Sermon Jan. 28, 2018
Today, we read a passage on food that have been offered to idols and another on demon possession. How do you feel about that? Are you feeling out of sorts yet? Living in Canada and being a part of the United Church of Canada, as opposed to the Pentecostal Church or even the Roman Catholic Church where they are familiar with exorcism, we might feel like we cannot relate to any of those stories. But having lived in Kenya with a lot of people suffering from poverty, poverty related issues, and a lot of psychological traumas, the talk of demon possession is not uncommon. Even back in the early 70’s when my father was a probationary minister of the Korean Methodist Church and was stationed in a small rural church, he experienced something similar. One day, one of his church ladies brought her daughter to his place, told him that she was possessed by the devil and asked him to take care of it. She just put her daughter in his room and left. So, what can my father do? He earnestly prayed for her. Looking back at this incident, he told me that the young lady was mentally troubled and was having an episode by freaking out. Apparently, his prayer calmed her down. But exorcism? Probably not, eh? I believe that real demon possessions are rare, but when one is mentally troubled and vulnerable, it is possible for an evil spirit to manipulate this person. But hey, what goes on in the spiritual realm is difficult for us to know, so let’s pause it right here.
Today’s 1 Corinthians text deals with what to do with the food that has been offered as a sacrifice to idols. They used to call all gods besides our Christian God “idols”; as for us, let’s call them “non-Christian gods.” Skipping all the details of what this text is teaching its ancient Corinthian audience, what we can learn from this text is that the spirit of love has to supersede knowledge. Whatever we eat or don’t eat, whatever we do or don’t do, that’s no what’s important. Corinthians are not being taught to avoid the sacrificial food. If they don’t believe that these idols are real, it doesn’t matter if they eat it or not. But some of them came from a deeply pagan religious background and feel icky about eating it; because they used to believe these “idols” were real gods. In this situation, even if you have a firm belief that the idols to whom the food has been sacrificed are not real, you should consider your brothers and sisters w ho might feel icky about it. Instead of judging them for being weak, it is better not to eat it for their sake. Knowledge can make you arrogant and judgmental. “What do you mean, you feel bad about eating this food? Don’t you know that these idols are not real? Now that you worship the only true God, you should know better!” What I just said is judgmental. Just like Jesus said people are more important than the law itself, love and consideration for our brothers and sisters should be more important than pushing one’s knowledge.
This reminds me of the matter of drinking alcoholic beverages and the communion wine. We might feel it is not a big deal drinking a glass of wine with our dinner or a cold glass of bear on a hot summer day, but sometimes we have to remember others who can’t or shouldn’t have any drink. Once I prepared a communion in a meeting and one of the members who was a recovering alcoholic jumped and asked me if it was wine. It was what Methodists call “the Methodist wine”, a.k.a. Welches grape juice. We shouldn’t tempt a recovering alcoholic with the presence of real wine, now should we? Same thing with the ancient Corinthians. While meditating on today’s 1 Corinthians text, consider the famous 1 Corinthians chapter 13 about love. Even if we have all the great gifts in the world, if we don’t have love, we gain nothing.
Corinthian Christians were a minority group in the majority pagan culture. Everyone else offered sacrifice to what they called “idols” but they had to be different because they believed in one true God that they had received from the apostle Paul. Being a minority and keeping one’s identity, beliefs, and culture, without being influenced by the majority culture, is difficult. Jesus and his followers also belonged to the minority culture of their time. Jesus was so different from other religious teachers. He undermined the way things were done. He went to the synagogue to teach his new ideas, which was very normal since that was where people gathered. Unlike the rules the religious leaders had to follow, Jesus taught with a personal authority, as if he needed no other authority between him and God. People who followed him thought it was refreshing; the authority thought it was appalling. And you know how the story goes… and ends.
Idol is such a foreign concept to us, isn’t it? We tend to think that idol is a graven image that people worship; so conservative Christians tend to accuse Hindus and Buddhists of being idol worshippers. But idols as the graven images are only relevant in the ancient biblical times. Now let’s talk about the contemporary idols. In the ancient biblical times, the graven image for worshipping was called “idols” because they were from foreign cultures. God’s chosen people were told not to make a visible and tangible image of God. These were objects that hindered the people of God from being faithful to their God. For us, there are a lot of other things that hinder us from living as faithful disciples of Jesus. Greed for wealth and power hinders us from following the gospel teaching that we cannot serve two masters; it’s either money or God. The thing about wealth and power is that more we have them, more we are obsessed with them; it’s human nature. Why do you think we abstain from certain things during Lent to get closer to God? If there are too many things in our head and heart, and in our lives, it gets difficult to focus on God and live a life faithful to the gospel teachings. Jesus invited us into a life of humility, poverty, and service. Poverty doesn’t mean we have to be financially poor. What we need, no matter how much wealth we possess, is the spirit of poverty, free from greed. There can be other idols that lure us away from God, besides wealth and power; for one thing, there is the greed for pleasure, including gluttony. Remember the ancient Romans with their vomitorium and how they overindulged food and pleasure that led to their downfall? I invite you to take time this week reflecting on what lures you away from being faithful to God.
Canadian Christians are minorities in an increasingly secular culture. The society pressures us to pursue more money and power; more convenience in our lives with gadgets of new technology with which even a young person like me cannot keep up. What about bigger houses and more expensive cars? Our society calls us foolish if we don’t pursue these things. But Jesus taught his followers to be countercultural. Being faithful to God and Jesus whom we follow often means we have to stray away from our society’s values and temptations. Let us keep our eyes and focus on the teachings of Jesus; on humility, spirit of poverty, love, and compassion. And may God help us to resist the temptations of the world and stay faithful to the gospel teachings.
Rev. Sunny Kim