I’m not a Revised Common Lectionary preacher by habit, but over the past two Sundays, I’ve preached from the epistle texts. So I found myself in First Corinthians.
Let me insert here that I love this letter. Not only does it contain foundational passages for me, like the image of the body of Christ in chapter 12 and the popular “love chapter” 13, but it also strikes me on a personal level. As I read Paul’s advice, counsel, and chastisement, I feel like I know these people. I think I may have served that church. I hear Paul talking to me.
In much of First Corinthians, Paul is addressing questions that have come from the Christians in Corinth, and in chapters 8 through 10, he speaks to a particularly hot and contentious issue for that community in that day.
Idol worship was common in First Century Corinth, and it would typically involve the sacrifice of animals. The meat from the sacrifice was then served in what were probably lavish banquets in the temple. So if you received an invitation to one of these feasts, could you go? Was it okay for a Christian to sit at table in an idol’s temple and to eat meat that had been sacrificed to that idol?
It seems like a simple question. Either it’s okay, or it’s not. Yet, Paul devotes several paragraphs worth of writing to his reply. He drives right past the answer that they are looking for, missing the turn entirely, in order to arrive at the more important question of who they are. For Paul, it’s not about the food.
On the one hand, we know that idols are false gods, and so the sacrifice is meaningless. Paul reflects the argument from some members of the Corinthian Christian Church. On the other hand, though, many in the Corinthian church are new Christians. They have renounced the worship of this or that god to follow the way of Jesus.
For these new believers, the sacrifice embodies their former belief in an idol. Paul encourages those Corinthian Christians “with understanding,” to borrow his language, to consider those new believers. He invites one group within the church to view the sacrifice, the temple and the banquet through the eyes of those who see through a different lens.
It’s not about the food. It’s about hospitality. It’s about the practice of deeply listening to another, trying to see through the lens of their experience. Like Paul’s approach to food sacrificed to idols, the practice of listening and welcoming is not simple.
However, when we hear and receive the story of another, they become human. It becomes more difficult to dismiss them as weak or unfaithful or rigid. That act of hospitality enables us to set a welcome table and helps us to see how our words and actions might be a stumbling block to another.
It’s about much, much more than the food.