Flirting with Idols

"Now concerning food sacrificed to idols," what do you prefer? At our house a favorite on Super Bowl Sunday is Rotel dip, a blend of a chunk of a cheese-replacement-product commonly known as Velveeta, and a can of diced tomatoes and green chilies. It’s easy to make, and actually tastes pretty good with tortilla chips. The dip is the perfect accompaniment to the annual grand liturgy of the American game, with the fly-over, the flag, the anthem, the half-time show, the commercials, and the properly inflated ball. Of course I’m only half-joking, but you know that. When it comes to sports, patriotism, and making money, we’re flirting with idols.

The context in Corinth was only slightly different. So let’s go there. Corinth was a vibrant and bustling Greco Roman city, located between two sea ports, and Paul started a congregation there. He didn’t stay long, though, because there were so many more cities where he had to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. So he came, preached, impressed upon the converts that the Lordship of Christ was to be lived out in their daily life as witnesses, and moved on. Questions remained. In his absence, answers were created by other missionaries and various locals with a mind to imposing them upon the others. That didn’t go well. Competing arguments and power plays fragmented their assemblies. Chloe’s people finally located Paul in a distant city and told him what was happening back in Corinth; some of the leaders went to Paul for advice, and at some point a letter was written from the church to Paul containing a list of issues that were troubling the fledgling community of Christ in the pagan city. That letter is lost, but Paul responded to it in writing. “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote,” he opens chapter 7 and replies to their questions with a word of the Lord or his own best judgment. If my spouse is not a Christian, they asked, should we stay together? May widows remarry? Is being married less spiritual than being single? Are we to dissociate ourselves totally from old friends? Is it proper for a woman to pray with her head unveiled? How do our common meals differ from those we once had at pagan temples?  What are the most important gifts of the Spirit? When will you be back?

One of the questions in that letter was about meat: Should Christians in Corinth eat meat that had been offered to idols?

A typical sacrifice meant that an animal was killed, a portion was burned to honor the respective god, a portion was given to the priests, and the rest was either consumed with family and friends in a festive meal in one of the temple’s dining rooms, or, if it was too much for one meal, a portion was sold in the market. Just about all the meat available in a city like Corinth would have been offered at some shrine or other, and many temples functioned as butcher’s shops and restaurants. Wealthier Corinthians with a pagan background would have been invited to meals in such places as a regular part of their social life, to celebrate birthdays, weddings, or other important occasions, or simply to entertain business partners.  For those Corinthian Christians who were among the wealthier class, their public and professional duties virtually required the networking that occurred through attending and sponsoring such events. To eat the meat served on such occasions was simple social courtesy; to refuse to share in the meal would have been an insult to the host. Within the social circle of the poorer Corinthians, however, such meat-eating would not have been commonplace. Meat was not an ordinary part of their diet; it may have been accessible only at certain religious festivals when public officials and their sponsors distributed meat to the entire city population. Consequently, the wealthy and powerful among Corinth’s Christians, who also had the most advanced education, would take the eating of meat in stride, “What’s the big deal? We know idols aren’t real…” At the same time, the poor might regard any meat as laden with strong religious connotations. Some members of the fledgling church did not think of idols as manufactured pseudo-gods, but still knew them to be powerful; they simply could not eat such meat without stepping back into the symbolic world of their former life outside of Christ.

The answer seems simple: Christians know idols are the creations of human minds and hands. Therefore, meat ritually slaughtered and dedicated before these idols is just a piece of meat and can be consumed with no second thoughts. If a brother or sister fresh from baptism is still bothered by such practices of so recent a past, abstain in the presence of these persons. That settles it.

Well, not really; things were much more problematic. Such simple answers they already had. They knew these things. In fact, in asking the question they made sure that Paul knew that they knew the right answer. “There is no God but one,” they said. Right! “No idol in the world really exists,” they said. Right! “We all know this,” they said. Right!

Then what is the problem in a church that knows the answers to its own questions? Paul understood that this was not just a quarrel over what’s for dinner. The problem may seem petty, but if the lives and relationships of a body of believers are seriously affected, could there be any bigger problems? And so Paul reached for the widest possible horizon as the context for his response.

Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:5-6).

Remember, he told them without saying it, remember when you struggle with this and that and the other, remember the size and significance of our confession:

One God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

A congregation that is not continually nourished by its confession of faith, that is not daily called to think, act, and live the abundance of its trust in the grace and judgment of God the Creator; a congregation that is not experiencing and reflecting upon the life-giving presence of Jesus Christ, will turn to slogans as substitutes for the confession. In Paul’s absence, some members of the Corinthian church captured the truth in catchy slogans that also happened to serve their interests remarkably well. “There is only one God.” “Idols are nothing.” “We know the truth.” Paul himself was drawn into the slogan game for a moment and responded with one of his own: “Knowledge puffs up, love builds up.” Then he caught himself.  He realized how the conditions of that church were reflected in those one-liners. Slogans capture some aspect of truth. But that is the problem: they capture and display rather than engage and share responsibility in the issues of our faith. Slogans are the coinage of those unable or unwilling to discuss or wrestle with the immensity of the gospel, those who desire to possess the truth in simplistic quotable bits, thereby ending thought, stopping growth, and owning rather than being owned by the Word. Or, in Paul’s terms, knowing rather than being known. The Corinthian congregation was trapped in the slogan game, competing in the creating and marketing of answers that are clever, quotable, and, of course, final. Truth was captured, reduced, packaged, and pronounced; case closed. No open sharing; no vulnerability; no risk; no arms or legs or heart of faith. Answers, always answers, short, simple answers, painless answers without Gethsemane, without wrestling all night with the will of God. Slogans are the undernourished church’s substitute for the gospel. But it is not so where our baptism into Christ is remembered and confessed. So Paul quickly withdrew from agreeing or disagreeing with the slogans and reminded the Corinthians whose they were:

For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

The truth isn’t something we know and quote strategically, the truth is who we are together in Christ. Any “knowledge” that causes the knowledgeable ones to despise those who are ignorant or uncertain is not in tune with our baptism into Christ. Through baptism we become members of the one body of Christ, we are given to each other to embody the truth. My actions are no longer simply mine, determined solely by my understanding of my liberty. I’m not free to be who I want to be, because I’m only free in Christ, and in Christ I am part of the community Christ has chosen, not I. For Paul, love in the community does not necessarily mean that I have to like the other people in the community, or that I have to agree with what they decide or how they understand the world. It does mean that I owe you and you all owe each other more than slogans. It does mean that we owe each other more than self-assertion. Insisting on my rights, even insisting on my rights as a Christian, Paul tells us, is a sign that something else other than the true God is being worshipped. Outside the love of Christ, I’m flirting with idols, no matter how certain I am that “no idol in the world really exists.”

For us there is one God, the Father,

from whom are all things

and for whom we exist,

and one Lord, Jesus Christ,

through whom are all things

and through whom we exist.