Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
28 January 2024
In the history of Christianity, the early church is the golden age. Beginning with the apostles and spanning the first four centuries of the faith, it is the age that produced the New Testament and the Creeds. It is the age that established the Sacraments and the Orders of Ministry. It is the age of saints and martyrs. In short, the early church laid down the foundations of the Christian faith. So, it is no surprise that we idealize the early church. During the Protestant Reformation, the early church was the model on which the various reforms were carried out. The reformers were trying to restore the beliefs and practices of the early church, purging what they believed to be the accretions and errors that had crept into the medieval church.
But when we look closely at the early church, it was far from perfect. In today’s Epistle, we learn about a major source of division in the church at Corinth, meat sacrificed to idols. For the people of Corinth, meat was a luxury, expensive and hard to get. One way to obtain it was to buy the meat sold in the markets after animals had been sacrificed in pagan rituals. Or sometimes they could eat the meat in the dining area of the temple in which the sacrifices had been performed. Some Christians in Corinth had no qualms about acquiring meat this way, since they knew that the gods to which the sacrifices were made didn’t really exist and thus the rituals had no meaning. But other Christians, newer to the faith and steeped in the old pagan culture, refused to buy or consume it because of the association with the idols. The Corinthians could not resolve this disagreement on their own, so they appealed to the Apostle Paul.
And what does Paul say? On the one hand, he agrees with those who believe there is nothing wrong with eating the meat, explaining that “we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists,’ and that ‘there is no God but one,’” (I Corinthians 8:4). But he doesn’t go on from there to force the other group into eating the meat. In fact, he doesn’t provide a simple answer. He offers a solution but with a condition. For those of you who believe that there is nothing wrong with the meat offered to idols, you can eat the meat but only if it doesn’t cause offense to a fellow believer. In other words, go right ahead and eat the meat in the privacy of your home, but if you risk being seen in a temple dining area, then don’t. Be sensitive to the conscience of those who disagree with you.
Paul’s advice is not just a matter of being polite and considerate. It has profound theological meaning. If eating the meat causes another member of the community to stumble or fall, then it is nothing less than sin. It is a sin against that person whom you hurt. Moreover, it is a sin against Christ himself. For that person is just as much a member of the community of believers as you are, the believers for whom Christ died. Paul states, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (I Corinthians 8:1). The interpersonal relationship – love – is more important than correct knowledge or belief.
The problem of meat offered to idols was one of many sources of division in the Corinthian church. They were also divided over issues of ethnicity – Jews versus Greeks, socioeconomic status – rich versus poor, and personal loyalties – Paul’s faction versus Apollos’s faction. We often bemoan how sadly divided Christians are today, but the early church was no model of peace and unity.
Division in the church is nothing new. But, of course, the causes of our division today are different from those of the early church. Christians now have a whole host of new issues that have caused disagreements and conflicts, ranging from abortion to the blessing of same sex unions.
And we also confront the bitter theological divide between conservative and liberal churches. I’ve heard horror stories of the trauma experienced by LGBTQ+ persons in conservative churches that have condemned and even expelled them. And, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, many conservatives believe that the liberal churches, with their progressive theological and social views, as having abandoned traditional Christianity.
At the other end of the theological spectrum, in liberal denominations, such as the Episcopal Church, we haven’t done such a good job either of showing love and respect to those who don’t agree with us. It is not uncommon these days to encounter the dismissal and even mockery of cherished beliefs and doctrines on social media and even from the pulpit. Several years ago, I heard the dean of a major Methodist seminary give a sermon at commencement in which he remarked, “Of course, none of us believe in the Trinity these days.” And a clergy friend shared with me the story of an Episcopal priest who at a diocesan gathering for Easter blurted out to her clergy colleagues, “None of you believe in this Easter stuff, do you? But it’s pretty ritual.” We wonder why so many people have left our denomination.
My own personal background is mainline Protestantism, and my theological training has been at a liberal seminary. So, it is my own tradition that I am addressing. I value and celebrate the freedom of belief and practice in our mainline churches, but what I have found disturbing is the absence of sensitivity to those who do not share our views. We do not have to change our minds or compromise our beliefs, but at the same time, we should not be assuming a superior or condescending position to those who don’t agree with us. To borrow the Apostle Paul’s language, we should not be puffed up in knowledge.
When I began serving at St. Mary’s five years ago, among the many things that I learned from Fr. Charles was a new term, “inclusive orthodoxy.” It refers to holding traditional Christian beliefs while having open and progressive views on social issues. Many of the younger Episcopal clergy have embraced this term, in part as a reaction against the extremes of the previous generation’s liberal theology. At St. Mary’s, we have many parishioners who would identify with inclusive orthodoxy. And we have others who would identify as liberal or conservative. This is the beauty of our Anglican tradition. We can hold a variety of theological and social views, but what is important is that we come to pray and worship together as one body.
Soon, we will approach the altar and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. And in these Holy Mysteries, Christ comes to dwell in us – all of us, whether we are liberal, conservative, or inclusive orthodox; male, female, or transgender; white, black, or Asian. Knowing that Christ dwells in us, including the brother or sister with whom we disagree, how can we interact in any way other than love?
 Jeehei Park, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-81-13-6
 Valéry Nicolet, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13,” Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-81-13-3
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St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.