Grace Presbyterian Church
January 28, 2018, Epiphany 4B
“Now concerning food sacrificed to idols…” Well, doesn’t that sound like one of the great burning questions set before the church today? No, and nor is it the kind of thing that inspired Isaac Watts or Fanny Crosby to write new hymns.
Evidently, if you were part of the church in first-century Corinth, somewhere around mid-century, it was. Remember, we are in that part of this letter where Paul is answering questions that the Corinthians have asked Paul, and that initial phrase of his response makes it pretty clear that he is answering a question rather than engaging in teaching of his own particular accord. Clearly, whether or not we understand the particular issue, it was an issue for the members of the church in Corinth. So, how do we understand this? It’s time for a little context.
Many scholars have observed that of the churches Paul founded or assisted or taught or preached in during his missionary journeys, most consisted of persons not drawn from the crème de la crème of society. While a few were highly placed enough to own slaves, many were not, and some were even slaves themselves. The one church that seems to have been an exception to this tendency was in Corinth, where apparently a few of Corinthian society’s elites somehow found their way into the fledgling Christian community, along with poorer members of that city’s society.
Not surprisingly, this caused tensions. Some of those we have already seen playing out in the chapters read the past two weeks, and another such set of tensions shows up here. Again, some of those elites have latched onto Paul’s apparent teachings about freedom in Christ and, armed with that knowledge, have worked out a position on what was a pressing issue for some in the congregation, an issue concerning the decidedly non-Christian temple down the street.
At that Corinthian temple, sacrificing was big business. Many different sacrifices would be offered across the course of a day. In typical practice, only a portion of the meat would be in fact burned on the altar. Some of the meat was reserved for feeding the priests of that particular temple. What happened to the rest of that meat (which was usually, but not always, the “food” being offered for sacrifice) was where the problem arose for some of the Corinthian Christians.
At least some of their number were still vulnerable to the power that the “gods” – idols – worshiped in that temple had once held over them. You don’t leave an abusive and tyrannical system without suffering. Some react to the “freedom” of leaving an abusive cult by swinging wide to the opposite extreme and indulging in every freedom possible; others still live in fear, even though they are “free” and out of that system, unable to comprehend or believe fully that the old idols really have no power over them anymore, or even to comprehend that they do not actually exist as anything other than pieces of wood or stone. For those members of the community, anything associated with the old idols and the practices of that temple was traumatic. Today we might potentially observe that such persons suffered a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome upon leaving behind the practices and sacrifices of that temple, struggling to find a life that was no longer shadowed or clouded by it.
And here’s where that sacrificed meat comes in. One of three things might happen with it; (1) it might be sold off at or by the temple itself; (2) it might be “outsourced” to local markets to sell; or (3) it might be used later, in large civic events hosted at and by the temple. In cases (1) and (3), it was pretty clear that the meat being sold or prepared had been offered at the temple, but in theory in case (2), you could be buying at the local market and have no idea where it came from. (“Truth-in-labeling” laws weren’t big in the Roman Empire.)
For those struggling, traumatized members, the experience of food that had been sacrificed to those idols could indeed become burdensome upon the conscience; therefore, seeing another person, particularly another member of the Christian community, buying or eating the meat offered at the temple became an occasion to fall. While for the one eating, it was no big deal because hey, we know idols don’t exist, for the “weak” one to take that food might have been somewhat akin to an alcoholic falling off the wagon – it wasn’t just taking the food, it was taking in everything that idol-offered food represented – the sacrifices and the fear and the abuse and the shame.
Paul insists that causing a brother or sister to fall that way is unacceptable.
Paul has knowledge. He knows that the idols in that temple are nothing but wood and stone, powerless. As far as he is concerned, it’s just a hunk of meat, and if you like it, go ahead and eat it.
If eating idol meat causes your sister or brother to stumble, don’t. Just don’t.
No, it doesn’t mean anything. No, the idol isn’t “real” and the meat is just meat. No, it’s not a sin to eat meat that has been offered in that temple. But if doing so causes your struggling brother or sister to stumble, don’t do it. Don’t be that stumbling block.
Now, a few caveats: this doesn’t equate to being held hostage by the complainers in the congregation. There’s a difference between those who are deeply and genuinely struggling with the demons of their past, whatever they may be, and those who are loathsome about change or new people or anything that isn’t exactly the way they remember things in the glory days and is bound and determined to drag the church back to those days kicking and screaming if need be. Just for example. Discerning the difference between the truly wounded and the hostage-taker is always a task the church must approach with care and honesty and integrity.
This also isn’t a license for the “weak” (as Paul keeps using the word) to keep on being “weak”, so to speak. Growing into “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” to borrow from Ephesians, is still part of the Christian’s charge; healing and being healed by the love of Christ and the moving of the Spirit is part of that charge too, however long it takes. Turning from that path is no call for a follower of Christ.
But here, the challenge is to the “strong”: what do we do that causes our sisters or brothers to stumble? What reawakens old traumas, dashes healing, crushes souls and spirits?
Whatever it is, don’t do it. Don’t be that “stumbling block.” Just don’t.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #15, All Creatures of Our God and King; #36, For the Fruit of All Creation; #450, Be Thou My Vision; #749, Come! Live in the Light