This is a strange text this morning. Why does it matter if we eat certain meats or food? Why does it matter what the community thinks of our actions? Why should we care if God really does know us? I’m left with more questions than answers when reading this letter from Paul to the Corinthian church. I’m not sure I have any responses about what this curious text is trying to tell us.
But I do feel this text pretty viscerally. I do feel it, that feeling of respecting and living within community. I do feel it, that feeling of wanting to be known, to be seen, to be loved. Maybe this is one of those texts we need to feel rather than over think. If there is anything that I have latched onto in this text is that I want God to know me, to be for me, to love me. But, what we might find, through Paul’s words, is that in order for God to know us, our comfort zones may need to be breached and our boundaries expanded.
For me, the Scripture lesson this morning is clear. It says that anyone who loves God is known by God. And it’s easy to pass over this strange sentence because it is weird or that Paul said it and we don’t like Paul or that this doesn’t really apply to us. But maybe this complicated scripture might be just what we need to hear right now. Because the words of Paul offer guidance for how our own personal rights and actions seem to affect the entire community. And, when we put idols, not only before God, but before our fellow humans, then we are not known by God.
The religious practice of offering food to deities, which was common in the ancient world, is not something most of us are familiar with. Paul’s use of the term eidolothytos (food sacrificed to idols) reveals that Paul wanted to separate this practice from Jewish monotheism. The non-Jewish term for sacrificial food was different, heirothytos, which meant meat sacrificed for sacrificial use. It is likely that the Jewish term was coined during the Jerusalem Council in 50 A.D. as Gentile or non-Jewish Christians were seeking to separate themselves from certain Jewish festivals and fasts. Yet, Paul had to bring up to the Corinthians eating meat sacrifices because sharing this food was something important for Jewish and Christian families and they didn’t want outsiders to think they were eating meat sacrificed to pagan idols.
Yet, eating this sacrificed food, the food that had already been used in worship (all kinds of food and drinks), was something that many families in Corinth did. One historian said that eating this food “could take place within the temple precincts, where private rooms were made available for celebrations, in public places, and even in private homes. These celebrations were occasions for extended family and networks to interact, as well as places to mingle with others in the wider community. They offered opportunities to move across social barriers. We can well imagine the pressures on Corinthian society, therefore, to participate in these communal banquets of family celebrations. The wider culture expected it, and some within the Christian community were participating actively as well.”
And so, Paul tried to compare the eating of sacrificed food to that of knowledge. He said that eating food is like knowledge. We all eat food and we all possess knowledge. Yet, there is something more important than the food we eat or the knowledge we all have. The very first words Paul uses in this text are “we know that all of us possess knowledge, yet knowledge puffs up, while love builds up!” If there is anything I want us to remember out of this scripture lesson today is that we all have knowledge, but what do we do with that knowledge? Are we building each other up? Are we loving each other? Are we sharing worship with our interfaith friends? Are we holding space with those who believe differently than us? Are we sharing our lives, our food, and our love as a sign of who God is in us and with us?
I think that was Paul’s word to the Corinthians. In order to truly show the love of God and be known by God, they were to value each other more than they value specific rights or rituals. The Corinthian people were so worried about being known by God and doing the right and holy thing that they separated themselves from loved ones, from those who were different from them, from those who ate different foods, rather than build community in love. Being known by God in their piety was more important than actually loving their neighbors. I want to say that again, being known by God in their piety was more important than actually loving their neighbors.
And it was the same for those eating the sacrificed meat and for those who didn’t eat it at all. It was a stumbling block between them. The Corinthians cared more about their rites and rituals and not enough about each other. So, Paul simply said, “well then, I won’t eat meat at all. I don’t want to do something that cause my someone to feel unloved.” Paul chose to not eat at all. He respected the createdness and the fullness he experienced from being in community, from being around the beloveds of God, from being around people of diversity, rather than letting food come between them, rather than letting idols come between them.
This has been a more difficult fear for me to work through, the need I have to earn God’s love. Instead of grasping more strictly and resolutely to my rigid understanding of religion, I have been trying to loosen my grip and lean in to the love of God in all things and in all people. This is why I’ve valued building interfaith relationships as the pastor of Royal Lane. It’s been important to me to not let religious differences hinder me and us from seeing each other with love, respect, and gratitude.
I remember specifically the generosity of our Muslim friends who shared Ramadan Iftar with us, even though it is not part of our faith as Christians. We did share food, but we shared halal food, food appropriate to their religion. And every time I’ve shared dinner with my Muslim friends, Emrah or Huseyin or Almas, they have made accommodations for my own dietary restrictions too, whether gluten free, dairy free, or vegan, while even sacrificing what they eat in order to share space with me. Because that is what friends do. That is what loved ones do. And Paul had to continuously remind the Corinthian church, and us, to put love of one another over religious or social rules or requirements.
Naomi Shahib Nye wrote a powerful essay in 2013 called “Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal.” It goes like this:
“After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,
I heard the announcement:
If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic,
Please come to the gate immediately.
Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,
Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her
Problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu-biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick,
Sho bit se-wee?
The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—
She stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
Following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and
Would ride next to her—Southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and
Found out of course they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian
Poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered
Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—
And was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
Sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
The lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same
Powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—
Non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice
And lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.
And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,
With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always
Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped
—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.”
For me, this airport story and Paul’s commendation to the Corinthians to love one another despite of and because of food reminds me of another table, a table with food that is meant to bring us together in the unity of Christ, the Lord’s table. Since we’ve begun the pandemic, we have had to partake in communion at home with whatever elements we’ve had in our pantries and refrigerators. We’ve shared the bread using crackers, cookies, goldfish, and tortillas. We’ve shared the cup using water, wine, and lemonade. And it doesn’t matter what vessels hold the bread or cup either. Barbara Gunnin has beautiful, ethnic pieces that remind us of the vibrancy and diversity of God. Others of us have used solo cups and plastic plates. Whatever we have, we bring to God, because the most important thing about this meal is love.
What do Paul’s words mean for us today and in the year to come? Will we enter this new year letting our differences divide us? Or will we reach out in affection to one another, knowing that the God of All is one of community, of unity, and of love? Not only might we “build each other up with love,” as Paul said, but maybe we can be gentle with ourselves, knowing that we might strive to love ourselves, even when we don’t feel like we measure up or fit in. For if we do, we won’t have to be afraid that we are known by God. Because we will be known… with our powdered sugar smiles and all.