The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 28, 2018
One of the things that I love to do is cook for people. I’m not saying I’m good at it--only that I enjoy doing it. Just last week a colleague and I were discussing a menu for a luncheon and, as we thought about who was coming to the meal, it became more and more complicated to hone in on just one dish that everyone could enjoy. The vegetarians didn’t want meat, and the paleo folks didn’t want any starches. The dairy-free diners couldn’t have butter, along with the vegans, who wouldn’t eat eggs. Finally we settled on a fish with a salad, confident that everyone could eat at least one of the two things on offer.
There are good and important reasons--ethics and health requirements at the top of the list--that the diners coming to lunch had for their dietary requirements, and I wanted to be sure to provide for all of those needs. Outside of dietary requirements, there’s even the whole realm of personal choice. It’s fine to eat what you like! I remember as a child not liking eggs, and I’m pretty sure that, until about the fourth grade, I told everyone that tried to give me eggs that I was allergic to them. That probably wasn’t the best choice; I should have just said, “No, thank you,” when the eggs were passed around! And that would have been fine, too.
You might be tempted to think that Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is something along the lines of, “Therefore, if carbs are a cause of their failings, then I will always eat paleo, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”
The letter to the Corinthians isn’t about all eating the same way so that dinner planning is easier. It’s not about health, or even about the ethics of eating animals. It’s not about dietary principles. It’s about Christian witness.
Remember that Corinth is a trading city, a cosmopolitan port on the isthmus that connects the northern part of Greece with the southern. Ships would be dragged across on logs from one side to the other of that little land strip. There were people of all religions, nations, backgrounds--wealthy merchants and poor laborers, slaves and free, and goods from everywhere. Corinth was a crossroads. And in that place was a new and growing Christian community, a community of probably mostly Greeks that had likely followed other gods before; people that had heard the good news of Jesus and wanted to follow him but were still learning.
They had friends that made sacrifices to Apollos; the wealthy ones among them might even be invited to dinners in the local pagan temples, dinners where meat which had been sacrificed to pagan gods would be served. What were they to do? Should they eat the meat or not?
And so they wrote to Paul and asked.
Now, Paul, they might have said, we know that there is only one God, revealed in Jesus Christ, and we know that all things belong to God, and so surely it can’t hurt if we eat this meat. It’ll just go to waste otherwise! And besides, won’t it look like we’re superstitious if we avoid the meat?
There must have been lots of arguments about why rational people could just go ahead and eat the meat.
But Paul reframes the question entirely.
For Paul it wasn’t about whether you could, or whether you even should, eat the meat.
It was all about what that action said to other people. How it affected the community.
For Paul this was not a choice made in a vacuum, made only for one’s own self. The freedom of the individual was tied to the wellbeing of the whole community.
What would happen, Paul reasoned, if someone saw you eating at that banquet in Asclepius’s temple, the god of medicine? Would they think you were a follower of Asclepius, not of Jesus? What sort of a witness would you be providing?
A decade or more ago, before people were maybe as careful about ethics surrounding drug company sales representatives, my friends who were doctors and single would invite me along occasionally to dinner with drug reps. The meals were extraordinary; we’d end up at the most expensive steak house in town, with lots of great wine and well-aged filets. These were delicious dinners. And while I’m not sure it ever made a difference in what my friends prescribed, I did feel better about things when ethics rules got a little tighter at the hospital, and the expensive meals fell by the wayside. But we enjoyed it while it lasted.
That’s the kind of meal you might have expected in the Temple of Asclepius. It would have been lavish. The best people, the wealthiest, would have been there.
To give that up was something indeed.
And what Paul is saying is that he’d turn down that steak dinner every time. Give up meat entirely. Shun the free meal, the lavish banquet, all of it--if in any way it might seem to someone that he was straying from his devotion to Jesus Christ as Lord.
The only thing that mattered to Paul was following Jesus. And showing other people how to follow Him.
Friends, we live in an age of rampant individualism. Our President has campaigned on a slogan of “America First.” And yet here is Paul, admonishing the bright young things of Corinth to put aside their own culinary desires, their own status, their own wants--to consider the other. The person who is new in the faith. The person who hasn’t yet heard about Jesus--but is looking to them to see how they act.
I want to be clear that I don’t think Paul is saying that we are responsible for someone else’s actions. We know we can’t control the actions of others. But Paul is saying that we are responsible for our own actions. And that our actions are not just for us alone, but for our brothers and sisters. That we are responsible to others and to God for what we do. That how we use our lives is a witness--a witness for the gospel. That it says something about what we believe about Jesus, and about whom we follow.
This is Cain’s first retort to God; when Cain kills Abel and God comes looking for him, God asks, “Where is your brother?” And Cain replies, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The answer is yes. Yes, we are responsible for one another. We are one another’s keepers.
And what Paul is concerned about, what Paul is aiming for, is that each new Christian in Corinth lives such a life that it’s clear whom they love. That it’s clear that they are following Jesus.
And that, in that light, in that love, other Corinthians too may be drawn to God.
Their lives are vessels--to show people Jesus.
So yes, in this context, it matters how and what they eat. It matters how they treat one another. And it matters what they say.
Today is our annual meeting, and one of the themes we’ve talked about is how well things are going here. How here at Christ Church we’re a part of a discipleship movement. We pray, we learn about the faith, we support one another in Christian community, we reach out in love and service to our neighbors. We are following Jesus.
But what are people seeing from the outside? Are we living like the Corinthians, who want to go to the banquet in Asclepius’s temple because the food is so good? Are we doing what we want? Or are we living in such a way--are we talking about our faith in such a way--that the people around us can’t help but see Jesus? Are we living out our faith, are we talking about it, in such a way that folks in New Haven are learning that Jesus loves them? That they want to come to the banquet here at this table? That they want to see Jesus?
If this all seems too much, remember who it is that we serve. We serve the risen Lord Jesus, who heals the sick, raises the dead, and casts out demons. He teaches like one with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees, not like the powers of this world. It is his own abiding presence, the Holy Spirit, that will do the work of sharing God’s love. All we have to do is open the door.
Take a chance this week, this month, this year. Tell people something about what you believe. Invite them to come and see.
This year, let’s help show people Jesus.