Sermon January 31 2021: I Cor 8 All Things are Lawful, But Rev. Betsy Hogan
Here is a thing that I feel I can probably say with some certainty. That none of us, not one of us, came to church this morning fervently hoping at long last for a decisive answer to that perennially confounding question: should I eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan ‘idols’.
I mean, I suppose it’s possible that someone here has been struggling with this issue – has, with a spirit seeking insight, arrived with hopes high for clarity and guidance in this regard – but I feel as though it’s unlikely.
Because I can honestly say in almost thirty years of pastoral ministry, not one person has ever expressed to me the particular and pressing concern that was apparently seriously dividing the church in Corinth in their earliest years.
Whether or not to eat meat, sold in the market, the initial provenance of which was rituals of animal sacrifice to pagan ‘idols’. The local and regional gods and goddesses of the Roman empire and Greco-Roman culture, to whom the vast majority of people in Corinth paid their faithful homage, and whose favour was secured and temper placated by regular and humble sacrifice.
Of a goat or a lamb or two turtledoves or whatever. At the altar of the god or goddess, with many prayers of thanksgiving and intercession, the sacrifice would be offered...
And then once the god or goddess was assumed to have sufficiently appreciated its having been offered, the actual meat involved would be taken to market for sale. Because food is food. And shouldn’t be wasted.
It really WAS for the Corinthians a serious question. And a serious concern. Should they eat meat that was sacrificed to idols. And how do we know they were so worried about it? Because the Apostle Paul – who founded the church in Corinth and then went toodling off westward and stays in touch with them via regular letters –
The Apostle Paul winds up spending PAGES of this letter to the Corinthians talking about it. Responding to it. It's clearly one of their major ongoing issues they're constantly rattling on about, when they write to HIM. And so this letter? It's him rattling on about it back.
Which could make it all easy for us... just to ignore. Obviously not relevant. Could hardly seem less so in fact, to us in the 21st century.
Except here's the thing. All Paul's rattling on about meat sacrificed to idols, it seriously could hardly be MORE relevant to us in the 21st century. Because this whole business of what to do about meat sacrificed to idols, whether that matters, whether the Corinthians should eat it, what they should do about it – What Paul writes about it? How he answers them? Setting aside the particularity of it, it's practically the most concrete and clear and useful and relevant expression of how to be a Christian, a person of faith, in the actual world, that we have in our Bible.
Because what his response comes down to is this: parsing the difference between what we CAN do, and what we SHOULD do. What we CAN do because we’re governed by certain inalienable rights and freedoms, as it were – and what we SHOULD do because we’re also trying at least to be governed also by love of neighbour.
It really is that fundamental and meaningful and broadly useful a response Paul offers in these chapters, beginning with the piece we heard this morning. Even if, to be sure, it’s entirely focused in its particularity on a question that for US couldn’t be more weird or irrelevant, and even if in our reading we need to make concessions to Paul for his firmness of language in relation to cultural diversity.
Because listen, Paul says to the Corinthians in this passage from his letter. You all have come to understand, to know perfectly well that there’s just God, Godness, one God, from whom all things live and move and have their being. And that those statues are nothing more than statues. And entirely meaningless.
So you’ve come to understand, he goes on -- to know perfectly well, that what’s being billed as meat that was offered in sacrifice to the god or goddess XYZ… is really just meat that spent a bit of ‘aging time’ at the base of one of those meaningless statues. You know this, he says to them.
And because you know this, because you know that meat is meat is meat, because you know those statues are meaningless and their place in the process is moot – of COURSE you can eat that meat. It’s just meat. Go the market, buy it, take it home, cook it – it’s just meat.
The fellow who’s selling it to you in market might imagine that it’s somehow been magnified, changed, infused by the power of the god or goddess to whom it was putatively sacrificed, but you know that’s ridiculous, so why even give it a second thought? It’s not like God’s going to be insulted – the statues aren’t real. Meat is meat.
So the short answer, Paul says to the Corinthians, is that of course you can eat meat that was “sacrificed to idols”. Because you know there’s no such actual thing as that, and meat is meat.
But now here’s where things get messy. And brilliant. And expansive. Here’s where Paul forces the Corinthians to do their own thinking, to move past legalism, to consider not only their own personal rights and freedoms – but also the effect they have on others, the effect we all have on the people around us, by virtue of what we do.
Because having been entirely clear to the Corithians that of course they CAN eat meat that was “sacrificed to idols”, he then hits them with a very serious caution. And it’s this.
“But at the same time,” he says to them, “be aware. Be aware that although you know quite well that idols are nothing and meat is meat, others haven’t yet come to that realization. And if they see you buying meat that was sacrificed to idols, they may well assume that you’re essentially endorsing the whole idol thing.
"Maybe they’ll think you’re endorsing it in kind of a general way – or worse, if they actually know that you’re a Christian, that you’re following Jesus’ Way, they might think that you’re endorsing the whole idol thing as a Christian.
"And in either case, what you’re doing – quite fairly and within your Christian rights and freedoms because you know that meat is just meat – in either case, what you’re doing might actually cause harm.
"You might cause harm to the other person by unwittingly reinforcing their assumption that idols are real, keeping them captive to their idolatry, in effect… or you might cause harm to the other person’s understanding of what the Christian faith is about, preventing their embrace of Jesus’ Way, in effect, by unwittingly suggesting that it supports sacrifices made to idols.
"Neither of which possibilities," Paul notes for the Corinthians rather pointedly, "would be cool. And so either of which possibilities," he further remarks rather pointedly, "might in fact be enough reason – even though you CAN eat meat sacrificed to idols – to question whether you SHOULD."
That’s the moment. When Paul forces consideration beyond what the Corinthians, what we, might personally have a right and freedom to do, what they and we could in fact do quite reasonably and justifiably – and calls on them, calls on us, to test that action one step further. By considering its effect on others. By considering its impact on others. By considering “yes I CAN, BUT is it good for the community, for people generally, for society, for our neighbours”.
That’s the moment. When Paul makes clear to the Corinthians that the question for Christian discipleship, for trying to follow the way of Jesus? Is never merely about taking refuge in the simple yes or no of whether or not one CAN. As though one’s responsibility ends at the edges of one’s personal space, and it’s just rules and no thinking.
Because whether we CAN, Paul says to them? Of COURSE we can. In Christ by God’s grace we’re FREE of imagining that it matters one whit to God what we eat or what we drink or what we get up to. We don’t have to earn God’s love or deserve it – it’s just there. We just have it. So all things are lawful. You always CAN.
But, he goes on, not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful. But. Not all things build up. If you're one of the many many people who tends to avoid the writings of the Apostle Paul because they contributed to the entrenching of both misogyny and homophobia in Christianity – they totally did.
But he's ALSO responsible for one of the BEST pieces of Bible teaching we have. All things are lawful, he says, BUT. Not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful BUT. Not all things build up.
And that matters. Living a faithful life in the actual world, Paul reminds the Corinthians, reminds us, means testing our choices about what we do according to both those parameters.
So that the question for a Christian isn’t about can I – all things are lawful – it’s about should I. Because, what effect will this have on those around me. Will it be beneficial? Or will it hurt someone. Will it be helpful? Will it build up my neighbour, other people, my community, the world – or will it tear down?
And sometimes, Paul says to the Corinthians, sometimes the most faithful decision is to intentionally limit your own freedom to do something that you CAN do – because it’ll be better for the people around you if you don’t do it. Because all things are lawful – but not all things build up.
It really is – hilariously, “meat sacrificed to idols” – it really is Paul at his most radical for the 21st century. When our default in western culture, and even as Christian communities, has leaned so far over into making an idol of our own rights and freedoms and individual needs and desires that we’ve forgotten that the actual point of Christian discipleship, of Christian faithfulness, is actually about making the world in general better.
Acting not merely in favour of ourselves and our own best interest – but instead building up the community around us. Sometimes even, in fact, by putting what’s best for somebody else – or even what's more broadly beneficial in the grand scheme of things -- intentionally ahead of what might be best for us.
It’s an orientation that’s fallen out of fashion so egregiously in our wider culture at this point that I probably don't even have to mention the whole anti-masking thing that's like the perfect example. That fortunately, for the most part, we're only having to observe from a distance.
Which I'd like to imagine is us being a bit intentionally countercultural – as opposed to just us being aware that the person whose life we might be putting at risk, there's a real good chance that we know them.
But I'm not sure that Paul would really get fussy about the motivational details. Even if our impulses might be driven in part by awareness of our interconnectedness here, they still do serve to support an essential orientation that isn't about what we CAN do, but is instead about what we SHOULD do.
It's the orientation to lean into, as people of faith. Meat sacrificed to idols? Not a thing. But masking and distancing? Leaving the oil in the ground? Allowing little huts on public land? Shopping local? All Paul's rattling on about idol meat could hardly be more relevant. Amen.