Sunday, January 31, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 16:54; sermon starts around 24:01)
(full disclosure, this is a reworking of an earlier sermon I preached while on internship)
To eat meat, or not to eat meat – that is the question! This controversy that Paul is writing about in our second reading sounds kind of strange and antiquated to 21st century ears. We don’t really talk about or observe many religious dietary restrictions these days – and apart from being sure to give thanks, we don’t usually spend much time worrying about how the food we eat will impact our relationship with God. But for the Christian community in first century Corinth, these were pressing and important issues. And in his letter, Paul is addressing some serious concerns – concerns that went well beyond the question about food.
Corinth in the first century was a hopping place. It was an incredibly diverse city, situated at the crossroads of several major trade routes; people from all kinds of cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds found their way to Corinth. And this diversity was reflected in the early church. The Christian community in Corinth had a sometimes volatile mix of believers from the Jewish tradition and Gentile believers who had converted from other religions and were unfamiliar with the Jewish way of life. The first century church as a whole was, of course, rooted in Jewish religion and practice, but it struggled to establish its own identity and traditions as more and more people outside the people of Israel began converting to the Way. And the community in Corinth was very much at the heart of that struggle.
Food became a particular area of struggle because of what an important role it played in the life of their community. Communal meals were a central part of their Christian practice – not just the bread and wine that we might imagine, but full, actual, community meals. And the argument about whether to eat meat was especially contentious, not because of upset vegetarians or vegans, but because almost all the meat available to eat in Corinth was meat that had been ritually sacrificed to idols.
Several members of the Corinthian church, especially those who had recently converted to Christianity, were really wary of eating this meat. For them, the practice of sacrificing and eating meat had always been an act of worship to the local idols. And so in their minds, the idea of continuing this practice of eating this meat would be in total violation of God’s commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” On the other hand, other members of the church had no problem eating this meat. They knew that they only served one God – they only believed in one God – so how could there be any harm in eating food sacrificed to deities they didn’t even think were real? They didn’t see it as a violation of God’s commandment at all.
What is most striking to note in this passage is that even though Paul directly addresses this controversy, he never really settles the question of who is right and who is wrong. Paul pretty clearly has a position on the matter – he agrees with the Christians that have decided that it’s not a problem to eat meat – but that is not the point that Paul is trying to make in his letter. Instead, the concern that Paul is addressing is the impact that this debate is having on the Christian community in Corinth – because it’s tearing them apart. It’s creating deep division between members of the church and even causing some of them to lose their faith.
Paul sees that the people on both sides of the issue are acting in good faith, making arguments that are rooted in scripture. But what Paul is essentially saying here is that what is most at stake is not fundamentally an issue of the law. It’ an issue of love. In their fervor to defend their position, these followers of Christ have missed the whole point. Being able to prove that you are right and someone else is wrong is not the way to Christ. The only way to Christ is love.
Even though Paul doesn’t directly quote Jesus here, it’s pretty easy to see the two greatest commandments that Jesus gives underlying what Paul is saying: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” No matter how you slice it, meat or no meat, you’re just not truly fulfilling the law if there’s no love in it.
This theme of love being the fulfillment of the law also shows up in our gospel reading, though it isn’t really the point that Mark is focused on. Mark is focused on showing Jesus as one who is filled with the Spirit, who has divine authority, one who teaches both through words and actions. But in this story, Jesus demonstrates these things in a way that also happens to underscore what Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians.
Jesus has come to teach in the synagogue on the sabbath. And while he’s there, he encounters someone really unexpected: a man with an unclean spirit. The rules of the temple in Jerusalem also applied to local synagogues, which meant that this man shouldn’t even have been allowed to be in the synagogue at all. He would have been barred from participation in his religious community because others considered him to be unclean.
Now, Mark focuses on Jesus’ exchange with the unclean spirit, but just imagine for a moment the terrible loneliness of that man, rejected by his people and excluded from synagogue fellowship. What Jesus chooses to do for him doesn’t just bring about his physical healing; Jesus also brings about the healing of relationship between this man and his community. Jesus demonstrates his power and authority, for sure, but he also demonstrates his powerful love.
And just like in the reading from 1 Corinthians, there is a potential legal question in play here. In this case, it’s the question of whether it is lawful to heal on the sabbath, which is something Jesus will be criticized for later in Mark. But Jesus consistently shows time and again that acting out of love and genuine care for the neighbor is the true fulfilling of the law. Like Paul, Jesus shows us that right relationship is more important than being right.
This is the heart of our Lutheran understanding of the gospel: it’s law vs. grace. Neither Jesus nor Paul is saying that the law doesn’t matter – it does – but grace is at the heart of how God operates. In his death and resurrection, Jesus shows us once and for all that the ultimate word of God for us is not a word of law, but a word of grace – a word of love. We, like the Christian community in Corinth, are called to prioritize right relationship with one another because God prioritizes right relationship with us. We are called to love one another, even when we find ourselves on opposing sides, because God first loved us.
We no longer have this intense disagreement in the church over whether or not to eat meat. But you know as well as I do that we haven’t exactly moved on to live in perfect harmony. If history is any indication, there will always be issues of intense contention in the church. These days, we’re mostly cool with eating meat, but instead we’re deeply divided by other issues; issues like: racism, abortion, the ordination of women, and the welcome and acceptance of LGBTQ folks (which parts of the church actually celebrate today). These are topics that might make many of us squirm in our seats, wishing that the floor would open up and swallow us whole rather than having to talk about them with our siblings in Christ. But the example that we see both Paul and Jesus setting in the scriptures isn’t one of avoiding difficult topics. Nor do they set an example of allowing these difficult topics to break apart a community because people are unable to agree. Instead they model what we have been called into: the difficult, dynamic, and daring work of being community in Christ.
Our call is to live into discerning God’s will and the answers to these big questions together. God doesn’t leave us stuck in division; God is continually calling us forward, into the future. That’s why, just as the church eventually moved past the issue of eating meat, over time, the church will move past these issues as well. (And, spoiler alert, with a God of love and grace, the safe bet for the future is to err on the side of greater acceptance and inclusivity. Just sayin’.)
Our call is to be guided by love – the kind of radical love that leads us into relationship, even with people with whom we profoundly disagree. It’s the kind of love that led God to take on flesh and die for people who totally didn’t deserve it. It’s the kind of love that binds us together forever as the body of Christ.
In the end, whether we like it or not, love is always the way.