“St. Paul and Miss Manners”
You know what really burns my toast? People who don’t turn on their headlights when it’s raining. Or snowing. Or foggy. I mean, the other 98% of us have our lights on—can’t you see them? Doesn’t that remind you of something? And why aren’t they on, anyway? Did you just forget? Or is it because it’s daytime and therefore it must be bright enough for you to see where you’re going? First, if it’s raining or whatever, it’s not bright enough. And, second, as Brother Doctor Phil would say, “it’s not about you!” You may indeed be able to see fine without your headlights on, but I can’t see you. It’s the polite thing to do. As it turns out, it’s the legal thing to do, and, if preventing accidents is something you cherish, it’s the safe thing to do. I’ve read all of Miss Manners’ books and here’s what I think about etiquette: it’s meant for the benefit of others—and ignoring it can have significant consequences.
And Paul’s talking about just this in Corinthians—see, the letters to the Corinthians may seem antiquated to us today—the language is notoriously dense and the issues seemingly past. But Paul’s writing to these new Christians in the bustling city of Corinth because they’re trying to figure out how to live well together. They’re a bunch of individuals with their individual tastes and their individual, personal relationships with God and now they’re trying to figure out how to be a “we.” A community not just a collection of “I’s.” Basically, they’re saying, “Man, Paul, we all think this Jesus guy is something else, but it’s each other we’re having a hard time with. How do we follow Jesus when we don’t agree on what that means?”
So, you get today’s reading about eating meat sacrificed to idols. Right, not something we have to worry about on a day-to-day basis. They’re literally talking about animals sacrificed on altars to various other gods—not Jesus—and that meat, as a part of the ritual, was eaten by the priests and the faithful. And, according to some historians, it might have made its way into the food supply for the general population. So these new Christians are trying to figure out what to do about this meat. Again, less of an issue for us now. But we’ll get to that.
So, Paul says, “look, kids, you and I both know that those gods aren’t real, that those rituals mean nothing, and so the meat is just meat. Go ahead, eat it, it’s nothing.” And then he says “BUT” and we should all know from reading scripture that when someone says “BUT” we’d better pay attention. Paul says, “BUT there are folks in your community who are brand new or folks outside your community looking in and none of them know that the gods and rituals are false and that the meat’s okay. They’re looking at you eat this hamburger that was dedicated to Zeus or whatever and they’re thinking, “wait, we worship Zeus? I thought it was Jesus” or maybe they’re thinking, “man, those Christians sure are a bunch of hypocrites.” This is, as we say in the theology business, Not Good. So, even though your actions might be innocent in themselves, you shouldn’t do them because it could hurt someone else. (Now my headlights in the rain rant is making sense, right?)
So what about now? I’m fairly certain we don’t still have big temples set up to Mithras or whomever where animals are being slaughtered and from which Arby’s purchases fixin’s for their Beef N Cheddar. What could Paul be saying to us now?
First, that the “eating idol meat” thing is a metaphor for more than just eating meat. That, somehow, there are things we do and say which may be perfectly fine, but which cause others to fall in their faith. It’s been pointed out to me, for example, that some folks hear in my sarcasm or my jokey comments real insult—please believe me when I say that the very last thing on my mind in any circumstance is a desire to hurt someone else—the Very Last Thing—yet my desire to be charming or silly can cause others pain or even disillusionment. And so, the meat sacrificed to idols which I shouldn’t eat is flippant and sarcastic comments—or, at the very least, it means I ought to consider my audience before speaking.
Second, that Paul is speaking of something beyond the specifics of this particular controversy within the congregation at Corinth, he’s saying that we Christians have some knowledge of how to act, how to respond to God’s free gift of grace, but that knowledge is not the only important thing. Blogger Rick Morley writes: “[R]eason is a valuable tool in interpreting what’s right and wrong in the Christian faith and life. And, perhaps most importantly, we find that even when you have the ‘correct answer,’ that’s not enough. There are pastoral and spiritual implications of keeping the whole Body together. And those implications are more important than being right.”
Let me suggest an example that I see regularly on UC’s campus. I run into a whole lot of students who dislike the Christian church—for many reasons, of course, but often because of denominations. The thought goes like this: if Jesus is the Son of God and said and did some awesome things and y’all are all his fans and followers, why the heck aren’t you all getting along? Students’ dislike ranges from mild curiosity to active hatred. Huge numbers of them attend nondenominational campus groups or churches for this very reason—there shouldn’t be denominations, because all we do is fight each other about who’s right. We don’t even have to go far afield to see it: Missouri Synod Lutherans practice closed communion, believing that they have the correct interpretation of both the Sacrament and of the Scriptures, while ELCA Lutherans seem to have disdain for our Missouri Synod brothers and sisters and continue blithely on with our own interpretations. I say this not to be offensive or to suggest that one or the other denomination has it wrong—it’s the continued antipathy that’s the issue, not different interpretations. Folks on the outside of the Church Universal, those atheists or agnostics or folks hurt by the church—those we most want to reach with the message of God’s love—they look at Christians as a block and say, “what is wrong with you guys? Why can’t you just get along?” We all know it’s more difficult than that, and yet we often stay complacent where we are—we can’t make Missouri Synod like us any more than we would agree to not ordaining female clergy any more. BUT, and here’s where you should be paying attention, BUT there is hope.
I am an Episcopalian, not a Lutheran. How in the world do I get to stand in front of you and preach and celebrate communion? Because our two denominations came together over 10 years ago and said “I’m okay, you’re okay.” Or, “we’re all okay.” We are in full communion with one another. Where the church has historically pulled itself apart, the ELCA and the Episcopal Church have begun pulling back together. There is hope. There is God working in the middle of broken, seemingly hopeless places.
So as you consider your own life, or the life of this congregation, consider the rule of love that we have been given in Jesus, consider what theologian B.W. Johnson wrote in 1891: "The Christian principle, the rule of love, is, 'If eating meat, or going to the theater, or going to a ball, or attending the fair, or drinking wine or beer, causeth my brother to offend, I will not do these things while the world standeth.’” What is it that you do which is pretty much harmless but which might make me or someone else question our faith? What do we do as a congregation which makes seekers turn away? And don’t ask these questions because we want to increase our numbers but because each of those people is beloved by God and ought to be beloved by us.
I’m not going to lie, some of the rules and stories in the Bible may seem harsh or arbitrary, like some of the rules of etiquette, but the point is not the rule, the point is to live generously with one another. The point is that God takes the meat we sacrifice to idols and makes a glorious feast that every denomination and faith and non-faith person is invited to. So, do what Miss Manners tells you to, be generous with your neighbors, and write a thank you note to God with your life.