The church at Corinth had a problem. Well, if you read the letter you’ll find they had a lot of problems but I can only keep your attention for so long until you go looking for Cat Videos or articles dissecting that new Taylor Swift track (straight fire btw, completely changed my anticipation level for the album). This specific problem was based in part on the city’s history. Corinth was a city that actually existed twice, there was Greek Corinth, which was incredibly important militarily because of its location on an isthmus. It pretty much controlled travel to the two parts of Greece which meant it was the main target in wars between City-States and then later Alexander the Great and beyond that the Romans conquered Greece. The Romans destroyed the city, completely wiped it out, but then years later recognized its importance, not as much militarily, but economically. The isthmus allowed you to cut out travel around Greece when transporting goods from Rome to the rest of the Mediterranean world. So the Romans rebuilt the city with ports on either side and they populated it, primarily, with freed-men, former slaves who had earned their freedom. That’s important and it plays in to everything we see happen in the letters to the Corinthians because social status in Rome, Rome proper that is, the city itself and the major cities in Italy, was built on ideas of honor and prestige and family. It is similar to the Old South, and probably the modern south as well, money could come and go, family name and family honor were forever. You’ve heard people use the term “new money,” is that positive or negative? Negative, exactly. There was this idea in Rome that no matter how rich you got or how much you accomplished, if you didn’t have the right pedigree you would never reach above a certain station in life.
Corinth was not like that. Corinth, because it was originally filled with former slaves, folks who didn’t have family names, was a place of social mobility. It was a place of opportunity. Corinth was to people throughout the Roman Empire what the United States was and remains in the minds of folks all over the world: a place where you could start fresh, a place where your past could be forgotten, a place where your hard work was all it took to rise above your station.
That reality attracted a lot of people from all over. And that diversity combined with being a major port and bringing in even more people from all over meant that Corinth was home to a lot of religions and faiths and the intersection of that potential for social mobility and broad range of faiths is where the problem we’re going to look at this morning came to a head. A lot of folks in Corinth held parties in temples. They were big open areas, you could fit way more people there than in a house for example, it was very similar to how folks often use church fellowship halls, even if you’re not having a religious event that’s still a good place for your party. The food at these parties, the meat in particular, was presented as an offering and blessed by priests before it was served. In the same way, a lot of times when meat was brought in from other places it was blessed at a temple before going to the market. So if you went to a party, or worse, a meal at someone’s home you had no idea whether or not the food they were serving had been sacrificed to ideals.
Do you remember the moment when you realized other people ate different food than you? I remember the first time I went out for pizza with people who ordered something different than what my family ordered. They tried to make me eat vegetables on pizza! And the worst is if you’re at a friend’s house and their parents are cooking right? Because who knows what those people are going to try to make you eat. And what do you have to do, what do you parents make sure and tell you just before you go? “Eat whatever they put in front of you,” right? Be…”polite.” If people are nice enough to feed you you have to eat it, you have to be polite. But if you’re a Christian in Corinth being polite means eating food that has been offered to idols. And of course it isn’t just a matter of being polite, chances are one of the main reasons you’re in Corinth is to improve your social status and the reason you’re at these people’s houses is because they can somehow help you in that but if you refuse to eat their food its going to be a social disaster and if you eat it you’re going to be partaking in idolatry. And if you do that aren’t you being a hypocrite? And aren’t people going to know and then they’re going to be disgusted by you because you sacrificed your values to try and get ahead in society. Do you see why the people had a problem? Aren’t you glad our social interactions aren’t so complicated now a days (wink wink)?
Paul gives an answer to this meat question in the verses before our main text this morning, he said “if someone invites you over and you want to go, go. If they don’t mention where the meat came from, don’t make a big deal out of, don’t bring it up. If they do let you know that it was offered to idols, don’t eat it.” Basically he says “don’t make it a thing if it isn’t one, but if it does come up then don’t do it.” Then he follows up with what we read earlier “whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do if for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” He follows it up in the first verse of chapter 11 which often gets lumped in with this passage by saying “imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”
Paul’s giving us a reminder here that our actions, both good and bad, are the biggest way we’ll show our faith to others. We’ve all heard stories, I’m sure, of folks who cut other people off in traffic, who yell and scream at other drivers, who roll the window down at the red light and threaten to pull over for a fight all while having a What Would Jesus Do sticker on the back of the car. Our actions matter more than our intentions.
It is also a reminder that other people’s perceptions of our actions matter more than our intentions behind them. And that’s a tough reality to face, I know, and its not fair. Let me get that out of the way right now, its not fair that people will judge us without really knowing us. But that’s the reality we face as examples of Christ in this world. I think that should weigh on us as we look at some of the debates and issues at the forefront of our nation here lately. If eating the meat is going to cause someone to stumble then don’t eat the meat. If where we stand on an issue or some behavior we have is going to bring Christ into question then we need to really wrestle with whether it is worth holding on to. Our justifications for our actions don’t matter, what other people see in our actions is what is going to count. And that’s not fair, but Jesus never tells us that following him is going to be fair.
That got heavy for a moment, that’s not where I want to leave us because along with these other things this passage is a great reminder of the opportunity we have in our day to day lives to make an impact and be an influence for the kingdom of God. Something as simple as a meal and how believers conduct themselves at that meal has the potential to impact the course of people’s lives. That’s what Paul says, right, “I am not seeking my own good but the good of many that they might be saved.” It might not be fair that our actions carry this weight but it should be exciting to us, because we don’t have to do big things to have an opportunity guide folks towards Christ, we have that opportunity in the little, mundane things that we do every day. And that’s why I picked this title, “Where were you last week?” That’s a question that gets asked in church a lot, right? But we don’t really mean it when we ask, we don’t really care. One, when we say “last week” we really mean either Wednesday or Sunday, whichever is more recent and whichever you were not present for. Two, we aren’t actually interested in where you were we want to remind you that you weren’t here, and we know you weren’t here and you know you weren’t here and now you know that we know you weren’t here and therefore you know we know whenever you aren’t here and we’re keeping tabs on it and you better remember that we’re always watching. Forget about that for a second. Seriously think about the question for a minute. Where were you last week? How many different places did you go? How many people did you interact with? How many times did you have the opportunity, through your eating and drinking and working and driving and shopping and speaking and dropping off and picking up and all the little things we all do day in and day out, to work for the glory of God. I believe that when we take that question seriously we find other questions answered. On a full week where you took part in everything that was offered in this building, you’d spend 6 hours here. There are 168 hours in a week. Those 6 hours are important, don’t get me wrong, but its in those other 162 that we have the opportunity to follow the example of Christ. Paul mentions that idea several times in his writings, for him it means following the example of the cross, which at its heart was service given fully to someone else. In the same way we all have opportunities to serve without seeking gain, to give without hoping for a return, and to act in a way that leads others closer to Christ. Where were you last week? Where are you going to be this week? What are you going to do with the opportunities you have?