Food, masks and American idolatry

Published 3:16 pm Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Nathan Decker

Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up.

1 Corinthians 8:1b CEB

Knowing a lot is not nearly as important as knowing what we don’t know. You can have all the random facts that Ken Jennings knows and still not be smart. You can invent things like Elon Musk and still not have a clue. You can understand every aspect of a novel coronavirus and lack the common sense to protect yourself. We can know a lot, but that’s not as important as knowing what we don’t know.

As human beings we don’t know how to love. We say we love all the time. Kids have puppy love as girlfriend/boyfriend in school. We love our work and play. We love food. In each of these, we really don’t love. We don’t love our food; we love what the food gives us. We don’t love our jobs or our recreation; we love how they make us feel. We don’t love when we have puppy love or love based on sexual, physical attraction; we love what we can get from the other person. We use them. Love is a verb. In love, we give more than we receive. In love, we offer freedom not chains. In love, we sacrifice for the sake of others. We don’t do this so well.

The Church at Corinth had a love problem. Paul writes about something so foreign to us, and yet something we know all too well: Idolatry. “Scandal! Share this Post Now! Christian church members participate in pagan worship feast!” Sounds like breaking news, right? Until you dig a little deeper. To understand, we have to see it from the ancient world’s view of meat and worship.

First, in the ancient world when you killed an animal, you ate it pretty quickly. There were no refrigerators; when you killed a larger animal, you tended to share or sell the extra. Second, when you sacrificed an animal to a god, that meat didn’t go to waste. You killed, burned and cooked it. Afterward, you participated in worship by eating the animal sacrificed to the god.

The problem for some of the folks in the church was when some of that meat that had been sacrificed to Jupiter, Venus, Nike, Cupid or any one of the number of other pantheon of deities ended up in the market and onto the plates of the faithful. Imagine the horror! You invite the pastor and lay leader over for lunch after church. As you bring the food to the table he begins asking from where the food came. Suddenly you feel judged … the meal you’re serving is not kosher: Hera turkey with Saturn gravy and mashed Neptune potatoes. The questions haunt you. If we eat this meal are we participating in pagan worship?

Relief comes to you as the pastor begins teaching about how those gods don’t exist but only the one God does, so it’s OK. Then the lay leader stares in shock! How could you possibly eat this? You and the pastor KNOW you are right, but Paul cautions, “this freedom of ours might become a problem for those who are weak,” so let’s follow love and be with our weaker brothers and sisters on this one.

God is love. Following Jesus means participating in a community of love. The radical love God teaches humbles us. To love means being willing to sometimes participate in silence when we disagree. To love means laying down our rights, freedoms and certainty to value relationships, compassion and grace above all. Paul writes to the Corinthians about the uncomfortable situation of passively participating in pagan ritual. As a rule, he follows Christ’s teaching of compassion as the interpreter of all things in faith. Love is the crux of our faith.

In our pride, we have created idols out of masks and freedom. When we get all snooty and upset at those who don’t wear masks, we are not loving. When we flaunt our freedom and our rights and don’t wear masks to protect others, we are not loving. When we feel with certainty that we know the truth, we have the answers, if people would just listen to us … we risk giving up love to be right in knowledge.

Knowledge is nothing without love. Love is not made perfect in strong arming people to the ground and forcing them to see things from our perspective. Love is made perfect in humility, compassion, empathy.

Knowing is not as important as being known. We are not called to have all the answers. We are not called to storm the Capitol as Christians and force this nation on a path of righteousness. We are not called to be the mask police or go around vaccinating everyone against their will. We are called to be the church. Jesus said we would be known by our love. Love sometimes means putting the safety of others above our rights and freedoms. Love sometimes means keeping silent even though we know knowledge. Love means lifting up compassion as law, mercy as instruction, and grace as the way.

Be known.

Be known by God as the Church.

Be known in the community as those who love Christ more than self.

Be known as those who interpret all of life through compassion.

Be known by love. Amen.


NATHAN DECKER is the pastor of High Street United Methodist Church. Contact him at 757-562-3367.