Hindu puja food offering, photo credit Sujit Kumar
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Epiphany 4, January 31, 2021
St. Martin North Vancouver
“You are what you eat”
Be present, be present, O Jesus, our great high priest, as you were present with your disciples, and be known to us in the breaking of bread; for there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. Amen.
This Sunday marks the end of the week of prayer for Christian unity. From the beginning, believers have struggled with differences in community. Paul’s letters to Corinth are full of examples of conflict and differences of understanding in how to live according to God’s love. Today’s passage from 1 Corinthians 8 can help us reflect on the connection between food and faith. The food fight in the early Church invites us to consider what may be keeping us from coming to the table with one another.
What and how we eat communicates God’s love to others, or not. Our culture, our diet, and our customs can be barriers to others. Just as easily: foreign practices can be misunderstood by us as repulsive, inferior, even idolatrous. That’s part of being human. We all start from a particular experience of culture. What feels right to us is probably what we grew up with in our families. Your everyday breakfast may have been bacon and eggs, or rice porridge, or hummus and flatbread, or corn tortillas, or seal blubber. That is what you knew, and anything else would have been a new and perhaps suspicious introduction. Imagine a guest in your home who has never had what you are serving. They may not like the smell, or be familiar with the way you eat it. It may not agree with their stomachs. Enough to make a person feel homesick. We don’t know how much food is part of our cultural identity until we are pushed up against difference. Then we start to judge- my way is better. The flip side to that is your way is wrong and might lead me astray from my understanding of how to live.
History is full of stories about how one group has tried to put down another group’s ceremonial practices out of fear. Early Christians were the target of conspiracy theories about eating the blood and flesh of babies sacrificed in the Eucharist. Misunderstandings about the meaning of Christ’s words of institution and the secretive nature of worship gatherings because of growing persecution added fuel to the lies. But even within and among Christian communities, there were those who argued about food. Some said that all things were permissible to eat, and some felt that the laws in the Jewish Scripture against eating certain things still applied. Others in the Corinthian Church were shocked and appalled about the attitude certain members were taking towards shopping for meat. When the arguments got to the stage of people pointing fingers at each other and calling each other “unchristian”, the Apostle Paul has to step in.
Take the practice of getting meat that had previously been used in cultic ceremonies. Sometimes it was cheaper and more readily available than other sources of protein. You can’t denounce people for eating food offered to idols, he says, because there aren’t any idols. There is only one God, and we all agree on that. However, if you do eat something that is really going to mess up someone else’s understanding, maybe you should work that out first before you go on calling each other idolatrous or evil. You can eat it and explain why it is okay to do so. Or you can abstain and not have someone else in the church feeling bad about you participating. One way isn’t necessarily superior to the other. It depends on the others involved being hurt or helped by your actions. And if we lack understanding of the purpose behind a ceremonial or cultural practice, it would be better to seek wisdom before speaking. Perhaps there’s more than that which fits our so-called “knowledge” going on.
In the early days of contact on the West Coast, settlers witnessed indigenous potlatch gatherings. From a White European perspective, what was going on looked idolatrous, with ceremonial foods and dances and songs to spirits that were completely outside of the observers’ frame of reference. Not only did the honoured white guests refuse to participate; then went on to deny the practice and proclaimed that these indigenous ceremonies were against Christian religion. The potlatch was banned from 1885 until 1951 here in British Columbia. In that time span, much of the knowledge of why it was important and how it was celebrated was lost. Many of the knowledge keepers in First Nations communities that knew about the practices died.
It’s easy for me to say that those governmental policy makers didn’t have the necessary knowledge to make decisions to build up love in community. But I know it is difficult coming up against the boundaries of culture and experience. As part of the Girl Guides of Canada, I had the opportunity to visit several different places of worship. Once, my troop went to the Hindu Temple in Burnaby, where an elder tried to explain to the restless group the principles of the faith and took us on a tour of the building. In the main worship hall, there was a small stage with a large golden statue. In front of the figure, many trays held flowers, fruit, and sticks of incense. We sat on the carpeted floor for a final discussion. Then, at the end of our time, the elder invited us to come forward if we were hungry and to choose a piece of fruit from the offering bowls. I was nervous about accepting. All my life, I had grown up in the Christian faith that teaches there is only one God. So this wasn’t really food belonging to some other deity. God made that banana just like all the other bananas on the planet. But I thought I should set a good example for the other girls. I politely declined. They took no notice of me, and proceeded to help themselves! So much for me worrying about the consciences of others. They weren’t thinking about idols at all, and perhaps did more to thank the host by enjoying the food than me.
Refusing to try the foods of others can also be a way that we privilege our own culture over theirs. “I wouldn’t want to eat that”, I said several times when my husband and I were watching the documentary series “Flavourful Origins”. Even though our family has roots in Chinese culture, several of the foods highlighted were foreign to his family’s region of origin. The treatment of certain fermented or preserved foods made us recoil. Maybe I wouldn’t be so closeminded if someone put it on my plate and didn’t tell me what it was! It did help me to see that we are quick to clump people into ethnic or racial groups even when it is not possible to make sweeping statements about what we “all” do or eat.
Today there is no monoculture in our society or in the Church. We eat different foods for all kinds of reasons. To express our cultural identity, for ethical reasons, for personal health reasons, and because certain foods just appeal to our senses. The same God makes them all. Where food becomes a problem for us is when we judge each other by what we put in our mouths without understanding what is behind the act. Maybe that is why we practice the central act of our faith by gathering around a table and sharing food together. The one thing baptised Christians all believe is that we have this sacred meal. We may argue about whether we should use red wine or kosher grape juice, bread or gluten-free wafer! But the body and blood of Christ continue to communicate the love of the one God to us. We are what we eat. We keep learning what it means to sit down at a table that is not our own. Perhaps we can seek unity in forgiveness as we encourage each other to eat of what God gives us. Amen.