February 11th (Sunday 6): Sermon

A sermon preached by Mgr Andrew Burnham at Holy Rood, Oxford, on 11th February 2012:

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.  Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.  1 Cor 10:31 – 11:1

THUS ST PAUL sums up the discussion of the issue of food offered to idols, a pressing practical issue for the Church in Corinth.   It all seems pretty remote from our concerns – food offered to idols – but can we squeeze anything more from this than a few pious platitudes: do everything to the glory of God; give no offence to anyone; be imitators of the saints, as they are imitators of Christ?  Those pious platitudes are not to be set aside lightly.  The world would be a very different place if even Christian congregations managed to live up to them.  But they are the kind of thing we already know, the kind of yardstick against which we measure ourselves as we prepare to use the Sacrament of Penance.  And, by the way, if you haven’t yet got into a regular habit or pattern in that respect, the rule of the Church requires an annual, Paschal use of the confessional and it is nearly a year since you all first did that as Catholics.

But, moving beyond the exhortation to holiness and good behaviour, is the world of Corinth irretrievably remote from us and our concerns?  Let us briefly visit in our imagination the meat market of Corinth.  A couple of inscriptions from the time indicate that the market had been given to the people by the city’s ruling classes and, after the games or other big occasions, meat was sold there at a bargain price, for the benefit of poorer people.  A little bit like the lowering of prices in Marks and Spencers’ Simply Food towards the end of the day, when  things approaching their use-by-date are sold off cheaply.  The problem is that the meat à bon marché in Corinth was not from the shelves of the local Marks and Spencers’ but from the temples in which food sacrifices had been offered to the gods.  The dilemma for the Christians was two-fold.  First: could they purchase this meat?  Many, if not most, Christians were from the poorer social classes.  Here was a pressing housekeeping issue.  Second: if they were invited out, were they to have scruples about the Bœuf Bourguignon served to them?  We’re not quite sure what ‘invited’ might mean.  St Paul might have been talking about being entertained at home by pagan friends.  The verb he uses – kaleō– is used of being invited to dinner, and some manuscripts add ‘to dinner’.  But it’s possible that he is talking about a bun fight in the precincts of a pagan temple, rather like the bun fights in church halls which are such an important part of our culinary patrimony.  Can we eat the sausage rolls or not?  Or, as clergy on hot days at funeral teas ask themselves, ‘how long have those slices of ham and chicken drumsticks been sitting there’?  The sensible priest is a vegetarian when there is no ‘r’ in the month.

It’s impossible to see the discussion at Corinth without looking back to where St Paul is himself coming from – rabbinic Judaism, in which there are strict rules about what food may be eaten and when and with whom.  And without looking forward to his own discussion on the Holy Eucharist, a discussion which he resumes in the second half of the next chapter of 1 Corinthians.  It is logical that St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, has broken so thoroughly from Jewish dietary laws that he refuses to be over-scrupulous about pagan meat.  It is also logical that, when it comes to the Eucharist, he is concerned about the proper approach and the proper procedure.  Meanwhile, he is happy for the Corinthians to eat food from pagan sources.  Provided that offence is not given to others, and provided that such meat – whether bought or served up – is consumed without regard to whatever its previous use might have been.

We could think ourselves into a parallel situation.  Supposing someone had an objection to the way some halal or kosher meat is slaughtered.   Such scruples might make dining on the Cowley Road or in Golders Green rather tricky.  We know that most animals slaughtered according to religious rules in this country are stunned before their throats are slit.  But should we interrogate the Bangladeshi waiter, the Jewish chef before settling down to eat?  Or do we say to our host at a supper party – is that Fair Trade tea you are serving?  I haven’t drunk Nescafé since the General Synod mounted a boycott of Nestlé some years ago.  The little pamphlets of the Catholic Truth Society used to reassure their readers that it was better to accept meat from a non-Catholic host on a Friday than to cause embarrassment.

My own view is that these somewhat contrived modern examples of the Corinthian dilemmas do at least alert us not only to the importance of the platitudes – do everything to the glory of God; give no offence to anyone; be imitators of the saints, as they are imitators of Christ – but also to some of the complexities of living – as the Corinthians did and as we do – in a pagan society.  Issues such as fair-trade versus market forces, globalisation versus a healthy local economy, are matters on which, as Christians, we have something to say.  But, even more to the point, are some of the crisis points: the airline stewardess disciplined for wearing a crucifix, the Bishop of Oxford suggesting that the Muslim call to prayer should resound throughout East Oxford, the judge’s ruling that it is unlawful for prayers to be part of the Council agenda.  These are matters – and gay marriage is the most challenging present one – which are decided not by the Church, nor even by Christian England, but by what is in many senses a secular state, promulging the laws of a secular Europe.   We are indeed back in pagan Corinth.

Therefore,

Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.  Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. 

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