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When Menus Matter

Sermon - 2/01/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Corinthians 8

This passage of Paul's from 1 Corinthians concerns food offered to idols:

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. 2Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; 3but anyone who loves God is known by him.

4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, 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.

7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8‘Food will not bring us close to God.’ We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak. 10For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.


Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin, who is the Rabbi at Temple Beth Israel here in Eugene, once told me several years ago that church groups often call up the Synagogue to ask if they can come and visit, take a little tour.  And he says one of the questions they are frequently asked by those groups of Christians is "Where is the altar where you sacrifice the animals?".

And the Rabbi has to graciously, kindly, tell them that Jews have not been doing that for about 2,000 years now J.  Ever since the Bible was closed and the Temple destroyed.

And I wonder, because Paul here is not talking about food that is sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem.  Which, by the way, is the only place that Jews ever sacrificed animals, never in the Synagogue.  So he's not talking about that.  He's talking about food offered in Roman temples.

So why is it that no one ever goes to Rome and asks "Where is it you have your altars where you sacrifice your animals?".  I don't think Romans do that any more either.

Corinth, which is located in Greece, southwest of Athens, was in Paul's day very much a Roman city.  And the temple of Apollo, pictured here:

This temple, which was built nearly six centuries before Paul came onto the scene, dominated ancient Corinth then as it does today.  The city, however, was destroyed by the Romans about the 2nd century before our common era (200-100 BCE), and it was Julius Caesar himself who rebuilt the city in the middle of the first century before the common era, as a Roman colony.

There are about five or six different temples to the various Roman and Greek gods that were built.  Most of them, not as durable as the temple of Apollo, and hence all that we have left today are the foundations:


So, Paul comes to Corinth, in this city with many temples, as was typical of all of the cities of that period in that time and place, and they of course offer food to the various gods, sacrificed in various ways.

Now, I have preached on this text a few times in my career.  And I'm not sure I fully appreciated the significance of the issue that it addresses.  Because after all, of all the pressing concerns that we face in our world today, meat offered to idols is not exactly one that keeps anyone awake at night.  I mean, in all my years as a pastor, not once has anyone ever come to me and said "Pastor, is it OK to eat this meat offered to idols?".  Just doesn't happen.

So what do we do with a text like this?  In our modern world, where the only food offered to idols is the food we put on the T.V. tray that we set in front of the television J, or perhaps that offered in the Doritos commercial during the Super Bowl this afternoon, how do we deal with a text that seems irrelevant to our world today.

Now, of course, the world of Paul was much different.  And the meat that came from animals sacrificed to idols was a big part of that world.  You don't see a whole lot of evidence of it in Corinth, but you can see it in many places throughout that Roman world.  For instance, I discovered this on my sabbatical this past summer, the Altar of Augustan Peace:

I've shown this picture before for different purposes, but in that altar, inside, there is a large table where the animals were sacrificed.  There are actually holes where you can see blood was drained out.  And along the edge, above that table, there are pictures of those animals that were sacrificed on that altar:

The Altar of Augustan Peace was built by Caesar Augustus shortly before the birth of Jesus.

In the Roman Forum, a little ways away, there is a base of a column near the Temple of Saturn:

And there you see a portrayal of a bull, with vestments (not sure what that means when you put vestments on the bull), beware that person behind you with an axe, and there's a ram there, and it's some kind of religious ceremony, a procession for a sacrifice.

In Pompeii, there is the Temple of Vespasian:

Vespasian was the general who conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 CE.  There is an altar (see picture above, and detail below):

And on the altar you can see a bull being led to sacrifice, the executioner with the axe. 

Back in Rome, in Trajan's Court:

Trajan was the Emperor at the end of the first century, there is a column of Trajan, and etched on the sides of the column, spiraling around, are various scenes from his reign as Emperor:

Included is a scene of a procession (above), with a bull, holding the bull right behind it is an executioner with an axe, and various folks in that procession.

A century later, Hadrian is the Emperor:

He is portrayed here (above) as a Priest with a scarf over his head, in the background a bull, the executioner with an axe.

In Ostia (Ostia was the port of Rome, west of Rome), a temple with altars for various Emperors:

And there is this wonderful mosaic floor:

Still very visible, you can see the figures in the mosaic, and here we have the scene of a sacrifice of a bull.

In the museum in the Coliseum, there is this portrayal of a triumph:

A triumph was when an Emperor or a General comes into the city to celebrate some great victory.  He brings all the booty, and there are prisoners there (hard to see), all the booty is portrayed, a big celebration, led by the bulls, with the vestments, and behind them are the executioners with their axes on their shoulders:


Now, I show all these pictures from my trip, not just so you'll know that I really was engaged in serious study and research on my sabbatical. . . . .

Woops, not sure how that last picture got in there J.

So, you can see just how pervasive animal sacrifice was in the Roman world.  It was part of everyday life.

Now, here is what you need to know about this text:  for the majority of people in that world, the only time they ever got to eat meat was at some public festival.  When a benefactor, in order to win favor of the people, would throw a big party, sacrifice a number of animals, and then make that meat available to the masses.

Jews, of course, were prohibited from participating.  Not only because the meat was not kosher, but also because it was considered to be violation of the first commandment:  thou shalt have no other Gods before me. 

But Gentiles, grew up in that world, had no such prohibition, had no qualms about participating in those festivals.  And so you can imagine in the early church, where you have Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians mixed together the conflict that might arise when someone brings meat from the marketplace to the church potluck!

The Jewish-Christians would say "no, we can't have that here", and to be honest, Paul adds to the confusion because you'll remember that Paul, in his mission to bring Gentiles into the church, proclaimed that they were "free in Christ" from the Jewish laws like circumcision.  So why not also this?

And since they had the knowledge that there was no other God than the God of Jesus, and these idols have no real power in our world, why not take advantage of these opportunities to eat this meat?

The question, then, asked of Paul, is pretty simple:  since we are free from the dietary laws, we know idols have no power, is it not OK to eat meat?  It's a question designed by the Gentile-Christians to get Paul on their side, they assumed he would side with them against the Jewish-Christians.

Now, the question of course for us is not what we should have or not have on our menu (though there are times when that is very important -- President Obama is trying to get Israelis and Arabs together, Palestinians, to hammer out some kind of peace deal, can you image a big banquet and brings them to Camp David, Jews & Muslims, and offers them a traditional Hawaiian meal of roast pig?  Probably would not go over so well) -- the question for us is really about mundane, everyday matters of life, like menus.

Does being a Christian make any difference in our daily living?

That's really what this is about.  It's not a question of doctrine.  It's not a question of theology.  It's just about menus.  It's not one of those big questions asked of Jesus -- the rich young Ruler who asked him "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"  Or Nicodemus who asked "How can a person be born a second time?"  Or Pilate who asked "What is truth?".  Those are big questions.  And there are times when we all struggle with those big questions -- what is the meaning of life?  What is the secret to happiness?  Will the Duck men ever win another basketball game? J You know, the really big questions J.

But most of the time it's the mundane, everyday issues we face -- what to eat, what to wear, where to shop.  And in the larger scope of things, peace in the Middle East, global climate crises, economic crisis, all those little things don't seem to matter.  And yet when you add them up -- hundreds, thousands, millions of decisions -- they really do have an enormous impact on our world.

And who knows when the little choices we make can have a profound impact on someone else?  Who unbeknownst to us is watching us to see if being a Christian really does make a difference in everyday living.

So consider then this case for how Paul guides the congregation in Corinth on such a minor matter as the menu of church potlucks.  Paul's answer is basically this:  yes, you're absolutely right, we are free in Christ, we do have this knowledge that idols have no power over us, but remember more important than knowledge is love.  Love trumps knowledge every time. 

Recall in chapter 13 that Paul writes that I may have knowledge, I may understand all mysteries, but if I do not have love I am nothing.

Consider an easy, non-controversial topic, something like. . . . . abortion J.  And two people, with LOTS of knowledge, on opposing sides.  One says an eight-week fetus does not have the mental capacity to form a conscious thought, cannot breathe on its own, it's not a human being yet.  The other person says, no, an eight-week fetus has discernable features, you can recognize fingers and eyes and mouth, the beginning of a heartbeat, it is a human being.  And they argue based on all the facts.

And then a teenager comes to you and says "I'm pregnant.  I'm scared.  If my parents find out, they'll freak.  What do I do?".  It changes the conversation.

Love trumps knowledge every time.

Paul says it's not about what you know, it's about the other person.  Especially if that person is weak or more fragile in their faith.  And if your actions cause that person to stumble, you better think twice.

Only get this, Paul doesn't tell them what to do, Paul instead says 'This is what I would do.  I would refrain from eating meat, just so I don't cause someone to stumble.  But you have to decide what is right for your situation, based on the consequences of the decisions that you make because you are the one that has to live with those consequences'.  And keep this one little fact in mind -- that other person who is affected by our decisions, that person is someone for whom Christ died.

Oh!  I thought we were just talking about the menu here!  Is it really that important?  Yeah, it really is.

Bishop Tutu was in Atlanta Georgia several years ago (by the way, he's going to be in Portland with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon in May, we have some tickets, they're going to go fast, so let us know if you're interested right away) and it was right after this day trader lost his life savings in the stock market, and in depression and anger took a gun shot a number of people before killing himself.  It was a big national news story, an uproar over the issues of gun control and the like, and Tutu came right after that.  Someone asked him "What are we going to do about the NRA?".  And Tutu said:  "Remember, that every single person in the NRA is a child of God for whom Christ died".

Now, if you take out "NRA", and substitute just any group, any one that really ticks you off, any one that you have problems with, any one that concerns you -- what are we going to do about those Terrorists?  What are we going to do about those criminals?  What are we going to do about those addicts?  What are we going to do about those homeless?  And the answer is:  every single one is a person for whom Christ died.

It's why we opened up the basement of the church this past week when the temperatures dropped into the 20s for a couple of nights.  We took in the homeless -- 29 the first night, 44 the second night as word spread.  And I thought it would be a tough crowd, knowing who some of those folk are.  And we had a few challenging moments with a few of them.  But I have to tell you that they surprised me.  They were some of the most appreciative, gentle folk that I have known.  Thanking us over & over again for allowing them to come in out of the cold, to have a place, safe and warm. 

And there were some, one little gal that was pregnant in particular, that I remember and just about broke my heart.  Kind and sweet as can be, and to think of her being out on the street. . . . .

Even the ones not so easy to love, or precisely the ones not so easy to love, Paul says are the ones for whom Christ died.  And because of them, what we serve on the menu matters.

Go into any church, look on their menu, and where you find a serving of love, a side of compassion, baked in gentleness, sprinkled in kindness, there you will find God. 

That's what Paul says.

I think he's right.


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