Paul probably arrived in Corinth in the early fifties, which means Jesus’s death and resurrection were not even twenty years old. When Paul tells the Corinthians about Jesus, that is like someone telling us about things that happened in the mid-1990s.
That means that when Paul worked in Corinth, the Christian Church had not had much time to develop. At that point, there was no such thing as the Nicene Creed—that came centuries later. There was not yet a New Testament—the gospels were probably written decades later. The new Christian community that Paul established initially had to rely on Paul’s preaching for virtually everything they knew about Christ and about God.
But Paul could not stay in Corinth indefinitely. After about eighteen months, Paul left. Now it was up to this young, enthusiastic, immature Christian community to manage itself.
First Corinthians was Paul’s effort to help by reminding them what it means to be Church. That is what makes this letter so relevant for us even two thousand years later.
In a lot of ways, things were going great in Corinth when Paul wrote his letter. Christians were experiencing dramatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. They were speaking in tongues, healing, prophesying. Things in Corinth were going well enough that Paul begins his letter by giving thanks that “in every way [they] have been enriched in [Christ], in speech and knowledge of every kind . . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:4-7). That is high praise!
But all was not right in the world of Christian Corinth. While the Christian community there was still only a few years old, even as they were experiencing these dramatic gifts, they started to fight with each other.
And the fights got bitter fast. Corinthian Christians were suing each other in the civil courts (6:6). One member of the community got so out of hand that Paul tells the others to “hand this man over to Satan” (5:5)!
Our reading for today addresses one of the issues agitating the Corinthian Church. The problem was meat. In important cities like Corinth, most of the available meat came from animals that had been sacrificed to a pagan god. The question was, could a Christian in good conscience eat that meat?
Some Christians in Corinth thought that Christians should not eat meat tainted by idolatry. In their mind, to eat meat that had been sacrificed to a pagan god was like participating in the idolatrous sacrifice.
Other Christians did not see any problems eating that meat.
Paul comes down squarely on the side of those who want to eat the meat. Paul says, pagan gods do not really exist. Their idols have no power. So it does not matter if an animal was slaughtered in a pagan temple in front of a pagan idol or slaughtered in a butcher shop. Christians are free to eat the meat either way.
But Paul does not stop there. Paul asks a second question: not just can we eat food sacrificed to idols, but should we eat food sacrificed to idols? And this is where Paul’s message gets important for us.
The answer to the question of whether we should eat food that has first been sacrificed to idols depends a lot on our brothers and sisters.
Idols are not real. Idols have no power. But not every Christian in Corinth understood that idols are not real and have no power. Some Corinthian Christians were scandalized when they saw Christian brothers or sisters eating food that had been offered up to pagan gods.
Paul says they were wrong to be scandalized. Paul calls their consciences “weak” and overly scrupulous.
But they were still Christian brothers and sisters.
So Paul sternly warns the knowledgeable ones, the ones who know, rightly, that there is no real reason not to eat the meat, Paul warns them “to take care that this liberty of yours does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” Paul warns the knowledgeable ones that “by their knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.” And that, Paul says, is a sin against Christ.
Paul’s point is simple, and it goes way beyond the particular issue at stake in Corinth. There is a danger in being right, in knowing better. It is easy to get caught up in our own rightness and to lose sight of the needs of our brothers and sisters.
Paul reminds those of us who think we know best that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Being right is not as important as loving our brothers and sisters. That is at the heart of what it means to be Christian in community in the first century. That is at the heart of what it means to be Christian in community in the twenty-first century.
I suspect that we all have experienced this exact issue in our personal lives. Certainly I have.
Many years ago, Carrie and I had a running argument. At one point, I confided in a friend who was also a marriage counsellor. I explained to her, at some length, why I was right and Carrie was wrong.
She heard me out.
Then she told me that it did not matter if I were right or not. At issue was the health of our marriage, not who was right about something that was not, in fact, all that important.
She told me I could continue to insist on how right I was if I wanted to. But my marriage would suffer. My marriage could die. So the question for me was, was I more committed to being right or to my marriage?
When my friend put the issue that bluntly—which is exactly what I needed to hear—it was not a hard decision. I never did decide I was wrong. I just decided not to fight about it. Carrie did the same. And our marriage was stronger for it.
That is what Paul was trying to tell the Corinthians who were right. If they insisted on their rightness, their brothers and sisters would suffer. The Christian community as a whole would suffer. And given that the Christian community in Corinth was only a few years old, it could easily have died. Thankfully, the knowledgeable ones seem to have chosen love over knowledge.
People in every community ever since have faced the same choice every time people disagree. Should I insist on my own way, no matter what the consequences to my brother or sister and to my Church? Or can I find a way to disagree in love?
Like every other Church, we face that same choice.
How would it be if we all began every meeting by committing ourselves to speaking only in love? How would it be if all of us spent as much time worrying about scandalizing the conscience of our brothers and sisters as we did making our points?
That is what Christian community is supposed to look like. With God’s help, that is what our Christian community can look like.
And that is my prayer for Saint David’s for this year. In Christ’s name. Amen.
1 Corinthians 8