Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: church, community, discipleship, food, idols, Jesus, meat, vegetarian
During our first year of seminary, Pastor Jeff and I both took the opportunity to travel to Guyana, South America, for a short internship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guyana. There were four of us students in total, and we were sent to different churches along the coast. I learned from a parish, joining Pastor as he served his people.
We did a lot of visiting, which meant a lot of eating. Every time we entered someone’s house, we were served a huge portion of foods I wasn’t used to eating, and wasn’t so sure I liked: vermicelli cake, which was noodles, sweetened condensed milk, and raisons; black cake, which was a West Indies version of rum cake; and some mid-meal stops at Popeye’s chicken, when I felt that my stomach was so full it might explode!
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to the believers about food. Meat, to be precise. In Corinth, meat was processed at the pagan temples. An animal was sacrificed to Zeus or Ares or Artemis, as part of worship. Then, some of that meat was sold in the marketplace. So, if a Corinthian was planning to have beef stew for supper, she would know that her meat was probably already used for religious purposes. If she were a Christian, her supper was already dedicated to a god she doesn’t worship. A god whom she may have turned away from, in order to worship the one, true God shown through Jesus Christ.
The new and diverse community of Jesus- followers at Corinth struggled with the question of whether or not they should eat meat, knowing it had been involved in non-Christian, non-Jewish temple worship.
Some believers thought meat was meat, and was good to eat. The fact that someone else used the animal for their religious purposes didn’t matter, because they were doing nothing more than playacting, sacrificing to a god who didn’t exist. Because the believer knows there is no God but the God revealed in Jesus Christ, there’s nothing sacrilegious about eating this meat. They eat and enjoy, giving thanks to the one true God who provides.
But other believers, perhaps those who were newer to faith in Jesus, thought that eating this meat was participating in the worship of another god.
Paul advises all the believers to think about how their actions affect the rest of the community, especially the weakest among them. If anyone’s faith is hurt by some eating meat, they should all abstain rather than put another in jeopardy.
My time in Guyana satisfied my seminary requirement for a cross- cultural class. Although food is a cross- cultural experience, it was deeper in the context of faith matters that I really entered into a different worldview.
One afternoon, we visited a family, in a large house, whose son was about to be married. After we visited and shared congratulations, we were joined by a small group of family members who ushered us upstairs. We were shown into the master bedroom. The father had been suffering from terrible nightmares. They believed that the room was haunted by evil spirits, who were causing this suffering. They wanted the pastor to do something about it. So, we did. We gathered together in a circle, holding hands, and prayed. We prayed for our most powerful God to claim that room. We prayed in the name of Jesus, who casts out all evil. We prayed for Jesus’ peace to be experienced, rather than fear. The family was very grateful.
I didn’t stay in the country long enough to find out if our prayer had any effect. Evil spirits causing bad dreams isn’t really a part of my worldview, my way of understanding how our world works. Our culture tends to focus more on psychological or chemical causes and solutions. In my own town, if someone was suffering from nightmares, I might suggest consulting a psychologist or doctor instead of, or in addition to, a pastor. But for this family, in this context, spirits were a reality. This family was being troubled by a force opposed to the God they trusted for protection. So, calling on this God, our God, was the correct solution. Me trying to rationalize away the spirits would not have been.
Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is to live into the worldview, the reality, of the other Christians in the community so that all may be strengthened in their faith. Paul advises: Out of love for the other, act within that other’s belief system, so that your words and actions would strengthen everyone’s faith in Christ.
Paul calls us to hold firm to our trust in the one God, the only God who creates and has power. Whether or not Zeus or Apollo are real, certainly there are many objects of worship that vie for our devotion against God. The Christian community is called to work for the strengthening of everyone’s devotion to the one God. Paul writes:
“we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — 6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
What matters is that the God we worship is the one who brought all things into existence, who has power over all, and who welcomes us in Jesus Christ.
The only important thing among all the possibilities for belief and action is our trust in God. Some beliefs may be true and others false, some practices may be right and others stemming from misunderstanding. The overarching goal of each member of the community should be forming a community of love rather than forming a community that conforms to one worldview.
I’m not saying we should simply wash over all differences, accept any beliefs, or hold truth to be completely relative. But in our relationship with God, and in our relationships with others, we need to speak and act with humility. Paul calls on all Christians to avoid being haughty, declaring, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Even the most faithful, most spiritual, and most studied among us doesn’t have all the answers. We do receive the gift of educated leaders and wise disciples who guide us, those who are to us like Paul and the local leaders who guided the community at Corinth. Yet none of us has complete knowledge. None of us has seen God face to face, nor do we know all of God’s purposes. We all have the gift of faith, trust, in God, and are called to accept that God is a mystery. We are all only members of a community of believers, humble in knowledge before God.
Paul’s advice goes further than simply encouraging us to put up with each other’s differing beliefs. Paul calls us to sacrifice for each other. Those who are strong in faith, for whom eating meat isn’t an offense, are called to stop eating meat, so that those whose faith is harmed by the practice would be strengthened by the solidarity of the community. For the Corinthians, the well-being of the community was more important than individual freedoms. Not just in church, but in daily life. We who love our individuality, do we love our God enough to give up some power of our own for the well-being of another? For the common good? How might we sacrifice for each other today?
Paul was raised with a worldview in which his relationship to God was based on his bloodline, and his faith was proved in his faithful adherence to correct practice, kosher food laws, and separation from those who believed differently than himself. But, after his encounter with the risen Jesus Christ, he understands that through Jesus, all people are claimed as God’s chosen people. Jesus Christ frees us from the necessity of practicing faith in only one correct way, of praying for salvation with specific words, or of performing the right acts.
Our freedom is bound by our responsibility to each other. We are freed from the need of earning our salvation. We are freed for our neighbor. Freed from the need to bicker about correct belief and practice, right words and worship, political affiliation and values, so that we would have energy and joy to encourage each other towards hope and trust. We are called to live our lives in such a way that we witness to the love we know in Jesus. Not for our sake, or for Jesus’ sake, but for our neighbor’s.
When we gather with other believers, however similar or dissimilar our worldview, it’s important to remember the common center of our faith: God’s fullest revelation, Jesus Christ, on the cross, for each of us. Jesus Christ is the one who welcomes you, forgives you, and loves you. Whatever you have done, or haven’t done, believed or not believed, Jesus Christ is for you. May Jesus make his love so present in your life that you overflow with love for all God’s people. Jesus came fully into our world, and knows each of us fully, so that he might truly love us as we are. In his example, we are called to listen to and know the other deeply in the love of Jesus.
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