“Idol’s Food

1 Corinthians 8: 1-13

Rev. Barrett Ingram

January 31, 2021

Before retiring, my mother was a school teacher. And for 15 years, she was the preschool director at our church. After her nerves were a bit frayed from teaching smart-alecky pre-teens, she thought it would be nice to teach some younger children, “before they were corrupted.” This story comes from her first or second year of teaching at the preschool. She worked with a teacher, Ms. Judy, who was the epitome of a Southern lady. She spoke slowly and with a decisive southern drawl, and she was oh so polite. Her daughter was a ballerina. So, you can imagine that kind of family. Well, there was a young boy in Ms. Judy’s class, and I’ll call him Johnny. He was the youngest brother of one of my classmates. You’ve heard the saying: “Kids say the darndest things.” Often what they are saying is what they’ve heard their parents or siblings say. And in the case of little Johnny, he was known on occasion, in a moment of frustration with his toys or playmates, to let loose an explicative – including the piece de resistance, the occasion when he used the queen-mother of dirty words: the dreaded F-bomb. And my mother recalls the shock and horror on poor Ms. Judy’s face; she turned ashen when this 3 ½-year-old child said such a horrible word. And while he was certainly too young to know what he was saying, it was clear from his placement of it that he knew when to say it. My mother spoke to his mother about it, and she (naturally) blamed it on the child’s father’s foul mouth. And, I might have added that he could have learned it from his brother. My mother, the teacher, said to his mother: “If they hear you say it, they will repeat it. They are learning from you.”

The writer Robert Louis Stevenson once said: “Do not judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” The issue before us today is the example we set for one another as Christians.

The section heading of 1st Corinthians 8 in the version of the Bible I’m reading says this: “Concerning Food Sacrificed to Idols.” As far as I’m aware, no one is eating food leftover from animal sacrifices. So, it’s tempting for us to skim through this chapter and think of it as irrelevant to us today. If we think about it a little more broadly, Paul is responding to specific claims within the Corinthian community. So, this issue of food offered to idols is really a jumping off point for Paul’s discussion.

Throughout this section, Paul uses a series of quotations – presumably words from the Corinthian church. Remember these are Paul’s epistles (letters) to the churches, so what we have here in this letter is likely one side of an exchange of correspondence. Paul is responding to something the Corinthians said, so he uses their own words.

He begins with a discussion of knowledge. “We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” What does it take to “build up” the church? Bricks, wood beams, drywall, insulation? The one thing Paul says in this passage does not build up the Christian community is knowledge. “Knowledge puffs up.”

Now as Presbyterians, we think rather highly of knowledge. The man to whom we look as the founder of our particular branch of the Reformed tradition is John Calvin (who lived from 1509 –1564). Calvin begins his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christians Religion, with a discussion of two kinds of knowledge – the knowledge of self, and the knowledge of God. We must first understand who we are; we are creatures of a Creator. When we grasp the reality of our creatureliness, we then understand our sinfulness in relation to this all-holy God. We realize that God has given us everything, yet we fail to live up to the fact that we are creatures made in the image of God. Knowledge of this kind for us is very important.

But “knowledge puffs up.” That doesn’t sound very intellectual, does it? We certainly can’t accuse the Apostle of the populist anti-intellectualism that is so fashionable in some quarters. Commentators tell us that Paul’s level of education in our own time would be the equivalent of two PhDs. He studied in his hometown of Tarsus learning Greco-Roman philosophy, and he also studied in the rabbinic tradition in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. Paul is no slouch when it comes to learning, so clearly, he is not devaluing the role of knowledge. Paul is not saying, here, that knowledge is bad. What he is saying is that a certain know-it-all attitude is bad for the church – because there are some Christians who are stronger than others. Knowledge can lead to pride. Knowledge can make some people feel superior to others. We tend not to care about the wellbeing of others when we convince ourselves that we are superior to them. In a children’s sermon I read this week, the image of the spiny blowfish was suggested to illustrate this kind of prickly knowledge. When it feels threatened, it puffs up and sticks out its spikes to wound others. And some Christians respond in much the same way – “knowledge puffs up.”

BUT – “love builds us.” There’s an old Baptist hymn, titled “Love Is the Theme.” When I was singing in the church choir in high school, we had a member who had grown up in the Baptist Church. He requested that we sing this song, and I’ve always remembered the title. Maybe someone of you know the hymn. Here are the words: Of the themes that men have known, One supremely stands alone; Through the ages it has shown, ’Tis His wonderful, wonderful love. And then the refrain: Love is the theme, love is supreme; Sweeter it grows, glory bestows; Bright as the sun ever it glows! Love is the theme, eternal theme!

We tend to sentimentalize love, but love is not easy. I sometimes think of how difficult it was for Moses to take all the Hebrew people with him through the wilderness. All of them! There must have been days when he didn’t like them and days when they didn’t like him. There were probably some who were not likable any of time, and Moses was surely not likable all the time. Frederick Buechner reminds us that “love is not primarily an emotion but an act of will.” Living in community is a challenging thing. We disappoint each other; we don’t live up to each other’s expectations; we frustrate one another. But we love, not because we feel like it, but because that is what Jesus told us to do. He says, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

The next quotation Paul engages is in verse 4: “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “there is no God but one.” The Corinthians are saying, God is God, we know that. And these statues, these idols, are just objects made with human hands. There’s no substance, no reality behind them. So, it doesn’t make any difference if we eat this food sacrificed to these idols. In one sense, Paul agrees with their reasoning. But if we look ahead to chapter 10, verse 18, he cautions: “Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons.”

Most of us, I suspect, do not spend much time thinking about idols and demons. But idolatry is one of our chief sins. We don’t bow down to graven images; we know better than that. But an idol is anything that takes the place that properly belongs to God alone. And the demonic is not so much about wayward spirits floating around seeking to cause mischief as it is a realization that there are forces in our lives that would easily turn us away from God and toward the idols we would so like to worship – idols like money, family, career, success. We pat ourselves on the backs as Protestants for removing the idols from our worship services and spaces, but if we’re not careful, they show up in other spheres of life. John Calvin said that the human being is a veritable idol factory.

One theologian has likened idolatry to addiction, because idolatry, like addiction, is anything that robs us of our freedom. Paul says elsewhere (Galatians 5:1), “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” Be careful, he warns us, because you might go back to your old ways. And if you are secure in your walk with Christ, if you are secure in your faith, that’s great. But he warns us in verse 9, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.”

There’s a line in a hymn in our hymnal (blue: 419; GTG: 432) that says, “We marvel how your saints become in hindrances more sure: Whose joyful virtues put to shame the casual way we wear your name, and by our faults obscure your power to cleanse and cure.” We are called as Christians to wear Christ’s name – and not in a casual way. But we are called in every endeavor of every day to seek to embody in all that we say and do the love, the peace, and the justice of Jesus Christ.

The final quote in our text is in verse 8: “Food does not bring us near to God.” And Paul agrees with this statement. Material objects in and of themselves will not bring us closer to God. In chapter 10, though, Paul indicates that what we do with this food as a community matters. Here he is referring to the Eucharist – Communion. (16-17): “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

In our individualistic world, it’s easy for us to assume that we’re on our own. Our actions only matter to us; we can do whatever pleases us. But Paul reminds us that we are all in this together. What we do matters – both to us and to those who look to us as an example of Christian living. Remember the old adage: Be careful how you live; you will be the only Bible some people read. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body.” As the gathered community, we are the body of Christ in the world. So let us endeavor, in all that we say and do, to reflect the love of Christ – for it is his love that builds us up.