Love Builds Up
I was so happy when I saw this passage from Corinthians on the list of lectionary texts for today - the suggested passages for preachers, part of a three-year rotation. At first glance, these verses about whether to eat meat that has been sacrificed to pagan idols probably doesn’t sound very relevant to many people. There are lots of ethical issues that we keep turning over in our minds, but this isn’t one of them. Yet the Apostle Paul unpacks the issue so beautifully, showing the young Christian community of Corinth how central it is to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that they practice their faith not in a vacuum, interested only in their own piety and behavior, but that they practice their faith in community - the community of their fellow Christians, the community of all their fellow humans. Paul has some wonderful instruction for us today, and some real challenges for us, too, about the Christian responsibility we have toward others.
The Christian community in Corinth was young indeed. Its members were likely very recent converts from whatever pagan or civic cults proliferated there. They had grown up eating meat that had been sacrificed to those idols. Now, the object of their worship was Jesus of Nazareth. Were they somehow acknowledging the divinity of those idols if they ate the meat that had been sacrificed to them? Could it even make them backslide, and revert to believing in those idols? Some of the Christians felt so strong in their new faith that eating that meat involved, they felt, no spiritual compromise or temptation. Sometimes a chicken wing is just a chicken wing! Paul tells these Christians who feel such strength of faith not to serve or eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols in the presence of those Christians who do worry about spiritual compromise or backsliding. Help them out - don’t put them in a situation that really causes them challenge, harm.
This sounds like advice to be sensitive and kind, and it is. Scholars wonder, though, if there are other issues that wouldn’t be apparent to us today, twenty centuries later. It may have been the case that to avoid eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols would have meant being excluded from most of the social world of Corinth. The Christian community was very small. At issue in the eating of meat might have been questions of how much one’s new Christian faith required one to withdraw from old friends, old fun, neighbors, old professional colleagues, family. Were the Christians who had no issue with meat sacrificed to idols also people who didn’t want to quit being full members of their city community, and were their Christian opponents people who wanted Christians to segregate themselves? Biblical scholars wonder too about the cost and availability of meat that had not been sacrificed to idols. Perhaps there was very little non-sacrificed meat. Perhaps the Christians who insisted on eating meat that had not been sacrificed were wealthier, and could afford to buy meat from any source. Perhaps those who did not object to eating sacrificial meat really only had access to meat at public festivals or from the cheapest sources. Perhaps class was also at issue in the Christian Corinthian community.
Paul’s resolution to the issue is based in the Gospel, which is our ethic in every situation. Love is the foundation of the Gospel - God’s love for humanity. Christ as the incarnation of that love, Christ’s loving us all unto death, our love for one another as one manifestation of the love we return to God and Christ. The Corinthians ask Paul if they should eat certain meat and he responds, “Do what love requires.”
Paul asks Corinthians and Princetonians to think always about how our behavior affects others. If your eating of meat is detrimental to someone else, don’t do it. Do what love requires, and refrain. If you choose to smoke a cigarette every now and then, don’t offer one to a friend whom you know is addicted and trying to quit. Do what love requires, and give them all your support in their struggle. If we are Christians, we are to “love one another,” as Christ said. “Love builds up,” as Paul tells the Corinthians. All our behavior should build others up, and never tear them down. The meat-eaters of Corinth were strong of faith and they were right - they could eat anything without compromising their faith. They were absolutely entitled to do it any time they wanted. But that doesn’t mean they should. They have “knowledge” - they have the correct spiritual understanding on the matter of eating meat. But knowledge puffs up, while love builds up. Knowledge says, “I’ll have you all know that I am getting this right!” Love says, “Please tell me how you are.” Paul says, “Stop insisting on exercising your liberty if people around you are harmed by it.” It is a “sin against Christ” to exercise your individual freedoms at others’ expense. Sometimes we shouldn’t do everything that we want and are able to do.
That’s a powerful message for Christians to hear today, too. When Jesus said, “Love one another” he didn’t mean we should love only others of his followers or people we already knew we liked. Jesus taught us to love everyone. What legitimate behaviors or attitudes of ours may be harmful or challenging to others, and what would it mean for us to truly build up those persons? The examples that leap to my mind have to do with poverty and wealth, and if the four gospels are correct it was by far the most frequent ethical issue discussed by Jesus. We are absolutely within our rights - legal and moral - to pay for clothing the cost that is stipulated by the manufacturer. That’s how things work. Sometimes, however, we consumers pay a lower cost than we might, with the result being that the factory workers who made the apparel are paid less to compensate for our bargain. To me (and perhaps not you!) that is an example of my own legitimate behavior - me doing what I am morally and legally entitled to do. But it is a behavior of mine that does not build another up, but brings him or her down. Two years ago, I was with twenty students in Nicaragua and we visited two garment factories. In one, workers earned $4 per day, twice the average national income, and it was barely a living wage. The workers and their families had food, shelter, and bus fares. At another factory, the workers earned $5 per day. With the additional income, they were able to pay for medications for family members, public school fees - it wasn’t a lavish life (on the contrary) but it was truly a living wage. One of the students on that trip is partnering with the Office of Religious Life to launch a website that will inform University offices and groups (and anyone else who wants to know) about how to purchase T-shirts, either locally or abroad, from companies that pay a living wage in whatever is their economy. Princeton purchases thousands of shirts a year. While this Living Wear initiative won’t change the world - it will do only good, and be educational too. For those of us involved who are Christian, we are striving to exercise, even in a small way, a love for the other that builds up, even - or especially - in the face of what we are entitled to do.
In this last week, we’ve been learning a lot from the tax documents of the several millionaires running for the Republican presidential nomination. As an item of faith, I do hope that this country will let itself have a conversation such as was had in Corinth. It is absolutely legal for a billionaire to be in a lower tax bracket than his secretary (as Warren Buffett has confessed), but when the real loss in tax income from the richest Americans means that schools are failing in poorer neighborhoods and our social safety net for poor people is eviscerated so that hunger is on the rise, is it a situation that is consistent with our faith? Love builds up, even - or especially - in the face of what we are entitled to do. I think that if the Apostle Paul could testify on the floor of Congress today he’d leave our legislators shaking in their shoes.
Paul told the Corinthians, “If you have to choose between being loving and scoring a righteous point, be loving.” Paul would rather be a vegetarian for the rest of his life than exercise his meat-eating prerogative should it compromise the welfare of others. Knowledge, liberty, authority - they puff up. We’re so glad when we know we’re right. But love builds up - love denies its entitlements so that others may become strong, and thrive, and live. “We do not practice our faith in a vacuum,” Paul told the believers in Corinth. We have real responsibility toward others. Rather than resting upon the laurels of our righteousness, it is our faithful mandate to listen to everyone, to notice their welfare, and to ask ourselves how our behaviors, however legitimate, might be compromising their well-being. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we are to work to ensure that their well-being matches that which we want for ourselves. G. K. Chesterton wrote that it is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been tried and found difficult. If you let Jesus into your heart, he will tell you to work for the welfare of all, even if it means giving up some of your privileges. He will tell you to hold others’ lives as valuable as your own.
My prayer is that we in this Chapel, and we in this country, may have the courage and faith to engage in the conversation of our forebears in Corinth, and to live with the life-changing question of what our faith requires us to do for others.
www.workingpreacher.com, 1/29/12, Frank L. Crouch, I Cor. 8:1-13.
Feasting on the Word, I Cor. 8:1-13