Reflection for January 31, 2021, Epiphany 4
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
By the time I was in fourth grade, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was in love with the ancient Egyptians. But my favorites were the early Mesopotamians, the people of Sumer, which is the country that the Book of Genesis calls Shinar, Abraham’s family home. All these people were really alive to me. Well, I did not become an archaeologist, although I did get an undergraduate degree in Latin and Greek literature. I have a great regret to this day. And that is I never learned to read cuneiform, the writing pressed into clay tablets in Sumer or Shinar, Babylonia and Assyria. Oh, well.
I’ve made this little introduction to explain to you why, out of all the Scripture readings for today, I picked the one most likely to appeal to a nerd. That is, the passage about food sacrificed to idols. But while I was geeking out over this cool passage, it started opening up to monumental issues of unity and of differences, love and consideration, that are certainly with us today.
Here is a short summary of a sacrifice from the Iliad (1:446-468) which was a canonical text of the Greco-Roman world. After everyone had prayed, they killed the animal victims, burned some of the flesh on the altar, and cooked and served the remainder to the people who were present, and no one went hungry. The sacrifice ends with a communal meal.
This was still going on in Corinth in Paul’s day. Food was a major byproduct of sacrifice. And there were many opportunities to serve or be served with this food whether you were Christian or not. You might be invited to the temple for the wedding of your cousin’s daughter. A friend might invite you and another Christian to dinner, and he’d serve you sacrificial meat that he’d bought.
In fact, you might buy the food in the marketplace where sacrificial food sometimes ended up. And you might take it as a contribution, your covered dish, as it were, to the common church meals given in someone’s house. These are the kind of meals that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 11 when he mentions unkindness and bad manners when the church gathers. When I was adjudicating the asylum claims of Christians who were members of illegal house churches in China, the evidence always showed that their meetings and their Lord’s Supper included a potluck dinner.
Eating meat sacrificed to idols was not a big thing for many gentile Christians in Corinth. People were so used to it. But it was a big thing for other gentile Christians because of its connection with false gods. And people were arguing about it. So they asked Paul about it. Paul worked out a solution. In the end, Paul does not care about what you actually eat. But when he talks about abstaining from this or that food and so forth, he is really talking about how to deal with your fellow Christians. He is not talking about impurity or the worship of pagan gods or demons. He is talking about the arguments and differences that spring up between people – in this case, people who eat the food and those whose consciences shrink from it. Paul is really talking about the tolerance, forbearance, forgiveness, kindness, and love that should be expressed among them.
In modern life, in these days, we have huge differences within the universal church – that is, all people who confess Jesus as savior. We have huge differences between church members and persons who do not confess Jesus or any god. We can see the stinging abrasions and dark bruises that members of society give each other today. We can see how these differences have led to anger and grief at the level of the nation.
Here are some of the differences. Is abortion right or is it a right? Is your biological gender your true gender or can you grow into your own gender? Were Adam and Eve commissioned to tend Creation or have we inherited a right to dominate it? Is it right to honor the institutions of Caesar or is it right to attack them when we feel they oppress? Should we offer education that leads to jobs or should we concentrate on the old saw that the rising tide of prosperity for some will lift everyone’s boat. Should we offer justice and mercy to undocumented immigrants or should we first offer justice and mercy to Americans?
As the passages in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 about sacrificial food show, people were taking sides in Corinth. And people take sides today. And it is not easy to relate to those who are on the other side. How can we manage this? How do we accept Paul’s plea for tolerance, forbearance, and love? How do we seek not our own advantage, our own view of what is right, but the advantage of the many, as he says in 1 Corinthians 10:31? It really seems impossible, especially so if we are moved by attachment to our views and not by love. I think we come down to today’s big question: How do we love our enemies?
I have no answers for this era of disunity and hurt. But I have tried to lay out some of my own working points.
The first is what God says to Abraham when he first calls him in Genesis 12:1-3. God says that Abraham is being chosen to be a blessing to ALL the families of the earth. So, at least I know that my Christianity relates to everyone because everyone, Christian or not, is included in God’s promise. There are no outsiders in this world, no matter what people may think or propose.
Second, no matter what we think about other people, God shows no partiality. Peter says this shortly before the Jewish Christians with him are astounded that the Holy Spirit comes to Cornelius, the Gentile and Roman military officer. Acts 10. God is not on anybody’s side though he is on the side of justice and mercy.
Third, I try to pay attention to the voices of others. For example, on January 15, the Episcopal Public Policy Network published the most beautiful and wise message. It quotes the Blessed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who says “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” And it makes another beautiful statement: Above all, we must rediscover our common allegiance, recognizing that we are all Americans, regardless of which party we support or who we vote for. The fate of a farmer in rural Nebraska is just as much your concern as the prospects of a first-grade child growing up in the Bronx. We rise or fall together as one nation.” I think this is actually one Mr. Biden’s points in his inaugural address. We do not live together in unity, every attempt to unify is a gain.
Fourth, I think we have to pray. I was so impressed when Dani in her reflection last Sunday and then Beth said how many of the homeless ask only for prayer. Prayer is not nothing. While I sit in the shade of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, prayer does things. It spreads the love. It helps me look at people as people, not ideas. It lets me live in hope which I feel is God’s love coming into our hearts.
So, maybe someday, maybe not soon, the way all those white people in the YouTube clip in last week’s Morning Prayer sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will be the way we really live. Maybe we’ll all sit to a communal meal just like the men in the Iliad.