February 2, 2020

 “A Proper Diet”

 

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

 

When we first moved to Ashland, a few folks in town asked me why we decided to move to such a small community. Compared to where we were before, in Fort Bragg, Ca, Ashland is HUGE! Here, it is a little easier to have some anonymity. However, when we first moved to Fort Bragg back in 2003, I saw my family’s picture in the local newspaper, and I was not the only one. One of my first orders of business was to find a place to get a haircut. I stumbled into a place and asked if I could schedule a time to get my ears lowered that day. The owner of the place looked at me and said, “Oh, aren’t you the new pastor in town?” That was a bit of a shock for me, having come from the large metropolitan community of Sacramento, where you could pretty much blend in with the crowd. “Yes,” I said a bit uneasily. She sat me down in her chair, and I received a free haircut that day.

 

It seemed to me that suddenly, wherever I went, people knew who I was and what I did, and I felt as if all the eyes of Fort Bragg were watching my every move. If I drive too fast, will someone say, “And HE’S a PASTOR”! If I order wine with my dinner, will folks look askance at me? That first week or so in Fort Bragg, I didn’t want to go out in public too much.

 

Things are a bit easier here, with a larger population, but as I am very involved in this community, serving with OHRA on their board, coordinating Rotary Youth Exchange here in Ashland, and singing in 2 community choirs, people tend to know I’m that new pastor at the Presbyterian church in town. (For how long, will I be known as “new?”) I have grown mostly comfortable with my role in this community, and my calling to be the person God made me to be with both my good points and my faults, visible to the world. I do have the moments when I see who might be looking or judging my behavior, but for the most part, I figure the best way to witness to others about my faith is to be real and honest, and to do my best to reflect Christ wherever I am.

 

Christian witness is really what today’s passage from Paul is all about. How do people outside the church view we who call ourselves “Christian?”- Especially with so much Evangelical Christian support of the current administration, and the kind of witness that demonstrates? The main concern for Christians back in Paul’s time had to do with a regular cultural norm in Corinthian society. You see, at most pagan temples, there were dining areas for people to gather where leftover meat from animal sacrifices was served to the public.  By eating this meat, there was at least a nod of acceptance towards the multi god system accepted by most in Corinthian society. The question was, if Christians went to these dining halls, were they reinforcing the multi god system? Were they causing those new to the faith to be confused, and therefore a bad witness to their faith?

Did one have to watch what one ate, so that others might not stumble away from a monotheistic faith-one God, expressed in the Son, Jesus Christ?

 

Perhaps a modern-day equivalent would be my finding out the In-N-Out burger was actually a front for a huge cult, using their business to promote their worship of burgers and fries, and eventually take over the world... Would I still go there? Would my participation in eating a number 1- a double-double with onions and extra crispy fries be a poor witness? (What a scary thought…)

 

For those at the church in Corinth, they saw nothing wrong in going to these dining halls. As enlightened Christians, they possessed knowledge that there is only one God and that pagan idols were nothing more than lifeless statues, having no power to help or harm anyone. They also had knowledge, in line with Paul’s own teaching, that food was spiritually insignificant. It was just good barbecue, plain and simple-although I believe at times BBQ can be BOTH spiritual and significant…. So just as Gentiles no did not have to worry about keeping Jewish dietary laws, Christians in Corinth did not need to worry about where and what they ate.

 

 

There were even social parties organized around these dining areas. Archeologists have found examples of old invitations. For example, “Herais asks you to dine in the room of the Serapheion at a banquet of the Lord Seraphis tomorrow the 11th from the 9th hour.” Here were opportunities to press the flesh and network. To eat the sacrificial meat served on such occasions was simple courtesy; to refuse to share the meal would have been an affront to the host. If Christians found it socially advantageous to eat idol meat, what difference would it make? Does Paul suggest that Christians needed to stay away from these events, with their ties to paganism?

 

Paul’s answer was complicated. First, he talks to those who believe that all Christians have the same knowledge and that if one knew gods didn’t exist, it did not matter if one ate at these dining halls or not. Paul responds by saying, “Knowledge puffs up the ego, but love builds up the community.” Knowledge, in Paul’s mind, leads to arrogance. What matters most to Paul is love- love first for God, then also for others in the Christian community and in the world. If love is the first and only motivation for action, then what one does and what one says matters in the world, especially if it can affect others in some negative way. Paul insists upon the priority of love over knowledge.

 

Then Paul reaffirms the fact that there is one God, one Lord overall. This means that God is over all and above all-which means, Christians are bound to the one God of Israel, and therefore we show our allegiance to God before all other things. We exist for God, not for our own purposes. Paul is worried about the Christian witness in Corinth; specifically, about having weak Christians or new converts were drawn back into the pagan cultic life, which was the dominant lifestyle of the day. “Take care that this liberty of yours does not become a stumbling block for others,” he says in verse 9, “for if others see you eating this meat, might they not fall back into their old ways, or believe that Christians see no harm in pagan traditions?”

 

Paul then says that by causing others to stumble and fall away from faith, those whom Christ has died for are destroyed as they fall away. Furthermore, those who lead others astray by their actions sin against Christ. Paul finishes his argument with the idea that if leftover sacrificial meat causes a person to fall away, not only would he never eat it, but also, he would not eat meat of any kind whatsoever; for in verse 13 he changes the Greek word for meat from “sacrificial leftover meat” to the word for meat in general. Paul’s primary concern is that Christians must not be an obstacle to others who do not know God, regardless of how it might affect one’s social standing.

 

What can this possibly mean for us today? I think Paul’s message for us is in how we witness our faith, how we demonstrate our life as part of Christ’s body in this church as we head out those doors every Sunday after worship. We must ask ourselves what boundaries exist between Christ and culture, and consider what faithful witness to a life in Christ entails.

 

 

When I was at seminary, I interacted with many Korean Presbyterians, who had come from South Korea seeking ordination at my seminary. For these students who studied this passage, they said it raised disputes in their own churches about whether they must abandon traditional meals venerating their ancestors or not. Some saw these traditions as a way to honor the memory of family members. Others saw those meals as forms of idolatry, and a nod to the old ways, leading people astray from Christ in their Korean society.

 

We live in a world that is increasingly more secular and pluralistic. We need to consider how we interact with society, how our actions do or do not bring witness to the presence of Jesus Christ.

Some Christian groups have decided not to interact with society, choosing not to participate in any nation that is in their view “unchristian.” The Christian Exodus is a group of antigovernment Christians founded in 2003. Their slogan is, “Forsake the empire. Seek the Kingdom.” Their stated goal initially was to move "thousands of Christian Constitutionalists to South Carolina to accelerate the return of self-governance based on Christian principles". Barring that, they desire "personal secession" by "disentangling from society" where possible, including homeschooling, going off the electric grid, self-sufficient farming, etc. Fittingly, they seem to have fallen off the grid almost entirely sometime after 2013. Their website now is little more than a collection of photographs of various sites they own, in South Carolina, Colorado, Panama and a suburb of Sacramento-Citrus Heights, California. Leader Scott Burnell says ChristianExodus.org, has 600 members nationwide.

Is that what Paul wanted from the Corinthians? Is that what God wants from us, to withdraw from the world and try to create the perfect utopian Christian society? How is that being a Christian witness?

 

Our example of the answer to this question is Jesus. Jesus did not come to earth and stay away from people. He witnessed to the rich and poor, the popular and the outcast, the righteous and the tax collector. Wherever he went, he taught by word or deed of God’s love and wisdom. Paul was not telling the Corinthians to withdraw from the dining halls, or society in general. He was cautioning them that their actions and words carried power because they represented Christ to the world. Rev. Billy Graham once wrote, “We are the Bibles the world is reading; we are the creeds the world is needing; we are the sermons the world is heeding.”

 

In this small community here in the Rogue Valley, people pretty much know who you are. Most people know if you attend a church or not. Are there things that we do in this world that may seem harmless to us, but may be obstacles for those who do not have the knowledge of Christ? Are the political groups we belong to, the corporations we support through our purchases, the events we attend, the way we act with our friends, the words we use on the job, the way we drive on the road causing those outside the church to see that Christians are no different than anyone else? Theologian Geoffrey R. King says, “A witness in a court of law has to give evidence. A Christian witness has to be evidence.”

 

 

Someone once told me that my faith in Christ is not a suitcase, where I can put it down when convenient, and then pick it up later. Our faith is supposed to go wherever we go. Indeed, the eyes of the world are upon us. We are called to be authentic witnesses of Christ to the world through our actions and words. We are called to show our allegiance to God above all other things. God calls us to present our lives as living sacrifices to the world, with both our faults and our good points. May we leave this place today, fully interacting in this world- acting in love, working for justice, and being evidence to the world of the Christ we are all called to follow. Alleluia! Amen.

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