This week’s readings are here.
Someone asked me after service yesterday if I had ever preached on the text from I Corinthians that was read yesterday (last week’s readings). In fact, three years ago, my sermon focused on the urgency of the good news as evidenced in both the gospel and in I Corinthians 7. But my questioner wasn’t interested in that part of the sentence: “The appointed time has grown short”–he was interested in the second part of that sentence, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none…”
No, I’ve never preached on that particular text, but in fact this whole passage is strong evidence for the difficulty of applying what Paul has to say about the Christian life–ethics and morality–to the lives of twenty-first century Christians. He assumes that the parousia, Jesus’ return, is imminent. It might happen any day now. That fact changed everything for him. Earlier in chapter 7, Paul says some things that are quite difficult for us to hear, about slavery and marriage, but all of it should be read in light of the imminent second coming. Because Jesus is coming back soon, nothing else really matters, and there’s no reason to make big changes in one’s life, like getting married. Now, few of us believe that Jesus is coming back soon, so we should probably not take what Paul has to say about slavery or marriage in this passage very seriously.
On the other hand, there are certain principles that can guide one’s ethical decision-making in light of Paul. And in this week’s reading from I Corinthians 8, we see one of those principles in action. In a way, it’s helpful that he is discussing an issue that is far from our ordinary experience–eating food that’s been offered to idols.
The issue here is that it was customary for meat left over from pagan sacrifices to be used for celebratory meals, and for most people in the Hellenistic world, such meals, sponsored by wealthy patrons, might be their only regular access to meat. The question the Corinthians had asked Paul was whether, given their new faith in Jesus Christ, and the assurance that their was only one God (and thus the pagan sacrifices were of no avail and meaningless), they could continue to participate in those feasts. It had caused division, because some of those in the Corinthian community were not quite sure whether pagan gods existed and had power, and perceived participation in such meals as evil.
Paul’s answer is instructive: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It’s quite clear from reading I Corinthians that one of the central problems in this community is the issue of how far one can take the “freedom in Christ” that is gained through faith and baptism. Free from law, ie, Jewish Torah? Paul agrees. Free from laws (ie, civil or natural law)? Paul’s not so sure. And what about one’s responsibility to the community, the body of Christ? “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (I Cor. 8:9). So Paul concludes this discussion by saying, “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (I Cor. 8:13).
This seems pretty straightforward. One’s own actions and freedom should be tempered by concern for the tender consciences of others. Indeed, this argument is used in contemporary conflicts to argue against certain changes. It can easily become a block to the ongoing discernment of God’s will, but I think there’s some validity in paying close attention to it. What builds up the body of Christ? What undermines it? How do we go about discerning how we should live as individuals and as congregations in the twenty-first century? One clear answer to that from a Pauline, indeed a Christian perspective, is that we are not isolated moral agents, individuals who can decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Ultimately, if we claim allegiance to Jesus Christ, such decisions must be made in light of their impact on those with whom we share Eucharistic fellowship.