To eat meat, or not to eat meat – that is the question! Our passage for today from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians probably sounds kind of strange and antiquated to our 21st century ears. We don’t really talk much about religious dietary restrictions nowadays, or worry that the food we eat will somehow impact our relationship with God. But for the Christian inhabitants of first century Corinth, Paul was addressing a very serious concern, one that went well beyond the question about food.
Corinth in the first century was a very diverse and happening place. It was a very pluralistic city, situated at the crossroads of major trade routes that brought lots of different cultural and religious influences into the society. Because of this, the early church in Corinth was also very diverse, and had kind of a volatile mix of Jewish believers and recent converts from other religions in the city. Food played an important role in their community; and communal meals were a common part of their Christian practice – so the disagreement about whether to eat meat became a particularly contentious one. And this was because most of the meat available in Corinth was meat that had been ritually sacrificed to idols.
Several members of the Corinthian church, especially those who had recently converted to Christianity, were really wary of eating this meat. For them, the practice of sacrificing and eating meat had always been an act of worship to the local idols. Continuing this practice, of course, was something that would totally violate the first commandment. However, other members of the church had no problem eating this meat. They knew that they served only one God, they only believed in one God, so how could it hurt to eat food sacrificed to deities they didn’t even think were real? They didn’t see it as a violation of the first commandment at all.
Interestingly, Paul doesn’t really settle the question of who is right or wrong. He seems to agree with those who don’t have a problem eating meat, but that isn’t the point of what he writes. Instead, Paul is much more concerned about the impact that this debate is having on the Corinthian church community. He acknowledges that people on both sides of the issue are acting in good faith, with arguments based on scripture. But, says Paul, “proper knowledge” of the law isn’t the way to Christ. Love is.
Even though he doesn’t directly say so, Paul is employing Jesus’ greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” No matter how you slice it, you’re just not fulfilling the law if there’s no love in it. And so Paul is urging the Corinthians to act toward one another in love, to be more concerned about restoring relationship than about being “right.” Paul wants the Corinthians to be reconciled to one another in love, just as they were first reconciled to God in love, through Christ.
We can kind of see this theme of reconciliation continued in our gospel reading, even though Mark doesn’t necessarily present it that way. Mark shows Jesus as one who is filled with the Spirit, who has divine authority, and who teaches both through words and actions. But the specific action he performs is worth a closer look. When Jesus shows up to the synagogue on the sabbath to teach, he encounters someone really unexpected: a man with an unclean spirit. The rules of the temple in Jerusalem also applied to local synagogues, which meant that this man shouldn’t even have been allowed to be in the synagogue at all – he would have been barred from participation in his religious community because of his uncleanness.
Mark focuses on Jesus’ exchange with the unclean spirit, but just imagine for a moment the loneliness of that man, unwell and cut off from synagogue fellowship. When Jesus casts the unclean spirit out of this man, he doesn’t just bring about physical healing – he also brings about the restoration of relationship between this man and his religious community. It is an act of reconciliation, as well as healing. And just like in the reading from 1 Corinthians, there is a potential legal question in play here – in this case, whether it is lawful to heal on the sabbath, which is something Jesus will be criticized for later in Mark. But Jesus shows that acting out of love and care for the neighbor is the true fulfilling of the law. Like Paul, Jesus places the value of relationship and reconciliation over and above the value of being “right.”
The themes of love and reconciliation in these texts are, of course, very fitting for us to talk about this morning. Today we observe Reconciling in Christ Sunday, a celebration of the reconciliation between the church and the LGBTQ community.
And these readings are fitting because, in many ways, I feel some resonance between the debate raging in the Corinthian church and the debate that continues to rage in parts of our own church about the inclusion of LGBTQ folks. There are certainly congregations like Peace – and even synods like the Rocky Mountain Synod – who have chosen to become Reconciling in Christ organizations. That is, they have formally announced their full inclusion and welcome of LGBTQ folks in all their glorious diversity. But there are also other congregations, like my own home congregation in Nebraska, which still do not feel like there is room in their understanding of scripture for such a welcome.
In 2009, the ELCA released a social statement on human sexuality that recognizes this ongoing tension in the church. Their approach to the disagreement is kind of like Paul’s approach to the disagreement among the Corinthians about whether eating idol meat broke the first commandment. The ELCA did decide to ordain LGBTQ-identifying folks and welcomed them into participation in all aspects of our life together – yay! But they also recognized that there were congregations – acting in good faith – who would not agree with this decision, and they urged all congregations to find a way to be reconciled with one another. They used Luther’s language of the “bound conscience” to describe this balance, calling us to respect the conscience of our neighbor in love, even if we don’t agree with it.
I have to confess that I really struggle with this, and I’m sure that many of you do, too. I mean, I am all for loving and respecting my neighbor. But it seems terribly unjust to me to leave the identity and personal truth of an entire group of people open to a debate. And I often have little patience for those who do. There are definitely days when all I want is to hear the church say, “All are welcome! And all means ALL. And if you don’t like it, the door is over there.”
But every time I return to Paul, I find myself convicted again and again by this truth that truly radical love means loving and accepting the people with whom I profoundly disagree. It means finding ways to be in relationship with them, seeking to understand them, even when I’d rather just stick to relationships with people who think and feel like I do. Now, to be clear, this absolutely does not mean that we should endure harmful relationships for the sake of bound conscience. And it also doesn’t mean that we just agree to disagree for all eternity. No. Relationship is an evolving, dynamic thing. And as long as it is grounded in love, I have faith that with time, it will transform us. I mean, hey, none of us worry about eating meat sacrificed to idols anymore, so at least that’s one issue settled, right?
At the end of the day, it is God’s priority that we find a way to be together in love, in community with our neighbors. And this is good news for us, even when it’s hard, because it reflects the fact that God also prioritizes being in loving relationship with us. God’s desire for reconciliation between people reflects the work that God has done to reconcile all people to Godself. God knows that we have done plenty of things to stress God’s conscience, yet God unfailingly acts toward us in love. This is the kind of love that we are called to emulate. We are called to love all others – even the ones who are hard to love – with the same reconciling love that God has for each and every one of us. Amen.