The following is a sermon preached by Fr. John Roop on January 28th, 2018 at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN.
I have been married nearly 41 years now, which means, among other things, that I am an expert on arguing—though, after this, I’ll probably get another lesson when I get home this afternoon. Of course, I’m joking. But it is true that all human relationships, including marriage, have moments and even seasons of conflict, and I have learned much about arguing in six decades of human relationships. Let me tell you some important principles that I’ve learned.
First, an argument is almost never about the presenting issue that triggers it; the real problem lies much deeper. After making a life together for decades—for better and for worse, through richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, in the midst of successes and failures, on peaks and in valleys, after sacrificing for one another daily—after all this you come home one afternoon and your spouse unleashes a nuclear arsenal of mass destruction on you: “What’s wrong with you?! Don’t you know that the toilet paper goes over the top of the roll and not under the bottom?!” I’m pretty sure this doesn’t really have anything at all to do with how I’ve put the toilet paper roll on the holder. Something else is going on. Humans tend to harbor slights, even unintentional ones, to nurse wounds, to hold grudges, to build up a vast reservoir of resentments, until finally, with one last offense—which may, indeed, be ever so slight—the dam breaks and these flood over the relationship. The argument is almost never about the presenting issue that triggered it; the real problem lies much deeper.
Second, a certain arrogance and self centeredness lie at the heart of all arguments. I deserve better than this, we tell ourselves. I know better than you, we convince ourselves. I am right and you are wrong and you must acknowledge and submit to my superior wisdom. I know better lies very the near the heart of all arguments, just as it lay very near the heart of the first sin in the Garden. Yes, God said…but I know better and I have rights. And we are still living with—and dying by—the results of that argument.
Third, no one ever wins an argument. Oh, you might vanquish your opponent in the debate. You might silence him by your compelling logic or shout her down with the passion of your position; but still, no one ever wins an argument really, particularly an argument between those in close relationship with one another, like a marriage—especially like a marriage. The very fact that there is an argument says that something more important than the issue has already been damaged or lost. In the Corinthian church, believers were actually arguing their legal cases against one another publicly, in the secular courts. When he learns of this, Paul doesn’t try to adjudicate the cases himself; he seems uninterested in who is right and who is wrong. Listen to what he says:
To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers (1 Cor 6:7-8)!
To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. To argue at all with one another is already a loss for you. No one ever wins an argument.
These are the things I’ve learned about arguing. The problem lies deeper. The root is “I know better” and “I have rights.” And no one ever wins. In some cases I’ve learned these lessons the hard way; you probably have, too. In some cases I’m still learning them.
This brings us to the Epistle lesson appointed for today, 1 Corinthians 8. In the ESV Bible, this chapter has a heading: Food Offered to Idols. That heading alone is enough to cause us to press the fast forward button through this chapter, to skim it at best, and perhaps to dismiss it as an irrelevant artifact of an ancient culture which has little or nothing to say to us. Maybe it’s for missionaries who work in cultures that still practice idol worship. Or we might just be curious what the preacher will do with it in his sermon. Will he remind us that we still have idols today—that anything we put before God, anything we devote time and attention and life to which rightfully belong to God is an idol?
The truth is, this chapter is really not much about idols, at all. Paul will talk about idolatry later in chapter 10, an important topic then and now. But this chapter is mainly about arguing. It seems that there is little that the Corinthian church could not and did not turn into an argument. They argued over who was a greater spiritual authority—Peter or Paul or Apollos or even Christ. Can you imagine arguing over who is a better priest—Jack or Doug or Laird or David or me—when the answer is so obvious? We are nothing—any of us. We are—all of us—your servants for Christ’s sake. But the Corinthians did more than just imagine; they had come to the point of deep division over such silliness. They argued over sexual morality—whether it was proper for a Christian to consort with a prostitute. They argued about whether the unmarried should get married or whether the married should act as if unmarried. They argued over whether women should cover their heads in worship. They argued over spiritual gifts and tried to rank them in order of spiritual maturity. They argued over whether Christ was really raised from the dead and whether they would be too. They argued over seemingly everything. And, they argued over whether it was acceptable for a Christian to eat meat offered to idols.
Let’s set the stage. Corinth was a cosmopolitan metropolis. Last week, in a wonderful sermon, Thomas described it Las Vegas. I would add to that New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans rolled into one. There were rich and poor, slave and free, Greeks and barbarians, Jews and Gentiles, and probably any other dichotomies we might mention. And, the church was a mixed bag, as well—a microcosm of Corinth.
Corinth was also a center for pagan worship. Walking around the city, Paul could have seen temples dedicated to Aphrodite, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes, Venus-Fortuna, Isis, Demeter, Asklepios, and the Pantheon dedicated to the worship of all gods. Animal sacrifice was an important feature of worship in these pagan temples, as it was in the Jewish temple. Some of the meat from the sacrifices was dedicated to the gods and perhaps burned. Some was donated to the priests for their upkeep. Some was used to hold feasts—communal meals—in the temple precincts for worshipers, families, and friends. Some was returned to the worshiper for personal consumption later, and some made its way into the city’s meat markets for sale.
If you went to one of the communal meals in a temple, you were certain to eat meat offered to idols. But, what if you went to the meat market to buy a rack of lamb? You would have no way of the knowing the provenance of that meat, whether it had been offered to idols or not. Or suppose you were invited to a friend’s home for a meal and meat was served there. Again, you would have no knowledge of its origin unless you asked: was this meat offered to idols? If you were a Christian, this uncertainty might well present a crisis of conscience. How could you, in good faith, eat meat dedicated to a pagan god? How could you even eat meat of uncertain origin?
Jews in a major city like Corinth had a solution for this problem: they maintained their own kosher meat markets. Jewish Christians would almost certainly have shopped there, and could be confident that their meat had not been defiled by idols.
But what if you were a Gentile Christian? Or, what if you were simply a very poor Christian who couldn’t afford meat at all, who only ate it when a communal meal was offered at temple or when invited to a friend’s home? It is relatively easy to take a stand against eating meat offered to idols when your culture and your wealth provide you a source of undefiled meat. It’s a little more difficult when you are poor and hungry.
This—meat offered to idols—is the presenting issue, the trigger for one of the many arguments in the Corinthian church. It is one of the subjects and questions the church poses to Paul in a letter. His response is found in 1 Corinthians 8.
The authors of the original post have taken the position that food is adiaphora, a matter of indifference, an issue on which we can agree to disagree and still maintain our fellowship and life together. We have that same concept in the church, today. Some matters are essential; we must agree on them. The fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God who is the only way to the Father, qualifies as an essential element of the faith. We can’t agree to disagree on that and remain in fellowship with one another. But, contemporary Christian worship music versus hymns, guitar versus organ? That is adiaphora, a matter of indifference, a personal preference. We don’t have to value the same music equally to worship together. There is the choice of a particular Prayer Book edition or political affiliation or favorite atonement theory: all adiaphora, all matters of indifference—at least, all nonessential matters.
So, the argument comes from some in Corinth: eating meat offered to idols is adiaphora; it doesn’t really matter. Apparently, the ones making this argument are the very ones choosing to eat meat, any meat, meat offered to idols or not. And this is causing a crisis of conscience, a crisis of faith, for some others in the church who have scruples about eating meat offered, or possibly offered, to idols.
The justification presented for eating meat is twofold. The first is based on knowledge.
We all have knowledge, say the Corinthian carnivores. We know that an idol is nothing at all, just a block of stone or wood with no real existence. We know that there is no God but one—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 (cf 1 Cor 8:1, 4-6). We know that meat offered to idols is offered to nothing at all; how can nothing hurt us?
Are the red flags flying for you, here? We have knowledge. We know better lies at the heart of this Corinthian argument just as it lies very the near the heart of all arguments, just as it lay very near the heart of the first sin in the Garden. Yes, God said…but I know better. And we are still living with—and dying by—the results of that argument. We know better.
And, if that is not sufficient justification, the Corinthian carnivores secondly appeal to their freedom in Christ, to their right in Christ to eat anything. Did not Christ declare all foods clean? Did not Peter’s vision tells us never to consider as unclean that which God has made clean? Do we not therefore have the right to eat as we choose, refusing to surrender our freedom to anyone?
Are the red flags flying for you, here? We have the right. Arrogance and self centeredness lie at the heart of this Corinthian argument as they lie at the heart of all arguments. I deserve better than this, we tell ourselves. I know better than you, we convince ourselves. I am right and you are wrong and you must acknowledge and submit to my rights and to my superior wisdom. I have rights.
So, all this is adiaphora, a matter of indifference, a matter on which we can agree to disagree. If you don’t want to eat meat offered to idols, if you don’t think you should, fine—don’t eat it. But don’t dare tell me that I can’t. I know better. I have rights. So goes the argument.
But, I’ve learned some things about arguing; haven’t you? The problems lies deeper. The root is self centeredness—“I know better” and “I have rights.” And no one ever wins. The Corinthian carnivores are about to learn these lessons from Paul.
The presenting issue, the trigger of meat offered to idols is not the problem in Corinth. The real problems lie deeper: clashes of cultures, cults of personality, differing social and economic realities, conflicting moral and ethical standards. The hard truth is that a very disparate group of people have been called together into one body around Christ—people who never would have associated with one another otherwise—and they don’t know how to manage life together. How should rich relate to poor in the body? How should masters and their slaves worship together in the body? How should Jews and Gentiles sit side by side and even eat together in the body? How do they even figure these things out?
The Corinthian carnivores seem to think that knowledge is the answer, that knowledge will provide the way forward for the body. No, says Paul. In this case, knowledge only puffs up; knowledge only makes you arrogant. Knowledge is not the answer; love is:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God (1 Cor 9:1-3).
Some years ago, as I studied for my ordination exam, a wise spiritual father reminded me that people don’t care so much about what I know, but rather about how much I love them. Paul would agree. Knowledge can be used as a throne upon which one sits in judgment of others. Knowledge can be used as a weapon to subjugate others. Knowledge can be used as a wall to divide one from others. That is the kind of knowledge that the Corinthian carnivores were boasting of and relying on.
But Paul points them toward a deeper kind of knowledge; Paul points them toward love as a way of knowing. It is only love that allows me truly to know another person—heart to heart, soul to soul—in all his messiness and grandeur, in all her poverty and nobility, in all his brokenness and glory. It is only love that allows me truly to know that we are not, after all, so very different, that all of us in the body are sinners saved by grace, works of sanctification in progress, beloved sons and daughters of God and joint heirs of all things with our Lord Jesus Christ. What is knowledge about meat offered to idols—knowledge which puffs us—in comparison with love of God and love of neighbor—love which builds up?
Jesus said: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.
Lord, have mercy upon us and write both these your laws in our hearts.
There is a knowledge that puffs up. There is a love that builds up. Paul is not pitting love against knowledge, and certainly not pitting love against truth. Where God has spoken truth, where God has given knowledge, love commands obedience. Rather, in matters indifferent, in points of personal preference and privilege, Paul is extolling a knowledge that fosters love, exalting love as a way of knowing and being in the body, a way of living the truth of the Gospel.
Not only do we have knowledge, say the Corinthian carnivores, we have rights. Christ has set us free from the law and we will not surrender our rights to act freely. Take care, Paul says, when defending and exercising your rights, that they do not destroy a brother or sister for whom Christ died.
But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols: And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died (1 Cor 8:9-11).
Whenever Paul discusses rights, it is almost always in the context of laying them aside for the sake of love and the sake of the Gospel.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition of conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interest, but also to the interest of others (Phil 2:1-4).
This is really the answer to the problem of meat offered to idols. Lay aside your knowledge—knowledge which puffs up. Lay aside your rights—rights which become a stumbling block. Embrace love for one another—love which builds up. Look, each of you, to the interest of others.
As a church, we will likely never grapple with the problem of meat offered to idols—though, to my surprise, it has happened to me once at Apostles. But, we will all face difficulties and conflicts and divisions in our friendships, in our families, in our marriages, and in our church. In those moments, if we depend on superior human knowledge that puffs us up at the expense of the other, we will fail. In those moments, if we stand on our rights with no concern for our responsibilities to the other, we will fail. The question is simple, really: What knowledge will you expound, what right will you exercise if the price of so doing is the destruction of a brother or sister in Christ—the loss of a friendship, a family relation, a marriage, a faith, a church? Love is the better way. Amen.
John A. Roop
Epiphanytide, 28 Jan 2018
(Dt 18:15-22 / Ps 111 / 1 Cor 8:1-13 / Mk 1:21-28)