Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: January 31, 2021



It is probably a good thing that I am preaching to a camera today. Not only because of the continuing, and mutating pandemic, not only because of the snow that continues to fall, but because it prevents me from asking for a show of hands of how many of you have even had the opportunity to eat food sacrificed to an idol. I suspect none, though I think there are a few of you who might have raised your hand just to see where I would go with it. If, by some chance, you actually have, not just had the opportunity to eat food sacrificed to an idol, but have, yourself, partaken…I imagine I am not alone in having a few questions, but you need not worry. You did not offend God. Paul says so. I am happy to have had the opportunity to put your heart at rest.

For those of us who, like me, have never so much as had the opportunity and even struggle to imagine a circumstance in which it would even be an option, please do not dismiss this text. I recognize how it may be easy to do so, easy to say that this passage is not relevant to my life and move on.

If we were to do so, we would miss an opportunity to talk about some deeper things in this passage. We would miss an opportunity to talk about freedom.

The Christians of Corinth were a…troubled…community. The two letters, 1 and 2 Corinthians, that we have in our Bible seem to be just a portion of a larger exchange. In that exchange, at least the two letters we have, Paul spends relatively little time on larger theological issues and more time navigating various problems within the church, many of which we still struggle with today.

The Corinthian Christians, were divisive and litigious, frequently fighting amongst themselves and attempting to use outside courts and Roman law to bludgeon other factions and members of the community. They recreated the wider social and class hierarchies within the church, not only turning the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper into an occasion for feasting but seeking to exclude lower status members from participation.

Importantly for today’s text, Corinth was also a major trade city, and had substantial populations from different cultural backgrounds. Many of the Christians in Corinth had converted from pagan religions. For some of those converts, that conversion came with the knowledge that the gods they had worshipped were not real, and this is the knowledge Paul points to as one that “puffs up:” “we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’”

Other members of the community were less sure. They were still learning, still tentative members, who may have still believed that their former gods existed, but were somehow subordinate to God, the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus.

There were also Corinthian Christians who came from a Jewish background, many of whom believed that, while the idol itself had no reality, demons could still use the idol to gain power and influence over the human world.

For these people, the people who do not have the knowledge that the idols do not exist, for those who have the knowledge that the idols do not exist, but that demons use them, Paul advises those Corinthians who are certain that the idols do not exist and so sacrifices to them have no meaning to be careful what example they set, to be careful how others might be caused to stumble by their freedom.

The easy analogy here is addiction, particularly, but not exclusively alcohol. The Presbyterian Church is not prohibitionist. Presbyterian Churches are allowed to use wine for communion, though this congregation does not. We do, however, recognize that for many, alcohol is a stumbling block, and so many congregations do not allow alcohol on church property, and nationally, while congregations are permitted to use wine for communion, they are required to offer a non-alcoholic option. This is a recognition that, while alcohol is permitted to us, it is not helpful to us, and it is harmful to many. This is a balance of freedom and responsibility.

Finding this balance is a constant test, not just for food sacrificed to idols, not just for alcohol or other addictive substances, but in almost everything we do. In the words of the English poet John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

We have responsibilities beyond ourselves. We are accountable to God, to each other, and for each other.

And if you think that is a burden, remember that this goes both ways. Each of us has the burden of care for others, which means that each of us has the benefit of care from others. We are a church, a community, because we care for each other. We make choices based not only on our own benefit, but for the benefit of the community as a whole. We also receive the care of those around us. We are blessed by those who abstain for us just as we are blessed by those who walk that extra mile for us, and we are empowered and made safe by the love of Christ that gives others the courage and strength to go beyond themselves and lift the community as a whole. Thanks be to God.

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