Father Nicholas Lang
The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
In today’s second reading, Paul weighs in on a dispute among the faith community in Corinth. Here is the issue: “Ought we to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols on the pagan altars in Corinth?”—and there were many. This same meat would be offered for sale in the butcher shops of the town. Should Christian who worship Jesus eat this meat that has been sanctified on some pagan altar? At first Paul seems to brush off serious consideration of such an insignificant issue. He responds with slogans such as “All of us possess knowledge.” “We know that no idol in the world really exists.” We know “there is no God but one.” If there are no false gods in reality, why should we worry about eating meat that has been sacrificed before them?
You know, things haven’t changed much since Paul wrote to the Church in Corinth in about the year 57 AD. I often wonder if one of the new values of our age is that some people think they have to be right—about everything. We talk about the “religious right” in our country. And, if one is not a part of the “religious right,” what are they? “The religious wrong?” Seriously, there seems to be a pervasive mind-set in our country that it is hugely important to be right in any given situation, debate, or controversy.
Methodist Bishop William Willimon says it this way: “Most of us make our arguments on the basis of this is what is personally right for me as an individual. In our society, we have little responsibility beyond the individual, the personal, and the private. Our whole society seems to be built on the promise that the purpose of our country is to give you the maximum amount of freedom to get whatever you want, as long as you don’t bump into me while I’m getting what I want.”
It is so important for a lot of folks to be right in their beliefs. We are not so different from the earliest Christians. Today there are some 1,580 Christian denominations, largely because people insisted on being right. We can easily find churches claiming to be the one true church, the one true religion and many Fundamentalist denominations refuse to recognize the validity of each other's teachings, claiming that their beliefs are the only true beliefs.
For Paul this was not, surprisingly, the case. Paul agrees that it’s okay to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. He agrees that those who won’t are “weaker brothers and sisters.” Paul does not try to convince the “weaker” brothers and sisters into seeing things his way, i.e., the right way. Instead, he tells the others, the stronger ones, to see to it that their new-found sense of liberty doesn’t become a stumbling block to a brother or sister for whom Christ died. The bottom line: The first step in sustaining any relationship is to acknowledge that there is more than one point of view.
The key point in Paul’s letter is this: knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. In other words, there’s something more important than being right. And that, of course, is relationship, community, honoring and respecting one another as fellow members of the Body of Christ, helping one another in our common struggle—sometimes as the strong and sometimes as the weak, laying aside our own rights and rules for the sake of another.
I’m sure that there are things in our lives, things in the church that correspond to the meat sacrificed to idols thing. We may not all think exactly the same on every issue or vote for the same candidate or party or share the same level of belief in the Virgin Birth, the Holy Trinity, or the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Paul’s passage says to us that our relationships are to be treasured above all. It is love that binds the community together and concern for one another must take precedence over individual freedom.
What is crucial to the health of any community is that we continue in holy conversation, that we keep talking, that we stay in relationship. That’s not to say that there isn’t a time when we might need to take a stand that disturbs others. But, in the end, when it comes to being a community, and sustaining its life, there are things that are more important than being right.
In his book, Reimagining Christianity: Reconnecting Your Spirit Without Disconnecting Your Mind, Father Alan Jones, an Episcopal priest and former Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, writes, “Sadly, we see much of the worst of religion in the world today. Religion-as-all-the-answers seems to have the upper hand. That’s where we find the imperative to reinvent and reimagine the life of faith. But when we see the best of religion as a quest for meaning and community—which includes everyone—we find life and energy that heal rather than wound, love rather than hate, embrace difference rather than violently seek to eradicate it.”
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of any parish community is the ability to grasp that there’s something more important than being right: honoring and respecting one another as fellow members of the Body of Christ. That was Paul’s first priority because it is God’s and, because it is God’s, it must be ours as well.