4th Sunday after The Epiphany

January 31, 2021


Living between public doctrine and pious opinion 

1 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This  “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. 2If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not  yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. 

4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,”  and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” –6yet 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. 

7 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food  as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us  to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right  of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have  

knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food  offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom  Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak,  you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I  make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:1-13 ESV) 

The roll-out of the various COVID-19 vaccinations has generated considerable discussion and  reaction depending on the presuppositions brought to the issue of vaccinations. The general story of  vaccination – that of deliberating triggering the body’s immune system – ‘give the disease to prevent  the disease’ notion is counter intuitive to our more natural response ‘flee the disease to prevent the  disease’ – and it usually forgets that what Edward Jenner did based on the milk maids who had  cowpox and remarkably clear complexions was not to give smallpox to patients but cowpox – an  animal disease – which turned out to be much safer than the then current practice of variolation.  Variolation had been practised for about three centuries already in many countries and involved  actually giving the disease – hopefully a weakened version of smallpox so the person would hopefully  get a weakened infection and live. It did work … often … but not all the time and yes, some people  sadly died. That is why vaccination became so popular and is still used today because it produces  immunity without the presence of the infectious disease but a trigger. 

And yet depending on the story you have grown up with about vaccinations, about their historical use  and they have been used unethically in Africa a hundred years or so ago, or depending how you view  the human body and its relation to the natural world and what should enter the body in general – and  

with medicines you have issues of safety and efficacy – all these presuppositions, and more, fuel  one’s response and so we tend to have three groups – those for vaccines, those implacably against,  and those cautious with some tilting for and some less so – who all see the same world, who can read  the same science, and yet whose presuppositions – might I even say their faith? – lead them to their  behaviour. I think it is very true that we all live by faith – or maybe I should say faiths – in certain  people: those we know like spouse or family or friend and those we don’t know such as all the drivers  on the road – in religion and the God or gods revealed – in science – in humanity – in medicine – in  many things – and they all shape how we live. 

Our Second Reading today picks up a way of looking at the world and suggests how we should  behave. It’s about us and our bodies, it’s personal, and it reflects our presuppositions – which in this  case is how to follow Jesus in the real world and the topic back then was food. We presume this topic 

was something mentioned to Paul by Chloe’s household when they alerted him about the situation in  Corinth. But for three chapters, I Corinthians 8-10 Paul is going to discuss food offered to idols, his  goals as an apostle and the obligations on the congregation, and the matter of idolatry where he will  

return to food again. The context is that much of the food – particularly the meat – but also such  things as grain and honey – were offered to deities before being consumed in temple precincts or sold  in the marketplace. Food and fellowship and deities and a communing or relating are part of a  package akin to how we use food to celebrate, to enjoy family and friends, to deepen relationships. In  a world of many gods, eating the food isn’t necessarily a huge issue but should your presupposition – your faith – be monotheist – then you do have difficulties because only wish to associate with your  God. 

The Old Testament people generally regarded separation – dietary rules – the way to go. But the New  Testament people weren’t left a cookbook and Jesus’ 21 Favourite Recipes when he ascended and so  the Early Church needed to work out how to live the Gospel, how to follow Jesus in the market place  

and in what to eat. For the Christians from Jewish backgrounds, the account of Peter’s vision of the  sheet and many animals guided them to consider all food in itself clean but it didn’t address the issue  of eating sacrifices or offerings to other gods. For the Christians from Gentile backgrounds, they had  left the world of many gods, the fears, the uncertainties, the pride and the despair that trying to follow  rules was all about and they would have had no desire to return to that world per se. So Paul, what  about food offered to idols? 

Paul’s advice is based on a principle in chapter 10 – flee from idolatry in v.14 – and that is the starting  point. There is only one God and the other gods are fake news but behind them are principalities and  powers intent on keeping adherents following these fake gods and Paul regards these principalities  and powers as demons. Flee them and their meals – because you do not want to come close to the  unclean who seek to enslave, ensnare, and devour you. That is the base line. But Paul also recognises  that we live in this world and we are not to separate into an enclave – behind high walls – because  how else would you serve those around you? And so Paul advises that when you do not know whether  the food is offered to an idol then eat. But where the food is identified as linked to idolatry then stop  and consider – what best serves the neighbour? If it is a fellow Christian concerned, then do not eat  because to trample on people’s conscience is not to care for them. In Chapter 10 (v.27) Paul will also  add that if an unbeliever invites you to a meal then eat what is set before you without fuss for the sake  of your unbelieving neighbour. One might presume that if the unbelieving neighbour asked you for  your dietary requirements you would say ‘Something not offered to idols please’ – but that’s not  mentioned. Paul’s point here is that Christian freedom doesn’t mean we ignore contexts or situations – we can do – we can eat – what we like! – but on the contrary we analyse carefully the situation and  following Jesus – so no deliberate and clear sinning – we live in the freedom that is necessary to serve  one’s neighbour. 

When food was disassociated from religion this topic became less important to us but it is still an  issue for Christians in Asia. We often hear today ‘Food is food’ and ‘Eat as you wish’ and yet food  can be very significant among us – and for Christians we also can’t go past Holy Communion. Yet it  is true that food and power and control and excess and restraint are big issues for many people – but  the link between food and gods is not strong today among us.  

Nevertheless we can learn from Paul’s approach – that following Jesus involves fleeing evil rather  than thinking we are strong enough to cope or this doesn’t apply to us – and growing closer to Jesus.  And where we interact, intersect with others then we seek to analyse and understand the situation so  that we do not deny Jesus or disobey him but live with a freedom that best responds to the people  around us. After 2,000 years almost Christianity has a history of do’s and don’t’s relating to all sorts  of things including food, alcohol, when to worship, clothing, dancing, what to do on a Sunday, and 

countless more – and to follow Jesus we need to work our way through what is called public doctrine – the teachings of the Church – such as justification – God’s ‘I love you and forgive you’ in Christ – Baptism, Holy Communion – and pious opinion which was how Christians behaved in their time and  place.  

Following Jesus is not just a thought exercise but involves us – all of us in all our relationships all of  the time. Following Jesus involves our attitudes, our words, our plans and behaviour. It might be  easier, at times, if Jesus just sent us a text ‘Say yes’, ‘Turn left’, and so on but that isn’t the case. His  Word to us doesn’t deaden our brain or fog our intellect but rather enthuses and inspires us because Jesus firstly reminds us of his grace and mercy, his forgiveness and his strength and we respond in  repentance and having been forgiven then want to live another day with Jesus but not behind high  walls but in this world – right now – with the people around us, knowing that we have the freedom to  find ways to make the lives of those around us better in some way; to be a blessing to them from Jesus  so that they can be drawn to him. Because that’s the point – living with Jesus as our core or  foundation or centre is the best living you can have on Planet Earth.

Bible References

  • 1 Corinthians 8:1 - 13