Thursday, 29 January 2015

Making allowances for another’s conscience: a sermon (1st Corinthians 8:1–13)

Paul had many headaches as a result of the people of Corinth.  The Corinthians were definitely his “problem congregation”.
·        If they weren’t suing each other over trivial matters, they were having messy love affairs with each other.
·        If they weren’t having messy affairs, they were fighting over trivial theological issues, such as “speaking in tongues”.
·        If they weren’t fighting over theological trivia, they were getting drunk in church … during the communion service no less.
·        If they weren’t getting drunk in church, they were … suing each other … and so it went.
And all of that can be found in just a simple reading of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Over the centuries, Christian art has generally depicted Paul as being a bald-headed man whose remaining hair was grey, if not white.  I wonder if he had a full head of jet-black hair before he met the Corinthians.

But still, the tone of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, even when he was chewing them out, showed a real affection for the people of Corinth.  I think it’s similar to the way that many teachers’ favourite ex-pupils are the ones who were actually the most irritating at the time when they were in the teacher’s class.

One of the arguments Paul had to settle among the Corinthians was over the issue of meat that was consecrated to idols.  Now this would be a non-issue for us, but it was a live issue for the Christians of Corinth.

Most of us do not have problems with the use of religious imagery, whether we share the beliefs associated with the imagery or not.  Most of us appreciate the spirituality and the love associated with the use of a physical image of faith, whether the image is:
·        a statue of the Buddha in a Thai temple or a statue of Mary by the side of an Irish road;
·        a St. Christopher medallion or a picture of Ganesh on the dashboard of the taxi taking you to the airport;
·        a mezuzah or a Russian Orthodox icon greeting you at your neighbour’s front door;
·        a photo of the Pope or of the Dalai Lama in the waiting room of your GP;
·        a hijab worn by a Muslim woman, a yarmulke worn by a Jewish man, or a veil worn by a nun.

In our situation, we can welcome and celebrate these visual demonstrations of faith commitment as signs of faith, hope, and love in the midst of a world desperately needing these qualities.  And even those of us whose spiritualities encourage a certain restraint in the physical depiction of the sacred can – or, at least, should - respect the devotional practices of others … even when the devotional practices of others lead to what you or I may regard as religious kitsch.

As well, we know today that the divine is one.  So that:
·        when a Buddhist or a Hindu meditates before a sacred image;
·        when a Muslim gets down on all fours to pray;
·        when a Jew recites the Shema;
·        when a Christian of any denomination receives the bread and wine of Holy Communion;
each of these individuals relates profoundly to the single divine reality, to the only divine reality there is to relate to, to the same divine reality as each other.

But, in the ancient world, many people of all backgrounds saw the various deities as distinct, as equally real, and as being in profound conflict with each other.

So, Paul had a problem with the Corinthians’ behaviour on the issue of “food offered to idols”.  Now, Corinth was in Greece, and many people at that time still worshipped the old Greek gods such as Zeus, Apollo, and Athena.  People would bring food and drink to the temple.  A bit of food might be burnt on the altar and a bit of wine spilled on the ground.  A bit more food and wine may be received by the priests as their honorarium for presiding at the ceremony.  But most of the food and drink would be taken home again by the worshippers.

The problem arose whenever a Christian was eating a meal at the home of a friend who was a worshipper of one of the Greek gods.  The well-meaning host may say something like, “Hey, Stephanos, I know you’re a Christian, but I hope it’s OK for you that our meat and our wine tonight was involved in an offering this morning at the temple of Aphrodite.”

And there was a range of opinions about the subject among the Corinthian Christians.
·        Some felt that Christians should have nothing to do with any food or drink that was involved in non-Christian worship.
·        Others took a different approach, saying that these idols were not real, so that there is nothing wrong with consuming any food or drink that was involved in temple ceremonies.

Paul expressed some personal sympathy for this second approach – what you or I may consider a more enlightened approach - but he urged the Corinthians to make allowances when in the presence of those who consciences were weaker, i.e. for those who would be offended by the sight of a Christian eating food offered to an idol.

There is a certain practical compassion and courtesy in all of this.
·        If you or I were having a meal at the home of a vegetarian, we would not expect to be served a meal that included meat.
·        If you or I were having a meal at the home of a teetotaller or a recovering alcoholic, we would not expect to be served an alcoholic beverage with our meal.
·        If you or I were having a meal at the home of an orthodox Jew, we would not expect to be served food that is not kosher.
·        If you or I were having a meal at the home of a practicing Muslim, we would not expect to be served food that is not halal.

And if, in any of these situations, you or I demanded a pork chop or a cocktail, we would be rednecks of the worst sort.

Also, a good host allows for the religious, cultural, and medical factors that impact on their guests’ diet to shape the menu they offer their guests.  All this is a question of common decency, whether you’re a person of faith or not.

As well as being about the things we eat and drink, this passage may also be about the way we spend our money.  It’s about how we remain Christians when we become consumers.  It’s about a whole range of tough questions, questions such as:
·        What do you do when a garment you wish to purchase was made by poorly-paid people in a sweatshop in a developing country, possibly even using child labour?
·        Do you buy the latest bit of electronic gadgetry, just to keep up with the times, even if your present machine works well enough for your needs?
·        Does it make any difference to your decision if you know that someone else – a friend, a neighbour, a co-worker, a family member – has sufficient respect for you as to regard you as a positive model for their own behaviour?

The fact is that every person sitting in this room is a role model for someone.  This is obvious for those who are parents or grandparents.  It’s obvious for those who teach or who work with young people in other ways.  But for each one here, there are those in your work, in your neighbourhood, in your community organisations, who regard you as a model for their behaviour.

Paul said to the Corinthians, “For if others see you, who have 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?” 
·        In the same light could Paul also be challenging us about wearing running shoes made in sweatshops by eight-year old children, if it encourages those who respect us to do the same after they see the logo on our sneakers?
·        Could Paul be challenging us about the results of buying the latest (and most expensive) bit of electronic gadgetry, even if we can afford it, if it encourages a friend who can’t afford it to go out and do likewise?

For similar reasons of compassion and courtesy, Paul urged the Corinthians (and future generations of Christians) to make such allowances when in the presence of those who consciences were weaker in issues of diet and lifestyle.

But sometimes these allowances can go too far, particularly when, in the name of Christian compassion toward those whose consciences are weaker, we seem to wink at prejudice, to connive with ignorance, to tolerate intolerance.  These are far weightier matters than whether or not we’re served a pork chop.  There are times when the demands of truth outweigh the demands of courtesy, and when we need to challenge bigotry even at the risk of rudeness.   

For example, what do you do when someone tells you a racist joke?  … a sexist joke?  … an antisemitic joke?  … an Islamophobic joke? … a homophobic joke?  Do you challenge the joke, or do you give silent consent to bigotry?

Any prejudice (whether against Catholics, against Jews, against Muslims, against Mormons, against Aborigines, against Asians, against Africans, against women, against homosexuals, against Freemasons, and so on …) any prejudice needs to be challenged, and to be challenged strongly.  There are times when the demands of truth outweigh the demands of courtesy, and when we need to challenge bigotry even at the risk of rudeness.   

But, in most other contexts, Paul urged the Corinthians (and future generations of Christians) to make allowances for lifestyle issues when in the presence of those who consciences were weaker.

No comments:

Post a comment

Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.