a sermon on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
About ten years ago, author A.J. Jacobs set out on an interesting journey to, as he puts it, “live the ultimate biblical life, or more precisely, to follow the Bible as literally as possible.” He is not a religious person at all—he grew up in a culturally Jewish home here in New York with “a Star of David on top of our Christmas tree,” lived next door to a Lutheran minister, and attended some bar mitzvahs and funerals. Still, when he decided to learn more about religion, he decided to do more than just study it. He decided to take the whole thing seriously as best he could imagine, by spending a year “living biblically.” He set out to follow the various biblical commandments and laws as best he could, everything from loving his neighbor to avoiding shaving his beard to keeping his distance from his wife at certain times of the month! It led to some interesting trips all around the world, a number of very funny stories about other people who weren’t quite as enthusiastic about his project, and a lot of thoughtful reflection on what it means to live in a modern-day context while following an ancient book.
I’m not exactly sure what A.J. Jacobs would do with our text this morning from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It seems very much like the kind of outdated instruction that we so easily ignore and that would be great material for a comedian—from the moment it opens talking about “food sacrificed to idols,” you know it is not going to be easy to connect to our own time! And one commentator I read on this even said, “In all my years of listening to sermons, including my own, I don’t believe that I have ever heard one based on this text.” (V. Bruce Rigdon, “Pastoral Perspective on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1) Still, I think there is something here for us to hear today.
The church in Corinth to which these words were originally addressed was an incredible group of people facing the questions of faithfulness to Christ in a very distinctive culture. The Christian church in Corinth welcomed a cross-section of people from the city. Some had experience in the broader religious community of Corinth where animal sacrifices were common and so sought to eliminate these past practices completely, but others had no connection to these temples and so carried no mental baggage with the sacrifices that were made there. Some were well-off and could easily afford to include meat, usually from the temples, as part of their diet, but others were less affluent and so were more accustomed to a simple, mostly vegetarian diet. Some were outspoken and very much ready to instruct their fellow believers in exactly what they believed was the right thing to do in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but others were less confident in their voices and beliefs and so remained more quiet. In addressing the issue of food sacrificed to idols, Paul was not just looking at what to do with a particular food—he was encouraging the Corinthians to think more deeply and broadly about the nature of their community of faith and how their commitment to one another ought to be expressed in things as mundane as food.
Paul actually sets aside the issue of meat sacrificed to idols pretty quickly. He makes it clear that idols really don’t exist, for God is so great and one that there is no other god worth paying any attention to, even to the extent of spending time to deny its existence! For us, he says, “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.” The matter of eating meat sacrificed to idols, then, is ultimately a matter of personal decision, he says: “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.”
While there is no direct theological reason to eat or not to eat, Paul makes it clear that there still may be good reason for the Corinthians to avoid this meat, not because the meat itself is bad but because some others might not fully understand this. The freedom to enjoy this meat, Paul insists, is not freedom to get in the way of the faithfulness of others:
Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block.
For Paul, it seems that the rightness of the act of eating meat—or obeying any law, in fact—is beyond a simple determination of theological correctness and instead rooted in understanding how attentiveness to that law impacts others’ lives and grounded in the deep relationships that emerge among those who encounter one another as sisters and brothers in faith.
This is where these words about food sacrificed to idols start to touch our lives. We may not emerge from this chapter of 1 Corinthians with a clear rule about whether or not Jesus demands that we all be vegetarians, but we do learn here a few deeper truths about what it means to be in Christian community. First, we are reminded that our actions impact others. Everything we do, right or wrong, has an impact on others, for good or for ill. We cannot so disconnect ourselves from the community around us that we will not have an effect on those who journey with us. And so from this text we are called to consider the impact of our actions on others at every step of the way. This does not mean that we avoid doing things out of fear that we will offend or discourage the faithfulness of another. However, it does mean that we approach the freedom that we have with care, considering at every step of the way whether what we do will encourage or discourage others in their walk of faith.
Finally, this reflection on food, freedom, and faithfulness reminds us that relationships truly do matter. We cannot know how others will respond to a particular exercise of freedom if we do not know them. In calling the Corinthians to consider the ways that their exercise of liberty might become a stumbling block for others, Paul calls them as well to something that was likely even more challenging, to reach across all the lines of difference and division and get to know one another. This was not easy—the Corinthians’ primary community for worship and fellowship was in neighborhood house churches, and they only occasionally came together from these smaller gatherings to a big feast involving the entire community of Christians in the city. In our day and age at least, in situations like this, the tendency is to stick together with the people we already know, who likely share similar lives and stories and backgrounds. But Paul’s deeper point here is that they were not excused from getting to know one another in the broader group and shaped beyond their natural communities of life and faithfulness.
So we too face the difficulty of getting to know people who are different from us as we determine whether or not our actions taken out of freedom will get in the way of their faithfulness. And this call to relationship is truly two-way. One side cannot demand that the other must come fully around to their side, for the commitment of life in Christian community is that we learn from each other and are informed by the other’s experiences along the way.
We in this place are not quite as divided by geography and circumstance as the church in Corinth, but there are plenty of places and ways that we need to get to know one another better. There are relationships that we could develop better within this congregation, reaching beyond the natural connections that we have and the people that we like to learn more about one another and seek to support each other in our walk of faith. And there are relationships that we could develop beyond the community of this congregation, discovering more about our sisters and brothers in the faith in our local community, across our city, and around the world to learn about the things that get in the way of our mutual faithfulness and seek a new way of life together.
In these conversations and through these relationships, our eyes are opened to new experiences, our ears exposed to different voices, and our hearts transformed by the stories that we share. We will certainly hear of places where we need to think differently about the implications of our faith and action. We will be challenged in our thinking that our relationships with people who are different from us are just fine. And we will quite likely be called to a new embodiment of justice for the poor, a new understanding of what oppression and privilege mean, and a different pathway to peace in those places where conflict endures.
When we’ve begun this, though, we will gather around this table hearing the call to food, freedom, and faithfulness in a new way, joining together with all our sisters and brothers, those who agree with us and those who disagree with us, those who eat meat and those who abstain, those who follow the Bible as literally as possible and those who are a little more loose about it, as we seek to recognize the presence of Christ among us. When we gather here, at this table, we remember God’s welcome to all people and recommit ourselves to sharing it in words and actions, to listening to and learning from one another, to giving everyone who joins us here the space they need to walk the journey of faith in their own way so that we can all share the joyful feast of this table as we gather to meet the risen Christ here.
So my friends, may we find food, freedom, and faithfulness as we take this journey together, building up one another in love each and every step of the way as we follow Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.