Sermon from Easter VII: Simple Consideration
Easter VII; May 16, 2021
I Corinthians 10:14-33
Imagine you want to host a dinner party for a few of your relatives. Now that it’s possible for vaccinated people to get together, that’s one of those things we look forward to doing. But you have to think: what can I serve? Cousin Harold is a vegan; at Thanksgiving dinner even though a lovely tofu dish was available for him he went ballistic because there was milk in the sauce. Aunt Ermintrude is allergic to shellfish, but Aunt Genevieve is a pescatarian. When your niece made a frittata for dinner her brother lectured her because the eggs weren’t from free-range, pasture-fed hens. Maybe you should just invite your bridge group instead.
A good host tries to be sensitive to the needs of their guests. If you have to explain that the blueberries in the pie were locally grown – no, they weren’t shipped from Mexico – it’s tempting to give up. One Wednesday I was eating lunch at my Rotary Club and we had a visitor at our table. One of my companions commented on my dessert; rather than a cookie, I had taken a bunch of grapes. My companion said that he admired that I had made a healthy choice. The guest then started lecturing us on how grapes are not really all that healthy. I tuned out, but really wanted to say to him, “Did I ask you?”
Paul’s concern in I Corinthians 10 goes beyond simple table manners, but table manners certainly figure into it. The issue at hand is something you and I may not be able to identify with, but I believe we can find help for our spiritual lives just the same. Here’s the issue: part of the worship of the time was offering sacrifices. You would take an animal to the temple of the god you wanted to worship – if the Lord God of Israel, then you would take it to the Temple in Jerusalem; if the goddess Artemis, then to the Temple of Artemis (yes, there was one in Corinth) – and you would offer the animal in sacrifice. The priest would ritually slaughter the animal, it would be roasted, and you and the priest would share meat together. In pagan communities, any meat left over could be sent to the market to be sold. Presumably eating some of that meat is participating in the worship of that god.
So what if I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus, and a pagan friend of mine invites me to dinner? What do I do if the meat came from a pagan temple; such as the temple of Artemis? If I eat the meat, then am I not worshiping Artemis? Paul suggests that Artemis is no goddess, but a statue in a building. Well, he imagines she might in reality be something, that is, a demon, so you probably shouldn’t eat the meat, but you’re a free person in Jesus Christ and so it won’t really hurt you. Well, better not to ask.
So his summary advice in this situation is: eat what’s set in front of you and don’t ask if it came from the temple of Artemis or not. Don’t ask; just eat it. It’s good manners, isn’t it? I think I’ve told you that Kathleen and I keep to meatless Fridays during Lent. Governor Ricketts, this isn’t a “war on meat,” it’s just a practice some Christians keep. Anyway, we were visiting relatives on a Friday in Lent and they gave us pork for dinner. We ate it. It’s bad manners not to.
Paul’s advice seems to be, in part, consider the feelings of others. What a concept: simple consideration! The pleasure my host has in giving me food and sharing company with me is more important than my insistence on locally-sourced vegetables. I’m making that up: I don’t really care where the spinach comes from. The point is to consider the feelings of your host. If the host sets meat in front of you, don’t ask if it came from the temple of Artemis, in order to ensure your own purity: just eat it.
But what if the host tells you that it came from the temple of Artemis? What if your host is, in their mind, inviting you to worship Artemis? Then Paul is quite firm: don’t do it. If you know that it came from the temple of Artemis, and the host is a worshiper of Artemis and is inviting you to practice idolatry, don’t do it. Not because you’re trying to stay pure, but because of your need to be a faithful witness for Jesus. In addition to simple consideration for the feelings of others, Paul urges us to have simple consideration for the spiritual well-being of others. If I am a follower of Jesus, then I need to stay true to Jesus. And that includes not willingly participating in the worship of Artemis.
But how fine do we cut it? Does that mean we need to walk on eggshells – taken from free-range, pasture-fed hens, of course – and be careful about everything we do? For example: since the background of the Christmas tree is pagan, does that mean never having a Christmas tree? Oh! All Saints Day was originally the pagan holiday of Samhain, still practiced by Wiccans. Should we abandon All Saints Day? And the date of Christmas itself was chosen because it was the celebration of the birth of Mithra, the Invincible Sun; perhaps we should stop celebrating Christmas. Bunnies have often been associated with the goddess Eostre, and have nothing to do with Resurrection, so no more chocolate rabbits at Easter. Okay, parson, you’ve left off preaching and started meddling. I’m not giving up my chocolate rabbit.
Yes, I was pushing hard at being absurd. And these days it’s not difficult to push to the absurd. It can be a struggle, I think, to stay true to our commitment to Jesus while not tying ourselves in knots trying to stay pure. Here’s an example that really happened. A pastor in the small town where I lived has a weekly column in the local paper and one week he wrote that Christians should not practice yoga because it comes from India and is implicit worship of Hindu deities. His argument was along the lines of: the meat in the market came from the temple of Artemis, so when you eat it you are worshiping Artemis. Well, there was at the time exactly one yoga instructor in town and she was a member of my congregation, so it was incumbent on me to rise to her defense. I did; the paper printed my column responding to his article and, in my humble opinion, completely demolishing his rationale. Yes, I’m a little proud of that; one of the elder members of the church said to me, “Remind me never to get into an argument with you.”
But Paul put it pretty simply: if in my mind and the mind of the instructor I’m worshiping the Hindu deities, then I’d best run the other way, fast. But if the instructor is a faithful Presbyterian and I’m a strong Methodist then don’t worry about where the exercise program came from. In the New Revised Standard Version, Paul’s words are translated, “Why should my liberty be subject to the judgment of someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks?” (10:29b-30) And in The Message that is translated, “I’m not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I’m going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. If I eat what is served to me, grateful to God for what is on the table, how can I worry about what someone will say? I thanked God for it and he blessed it!”
The “Yes, but” in all this is, of course, simple consideration for the feelings and the spiritual well-being of others. You and I always want to do the best we can to make a faithful witness for Jesus Christ. We will goof, sometimes we will go too far in trying to be pure and other times we will cause unnecessary offense by not being careful. If the thing we’re doing – eating meat, serving a frittata, doing yoga – isn’t obviously taking us away from Jesus to the worship of something or someone else, then don’t tie yourself in knots over it.
Perhaps none of this has been an issue for you. Good enough; consider this message some light entertainment. Give thanks. And that’s what it comes down to at the end, anyway: give thanks. As Paul puts it, whatever you do, give thanks and do it for the glory of God. Whether you approve of where the eggs came from or not, give thanks when you eat the frittata. Give thanks for the meat and don’t ask if it came from the temple of Artemis. Give thanks that you can bend well enough to do yoga. And you know what? I am always thankful for my annual chocolate bunny.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master