Carlos E. Wilton, January 29, 2012; 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
“But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.”
– 1 Corinthians 8:12
If you saw the signboard on your way into church this morning, it’s possible you could have gotten the wrong idea. “The Perfect Church,” it says, without a whole lot of other explanation.
It is, of course, the title of today’s sermon: but, if you didn’t realize that, you could have taken it to mean a brash, over-the-top – and greatly exaggerated – bit of self-promotion.
You’ve probably heard the old saying about finding the perfect church, the one that goes like this: “I searched and searched for the perfect church, but when I finally found it, I had to quit: because it wasn’t perfect anymore, once they’d let me in!”
There you have it: the reason why it’s impossible to find the perfect church. It’s a little defect called human sin, and it’s something you and I – and every human being ever to walk the face of this earth – carry in our bodies like some contagion.
Sometimes people come up to me, in my work as Stated Clerk of the Presbytery, expressing outrage over problems and turmoil tearing up one church or another. I’m tempted to say – and occasionally do say – something like this: “Well, what did you expect? Haven’t you read the New Testament?”
Anybody who does read the New Testament – especially the letters of Paul – gets a hefty dose of reality with respect to the church’s prospects of achieving perfection on this earth. Way back when, in the first century, there were still people walking around those conflicted churches who had known Jesus personally, had sat at his feet, who were real friends (not just Facebook friends) with his original disciples. Do you really think that if they, who were so much closer to the source of it all, were such utter failures at the perfect-church thing, that we, in this day and age, can do any better? (If you believe otherwise, then come talk to me. I’ve got a little bridge to sell you, over in Brooklyn!)
Let’s take a look, now, at that passage we read today – which is a case in point. It’s the famous controversy of food offered to idols.
Now, at first glance, this incident seems so bizarre, so far removed from these enlightened, postmodern times of ours, we shouldn’t invest a minute of time studying it. (“Food offered to idols? You gotta be kidding!”) But, trust me on this one. There’s a lot here, if we do just a little cultural translation, so the issues tearing up Paul’s church begin to resemble those that sometimes make life miserable in our own.
The one biggest detail that breaks open the meaning of this passage is the nature of that food. It was meat: specifically the sacrificial meat worshipers brought into Greek temples and char-broiled there on the altar. The meat was offered up to whichever pagan god called that temple home: and it was generally believed the god sampled the brisket in some kind of supernatural way, or at least savored its aroma, before saying to the waiting crowds: “OK, I’m done – you people want something to eat?”
Actually, it went beyond all-you-can-eat rib night in the sanctuary. Some Bible scholars think the pagan temples had a virtual monopoly on the sale of meat, as well. There was no refrigeration in those days. If it wasn’t smoked or salted or fresh-off-the-hoof, if you ate it, you died. With a whole lot of sacrificin’ goin’ on, day in and day out in the pagan temples, that meant their leftovers were a prime source of safe, high-quality meat. The priests of those temples would actually sell it to the general public. It was one of their main sources of revenue.
Now, consider who was part of that early Christian community in Corinth. It was a Greek city, but it was also a major port: a true crossroads of the world. Ever go into a city like New York, and marvel at how many different ethnic restaurants you can find there, how many neighborhoods are their own little, insular world? Walk from one residential block in Manhattan to another, then another, then still another, and you’ll encounter a little United Nations.
Well, Corinth was like that. The little church Paul had founded was filled with Christians of every ethnicity imaginable. With everybody inclined, by reason of nationality, to conceive of God, and approach God, in their own way, Paul had his work cut out for him.
Now, in the first chapter of this very letter, Paul describes another sort of division that had arisen in that church. Paul wasn’t the only teacher, the only leader, the only staff member of that congregation. There had been – and in some cases, still were – others. Beginning with chapter 1, verse 11, Paul vents a little of his pent-up frustration:
“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” [1 Corinthians 1:11-13]
He’s getting a little testy there, but can you blame him? There he is, working like crazy to teach this little United Nations the good news of Jesus Christ, when all those extraordinary ethnic divisions are exacerbated by another series of cuts. The community’s already been sliced up in one direction by national identity. Now, coming from another direction – and perpendicular to it – is a whole other series of cuts: the loyalties his church members feel to one staff member or another.
It’s a subject tough to talk about for Paul, because he’s one of those staff members. He has his own following, he’s well aware. Yet, he knows all these divisions are working at cross-purposes to the mission of the church, and so he’s urging the Corinthian Christians to lay those petty differences aside.
One thing that’s a little baffling about Paul’s list of church staff – Paul, the pastor, Apollos the associate pastor, Cephas the choir director, and God knows how many others – is that the last staff member he mentions is Christ. Now, wouldn’t you think the Christ faction would trump them all?
I’m not so sure it would, because I think it’s possible that the Christ-followers he’s talking about aren’t any more tuned into the Holy Spirit than the rest of them. They just like to appropriate the name of Christ, to claim it for their own use.
You can see that sort of thing all the time today: the communities of Christians who resist using any label other than “Christian” to describe themselves. “We’re not a church, we’re a ‘Christian Center.’ Don’t call us ‘Baptists,’ or ‘Pentecostals,’ or what-have-you – we’re just Christians.”
Beneath a superficial exterior of ecumenical unity, churches like those can actually be the most sectarian, the most divisive, of them all. For, in trying to corral the name “Christian” for their exclusive use, they’re sending a subtle message to all and sundry. It goes something like this: “Sure, we recognize that you Presbyterians and Lutherans and Catholics all use the word ‘Christian’ to describe yourselves, and we all celebrate the faith we hold in common, but do you know what? Here’s a little secret. Did you notice, we’re the people who simply call ourselves ‘Christian’? That’s because – don’t tell the others – we’ve got the exclusive franchise, the one that comes directly from Jesus himself. Accept no imitations. We’re the genuine article!’”
I can really see how Paul would get upset at that – how he’d want to lump the people who say “I belong to Christ” along with those who say “I belong to Apollos” and “I belong to Paul.” Factionalism is factionalism is factionalism – and it doesn’t matter a bit that one faction tries to hijack the name “Christian” for its own exclusive use. In fact, I think Paul would probably say you’ve got to be more careful of those people than any others, because they’re such theological narcissists, they deceive themselves into believing there’s no possibility they could ever be wrong, about anything. And that’s hardly a promising foundation for building unity in the church. If there’s one quality necessary for getting along with others in the greater church, it’s the little virtue called “humility.” It’s been my experience that the members of the “We’re just Christians” crowd are often a bit challenged in the humility department. For what they really mean when they say, “We’re just Christians” is: “We’re just Christians – and you’re not!”
Now back to chapter 8, and the food-offered-to-idols problem. You’ve heard me point out before that, whenever Paul, a Jew, made landfall in a new Greek city like Corinth, the first place he’d go was to the Jewish neighborhood. Partly this was because he was a Jew himself, and he wanted to connect with his homies, but he actually had a deeper purpose.
Because Jesus had been a Jew, all his teachings are built on the foundation of the Law of Moses and the message of the Prophets. Indeed, Jesus is recorded as saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” [Matthew 5:17] So, Paul knew he had a built-in audience among the Jews who attended the local synagogue, and also among the sympathetic Gentile “God-fearers” (as they were called) who hung around the synagogue, but hadn’t actually become members. (For the men, that involved undergoing a little surgical procedure that was commonly done on infants, but which they were none too eager to experience as adults.)
Bottom line was, there were an awful lot of members of that Corinthian church who were either Jews by birth or who had longstanding pro-Jewish sympathies. That meant, because dietary laws were such a large part of Jewish religious practice, questions of what food you could and couldn’t eat loomed large in their imagination.
That meant that the question of whether it was right for Christians to go down to the First Church of Aphrodite butcher shop, or the Community Church of Zeus farmer’s market, to buy their pot roast for Sunday dinner was a real issue. To the church members who didn’t have any Judaism in their background, buying your meat from a pagan temple was just what you did. “What’s the big deal?” They’d say to the others. “It’s just groceries. We’re not worshiping when we go down there. Everybody knows their priests get the prime cuts from the sacrifice, and they’ve got so many leftovers they couldn’t possibly eat it all themselves. What’s the harm in shopping pagan?”
There was no end to this debate. The factions were dug in deep. From Paul’s standpoint, it was causing painful division in the Body of Christ, and it had to end.
Which is why he gives the advice he does. There’s a basic rule he holds out before the Corinthian Christians, encouraging them to apply it whenever they get into disagreements of that sort. The rule is this: “Pay special attention to the needs of those weakest in the faith.”
Paul’s saying to the it’s-OK-to-eat-pagan-meat crowd: “Listen, I agree with you. God really doesn’t care if the food that passes your lips today spent yesterday sitting on a pagan altar. But we’ve got these other people in our church for whom it matters a great deal. They were brought up with dietary laws, and they’ve been making progress putting all that behind them, but they’re not 100 per cent there yet. Their faith is so fragile, and if you push them hard on this, they’re likely to get so flustered and confused, they may say: ‘I’m outta here.’ And that would not be good, neither for them nor for the church.”
Another way of saying it is that getting along in any sort of community requires compromise. It requires giving up something that may be important to you, but is not of ultimate importance, because doing so helps another person hold onto something that is of ultimate importance.
Yes, there are some issues about which there can be no compromise. For me, personally, they tend to center around how people treat one another: basic civility and kindness; no bullying or character-assassinating attacks. As long as everyone’s committed to playing fair, I find I can live with a certain amount of chaos and confusion, and don’t need always to have everyone in the church be on the same page as I am. That’s because, at the end of the day, we’re committed to following Jesus Christ. And that’s all that matters.
As Shakespeare says in his play, Measure for Measure: “O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”
Paul observes in this passage, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” There’s great wisdom here. Have you ever found yourself in an heated discussion with someone, and you just knew you had the superior knowledge, and you had to get those facts out there, so you could win the argument, at whatever cost? You may have felt, then, that the value of being right trumped everything, and so it didn’t mean what sort of feelings you trampled underfoot. To you, in that place and time, being right was everything.
It isn’t about the knowledge, Paul is saying. It’s about the love. And if we can manage to keep love alive in the church, in a time when civility and tolerance are endangered in the world around us, then the church – ever imperfect – will, by sheer grace, begin to mirror something of the perfection of Jesus Christ.
Do you want to know what that perfection looks like, where you can find the perfect church? I’ll tell you. The Bible tells us where to look. It’s in the book of Revelation, chapter 5:
“Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” [Revelation 5:11-13]
What John’s describing, of course, is not any church you’ll find on this earth. It’s the First Church of Heaven. It’s only that choir that sings perfectly in tune with the music of the spheres, whose cadence corresponds exactly to the rhythms of the universe. Here on this earth, we do what we can, we sing the best we can. Occasionally, we’re going to come out with a clunker or two. When that happens, the important thing is to trust God to forgive us, then keep on singing. For the most important thing is that the song must go on – forever.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.