January 28, 2024

“Sinful Barbecue?”

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Approximately a year and 1/2 ago, Paula and I flew to Dallas to help our son Sam move back home. The morning after landing, we helped pack, clean, and move his stuff out of his apartment, took many items to various donation sites, and sold his car in one day. We finished everything about 3 p.m. and realized we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. We were hot, tired and hungry. We stumbled upon an old BBQ joint just outside of Dallas, hoping they were open and had AC, cold iced tea, and decent food.

The place was called “Sullivan’s BBQ” and was excellent. We had a big combination plate of various meats, cornbread, slaw, and fried okra, and we split it three ways. The servers were gracious, and the owner was attentive. The BBQ was fantastic - heavenly brisket, fall-off-the-bone ribs, juicy and tender pulled pork. It was just what we needed: an answer to prayer for delicious food at the end of a looooong day. I felt God led us to that very place and blessed us with that meal. Not all barbecues are heaven-sent, however.

Paul specifically calls out the barbecue joints in 1st Century Corinth, saying that if one ate at one of them, such an act could destroy young believers and would be a sin against Christ. He even went so far as to say that if such food causes someone to fall away from faith, he would refrain from eating any meat, period. Did Paul have beef with BBQ? Since Paul said he would never eat meat, is this passage a nod to those who choose to be vegetarians as a Godly way of living? What is Paul talking about? First, let’s set the scene of the city of Corinth, where Paul had founded a church.

In the first century, Corinth was a port city with a population of around 90,000. The city had a reputation somewhat like Las Vegas (What happens in Vegas…). There was a saying about living in excess in those days: “Live like a Corinthian.” In addition, one specific Greek word for having sex was “Korinthiazomai.” Why did they have such a sinful reputation? It may have had to do with being a port city, with plenty of sailors coming into town for a good time. Corinth lived up to that ideal, offering many places to have a good time. The city had at least six temples devoted to different Greek gods and offering a good time. There were temples dedicated to Apollo, Hermes, Isis, and Venus, one dedicated to “All gods,” and the temple of Aphrodite. These temples had festivals and offered fun to those visiting. Aphrodite’s temple was perhaps the most popular, especially for sailors who entered port. Her temple employed at least 1,000 male and female courtesans who catered to the sexual needs of city dwellers and visitors.

It was in this wild and woolly city of Corinth that Paul chose to plant a church. He stayed in Corinth for 18 months, helping the new young followers of Christ change their ways and encouraging them to be examples of Christ to city dwellers whose lives were far from holy.

So what was Paul’s beef about eating meat? Why was he warning these new followers in faith to refrain from eating meat? It turns out that most, if not all, of the pagan temples around the city had extra meat left over after animal sacrifices had been made to honor a god. Rather than letting the meat rot somewhere, these temples used the remaining meat for income and had large dining halls serving great BBQs. Meat was challenging to come by in one’s home unless you were wealthy. These dining halls were one way for all people to get a good source of protein regardless of their financial status.

Paul’s concern about his congregation going to such establishments had to do with public witness. By eating this meat, there was at least a nod of acceptance towards the multi-god system most in Corinthian society accepted. The question was, if Christians went to these dining halls, were they reinforcing the multi-god system? Were they causing those new to the faith to be confused?

Did one have to watch what one ate so that others might not stumble away from a monotheistic faith, one God, expressed in the Son, Jesus Christ?

Perhaps a modern-day equivalent would be me finding out Sullivan’s BBQ was a front for a colossal cult that used the business to promote some dark undertaking. The next time we visit Dallas, would I still go there? Would my participation in eating that amazing brisket and perfectly fried okra? I hope I never have to make that choice!

For those at the church in Corinth, they saw nothing wrong in going to these dining halls. As enlightened Christians, they possessed knowledge that there was only one God and that pagan idols were nothing more than lifeless statues, having no power to help or harm anyone. They also knew, in line with Paul’s teaching, that food was spiritually insignificant. So, just as Gentiles did not have to worry about keeping Jewish dietary laws, Christians in Corinth did not need to worry about where and what they ate.

There were even social parties organized around these dining areas. Archeologists have found examples of old invitations. For example, “Herais asks you to dine in the room of the Serapheion at a banquet of the Lord Seraphis tomorrow the 11th from the 9th hour.”  There were opportunities to press the flesh and network. To eat the sacrificial meat turned into a good BBQ served on such occasions was simple courtesy; refusing to share the meal would’ve insulted the host. If Christians found it socially advantageous to eat idol meat, what difference would it make? Does Paul suggest that Christians needed to avoid these events due to their ties to pagan temples?

Paul’s answer was complicated. First, he talked to those who believed that all Christians had the same knowledge and that if one knew that gods didn’t exist, it did not matter if one ate at these dining halls. Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up the ego, but love builds up the community.”  Knowledge, in Paul’s mind, led to arrogance. What mattered most to Paul was love- love first for God, then also for others in the Christian community and also the world. If love is the first and only motivation for action, then what one does and says matters in the world, especially if it can affect others negatively. Paul insists upon the priority of love over knowledge.

Then Paul reaffirms that there is one God, one Lord over all. This means that God is overall all and above all, which means Christians are bound first and foremost to the one God of Israel, and therefore, we show our allegiance to God before all other things. We exist for God, not for our purposes. Paul is worried about the Christian witness in Corinth, specifically about having weak Christians or new converts drawn back into the pagan cultic life, which was the dominant lifestyle of the day. “Take care that this liberty of yours does not become a stumbling block for others,” he says in verse 9,  “for if others see you eating this meat, might they not fall back into their old ways, or believe that Christians see no harm in pagan traditions?”

Paul then says that by causing others to stumble and fall away from faith, those whom Christ has died for are destroyed as they fall away. And those who lead others astray by their actions sin against Christ. Paul finishes his argument with the idea that if leftover sacrificial meat caused a person to fall away, not only would he never eat it, but he would not eat meat of any kind whatsoever. In verse 13, he changes the word for meat from “sacrificial leftover meat” to the word for meat in general.  Paul’s primary concern is that Christians must not be a stumbling block to others who do not know God, regardless of how it might affect one’s social standing.

I have a more recent example of how this passage may apply to us today, albeit from some thirty-five years ago. When I was at seminary, I interacted with many Korean Presbyterians who had come from South Korea seeking ordination at my seminary. These students who studied this particular passage said it raised disputes in their churches about whether they must abandon traditional meals venerating their ancestors or not. Some saw these traditions as a way to honor the memory of family members. Others saw these meals as forms of idolatry and a nod to the old ways, leading people astray from Christ to going back to ancestor worship. It was a hot topic amongst the Korean Presbyterians at my seminary.

How does this passage apply to us today? Paul’s message for us is to be careful in how we witness our faith and demonstrate our life as part of Christ’s body as we head out those doors every Sunday after worship. We must ask ourselves what faithful witness to a life in Christ entails.

In this small community of Ashland, people know who you are, especially if you have lived here for a while! I experienced that last week as two of our three building and grounds overseers, Brian and Sam, met with an electrician in the sanctuary. As they greeted each other, I heard about how they remembered each other from when Brian and Sam’s sons went to high school with the electrician 30+ years ago. The electrician then looked at them closely and remembered them well. So, especially if you have lived for a long time in this community of 26,000, you are known. Your history is remembered. Most people know if you attend a church or not and which one you attend. Are there things that we do in this world that may seem harmless to us, but may be stumbling blocks for those who do not know Christ? Does the way we drive in town or on the freeway reflect the love of Jesus? Are the political groups we belong to, the corporations we support through our purchases, the events we attend, the way we act with our friends at school, and the posts we put up on social media a stumbling block? Do our actions demonstrate to others that Christians are no different than anyone else? Theologian Geoffrey R. King says, “A witness in a court of law has to give evidence. A Christian witness has to be evidence.” What kind of evidence are we of Jesus?

To apply the current state of the big c church to Paul’s writing this morning, I think one practical way we can witness our faith is to make sure we worship God, not a nation, to show our love for Jesus and everyone around us, not a political candidate or a specific group of people, to make sure we read, know and apply the teachings of Jesus and try to live them out in thought, word and deed, not follow a political ideology. Especially in times such as these, as the threat of Christian Nationalism rises within the American Evangelical church, as more and more people in America turn away from organized religion, we need to be authentic witnesses of our faith. A well-respected evangelical preacher whom I believe would be perplexed at the Christian Nationalist movement his son has fully embraced, Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, once said, We are the Bibles the world is reading; we are the creeds the world is needing; we are the sermons the world is heeding.”

Friends, as we go from this place this morning, we are called to be evidence of Jesus, who called us to love God, love our neighbors as we love ourselves, be salt and light, and do good works for others. May God help us with our public witness, so we do not lead others astray or sin against Christ. Alleluia. Amen.