Sermons : 2015 : February 1, Food Can Be Spiritual - I Corinthians 8:1-13

Two thousand years ago, the city of Corinth sizzled with everything you could possibly want if you were a Greek. Situated as a seaport along the Aegean Sea, Corinth offered an openness to vice and pleasure that could only be found in a coastal city and its constant influx of newcomers. In this Greek paradise, temples offered worshippers everything from succulent meats to prostitutes to promises of healing to socializing. Corinth was still under the control of the Roman Empire, but you almost wouldn’t know it. There were just too many distractions.

But a city that offers such freedom isn’t just attractive to pleasure seekers. It was also a place for religious refugees, like many of the Jews who fled Rome when Emperor Claudius barred them from the city in 49 AD. It was a place for freed slaves, maybe runaway slaves and really anyone who wanted more freedom than what could be found in the rest of the empire.

So it’s probably no surprise that Paul writes his longest letters to the church there, calling churchgoers to a life that was unique from the environment that surrounded them. As Christians, it’s always been hard for our churches to thrive in cultures that cater to vices and so-called freedoms. Human nature is enticed and people create mental bridges between practicing their faith and participating in their culture all the time. That way of approaching Christianity is still common in our culture as churches shelve many of their historic doctrines and beliefs in favor of a faith that can be paired with nature rather than contrasting it.

In chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, Paul discusses a vice that seems strange to us – eating food that’s been sacrificed to idols. See, the Jews weren’t the only ones who sacrificed animals. This was seen in Greek and Roman religious circles too. Some of the sacrifice would be burned and offered up to the god, but some of it would be sold in the marketplace or served in the Temple. Greek Temples were not just places of eating, but networking. You did business in the Temple; you made friends in the Temple; you discussed politics and philosophy in the Temple. It was where the town came together.

So now what happens when you become a Christian? You’re taught that the gods of these temples are fictional. They don’t really exist. And that can actually lead to a sense of arrogance or overconfidence. As you promenade through the streets now, you’re not impressed by the gods there or the rituals or the priests. It’s all fake. And this knowledge puffs you up. Paul says as much in verse 1. But just because it’s all a façade doesn’t mean you can go to the Temple and eat there. There’s a conscience issue. People who eat in the Temple are eating in a religious context. Food has spiritual meaning. It always has, though I think we’ve largely lost that sense in our culture because religion isn’t as much a part of our culture as it used to be.

But even in pleasure seeking Greece, religion was very much a part of cultural identity and culinary identity. You eat the food, you participate in the sacrifice. Paul says exactly those words in the following chapter. “Consider the people of Israel,” Paul writes; “Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar?” And participation is affirmation. It is affirmation of a god that does not really exist. It is an encouragement to those around you that you believe the same as them. And eating meat that was sacrificed to an idol is to further encourage someone who already has weak conscience.

See, the Christian faith has never been just an individual thing. It’s never been just between you and Jesus. Faith is about community. We talk about the communion of the saints in our creeds. We talk about communing together at the altar and receiving the body and blood of Christ. The Greek word koinonia is found throughout the New Testament emphasizes this sense fraternal kinship. The answer to Cain’s question going all the way back to the Old Testament was, yes, you are your brother’s keeper.

In the Christian faith, we talk about leaving an old life behind when we convert. Baptism is a transition between old and new creation; being born again is about dying to self and rising to a new life. Death and resurrection are words used to describe our journey, our departure from a life apart from God to a life in communion with Him and His saints .

Temptation always calls us back to the old because it’s also the familiar and it’s also compatible with the nature you have that’s fallen. The Israelites, when they wandered around in the desert, longed for the comforts they had back in Egypt. It was slavery, but there were a few comforts there and that fooled them into thinking it was a better life. But the life that God calls us to is unique, it is different. It is a life that’s foreign to your nature and a life that can, at times, be isolating from what surrounds you.

But we don’t free the trapped consciences of others by participating in the vices and practices of other religions along with them. When we deny such things, we are making testimony to the truth. We are making a confession of the One True God and the life to which He calls us. So there are some activities in our culture in which we may not participate; some ceremonies in which we may not engage; some invitations we may not accept.

We do no one any favors when we go along with things that we know in our hearts are wrong. More often, we only later have to deal with our own guilty consciences that hammer us with feelings of guilt and regret. Paul is concerned today about actions that may have eternal consequences. He’s concerned about the weak in conscience believing there is no difference between the gods of Greece and the God of the Nations.

But when we separate ourselves, we are saying yes, there is a difference. There is a difference between what is found in Christ and what is found in all the other religions of the world. And this difference is important enough for us to set ourselves apart; not for the sake of arrogance, but for the sake of conscience and for the sake of love. Knowledge puffs up, Paul says, but love builds up.

In Christianity, love and sacrifice come together in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the One who gives Himself in love on behalf of all people. He submits Himself to death in order that those who participate in His sacrifice would receive eternal life. We have access to His sacrificial work through faith. We have access to His sacrificial work in the Lord’s Supper. When Paul said before, those who eat the sacrifice also participate in the altar, He was very much talking about the Lord’s Supper. And again, we come around to the notion that food can be spiritual.

In the Supper, we have fellowship with one another as we commune with the Divine. We participate in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The Words this is my body and this is my blood spoken by Jesus assure us that this meal in which we come together is no mere symbol. It is the eating and drinking we do as His covenant people, who receive the blessings of His sacrifice.

And so this is why the altar is temporarily closed to some until such a time that they have been taught and can confess publicly the true meaning of the Supper. This is all done to protect consciences and ensure that our external unity is indicative of a true, internal union. And this we do by embracing a common understanding of beliefs and doctrines.

As Paul points out to the Corinthians, eating and drinking in a religious context is not symbolic. If it were, Paul wouldn’t have bothered the Corinthian Christians about this matter today because how can anyone sin against a symbol? But eating together in a religious context is affirmation. It is a testimony to your beliefs and to the God in whom you believe. And so in God’s house, we joyfully receive the food from His Altar believing that in this sacrificial meal are the gifts of life, forgiveness and salvation. We separate ourselves from other spiritual meals and other gods in order to give witness to our God and to the uniqueness of His sacrifice . Corinth may have been a bit unique in the ancient world, but Paul’s words to this church still have meaning today as we proclaim the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice and the eternal life found only in Him. Amen.


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