ST. STPEHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JANUARY 28, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
YET FOR US…
1 Corinthians 8: 1 – 13; Mark 2: 21 – 28
Years ago, one of my children became a vegan. Up until then the only questions I had regarding meat were, “Do I want chicken, beef, seafood, mutton or pork tonight?” and “Do I want it roasted, fried, BBQ’d or baked?” Suddenly, I understood the terms vegan, vegetarian and lacto-ovo vegetarian. For carnivores, new complexities have arisen, “Is this beef grass-fed or grain-fed? Is it antibiotic and hormone free? Was my chicken cooped up or free range? Do I want regular, low-sodium, or turkey bacon?” Food is no longer something we simply eat, it’s something we debate along ethical, environmental, compassionate, nutritional and theological lines.
The Christians in Corinth also had some heated debates over meat; particularly meat offered to idols which they encountered at community events and in the marketplace, where cultic priests sold their overstock. Some thought eating such meat was fine because idols aren’t real; others, who’d come from a pagan background where eating meat offered to idols was believed to bring you into relationship with the “god”, wrestled with it, and they struggled when other Christians did it. That’s not easy for us to understand but suppose we held a pot luck dinner and someone brought in a dish and said, “The Satan worshippers of Ptbo had this meatloaf left over from a sacrifice they’d made to Beelzebub and were selling it at their bake sale. It’s good; try some!” what would you do? Apart from wondering what type of meat had been used, would you eat it? If so, how might others respond? What impact could it have on a new Christian? If that new convert had previously been a Satanist, would that matter? What if eating it caused someone to conclude there’s no difference between things offered to Satan and things offered to God? That’s the kind of problem the Corinthians faced and they’d turned to St. Paul for guidance. The other layer to this debate was that those who guiltlessly indulged in the smoked, sacrificed flesh approached the issue from an intellectual point of view with little patience for those who continued in their superstitions.
Paul responded that a piece of meat is a piece of meat, regardless of it being offered as a sacrifice to a false or non-existent god in a Greek temple. Eating it will not hurt you. There’s no actual power in it to do damage to you or to your relationship with God. We can hear the pragmatists cheering. But a little too soon. Reading on revealed that, despite being “right”, they were “wrong” because following Christ isn’t simply an intellectual pursuit. Our intellect is a vital part of our faith. There are too many Christians in the world who are embarrassingly ignorant, and a lack of understanding can lead to conclusions that aren’t scripturally supported or divinely inspired or even rational. But knowledge is only part of the puzzle. If knowledge leads to pride instead of love, we miss the mark. On its own “Knowledge puffs up while love edifies.” “Knowledge inflates, love builds up” (vs. 1) To those who share his view of meat, Paul suggests that if their actions are going to destroy the faith of a “weaker” Christian, the loving thing to do is to yield to the sensibilities of the other.
Of all Paul’s directives this one ranks among the most ignored and abused. In the 1700’s, John Wesley asked, “Who will follow this example? What preacher or private Christian will abstain from anything lawful in itself, when it offends a weak brother?” One hundred years later, Barton Johnson challenged “The Christian principle, the rule of love, is: if eating meat, going to the theater, or to a ball, or to the fair, or drinking wine or beer, causes my brother to be offended, I will not do these things.'” How many of you are reacting to those words? In our individualistic age, many would say “Forget that! If someone doesn’t like what I do, too bad; they don’t need to do it – live and let live.” Our attitude would be “if I see nothing wrong with it, I’ll do it.” We might even condemn the other as being judgmental or controlling and so see ourselves as standing up for our rights. On the other hand, in an era when people understand the power of being a victim, taking offense is a valuable tool. If you don’t like the theatre, if you don’t agree with someone’s world view, if you don’t like the assignment your boss gives you, if you don’t want your bubble burst by something called “reality”, if you are judgmental and controlling, all one needs to do is utter the words, “That makes me feel unsafe” and everything grinds to a halt while the offended individual is treated for emotional trauma and the others apologize profusely. In many ways these are two sides of the same coin. We want to have things our way and being offended by is an easy way to gain the upper hand.
In an age when people easily take offense, we need to raise the bar by being more specific in our language. When we reduce Paul’s guidance to the avoidance of offense, we miss the point. Paul offended all kinds of people. It was a way of life with him. As Christians, we shouldn’t create a crisis of pride out of every little hurt or slight. If we’re insulted because someone said something insensitive or offended because we didn’t get our way, how would we ever survive the persecution faced by Christians around the globe? God needs stronger souls than that. Paul wasn’t concerned with offending others; he was concerned with “destroying” the spiritual health of others. What Paul wouldn’t do, and what we need to guard against, is “tearing down”. Paul wouldn’t be “a stumbling block” to the weak or “destroy” their faith. Paul looked at the end result of “being right” and if it meant that someone for whom Christ died would be shattered or their faith would be extinguished, he’d take the high road. He’d choose the path of love. Paul wouldn’t agree with them about the issue. He’d argue scripture and doctrine. He was honest in his teaching, but he would create the space for people to do what would be life giving to them and he wouldn’t get in the way. He built up.
Sometimes the Church takes “building up” one another to mean we’ll never have a difference of opinion or a conflict. Try as we might, life isn’t like that. If the early Christians had differences, so will we. While we may not have conflicts about eating meat, the Church today certainly has differences, some of which are difficult to resolve. Tensions arise over worship, dress codes, moral conduct, and stewardship, to name just a few. When we avoid working out our differences, we become passive aggressive. Instead of talking something out, we do things in secret, ignore the things we don’t want to do, talk behind each other’s back, sabotage or take our cookies and go home. None of which “builds up”. Part of the way we deal with differences is by embracing the limitations of love. Years ago, a young woman came to see me. She was in love with two men. This confused her because she didn’t think it was possible to love more than one person. I told her, “Of course we can, or we’d never have more than one child… That’s why we get married. Marriage is a choice to limit our love to one life partner.” The limitations of love ask us to give up things we want, for others. My career may suffer because I stay home with my ill child. My material possessions will be limited if I pay to educate my family. And among the Church, I may not always get my way because the faith of someone whom I’m called to love for Christ’s sake, may be too fragile. Each of us needs to be prepared to give up what we think or even “know” is right. We need to be willing to make compromises.
At the same time, we can’t compromise on everything. If a known pedophile wants to teach Sunday School, we’re going to say no, no matter how offended that person will be. If someone takes offense at a central Christian doctrine, we help them embrace it, but we can’t just give it up. If the faith of a person rests on something injustice, we need to follow Christ. So how do we decide when to compromise and what is selling out? There’s a wonderful little phrase tucked away in this scripture passage: “…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.” (vs. 6) “Yet for us” is one of the most important phrases in scripture. As Christians, we live for God. In our complex world, where many “gods” are worshipped, and in our secular society where idols abound, we’re called to engage people with integrity and without doing damage to our own faith. The criteria we use to protect other Christians, we should also use for ourselves. Regardless of what “gods” others claim and follow, we live for God revealed in Jesus Christ. Others may live differently, “yet for us”, we’re called to honour Christ. It can help to look at our differences through the lens of honouring Christ or, flipping it over, the lens of idolatry. Let’s look through that lens at the divisive things I listed earlier: worship, dress codes, moral conduct, stewardship. Worship – for years now Churches have fought battles over styles of liturgy and music. Regardless of our personal preferences, we’re free to expand our repertoire as long as Christ is worshipped. When people come to services in jeans or a suit, tattoos or manicures, they’re here to worship so we bend to build up. In my last congregation the staff wanted to host a social event with wine was an option. Some of the Elders were enraged that we’d bring “drugs” into the building. Paul’s call to love helped the staff to see that moving the event to another venue was helpful to some; we chose not to make an idol out of alcohol. Nothing creates more conflict than what we do with our money and buildings, which says a lot in itself. If we confuse our building with our mission, we have an idol that will destroy us. Hopefully, we’d all be offended. When the Church’s mission is enhanced by our stewardship and physical plant, (when money and buildings are second to the gospel) and when we conscientiously discern the Spirit’s call, our goal is to honour Christ. Hopefully we’ll fulfill our mission with flexibility while building one another up.
To sum up, when we have a choice between being right and being loving – let’s be loving; and when we have a choice between selling out and honouring Christ – we honour Christ. Others may have different values and priorities, yet for us…