care but not always a compelling speaker, and with the sun beating in through the windows and the lecture going on and on, it was a not a scenario that was always highly conducive to my alertness. And a thing about me is that when I am in scenarios that are not highly conducive to alertness, the best remedy is snacks. Eating always keeps me awake, especially in classrooms at nap time with the sun beating in through the windows. Except. In this class. Among the one hundred students spread throughout Stuart 5 on any given afternoon, there was one of my classmates who had a virulent peanut allergy. It wasn’t anything cute or passing; this was substantially a matter of major concern. And so my professor banned everything. No snacks. No drinks. No bottles of water. Nothing. Because of this. Because she did not want my classmate to hear somebody across the room open a bag of snacks and have to worry about whether or not they were Skittles or Peanut M&Ms. She did not want my classmate to have to worry about whether that soda had brushed up against something in the snack machine that would mean breaking out the Epi-pen.

And I was so angry. I mean, I was so wrong, but I was so angry. It’s a big classroom, I’m sitting way on the other side. And I’m basically a responsible adult. And I have no interest in bringing anything into the classroom that might cause harm to anyone else. And I am totally willing to go show my classmate anything and everything I’ve brought for the day. I mean, I can have a rational conversation about what kinds of snacks I can bring and how I might best accommodate but this general ban feels like it takes away my right to have a rational conversation. I mean, what about my needs? Where’s my justice? I had just been in a class on ethics and justice and I was ready to rumble. Perhaps the class in New Testament theology was perhaps too far in the rear-view mirror. Because of course Paul would have no patience for my arrogance. Because it’s not just about your rights, Paul says. It’s not just about being right or wrong at all. It’s about being decent. If food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. Turns out this is a pretty good lesson for a pastoral care class after all, a lesson in how we treat folks who don’t have all the privileges that we have.

Paul calls them the weak. Their conscience is “weak,” because they don’t fully understand that there’s nothing technically wrong with eating this temple meat. And it’s tempting to read this like mockery — for sure, weakness doesn’t sound like something we want to be. We don’t like identifying as weak. Although, to be fair, we do it quite a bit. In preparation for worship this week, I looked at every hymn in our hymnal that uses some form of the word weak or weakness and basically every last one of them uses it in the context of our weakness and God’s strength. We are comfortable being weak, at least in the presence of God. But of course that’s not what Paul’s asking. Paul doesn’t address his readers as the weak. He addresses them as the ones who have power. He’s addressing them as folks who have the capacity to make choices. He’s addressing them as folks who have the capacity to make decisions. Yes, I suppose you can eat that cheeseburger if you want to, he says. You have a right to eat the cheeseburger if you want to. It’s not technically wrong. It’s just mean. It’s mean. This isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about who’s up and who’s down. Because what you’re doing is taking advantage of the power you have that someone else doesn’t have. It’s not against the rules. It’s just mean. And you can choose not to. You have the power to choose that someone else doesn’t have. And you can use that power for the building-up of the kingdom.

It’s literally what Jesus would do. Our Gospel story today is all about establishing his power — in his first trip into the temple, he casts a demon out of a long-suffering man, and the crowd is astonished — “A new teaching — with authority!” But time and again, Jesus uses that power to lift up those on the margins. To lift up the powerless. To lift up the oppressed. To lift up the weak. Actually the word that we translate as weak here in 1 Corinthians shows up throughout the Gospels as sick, so, when Jesus heals the sick, when Jesus visits the sick, when Jesus blesses the sick, when Jesus stands in solidarity with the sick, he is of course doing what Paul also call us to do: to take something of our own power and give it up for the sake of the Gospel. So maybe there’s a Congregational Meeting sermon in here somewhere after all. Because of course no Presbyterian congregational meeting would be complete without a fairly exhaustive sense of what is permissible and what isn’t. About what is decent and orderly and what isn’t. About what is circumscribed by the holy writ of Roberts Rules of Order and what isn’t. But I hope. For the sake of the kingdom, I hope. I hope that what we are really doing here is something more. Something beyond what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Something beyond what’s in order and what’s out of order. Something beyond what gets to be right and what gets to be wrong. I hope that we are up to something decent. I hope that we are up to something kind. I hope that we are up to something that seeks out the powerless. I hope that we are up to something that lifts up the downtrodden. I hope that we are up to something that honors the weak. I hope that we are up to something that builds up the kingdom.

I hope I’ll trade my snacks for that any day of the week.