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Sermon - 4 Epiphany

A fellow trying to become a vegetarian was finding it very difficult. Unable to resist temptation, he went to a restaurant in another town and ordered a roast pig. To his horror, just as the waiter was bringing the pig, with the traditional apple in its mouth, he was recognized by a friend who was also vegetarian. “My goodness,” he quickly said to his friend, “just look what they bring you here when you order an apple.”

Eating meat that has been offered to idols. That’s a big issue here in Kent County, these days, isn’t it? Maybe not. But, for the First Church of Corinth, in the First Century, this food and idols controversy was serious stuff. Serious enough for the Apostle Paul to go on about it for three chapters of this letter.

By way of background, in Ancient times, every town had temples dedicated to pagan gods. In the bustling city of Corinth, there were more than could be counted for every god of the Western and Eastern world. And, in addition to being places for religious ceremony, these temples served a community function. Sacrifices of goats, sheep, bulls, etc. were offered, but only a small portion of the sacrificial meat was actually incinerated. The rest was nicely roasted, packaged and sent to the marketplace where it was sold — the profits to benefit the temples. That meant that almost all the meat for sale in town had passed through a pagan temple and if you were a Christian and wanted to eat meat you had to put aside any spiritual scruples about where it had been.

So, this practice posed a real dilemma for the early Christians. They have pledged to follow Jesus Christ, and to reject the pagan deities. Yet, what do you do when your next-door neighbour invites you to celebrate his son’s coming-of-age with a temple-supplied barbeque? Or, what do you do when you stroll down to the ancient equivalent of Acme and find that all the meat in the stall spent the morning up on the altar of Zeus?

A raucous debate broke out in the Corinthian church over these issues. One faction loudly proclaims that no Christian should ever eat meat sacrificed to an idol. The other faction takes the view that meat is meat and, since they themselves didn’t offer it to a fake god, then what’s the big deal?

Finally, someone suggests they write to Paul about it and Paul’s response is, as we heard, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Paul agrees that there is no spiritual harm caused by eating the meat. But, then he says, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” In other words,

if you make your purchase in the market, exercise the ancient principle of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and don’t boast about it to other Christians who may not share your views.

And, in the same way, if you go to a pagan friend’s home and they make a big point about serving you something that has been dedicated to a pagan deity, you should politely decline. Thank you, but, no thank you. In other words, Be Careful.

So, Paul does not tell the Corinthians what they ought to do. Instead, he brings this section to a conclusion by saying what he would do, or, in this case, not do. “If what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” Paul’s point in all this is to say that while we may have the strength of mind and will to hold some practice or point of view in its proper place, we have more than just ourselves to think about.

That’s why. a bit later on in this letter, Paul says more about how Christians should behave. We know the passage as 1 Corinthians 13. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” We often hear those words and think about marriage because the passage is so often read at weddings, but it’s really not limited to that. This is simply how all Christians should live – married, single, widowed, divorced, male, female, no matter. And, in dealing with this difference of opinion on meat offered to idols, the standard is Love: “love is patient, love is kind…it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude.”

To use another example, the story is told of when St. Thomas Aquinas was a young monk, he read aloud an Old Testament lesson and afterwards an elderly brother corrected him on the pronunciation of a name. The thing is that Aquinas had pronounced it correctly and the old monk was wrong. But, when Aquinas read that same name on another occasion, he pronounced it as the old monk wanted. His friends were confused and asked why. He replied, "It doesn't matter to me, but, it means a great deal to him."

And, this is exactly what St. Paul was trying to get across to the Corinthians. There’s a truism in our society that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and in the context of modern life that phrase is used as a cynical explanation as to why some folks succeed and others don’t. But, there might be a Christian way of reading this phrase.

Aquinas was a brilliant scholar and knew a lot. He knew how to pronounce Hebrew. Similarly, some of the Corinthians knew that Zeus and Apollo were meaningless and had no power, not even any reality. They each knew a lot. But, who did they know? Aquinas knew one of his monastic brothers didn’t have the scholarship that he enjoyed. The Corinthians knew that some of their fellow church members still worried that pagan gods might be real.

And, in both cases, St. Paul would tell Aquinas and he did tell the meat-eating Corinthians not to deny what they knew, but simply not to make an issue of it. Agree to disagree and move on.

Now, this is not relativism. This is not saying that anything goes. Consider that Jesus had to live every day with people whose lack of understanding must have driven him crazy, but, if he hadn't shown Love, nobody would have followed him down the street. He disapproved of what tax-collectors and prostitutes did as much as the strictest Pharisee disapproved. But, how he treated them is why they listened to him.

The Revd. Peter Marshall, who served as chaplain to the U.S. Senate in the 1940's, wrote this little prayer: "Lord, when we are wrong, make us willing to change. And when we are right, make us easy to live with."

"Lord, when we are wrong, make us willing to change. And when we are right, make us easy to live with."

Not a bad sentiment, that. I’m sure St. Paul would approve. For “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

In the Name…

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