1 Corinthians 8.1-13
I love this story. I love it so much, I’ve told it before. And I’m sure I’ll tell it again.
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: ‘Stop. Don’t do it.’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’ he asked.
‘Well, there’s so much to live for!’
‘Are you religious?’ I asked.
He said: ‘Yes.’
I said: ‘Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?’
‘Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?’
‘Me too. Are you Presbyterian or Baptist?’
‘Wow. Me too. Are you Presbyterian Church of God or Presbyterian Church of the Lord?’
‘Presbyterian Church of God.’
‘Me too. And are you Original Presbyterian Church of God, or are you Reformed Presbyterian Church of God?’
‘Reformed Presbyterian Church of God.’
‘Me too. Are you Reformed Presbyterian Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Presbyterian Church of God, Reformation of 1915?’
He said: ‘Reformed Presbyterian Church of God, Reformation of 1915.’
I said, ‘Die, heretic scum,’ and pushed him off.
That’s one solution to differences within the Church of Jesus Christ.
How we deal with differences in the Church is a major issue today, as it has always been. We baptised EG today—but we’ve baptised her into a fragmented Body of Christ. It’s our responsibility to deal with difference in a constructive way, and we’ve shown something of that in practice in that her granddad, an Anglican priest, shared in the baptism.
But you know, we can be very pleasant indeed to visiting Anglicans. We’re all on our best behaviour, and it’s only for one day. It can be much harder to get along with people we rub up against week after week after week.
Disagreements in the Church aren’t a new thing. They’ve been around since the beginning. There was a huge disagreement in the Church of Corinth 2000 years ago. Some members were vegetarian. Some ate meat. So what? Why was that a big issue?
Most of the meat available was first offered to one of the many idols and then sold in the market. In the ancient city of Corinth the central market was virtually surrounded by pagan temples, and the great archaic temple almost overshadowed the meat market.
A Greek pagan by the name of Pausanias traveled across Greece in the mid-second century and wrote Description of Greece, which has survived. Discussing the central agora (market square) of Corinth, Pausanias mentions temples and statues for Dionysus, Artemis, Baccheaus, Fortune, Poseidon, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Zeus, Zeus of the Underworld, Zeus Most High and the Muses. Two general markets hugged the wall of the great archaic pagan temple and a fish and meat market was across a narrow street. On the west side of the agora was a huge temple dedicated to the imperial cult. All of this was within 150 yards of the center of the town. The sacrifices were the property of the priests of the various temples and what the priests could not eat, they sold. During the numerous feasts there was an inevitable glut in the meat market, and the price would drop accordingly. For many of the poor of the city (which certainly included at least some of the Christians) that was probably the only time they could afford to eat meat. Furthermore, if a person didn’t ask the butcher, he or she would not know whether a particular piece of meat had been offered to an idol or not. None of the idols existed anyway, so why not enjoy some rare affordable beef or lamb?
So if you adopted a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, you could eat whatever meat you could afford.
But there were those in the Corinthian congregation who had only recently come out of paganism. They weren’t fully assured in their heart of hearts that the idols weren’t really real. Those with the knowledge that the idols weren’t real could not convince them by argument. Each side thought they were right and the other was wrong. It’s clear that Paul’s sympathies were with those who could eat meat. Whether it had been offered to an idol or not, it was just meat.
The way to resolve this difference wasn’t by arguing. It wasn’t through deciding one side was right and the other wrong. It wasn’t through creating winners and losers. The way through was the practice of love.
Later in 1 Corinthians, in the ‘love chapter’, Paul would write (13.5): ‘Love does not insist on its own way’.
How do we deal with differences in the family of the church? Perhaps it’s no surprise to hear that we deal with differences through love, not through scoring points against one another.
It may not matter whether we’re vegetarians or we love bacon. But there will always be things that matter to some, that there are differences of opinion about. It might be over drinking alcohol or wearing tattoos; it may be over what kinds of songs to sing; it might be over particular expressions of sexuality. We may feel very strongly indeed about these things; we need to realise that those who disagree with us may also feel strongly. How do we find a way forward together? is the question for us. But so often we turn it into, How do we keep our church family pure? And the answer seems to be to leave the impure group or expel the impure from the group. It’s a great shame, but it has become the normal Protestant way. It wasn’t Paul’s way.
For Paul, in the end it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. What does matter is that we welcome one another in love, that we limit ourselves for the sake of our sisters and brothers in Christ. To paraphrase Paul: ‘Love builds up, concentrating on who’s right and who’s wrong leads to division’.