Carissa was supposed to teach a continuing education class for the teachers at the Marion school on Friday, but it had to be rescheduled. Anyway, as most all of you know, Carissa teaches ESL – that is, she teaches English to people who don’t speak it. As part of this continuing education thing she was doing, she was going to have the other teachers watch a Swedish educational video and answer questions in Swedish. The idea was that the teachers could see what it was like for a student who didn’t speak English to be given an assignment to do in class – if it’s not modified at all, it’s going to be hard – nearly impossible – to do.
I think it’s very easy to feel that way as Christians reading our own Bibles. I would venture to say that most Christians own a Bible (there are roughly 1.8 Bibles per person in the United States), but don’t necessarily use it. Part of the reason – maybe the whole reason – people don’t open that Bible is that they’re worried about not understanding it. They believe that it’s impossible for people to understand, unless they’ve specifically studied it in school.
This is quite contrary to some other movements in history, particularly the Reformation, from which our Presbyterian tradition comes. In the Reformation, one of the big stated goals was to get the Bible into the hands of common people, because it was basically an understandable read. This waffling back and forth as to whether the Bible is something anyone can understand has gone on for centuries, and will undoubtedly continue. On the one hand, most of the words in the Bible can be understood by anyone with an 8th-grade education. On the other hand, most of the context of the Bible is what people miss. Of course, the easiest way to understand the context is to actually open it up and read it sometimes, but that’s another sermon for another day, so I don’t want to crawl too far down that rabbit hole.
Instead, today, I would like to talk about one of those Bible passages that you can easily miss the nuance of if you don’t have an understanding of the Bible and the times in which it was written. For example, today’s passage is from one of Paul’s letters. Now, even if you know that Paul was one of the earliest converts to Christianity (though not one of the disciples); even if you know that this is a letter; even if you know that this letter was addressed to the church in Corinth, which is a city in Greece; even if you know all of that information, this passage could still be a mystery to you, because it’s about such a foreign concept. Meat sacrificed to idols?! What is this thing even talking about? Even if you got some of that, there’s a load of context we’re missing about in-fighting in early Christian worshiping communities. So let’s start with some information about the Roman Empire.
The Roman Empire, which was the world power when Jesus lived, was one of the most powerful empires in history. Basically all of North Africa (the parts that border the Mediterranean Sea, anyway), the Middle East, and most of Europe were under Roman control. You may also know that in the Roman Empire, they worshiped a lot of gods. For one thing, the emperor of Rome was considered to be a god, or at least the “son of a god,” which is why Romans got so upset about Christians talking about Jesus as the Son of God – it was treason, claiming that the emperor wasn’t truly your ruler. But they also worshiped a whole pantheon of fictional gods and goddesses they claimed were real. You probably know of their names: Jupiter, Pluto, Neptune, Mercury, Venus, Mars… some other ones who the planets aren’t named after, too.
Anyway, typically, a lot of Roman celebrations revolved around holidays back in Paul’s time – just as our biggest celebrations revolve around holy days. However, their holy days were days for these false Roman gods, not for the true God, whom we worship, who came to us in the form of Jesus Christ and saved us from our sins.
So here’s what would happen. You had a lot of people at these festivals, including Christians. Christians would go, because everyone went. You had the day off of work, you went to the local Temple, you hung out with people, and you ate food. Now, you may have noticed that something in there didn’t sound right – the part about going to the local Temple. Well, that is, of course, where these celebrations were held. They took place in the Temple, because they were religious feasts. A Temple, to differentiate from other types of houses of worship, is specifically a place where you make sacrifices, particularly animal sacrifices.
In Judaism, which did have a tradition of animal sacrifice, once the animal was offered to God, it was burned completely; it was a true “offering” because you were giving it up to God. In Roman tradition, however, you “gave up” the animal by giving it to the priest, who then didn’t burn it whole, but basically cooked it. Then all the people at the festival ate it. This seems a lot less like a sacrifice, which is supposed to be about giving something up, and a lot more like a potluck, I think. But either way, it’s what happened.
Now, the church in Corinth was of three minds about this whole thing. There were some people who attended these things, and others who didn’t. And even among those who attended, there was further division. Some people there would eat the food, and some wouldn’t. See, for those who chose not to eat (whether they went or not), they weren’t eating because this was food intended for Roman gods. They saw it as engaging in the very practice of idolatry. “Idolatry” is, of course, the word we use to mean “worshiping false gods.” These Christians’ basic argument was this: “If you are doing the same things as all these people and they are worshiping, then you are worshiping; and if you’re worshiping a false god, then you’re not really a Christian.” So there were many in the church in Corinth who were mad at the people who would eat at these festivals. But what was their logic behind eating?
Well, those who did eat the sacrificed meat had a pretty good counterargument: they knew that these gods were fake. They couldn’t be worshiping, they argued, because you can’t really worship something if you don’t think it’s real or important. They looked at it as a chance to get together with other people and eat good food. There’s nothing wrong with that. If the other people happened to think it was all some celebration for some pretend god, who cares? These folks weren’t interested in turning away from God… but they weren’t going to turn down a free meal, either, so they just went and enjoyed their food. Plus, procuring meat was difficult and very expensive. These feasts were a good time to get healthy, nutritious food that might’ve otherwise been lacking in their diets.
So that’s the controversy facing this ancient church. And I suspect there are people out there thinking a variety of things. For example, some of you are thinking, “That’s interesting. I wonder what I would do.” Some of you know which of these arguments sounds more like you already. Some of you are thinking about what you’re going to eat after church. And still others are thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good, but WHAT does this have to do with our lives today?”
I will admit, I have preached on a great many things in the Bible, and it’s really hard to think, offhand, of anything that (on its surface) has less to do with our lives today than this passage, because it’s so absurdly granular and specific. I don’t disagree with that. And yet… how often are churches today in conflict? How often to fellow Christians disagree with one another on a topic – how to live, how to vote, how to dress, where to shop, even, as people in our AJ Jacobs book study learned, what to eat. We can disagree about any of those things and much, much more. But in this passage, Paul gives us some amount of guidance that’s timeless, even if the problems of the passage have nothing to do with our lives – in fact, even if this problem wouldn’t have meant anything to other people in Paul’s own life.
The passage begins by telling us that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” That’s in verse 1 of the chapter. It sounds catchy, but it’s actually the solution to the problem that Paul is addressing in the text. Greek rhetoric sometimes works this way, in that it will propose the solution right away, then work at the problem, and then re-incorporate the solution. It’s actually a really good way to write, but it makes it difficult to understand as a modern English-speaking audience.
When Paul says that “knowledge puffs up,” he doesn’t mean that knowledge is bad, per se; as he also says in verse one, “all of us possess knowledge.” Rather, what he means is that knowledge, without love, does no one any good. So he wants us to understand that love, particularly love of God and neighbor, is the most important thing we can have. And then he supposes a scenario to those who eat the meat at these festivals. He basically says, “Yeah, you’re right; these other gods aren’t real, and they don’t matter, and we shouldn’t be concerned about them. BUT, if you eating this meat is hurting your brothers and sisters in Christ, maybe you should think twice about it.”
In other words, Paul wants us to consider how our actions affect others, and particularly how they affect the faith lives of others. Paul just wants to make sure that it doesn’t become confusing for new Christians, who might think that these people who eat the food at these gatherings are engaging in worship of these false gods.
The thing that’s really hard for us to wrap our minds around in this passage is that this is one of those times when the message of the Bible rubs against the message of American culture. Our culture, as a whole, is very individualistic. “What’s right for me is right for me, and what’s right for you is none of my concern.” But this passage encourages us to actually consider the faith lives of others; for us to use our own habits, actions, and lives as a reflection of our faith. What we do has a reflection on others, too.
How we are seen might change how people around us believe. If people around us see that we are good, loving, kind, generous, helpful, and faithful, they will think Christians are good, loving, kind, generous, helpful, and faithful. If people around us see that we are cruel, intolerant, vindictive, gossipy, and judgmental, they will think that Christians are cruel, intolerant, vindictive, gossipy, and judgmental. And more and more, the most up-to-date research says that those characteristics in the second group are how people outside the church see people inside the church. So let us not be stumbling blocks on the way to Christ. Let us embody the life of Jesus. Let us be thoughtful and knowledgeable, but let us above all other things be loving, and make our actions reflect the actions of the One who came to save us. Amen.