January 31, 2021, To Eat or Not to Eat: Is That the Question? I Corinthians 8 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000234
I usually preach on the gospel reading each week, but today I want to talk about the New Testament reading, which today was from a letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. He was living in Ephesus at the time, but doing some long-distance pastoral care by means of his letters. Paul is dealing here with the question of whether a Christian should eat meat that has been sacrificed to a pagan god. Not something that comes up very often in our round of daily problems. But in Corinth, in the first century, it was a very real issue. Pagan temples weren’t back-alley affairs on the shady side of town where only weird occult-y sorts of people hung out. Pagan temples were prominent, mainstream fixtures in society, set squarely in the center of town. They were the site of pagan rituals and sacrifices honoring a whole host of gods. But the temples themselves were basically the first-century equivalent of the American Legion Hall.
Because pagan temples offered parts of animals in sacrifice to the gods, they could and did also function as butcher shops and banqueting halls. They had large dining rooms in the temples, where they held banquets for trade guilds or social clubs. Wealthy people held private dinner parties at the temple. And, it was very common for meat from the temple to be sold to the public in the marketplace. In cities like Corinth the pagan temple was really as much of an economic and social institution as it was a religious institution. The problem of buying and eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols, then, was a practical question. It was something Christians might have to deal with on a daily basis.
But the leaders of the Corinthian church, the ones Paul was responding to in this letter, they thought they had the problem all figured out. Paul writes, “Now, concerning food offered to idols, we know that “all of us possess knowledge.”” The text puts that in quotes, “all of us possess knowledge” – even though there aren’t any quotation marks in the original Greek – because Paul is clearly quoting their own words back at them. Writing to Paul, they had let him know that they knew the truth about this problem. Here was their reasoning: There is no other God besides the one true God. Therefore, pagan gods are no gods at all. Therefore, eating meat that has been sacrificed in a pagan ritual is no different from eating any other meat. That’s the truth.
Paul doesn’t disagree with them. In fact, he makes all the same points himself. But I’m sure they were surprised, and probably a little taken aback, when his response to them was not to commend them for their excellent theology, but to sort of push it aside, and even to be a little snippy about it. “Sure, we all possess knowledge,” he wrote, “but here’s the thing: knowledge is great for inflating our egos. But love is good for building up the church.”
The word for knowing or knowledge can be found ten times in this short chapter, so clearly Paul is focusing on knowledge here, but right from the beginning he makes it clear that love is key. Later in this same letter he will say this to the Corinthians:“I may have the gift of inspired preaching; I may have all knowledge and understand all secrets; I may have all the faith needed to move mountains—but if I have no love, I am nothing.” He wants to make this absolutely clear to them: the answer to this problem about food and idol worship couldn’t be solved with knowledge alone. It was only with love that the answer could be found.
On the other hand, we would be very wrong if we drew the conclusion that Paul is simply teaching us that love is more important than correct theology. That would be a simple, and a very modern, way of dismissing the problem. “All you need is love,” as the Beatles put it. Does it matter that that roast at the butcher’s shop was part of a cow that was offered up to the goddess Diana? Paul says quite clearly, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and we are no better off if we do.” Where they were going wrong is that they were asking the wrong question. The question was not whether they were free to eat. The question was, or at least the question they should have been asking, is whether their eating would do harm to their brother or sister who was a brand new Christian, who had lived their whole life in that pagan culture, and who still thought of that meat as food that belonged to a pagan idol. If Christians, in exercising their freedom, did violence to the tender conscience of their brother or sister, then they were doing wrong no matter how much knowledge they thought they had, because they were failing to act in love.
Paul, who is the father of Christian theology, would certainly be the one of the last people to say that theology, correct knowledge, is really not important at all, and that only love matters. What he did say to the Corinthians, and to us, is that theology cannot be correct, knowledge cannot be truth, if it leaves out love. Truth is absolutely essential, but there is no truth without love. It someone thinks he’s got it all figured out, Paul warned the Corinthians, he doesn’t yet know the way he ought to know. Because knowledge in and of itself is great for puffing yourself up. But love is what you need to build up your brother or sister.
And now we’re not just talking about the unfamiliar world of pagan temples and idol worship. This is familiar territory. If there’s anything we know about the Church, it’s that we spend way too much time arguing and disputing and confronting and separating on the basis of what we think we know. We all possess knowledge, we might say, like the Corinthians said, but in these latter days our knowledge often seems to do precious little in the way of building one another up.
And a lot of people would argue that Paul’s answer is this: Knowledge is only good for puffing ourselves up – haven’t we seen enough of that? So, the only solution is what Paul tells the Corinthians, they say. Love is what builds up, so love is the answer. What we need to do is to stop concerning ourselves with knowledge – what we dismissively call “head-knowledge” – to stop being so stodgy and hard-nosed about theology and doctrine, and to just love each other. Because clearly, here it is in black and white, from the pen of St. Paul himself: “love trumps knowledge”.
But that isn’t at all what Paul is saying here. Paul lays out the truth, the substance of their knowledge, in beautiful clarity. “as to the eating of food offered to idols,” he writes, “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.” That is the truth, Paul says, and our God is the God of truth. And, as Jesus himself proclaimed, “the truth sets us free.”
What Paul is urgently warning his Corinthian brothers is not that knowledge doesn’t matter, but that knowledge and freedom must never become weapons to be used against our brothers and sisters. That’s where love comes in. Knowledge without love is pride. Freedom without love is violence. And truth without love is no truth at all.
We human beings, even we Christians, so often use our liberty and our knowledge against one another. We use our knowledge to set ourselves above our brothers and sisters. We use our freedom to control our brothers and sisters. And we forget, or we ignore, or we never knew, that without love all of our knowledge is meaningless. And without love our personal freedom is nothing at all. Paul knew absolutely that pagan idols are no gods. He knew that the meat sacrificed to them was just meat. But he wrote this, “if you sin against members of your family (and by that he meant other members of the Church),if you 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.” The purpose of our knowledge, and the purpose of our freedom as children of God, is always and only love, to love our brother and sister: to build them up, to set them free – and to love God. And that is not only true in the time of Paul, in a strange culture and a distant country, but now, here, today. Love is our purpose.
We know this, because Jesus has shown us the way. Love was the purpose of our Lord. He had all knowledge. He had absolute freedom as the Son of God. He was the embodiment of the truth. And yet he did not count any of that as something to be held onto. Instead, out of love for us, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born as a plain old human being. Love was his purpose. And he came to show us the way of love. We love one another, because he first loved us. We serve one another, because our Master came to serve us. And we offer our knowledge and our freedom in submission to our brothers and sisters because in our weakness and brokenness, our Lord offered all that he was and all that he had to make us whole.