Paul Does Not Want to be Your Idol
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
What I really like about Paul is—
Has anyone ever heard a sermon start like that? Does anyone really like anything about Paul? I know those of us who have grown up in more conservative churches have been beaten over the head with Paul. Women told to be silent in church. Men told to get married if they couldn’t control their sexual desire. Narrow and oddly conceived rules about who can achieve salvation and how.
Paul is not beloved among recovering evangelicals and/or those Christians who tend to read the Bible through the lens of the life and teachings of Jesus, along with his death and resurrection.
But I don’t think the problem has been with Paul. I think Paul was just doing his best to help communities make sense of their new faith in Christ. Paul didn’t know that his letters would end up enshrined as the inspired word of God. He didn’t know that people 2,000 years later would be using those words to justify decisions that could not even have occurred to him in his time. He was simply taking the pressing issues of the communities he was working with and trying to contextualize them within the teachings of Jesus.
Do we always have to agree with his suggestions? No, actually. I don’t think that was his point, particularly in the epistle we heard today.
We can make idols of rules: rules that are wrong and rules that are right. But what matters, Paul says, is love. Which is very in line with Jesus’ teachings. “Knowledge,” Paul says, “puffs up. But love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge, but anyone who loves God is known by God.”
Then Paul shows us what he’s talking about. In the epistle we heard today today, he’s clearly responding to a question about whether people can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. It seems like a strange concern to our modern ears, but it was actually an important question at the time. Because at that time being part of the larger community in Corinth meant being willing to go to banquets and feasts where you couldn’t avoid eating food that has been sacrificed to idols. That’s just what they did. There were temples all over the city where food was being dedicated to other local gods.
But to not eat it would be to remove yourself from a huge part of the social life there, which was not a requirement to follow Christ. In fact, Paul was all about these new Christians being part of the larger community.
The people who wanted to be part of society in Corinth argued that eating this food was fine because “no idol in the world really exists,” and that there is “no God but one.” So to them, it’s just food. There’s nothing special about it.
Paul actually agrees with them. The food is just food, and it’s fine to eat it, he says. But he also sees another perspective. There are people who are more newly converted who have not yet let go of the idea that the food is intrinsically connected to the idols. Like someone who is newly sober, it may not be a good idea to come anywhere near the door of a bar. It might be best for them to avoid that food until they feel more secure in their understanding of their new faith.
So even though the food is just food, if we’re all taking care of each other, if we’re all practicing Jesus’ love for one another, then it might make more sense for us all to avoid those feasts and banquets until we know they’re safe for everyone.
It’s tempting to make idols of rules, which is why I think so many Christians have made an idol of Paul. If we read his letters in a particular way, we can rest in the false comfort that some things are right or good, and some things are wrong or bad. Because if we’re being really honest with ourselves, most of the time we’d prefer a false certainty to an uncertain, sometimes confusing truth.
That’s why conspiracy theories are so popular these days. The world is frightening and confusing. Instead of admitting that everything going on is chaotic and just doesn’t make sense, it feels better to try to force order and intention on it, however far-fetched that reasoning is.
But Paul wasn’t trying to force some sense of false order on the world. Paul wasn’t trying to give Christians a rulebook. I think all of what Paul said can be boiled down to what he wrote just five chapters later in this first letter to the Corinthians:
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
We see this in the epistle today. Yes, food is just food, but if eating it isn’t the loving thing to do for everyone in our community, if it presents a danger to those who are more vulnerable, then let’s not eat it.
Yes, maybe it is pretty unlikely that I’ll die from COVID if I get it, but if there’s a chance that I might pass it on to someone else who’s more vulnerable, why wouldn’t I wear a mask? Why wouldn’t I do my best to keep myself safely distanced? Why wouldn’t I stay away from places and situations where I might be exposed and expose others?
Above all, Paul was trying to remind the communities he wrote to what every Christian’s anchor should be: love. And love for every person in our community, particularly the vulnerable.
So yeah, I like Paul. And what I like about him is that he is struggling out loud to make sense of this faith of his. He’s doing his best to guide newly converted communities through living their faith authentically. He’s taking real-life situations and translating them the best he can through the lens of Jesus.
He didn’t always get it right. Just like we don’t always get it right. But if there was one thing Paul was sure of, it was that following Jesus meant putting love above all else. Amen.