This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. The Scripture it references is 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.
Some of Paul’s letters deal with social situations so far removed from our own culture, that we have to do some work to understand what’s going on, and what he’s talking about. Today’s reading from Corinthians is one of those, I suspect; so let me start by filling in the background a little bit.
In the first century, in a city like Corinth, meat was – if not luxury food – in somewhat limited supply. The main suppliers of meat in the marketplace were actually the temples; people would go to worship their god or goddess of choice, sacrifice some sort of bird or – if the situation were significant or the worshipper was very wealthy – a larger animal, and the temple would then sell the meat to the public.
It was a win all around; the population got meat, the temple got money, the gods got worshipped, and – for the consumer – you got to participate in this pious system by eating meat which had been given to the gods, and so, by extension, to participate in honouring those gods. Perhaps even attracting some sort of blessing from those gods for doing so.
It was not, conceptually, anything like picking out a pot roast from the fridge section in the supermarket is for us; but had a whole range of social connections to other people and their gods, and the worship of those gods.
And that worked just fine, as long as everyone basically shared the same worldview and religious system, and had no real problem with each others’ gods.
Enter the Christians, who of course didn’t have the same worldview and religious system as the pagan population, and who did indeed have significant problems with the pagan gods, and the worship thereof. And who then had to work out what their attitude and behaviour was going to be in this matter. And – because it seems some things never change – who managed to disagree about that.
From what we can tell from the letter, it seems there were two main opinions on how Christians should react to meat sacrificed to idols. On the one hand, there was a group who said that the idol was powerless, there was no real god there to worship, and as such the meat that the temples were selling in the marketplace was spiritually no different to meat you might butcher yourself. Go ahead, buy and eat, or accept it as a guest, without having any issues with it. Knock yourself out.
On the other hand, there was a group who felt that participating in the worship of that idol was, in some sense, still wrong, and that Christians should avoid that meat. Not buy it, not eat it, and not accept it if given it to eat by a host. Better safe than sorry, perhaps.
And it seems that Paul was asked for his advice in the matter, to settle the dispute, because this part of the letter seems to be his reply to a question posed by the Corinthians.
And this is where it gets interesting, because, Paul agrees with the group who say that the idol is no god and you can go ahead and eat. But – and this is the key thing – he says you shouldn’t do it, if it’s going to cause a problem for your brother or sister.
So even if you know that you can do something, if someone else believes it’s wrong, and might be encouraged to do something they believe is wrong, because they see you doing it; better to refrain. Your brother’s conscience is more important than your appetite.
This is, I think, something we struggle with in our society. Not the meat market and all of that, but the idea that we each have some responsibility for each others’ consciences. We tend to be very individualistic; my conscience is my business, your conscience is your business, and the less we talk about that, the happier we generally are.
But I would suggest that contemporary Western individualism is not something Paul – or Jesus – would have understood. And I’d go further to say that in some ways, it distorts the picture of human wholeness given to us by the earliest Christians. While we each need a healthy sense of our own personal identity, our society tends to encourage us to carry that to a point that is destructive of healthy communal identity.
To put that another way, my best human self isn’t something I’ll find by striving to be as independent and internally isolated from others as possible, but is something I’ll find in relationship, in connection with others, in shared life. Each of us, even before we are born, are beings-in-relationship; and the paradox of being human is that it’s only in relationships that we can be most fully and authentically ourselves.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons why the gospel breaks down the old social categories. Elsewhere in his letters Paul writes that “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free;” or again, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” Why? Because those social categories put barriers between people which made authentic loving relationships impossible. This is not about abolishing diversity, but about overcoming divisions.
When the gospel calls us to be human beings in relationship, anything which impairs that relationship – anything which creates dynamics of resentment, mistrust or envy between human beings – is called into question.
And this is where this principle becomes relevant for us. We have a society riddled with resentments, mistrusts, envies and so on. A glance at all the competing arguments about how best to observe – or not observe – Australia day would tell you that. Being aware of refugees in detention centres, or all the arguments about how to structure tax reform or how best to care for our most economically vulnerable citizens, says some more. We have divisions where there ought to be diversity held in mutually respectful and advantageous relationship.
The overriding principle Paul was trying to teach the Corinthians was that we’re in this together. Your success is my success; your suffering is my suffering. Your sin is – to the extent that I could have prevented or discouraged it – my sin. And vice versa.
Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak, Paul wrote. If we share responsibility for one another, we are also all supports and resources to one another in our need. We are stronger together than we ever could be each on our own.
It’s probably not something that comes naturally to us, to think of ourselves in this way. So I’d encourage you to ask yourselves; this week, what one thing could I do to reach out and build or strengthen real relationship with someone else?
If we all did one thing each week, how might our community be transformed, a year from now?