Fourth Sunday of Epiphany – Sunday, January 28, 2018

January 28, 2018  

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

There is an ancient Chinese saying that is short and to the point: “Not Two!” (The Book of Awakening, “January 22,” p. 25). The meaning of the saying is more complicated.

“Not Two!” means we are all better off when we function as one. Whether we are talking about a marriage or a family or a workplace or a congregation… we are better off if we work together as one. Working together as one does not mean we can’t do a variety of things, or have varied interests, or function independently. It means we need to work as one.

The problem for the congregation in Corinth was that they were a congregation divided. Scholars point to at least four different factions, three of which are relevant to today’s reading. One faction, I will call the “knowers.” The “knowers” were smart, educated people well-placed in society. They believed that there was no such things as other idols or gods—that the God they worshipped was literally the ONLY god. Pagan “gods” were false, and so no real threat to the God of the Hebrew/Christian tradition.

The second faction in the church can be thought of as the “puritans” (Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, p. 95). The “puritans” believed in one God, the God of the Hebrew/Christian tradition. They weren’t so sure about pagan gods. They saw people in Corinth worshipping pagan gods. Their culture supported the reality of those gods. They believed, to avoid idolatry, they should avoid any practice or reference pertaining to those gods in order to keep their faith lives pure.

The third faction would be the smallest, and the most vulnerable. I shall call them the “Weakest.” The Weakest were mostly gentiles, converts to Christianity from pagan practices. They wanted to be Christians. But they still dabbled in some pagan practices because they were unable to completely let go of those truths. Pagan practices were somewhat like an insurance policy for them. They might have been saying to themselves “I am going to believe in this (Christianity) but I’m also going to hang onto a little bit of that (their pagan beliefs and practices).

Looking at today’s reading, we see Paul reprimanding (although probably agreeing with) the ‘Knowers” and the puritans. The issue was food. Specifically, the practice of eating food that had been dedicated to gods in other (pagan) temples.

It was standard practice for temples to sell the meat that had been dedicated to their gods. A calf might be sacrificed. Some meat would have been left for the god to eat… the rest taken to market to sell. Folks would buy it and serve it in their homes.

Members of the church in Corinth were arguing about whether or not it was appropriate to eat the “pagan” food. The “Knowers” thought it was ok to eat because those gods weren’t real anyway so the food had no supernatural power to corrupt. The puritans believed the meat should not be touched by any Christian. It was unclean. Eating the meat was a violation of religious law and practice. The “weakest” were eating the meat because they were accustomed to eating the meat, it had been their practice. It re-assured them to hang onto what they had always done.

Paul believed food to be “morally indifferent” (Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, p. 95). Food is food. A tree is a tree. Water is water. BUT—the food that was at the heart of the congregation’s conflict was getting in the way of the congregation being “one.”

Remember, “No Two!” Or three or four…

Paul wanted the congregation in Corinth to be unified. For the sake of unification, the “knowers” and the “puritans” ought to consider the needs of the “weakest.”

If the “weakest” saw the “knowers” eating dedicated temple meat, the “weakest” would think it was ok to do… but for the wrong reasons. They wouldn’t be eating the meat because it had no spiritual meaning or power, they would be eating the temple meat because it still had a spiritual hold on them. Paul knew this to be wrong.

Paul wanted the stronger groups to let go of the strength of their convictions in order to protect the weak.

This message is profoundly relevant to our world today, and always has been relevant to democratic societies. The social contract democracy is built on relies on the power of the majority. The majority rules. The majority is not required to consider the needs of minority groups, unless the majority chooses to guide decisions based on particular virtues or principles that transcend implicit majority powers. For example, the majority might believe all people are created equal. That would mean the majority has to consider the needs of every person, whether or not the person is a member of the majority group or a minority group.

If they choose to do this, they have said equality is of higher importance than majority.

Paul wanted his congregation to say “no two.” We would benefit, as a society, to consider what that means as a moral principle. To think of ourselves as a great big diverse “one.”

All of us loved. All of us respected. All of us letting go of our power if it means assisting the power-less.

This is how Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us each completely, whole-ly, with certainty, ultimately, forever. Just so, Jesus calls us to love each other.

Amen.