Sermon preached February 1, 2015
Texts: I Corinthians 8:1-13
I had thought of calling this sermon “Eat Mor Chikin” but I did not want to use a contemporary advertising slogan. You may see some of those ads if you watch the Super Bowl later today. They are creative.
Thirty years ago, a hamburger company also put out some creative ads comparing their product to other quick-serve hamburger products. The tag line was, “Where’s the Beef?” The ad, of course, meant that literally. The line however came to acquire a wider meaning, finding its way into presidential politics. In a debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls in 1984, Walter Mondale, who would eventually be the nominee, said of Gary Hart’s ideas, “Where’s the beef?” Mondale wanted to know where the substance of Hart’s ideas was. It did not do Vice President Mondale much good when it came to the general election. He was soundly defeated by Ronald Reagan.
TV advertisement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug75diEyiA0
Walter Mondale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pjw8m7GmIa4
So where’s the beef in today’s Scripture reading? Where’s the meat for our souls in this rather odd text? Yes, I did intend this as a bit of a pun, in a Scripture reading about eating meat, we have a sermon entitled “Where’s the Beef?”
So where’s the beef? Actually the question before the Corinthian Christian community was, “Where’s this beef been?” The issue that this community faced was that much of the meat available in the market in this pagan city was meat that had been ritually slaughtered in honor of pagan gods. Could such meat be eaten by follows of Jesus? Should such meat be eaten by followers of Jesus?
Let’s admit that this is an odd debate far removed from the pressing issues of our time. It is reminiscent of the debate about circumcision that also takes up a lot of space in the letters of Paul. These are no longer pressing issues for us in the same way. Circumcision is a health issue little discussed in the church, and I do think it was wise of the earlier followers of Jesus to let that issue go. I don’t think it was such a winning evangelism strategy. Imagine telling an adult male, come and follow Jesus and, by the way, in addition to being baptized…. And if we debate meat eating we do that in the context of environmental concerns and health concerns that may be related to our faith, but that are very different from the issue of meat ritually slaughtered. I worked in a grocery store in high school and college and there were no rituals going on in the butcher shop.
If we are past this issue, where’s the beef for us today? I think there is some.
This Scripture makes clear, as does most of the New Testament, that following Jesus is following Jesus in community. Paul writes about this issue of eating meat as an issue among “members of your family” (v. 12). To be a Christian, someone whose relationship to God is decisively shaped by Jesus, whose life is decisively shaped by Jesus, is to join with others on the Jesus way. Being a Christian is both deeply individual and personal, and decidedly communal. We each need to make decisions about our lives. We each need to decide about following Jesus. No one else makes that decision for us. Yet when we say “yes” to Jesus, we also become part of a new family, a new community. And we become part of that new family, not in the abstract, but concretely. We need to find a specific community in which we will follow Jesus. The Peanuts character Linus once said, “I love mankind, it’s people I can’t stand.” There will be none of that for followers of Jesus. We need to find people with whom we can follow Jesus together. There’s some of the beef in this Scripture reading.
There’s more, a second patty if you will. Living in community, then, requires that we think about others, that we are sensitive to others. The issue in the Corinthian Church was this: We know that idols aren’t real. There is no other God but the God we know in Jesus. If that’s true, how can eating meat ritually butchered to something that doesn’t exist make a difference? Paul agrees, but asks those “in the know” to ask themselves how their behavior might affect others “in the family.” Paul wants the Corinthian Christians not to use their freedom carelessly (v. 9, The Message).
Following Jesus means following Jesus with others, and if we are with others, we need to be sensitive to those others. There’s the beef, but aren’t there then also egg shells? How can we live always asking if even the littlest thing we are doing might be harmful to someone’s faith? Wouldn’t that be constantly walking on egg shells? How is that the abundant and free life offered in Jesus?
There are no easy answers to this. I don’t think Christian life in community is supposed to be like walking on egg shells. It is about living more freely and abundantly. It is about growing in knowledge. It is also about growing in love, and love means using our freedom well and living with some sensitivity toward the sensibilities of others. It means living with a love that builds up.
Perhaps a good companion story to the Scripture reading for today comes from the Buddhist tradition. A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her. The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset by this, but said nothing. They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”
The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?” The senior monk replied, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.”
We want to invite people to growth in knowledge and love, but the invitation must come with sensitivity, and must arise out of relationships where we are sensitive to others, and to where they are in the spiritual journey. Love is about building up.
If you want the meat of this entire passage, it can be found chapters later in First Corinthians 16:14: “Let all that you do be done in love.” There’s the beef, and as we are that kind of community, that kind of family in following Jesus together, we have something to offer a world hungry for community and love. Amen.