1 Corinthians 8:1-13New International Version (NIV)
Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
7 But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
As you may know, today is Super Bowl Sunday. I heard a story about an elementary school teacher this week who was using the NFL playoffs to help her students learn geography. So she asked them, “Who can tell me what state Green Bay is in?” And an especially bright student called out, “Wisconsin.” She then asked, “Where is Indianapolis?” Johnny raised his hand and said, “Indiana.” The teacher then wanted to focus on some of the more local teams so she asked, “Where is Baltimore?” and a number of the children yelled out “Maryland.” Then she thought she would get a bit tricky, and she asked, “Where can we find Washington?” After a bit of a silence, one kid raised his hand and said, “Usually in last place.”
I am really not that into the Super Bowl this week. You might say that my level of interest is kind of like the footballs in New England; kind of deflated.
Today’s passage begins with a strange preamble that seems to kind of relate to what Paul is saying in the rest of the passage, but not completely. At least not at first. Verse 1 through verse 3 reads like this: “Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.”
We have to keep in mind that what Paul is writing in this letter to the church in Corinth is likely in response to some questions that they have previously asked him in an earlier letter. They must have asked about food sacrificed to idols, a topic that both we and Paul will come back to in a minute. But first, says Paul, let me tell you something about knowledge.
Paul seems to be putting the Corinthians in their place. He is saying, “You think that you have knowledge. Please, we all have knowledge. Knowledge isn’t the problem. The problem is that you aren’t acting out of love when dealing with new believers.”
Before we even start talking about the question about food sacrificed to idols, something else needs to be settled. We must always remember to deal with people that are at different places in their faith journey with love.
This is just as much a problem for me today as it was for the Corinthian church. Based on what Paul says in this response, I assume that the Corinthians wrote something like, “Paul, tell these ‘Christians’ that it is okay to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Tell them how dense they are, how slow they are to understand the freedom we have in Christ.”
I get this. I personally have very little patience for people who are at a place theologically where I used to be. I hear myself saying, “I’ve come to this position after having been where you are. Why can’t you just join me?” When I hear a Christian who is thinking about peace and nonviolence, yet they aren’t ready to commit, they might be asking question about Hitler or rapists, and I just want to say, “I dealt with it, you need to as well.”
This seems to be the point that Paul is addressing. You say you have knowledge? Good for you. But rather than getting mad or frustrated at the other believers who are not where you are, how about instead of showing them how much you know, show them how much you love. It is only after you learn to interact with someone else out of love, not a desire to show them how much you know, that you stand any chance of bringing them to a better understanding of God.
Then, what does Paul do? He says, “You’re right! These idols are nothing but clay and paint. Meat sacrificed to these idols is still just meat.”
We have a bit of a challenge as 21st-century Christians living in the United States trying to understand this passage. That challenge is firmly situated on the fact that we simply don’t understand what is going on here. We aren’t in a world where we are frequently faced with the challenge of whether or not to eat food sacrificed to idols. Not only do we not have a lot of physical, tangible idols in our part of the world, we are also removed from the culture of sacrificing animals. When was the last time that you participated in the sacrifice of a one-year-old bull or goat? I hit a squirrel the other day while I was driving, but that’s about as close as I’ve gotten to an animal sacrifice in the last couple of years. If you come over to my house for lunch today, you probably won’t have to worry about whether the cheeseburgers were sacrificed to a foreign deity.
We must remember that Paul’s original audience was this small house church in the city of Corinth. Paul likely helped to start this church in the middle of a pagan city during one of his missionary journeys. Paul maintained contact with this church by writing letters to them which included words of encouragement, some words of warning, and some words of instruction.
Paul likely wrote this letter to the Corinthians around the year 55 AD, so the movement of Christianity was still quite new. And it was especially new in Corinth. Those who made up the church in Corinth likely came out of various pagan backgrounds and it was popular in pagan religions, much like in the Jewish tradition, to offer sacrifices at the temple. But where the Jews worshipped one God in one temple, the people of Corinth worshipped many gods in many temples. And they weren’t too particular about what religion these god were a part of. They worshipped Roman, Greek, and pagan gods and goddesses. And the greatest temple in the city was dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
With the goddess of love, you must also have temple prostitutes, because having sex was seen as a way to get you closer to god. I wonder if the prominence of the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth had anything to do with Paul including chapter 13 in this letter to the Corinthians. I can hear Paul saying, “You think you know what love is about, what with your temple to Aphrodite and temple prostitutes and all? Let me tell you something. Love is patient, love is kind, love does not boast…”
The point of temples and the animal sacrifices that take place there is always the same, and I think that it comes down to two different objectives: 1. To grow closer to god, and 2. To appease the wrath of that god so that they don’t smite you. Even in the Jewish Temple, the objectives are the same. Grow closer to God and to appease the wrath of God. Regardless of what religion, the point of the temple and animal sacrifice comes down to those two objectives. Sure, there would be some differences, but essentially, the goal was the same.
The religious leaders in these temples were always performing rituals to bring the people and god together and to keep god from clearing them from the face of the earth. Often a live animal, maybe a sheep, goat, or cow, would be taken into the temple, the priests would pray over it, and then they would slaughter it. But they didn’t just throw the meat out. Some went up in smoke, as if it would rise to god in heaven. And according to some accounts, much of what was burned for the gods was just the stuff that we don’t normally eat: the end trails and intestines. Much of the meat would be eaten by those at the temple as a ritual meal meant to bring you closer to the deity to whom you were making the sacrifice. But when you are sacrificing many animals throughout the day at many different temples, you are bound to have some meat left over at the end of the day. So the people would take this meat to the market and sell it.
So here is the concern that the new converts to Christianity had: could they eat the meat that they knew was used in religious rituals meant to bring people closer to a god or to make atonement of their sins? Would eating of that meat make them worshippers of Aphrodite, Poseidon, or one of the many other deities worshipped in Corinth?
I can’t say for sure if it was clear to everyone in the marketplace if meat had been used as a sacrifice or not. But some commentators have said that it was pretty likely that if you found meat in the marketplace, it had probably been used in a religious ritual of some sort.
Like I said, we don’t really get the problem here because we are so far removed from idols and animal sacrifices. I have one example of the issue at hand, but even this isn’t going to fully capture the problem at hand.
One of my wife’s favorite places to eat in town is Taste of India. They have a lunch buffet, and it is quite good. But if you go into this restaurant, you will notice that there are a lot of elephant figurines. However, they are not figurines of your typical elephant. They tend to have some human characteristics.
There are many, many different gods in the Hindu tradition, which as you might expect, can make worship kind of challenging. So each family chooses to focus on a particular deity. They often set up a shrine to that one deity in their home and decorate with pictures of the deity. Among the Hindu deities is Ganesh, the god of the intellect. Ganesh is most easily recognized by his head, which just happens to be the head of an elephant.
If you go to Taste of India and see all of the elephants on the walls, what you are seeing isn’t a family that just likes elephants. You are seeing a family’s shrine to their god.
So should I stop going to Taste of India because the owners worship a god that I believe is a false god? Am I going to stop eating there because they pray to their god, and perhaps pray to their god while they make the food that I’m about to eat? Nope, I like their food, so I’ll keep eating there on special occasions. And to me, those figurines are just figurines.
If you have been a part of this church for a while, you may remember that I had a friend from Trinidad who preached for me about 8 years ago. He had grown up in a Hindu family but became a Christian as a young adult. And interestingly enough, his name is Ganesh. He was named after the Hindu god.
Now imagine my friend Ganesh had just become a Christian within the last few months when I invited him to come to Staunton to preach for me. Imagine how he might have felt if after church I had invited him to lunch at a restaurant decorated with images of the god Ganesh? Would he be wondering if I also worshipped Ganesh? Because with his background in a polytheistic religion, it would be okay to worship both Jesus and Ganesh. But that’s not the message that I would be trying to get across.
I think that the concern comes down to the question of what we really believe about God. We have been talking about the religious traditions of pagan Corinth this morning, but let me remind you of the religion that I am a part of.
I am a Christian. I believe that the one true God of this world came to this earth as Jesus of Nazareth, lived about thirty-three years, taught people how to live the fullest life possible, a life in communion with God and with others. Jesus was then killed on a criminal’s cross, and then rose from the grave. And I believe that when Jesus died on the cross he served as the most complete sacrifice this world has ever known or seen. This sacrifice took care of the two objectives of the temple and the sacrificial system. It brought God and humanity together, and it took care of problem of sin coming between God and humanity.
What it boils down to is that Jesus shut down the temple system and animal sacrifice. He rendered it null and void.
This is the same thing that those early Christians in Corinth believed as well. Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. There is no longer a divide between God and humanity and Jesus removed the sin of those who would call him Lord.
So what is the problem with eating meat sacrificed to idols? Nothing, if you are a committed follower of Jesus and have confidence that in his death we lack nothing. But what about those who are newer in the faith? What about those who have made the decision to follow Jesus, but still have some questions and concerns? What about those that grew up worshipping many gods and to add one more god wouldn’t be a big deal? For those new Christians, seeing their fellow Christians participating in the eating of meat sacrificed to idols would have looked a lot like they were participating in the ritual meals of the pagan religions. It looked like they were trying to get closer to god, to appease this angry deity, with sacrificial meat.
Just look at what Paul says in verse 8, “But food does not bring us near to God.” It doesn’t have to. Jesus already did.
I read an early article written by Karl Barth this week. Barth, who was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, started his career as a pastor and he held that vocation in high esteem throughout his career. This article was Barth’s encouragement for the practice of preaching. He believed that preaching the gospel was one of the most significant acts that any pastor could ever participate in.
As Barth makes his argument for why preaching is so important, he lays out what he believes to be the main question that each and every person who comes to church on Sunday wants to hear answered for them by the pastor. The question is simply, “Is it true?”
Is it true? Is the gospel message true? As I worked on today’s sermon I had Barth’s essay rolling around in my head. I thought of the new Christians in Corinth, and I wondered if that wasn’t the very question that they were asking as well. They wanted to know if it was true. Is it true that through Jesus we can be close to God and that God doesn’t want to strike us down? Is it true that God wants to have a relationship with us, that God loves us so much that God came to this world and died as Jesus? When they saw their fellow Christians eating the meat sacrificed to idols, a practice meant to bring us closer to the gods and appease their wrath, they wondered if it was really true, because it looked like these more experienced Christians were covering all of their bases.
Paul is saying, It is true. God does love you. And we need to approach one another with the love of God as well.
We need to always be mindful that there are competing narratives in our world. The various narratives of the world want to tell us that we are not good enough, not smart enough, not handsome enough, not thin enough, not beautiful enough. We are told that we are not loved, even by God. But that isn’t the narrative of Jesus. Jesus says that we can come as we are, and we are loved.
And I want to stand before you today and tell you, It is true.