Chaplain Mel Baars
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
February 5, 2012
For a few years, particularly when I was a pastor in South Africa, I have pretended to be a vegetarian. The truth is, I don’t really like meat. It’s not a political or environmental statement. It’s not even about taste. Once, when I was in South Africa, I absentmindedly ate a piece of lamb from a local BBQ joint, one of those places where the animal is butchered on site and is hung up by the cash register so that all those who come to purchase meat know just how fresh it is. Not my typical kind of place. I don’t know what surprised me more, that I actually tried the local cuisine which I had been avoiding for almost a year under the guise of vegetarianism or that it tasted so good that I wanted more. My feigned vegetarianism had nothing to do with true preference or lifestyle choices. Instead my meat avoidance was all about my fear. Carnophobia, if you want to know the technical term.
Please bear with me for a moment. I can imagine that you are wondering why my “meat issues” have come up in a sermon. I’ll get there, I promise. Interestingly enough, the verses in chapter 8 which precede our scripture passage this morning, were all about eating meat, whether it was ok or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols. In these chapters, Paul had embarked on a discussion with the church people in Corinth about what it means to live in community which is diverse. It’s really not about the meat at all. It’s about learning to transcend our differences in hopes of following Jesus and sharing his good news.
In his letter, Paul was attempting to address problems that the church was facing, not too different than the problems that the church faces today. Let’s just say there was a lot of dissent and debate about who got to be considered Christian, in the “in” crowd, and what kinds of behaviors and lifestyle choices were acceptable for those deemed as “in.” Does this sound familiar? Some sects of the early church wanted to reject the Hebrew tradition altogether. No more law. No more focusing on commandments. No more circumcision. Nothing Jewish. On the other hand, many Jewish converts, those who believed Jesus to be Messiah, still wanted to follow the Torah and practice the prayers and customs which had been the cornerstone of their everyday living, passed down generation to generation, from a time when God’s word was not even written. Who was right? Who was wrong? All sides, and there were definitely more than two, had their fair points. The church was still in infancy and already on the brink of schism.
Into this fray Paul speaks these words, “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law, I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
The dichotomy must have been confusing to hear. So much of what Jesus had preached transcended the letters of the law and instead, focused on the heart of the matter. For Paul, after strengthening the case for the freedom in Christ, to advocate for tolerance of religion’s old shackles, seemed counterproductive. I mean, how can one be free but also a slave? How can one be Jewish, abiding by the law in some instances and then, magically, in other company, be apart from it? This didn’t seem to make sense.
But Paul had realized something crucial about evangelism. In order to reach people, to truly share the good news with them, it was going to take more than standing in his comfort zone and preaching a good sermon. Sharing the good news wasn’t going to happen much if he expected everyone to come to him, to be like him, and think just like him. The only way to get his point across, and, more importantly, the God’s message of grace, was to go to them, wherever they were. But, this wasn’t just about a physical meeting in a new territory with new people. Paul is talking about meeting people where they are intellectually and emotionally, wherever they found themselves on a spectrum of human life which included belief systems, morality, and life choices. Paul is talking about going out to them, in the mire and muck, going to them, even if it meant going to the kind of places and maybe even doing the kinds of things that don’t seem very Christian at all.
Back then, the debate in the church world over who was right and wrong was between Jew and Gentile, Torah law or Christ’s law. Could God somehow love and choose both sides? Here we are, two thousand years later, still struggling over some of the same issues. We are still unable to get beyond our differences of opinion and interpretation. Sure, the details have changed, but what is at the heart of the matter is the same. We want things to be one way, the way we think is right. We use whatever we can, the Bible, Jesus, the church, to answer the questions which perplex us. We are so hell bent on having a black and a white on some things, that we take the mystery, the unknown, the gray, and we claim that it’s black or white even when it’s not.
But, I don’t think that we do this because we are confused. I think we do this because we are afraid. Paul’s instruction scares us because it forces us beyond ourselves and what feels good and easy. Paul forces us to mix and mingle with that which is different than us. Because it’s different and not what we are used to, more often than not we cast it in a negative or sinful light. We justify our prejudice and hatred with our interpretations of sacred text and tradition. In response to these tendencies, Paul is simply saying, “Think again.” Is this the way to share the good news? To reject people and cast them off, to label them as bad, is this really the way to touch people’s hearts? God’s gift of freedom is worth more than that. It is an invitation, a way, to help us grow beyond our fears. We all have fear, but fear should never get in the way of love. And, to love another, we have to go out to them. In many cases, we have to let them touch us and infect us with whatever it is that they have and in this process, which I will be the first to admit is terrifying, trust that God will keep us safe and strong and unwavering in holy truth where it matters most.
A pastor once said to me that he was ashamed of some of the places that he had been and some of the things he had done, hanging out with sinners. When he said this, I was a little taken aback. I thought that we were all sinners. Sure, our vices may look differently from one another, but if there is one thing that we all share, it’s that we all sin. We all fall short of deserving God’s love. But, the good news is that God gives God’s love to us anyway-- all of us-- Jew or Gentile, law abiding or not, regardless of our sexuality or even our understanding of who God is and what God has done and is doing in our world, even when we don’t know how to love God in return. Even then, God loves us anyway. That’s just how God is.
In the end, what Paul professes of himself is what we also know to be true for ourselves. “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”
My fear of eating meat, as ridiculous as it may have been, put a barrier between me and the people that I had gone to love and serve. They prepared food for me, often at a great personal sacrifice, because they loved me and wanted to share what they had with a spirit of generosity. I let my fear of meat, that it might be bad and make me sick, dictate my actions and hinder my ability to reach out and connect, even when I knew that brief illness was a small price to pay for sharing in God’s blessings with them. My fear prevented me from participating fully in God’s gifts of life and love.
When we forfeit God’s blessings and neglect to embrace the other with love and openness, the greatest consequence is not, ultimately, God’s punishment, but it is about missing out on the life that is happening, here and now. Fear is a powerful force, but love is still stronger. We are not left alone with our fears. God comes to us and when we allow it, takes us by the hand so that we may overcome even that which enslaves us, so that we might be set free to live and love and be blessed in the process.
This is our good news, good news that we have to share with others. So, may we all go out and take this news to places and people who are waiting for our embrace, even into prison cells and circles very different from our own. May we reach out with our love even more than our words. May we be infected by those that we meet as we go. May we trust, no matter where we find ourselves, that God is there, guiding us the whole way. Amen.