I’m quite sure some of us have had this experience. I could be wrong of course. We can always be wrong. Sometimes the things we want to believe the most are wrong. But here’s the experience I imagine you’ve had: you we’re in a conversation with someone and somehow they found out that you were a person of faith. They let it be known that they didn’t believe in the existence of God. The two of you got to talking and eventually you realized that what they didn’t believe was something like this:
They didn’t believe in a God who sits in the clouds, looking down on earth over his long white beard and controlling everything. They didn’t believe in a God who looks at a child suffering and says, “Yup, just as I hoped.”
Or maybe they said that they didn’t need God to fill in the gaps of science. They said that natural explanations were good enough. You squirmed in your seat a bit but you nodded and said “okay.” You carried on with your day. Hours later, though, the thought struck you: “Hey, I don’t believe in that stuff either. The ‘God’ they don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in. If that makes them an atheist, then I guess I’m an atheist too.” You realized the two of you actually had quite a bit in common.
Seeming like an atheist, being misunderstood: ancient followers of Jesus had a similar experience. Some people thought of them as atheists because they didn’t believe in the pantheon of gods that were popular at the time. This made holding public office difficult, serving in the military too. Other early disciples struggled to know where to draw the line on other things. Some churches went so far as to make lists of jobs that were or were not permitted. Most of the trades were approved. Making idols or running a brothel was not, neither was acting. Ancient disciples, like us, had to find their way through many practical questions that didn’t have obvious answers.
It is this world of practical day-to-day way-finding that is the context of our reading from I Corinthians (8:1-13). Some early Christians wanted nothing to do with the false gods of their towns and cities. They thought anything involved in those cults as unclean and impure. There was probably Jewish precedent for this. Many may also have had personal reasons. They may have wanted to get far away from the fear and capricious gods their previous religion had given them.
I’m reminded of the way Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn speak about certain faith traditions in their book Half the Sky. They describe how in some parts of the world the poor status of women and girls is underwritten by local religious practice. That religious tradition might assume that whatever harm happened to a woman was the will of the gods or the logic of the universe. One can imagine the excitement in such a context of finding a faith tradition that both made sense and endorsed equality.
Some early Christians may have had that experience. So some would have wanted nothing to do with idols or the cult of the empire. They were happy to be free from it. That’s understandable but here’s the problem: others followers of Jesus were entirely convinced that an idol was nothing more than a figure made by human hands. An idol was just the result of casting molten metal, the banging of a hammer, the pressing of clay and the application of paint. They believed there was nothing there of which they needed to be afraid.
Imagine this: You live in the first century. Your neighbour has just plopped down $75 worth of steaks in front of the community shrine. He offers a little prayer and goes back home. He walks by a little later. The steak is still there. He thinks, “man I can’t eat that steak because I gave it as an offering, but I sure would like my money back. That money would buy a couple tickets to the chariot races.” So he comes over to you and he offers the steak to you at a discount. You get $75 worth of meat for $50. You’re happy. He’s happy. The deity—who you assume doesn’t exist—is not affected at all.
So, if you’re a disciple of Jesus, you might be pretty pumped. Discount meat! High supply, limited demand, you’re in a great market position.
They key is that you have the knowledge that these little idols are totally made up. You know others may think you’re a little eccentric. None of your neighbours would buy the meat, but you know that you’re right. “‘There is no God but one,’” you say. The next day you take the meat to the meal shared by other followers of Jesus. The meal is hosted in the home of a wealthy believer, but everyone contributes. You bring the meat because you know your view of the idols is right, and what trumps being right?
Turning to our own time, I would guess that for many of us nothing trumps being right. For a variety of reasons we think nothing is more important than knowing the truth and making sure others know that we know. Knowledge is power. It’s prestige. It’s getting what we want. It’s being right.
But these early disciples were keen observes. They knew that knowledge and being right had a tendency to “puff up.” They knew the power that came with knowledge could be an occasion for sin. Just being right didn’t ensure that one wasn’t harming your sisters and brothers. This is what we hear in the last paragraph of our reading today.
So, what trumps being right? What trumps the power of knowledge?
The Corinthian believers were told that love did. Love trumped being right. Love didn’t obliterate the difference between what was true and what was false, but without love they knew they could destroy their siblings in the faith—even when they were right.
To me that sounds like a good lesson for people living in a pluralistic country. We’ll have to leave political implications aside for now. However, we shouldn’t miss the fact that Paul is not saying the meat-eaters were wrong. The virtue of love was not code for a dismissal of truth. Not everyone would agree with the disciples who felt free to eat this kind of meat. We have Christian texts from a century later that still prohibit it.
Paul wasn’t convinced. He believed neither eating nor not eating mattered in itself. However, at that particular moment he asked the disciples in Corinth to sacrifice an element of their freedom or conviction for the good of their sisters and brothers. I think we would be right to imagine that eventually, as these new disciples grew in their faith, Paul and the other leaders hoped they would move in the direction of the truth. They did not hope to coddle misunderstandings forever.
In any event, what was most important was the virtue of love. That’s mentioned in the first verse of the chapter. To love another is to care about them as you care about yourself. To love someone is to want the best for them. To love someone is to realize deep in your gut that they matter in themselves, not just in relationship to you. To love someone means that person isn’t just an ‘it’ but becomes to you a person with hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties just like you.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber famously gets at this by saying that the relationship between ourselves and others is not best lived as ‘I’ relating to an ‘it’. It is better lived as an ‘I’ relating to a ‘thou’. An ‘I’ and a ‘though’ have much in common. The boundary between the two becomes fuzzy at times. To love, Jesus tells us in John, is to be toward others as he was toward the disciples. He gave on their behalf such that it cost him.
Putting love in a practical context is important. For a disciple in Corinth it meant avoiding meat for the sake of someone else. If we don’t put love in a context it can simply be a nice idea. It simply be one of those things we can never go wrong advocating for, just so long as we never define our terms. But, of course, you know and I know that if love is only an idea it isn’t love at all. It’s just another form of being right. We don’t feel loved when someone says they are in favour of love.
We feel loved when someone gives of themselves for us. We feel loved when someone gives up their evening to spend time with us. We feel loved when someone takes time to organize an outing with us. We feel loved when someone makes a point of calling us. The giving that love requires creates something beautiful, but it usually costs something initially.
Think of how loving yourself works. If you are really going to love yourself—and we know that since God loves us, we have good reason to do it too—if we are really going to love ourselves we have to come to terms with our defaults and deficiencies. To love ourselves requires us to let go of the idea that we are superman or superwoman. Otherwise we’re loving something made up and fake. Love requires giving of ourselves.
What’s that like? If we’re asked for an example of love it’s tempting to point to someone giving a kidney for a friend or a grandparent who jumps into freezing water to save a child. What our reading today reminds us of, however, is that love is more often mundane. For the Corinthians it was choosing the vegetarian option so that your sister would have time to grow in her faith. Loving actions rarely come paired with a shot of adrenaline.
Jesus’ disciples in the twenty-first century regularly find ways to love. I’ve seen a little church raise money to assist a young couple who wanted to take in a child that didn’t have a home. I’ve also seen disciples bring meals to people who are suffering. I’ve seen them help others move.
Sometimes the simple act of reaching out, making a connection, saying “I know things are tough for you now.” Sometimes that is an act of love. It can also be the willingness to serve as a mentor. It can also be a simple thing like preparing the communion elements or cleaning up after a shared meal. It can be the give-and-take negotiation of worship preference. It can be sticking with a friend at work while he or she struggles. Love does cost us something. If it doesn’t cost us something we probably aren’t doing it right.
That’s true, but it doesn’t start with that. It starts with ceasing to be strangers to each other. Only when we cease to be strangers can you see what trips me up; only then can I see what makes your journey difficult.
Loving God and our neighbours was and remains the core of what it means to follow Jesus. The great thing about this is that loving doesn’t require any super capacities. Having great gobs of power isn’t a prerequisite. Being super smart isn’t a prerequisite. Being drop-dead gorgeous isn’t a prerequisite.
Do you remember the story from the beginning of Matthew 18? It’s the one where Jesus is asked what it takes to be great in the economy of heaven. He points to a child. We’ll never know exactly what he meant by that, but surely this is part of it: children are amazing, but most of them aren’t wealthy or powerful, they aren’t particularly articulate (even though they can be very convincing. Children have very, very short resumes. Yet even with limitations like these children can still manage the core business of God. Maybe it’s because they are capable of things like humility and love.
Sometimes life in the church seems complicated and political. Sometimes it feels like being inside one of those big clear, plastic balls where all you do is bounce of other people’s egos. Sometimes being a disciple feels like a constant tension between the value of tradition and the goodness of progress: avoiding the meat or eating it. In so many ways being a disciple can feel like being pulled in multiple good directions at once. There are so many good things to do.
When we feel like that it’s important to hear the reminder from this first century culinary dispute. It is really quite simple: love God and love each other. Let us be encouraged, once again, to continue in the way of love—the beautiful, difficult, powerful way of love.