4 Epiphany.B.21(15)
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Say what you will about Saint Paul—that the man was brash, uncompromising—verging, at times, on the obnoxious. In fact, in some quarters of the Christian establishment he’s become something of a pariah. All of this is true. However, there is also this, St. Paul was remarkably compassionate. That’s right, he was an apostle as quick to urge forbearance upon his newly established Christian communities as he was to speak in uncompromising terms about the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

Today’s lesson from First Corinthians can be rather confusing. In order to fully understand the dilemma facing this community of fledgling believers, we need to travel back to first century Corinth, where Christianity was one faith among many religions (hmmm, much like ourselves today). The problem that we hear about this morning centered upon what was to be done with the food that had previously been sacrificed to various gods and goddesses. Common practice among the various religions decreed that once the meat was sacrificed, the food could then be sold to the public and the money dedicated to the various temples be they to Mithras, Aphrodite, Apollo, Poseidon, etcetera.

To understand the problem facing the Christians at Corinth, ask yourself this: If given the chance, would you purchase the meat at market and serve it up for your Sunday dinner? Apparently there were people in Corinth who believed that food sacrificed to an idol was defiled, and should, in no way, find its way to the dinner table. We shall refer to them as “Those of the squeamish stomachs”. Paul, in today’s reading, argues that idols don’t have the ability to defile food because idols represent gods that do not exist. In Paul’s mind, there is only one God, and one alone. Therefore, food offered in sacrifice to other gods is, in essence, food sacrificed to nothing. Therefore, there should be absolutely no problem sprinkling on the rosemary, with a pinch of thyme and hefty amount of garlic and serving it all with mint sauce on the side. So, on the rational side of things, Paul sides with those who believe that food offered to idols can be eaten just like any other food. Makes sense, doesn’t it? However, before you lift your fork and prepare to take a bite; let’s pause and look further….

For you see, Paul goes on to say that just because he is enlightened,, doesn’t mean that everyone else is. And, if a brother or sister in faith were to eat such food—and still believe in the power or reality of these other gods, their conscience would become defiled. They would be confused, and in a very real way, their conflict could damage their faith. AND SO, Paul concludes that eating such food is simply not worth the risk. Paul urges forbearance.

In other words, just because you happen to know the truth, doesn’t mean you have the right to waltz around and act with impunity. Those of us who live in Christian faith and love have an obligation to take into consideration how our actions will affect the life and growth of other people. So, when all is said and done, Paul tells us that we are to act with forbearance.

Isn’t that a great word “forbearance?” It’s not used nearly enough. A dictionary definition means, quite simply: “the act of refraining from something.” No wonder we don’t hear it bandied about with any frequency. The notion of refraining is something of a foreign concept for those of us who have been raised to cherish the right to individual freedom. For so many people in our society, the idea that a person would willingly refrain from something for the benefit of another individual—that’s incomprehensible. Two millennium later, and this concept is still a challenge for many of us: how to forbear with one another in love.

Certainly, it can’t escape anyone’s notice that this debate, facing Christians in the first century, is one that is far from over. This past week death tolls from Covid-19 are at 439,000 Americans and over 2.2 million people worldwide. To put it in perspective, that’s 21,000 more Americans than those who died in all of World War II—and all of this, in the space of a single year. The losses we have faced are, in a word, staggering. And yet…people still argue about having to wear a mask in public, claiming the right of individual liberty so that they may forgo the inconvenience of a scrap of cloth that could save the lives of so many. It’s worth asking ourselves why this is even an issue? Particularly in a nation in which so many people refer it to as Christian. An absence of forbearance, is a lack of compassion. It reflects a meanness of spirit and a glorification of self over the well being of others. It is so far from the teachings of Jesus Christ that it is unintelligible to someone who has actually read the Bible. As people of faith, how are we to respond?

In a year where we have all been taught that life is fragile, this is a story that may prove helpful. George Sanchez tells about a visit which helped him to understand the meaning of what it means to forebear. He writes: “I was visiting my daughter’s home when my grandson grabbed my hand to take me to see something. My daughter and he had found an uncracked robin’s egg in the backyard. Inside the house they had made a cotton nest under a lamp and placed the egg in it. They found out what the temperature should be and had a thermometer to check it at crucial intervals. They were going to watch that egg hatch.

My daughter placed a cared in front of this little experiment that said, “Shh. I’m happening.” (And it occurred to me) how good it would be to wear a big sign around me that said, “I’m happening.” Every time you looked at me you would say, “George is still happening—he’s not there yet, and he’s going to have some faults in the process.” And if you had your sign on, I would say the same about you. That’s forbearance.”

In the end, the answer as to how to live together in community, exhibiting compassion and forbearance isn’t found in clearly written rules. It’s. not in our laws or in the Declaration of Independence. It’s not located in exercises promoting the establishment of healthy personal boundaries or even (heaven forbid) in theological jargon. The answer is found in Jesus. Jesus, our Savior, who holds us accountable for our actions, yet, at the same time, judges us with mercy. Bound together in Christ, we find a way to live together; the strong and the fragile, all equal members of the family of God.

In the fourth chapter of Ephesians we hear these words: “I therefore, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” These were fine, gracious and meaningful words in their time—and they should remain so in our own tumultuous era. Let us love one another with the forbearance that our Savior Jesus, in his great humility, has shown to each of us. May we all be a living example of his love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.