Sunday, December 04, 2005

Take, Eat . . .(part 2)

1 Corinthians 10, at first glance, struck me as a strange smattering of topics artifiically smashed together by someone with attention deficit disorder. Paul speaks about the children of Israel in the wilderness, and seems to want to instruct the Corinthians with their example; but then the topic of communion pops up out of nowhere in verse 17. After that he launches into the topic of food sacrificed to idols, and then communion again, and then meat sold in the marketplace, and then “doing all things for the glory of God” – what does any one of those have to do with the rest? After spending some time trying to answer that question, I think I discovered what the obstacle was, and (as usual) it was to be found less in the text than it was in me; namely, in my shallow expectations about what Church should be. I default into thinking of the church as a service; but Paul thought of it as a family that extends even beyond those now living (the children of Israel "ate spiritual food" and "drank spiritual drink"). The relevance of Israel's appetite for idolatry and the Corinthian confusion over meat sacrificed to idols are all bound together by verse 17 – when we partake of Christ together, we become family, and we are thus (verse 24) to “seek the good of one another.”

Paul's point seems to be that recieving Christ and fleeing idols is something done by a community, not by piously introspective individuals. By recieivng Christ and fleeing idolatry we mark ourselves out as the one people of God; those who, through Christ, are to suceed where Israel failed. The issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols wasn't so much a crisis of personal morality, but a call for the Corinthians to be a distinct people from their pagan neighbors (something Israel failed to do). Yet, as verse 27 indicates, Paul's desire isn't for selfish community formation. Love is the rule, both among believers and unbelievers, which should manifest itself in a desire to protect their consciences. But in all of these things the driving concern is for the integrity of the community, marked out by communion.

The ancient world held table fellowship as one of the highest forms of friendship, intimacy and unity. This is why the issue of who Jesus chose to eat with was such a big deal to the Pharisees. The Pharisees even saw their tables at home as substitutes for the altar in the Jerusalem Temple. Their outrage at Jesus not “washing his hands” before he ate betrayed their concern for sacramental purity and community identification, not legalism or neurotic hygiene. Those who were allowed to come to the table together were defined according to ethnicity, race, class, wealth and status.

But in Jesus, Paul says, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, barbarian and Scythian all come to the same table. It’s no wonder that the early church was viewed as destructive to society; it broke down all the divisions that people thought of as necessary to keep its proper order! By eating at the Lord's Table together, the disciples were doing something revolutionary – they were reorganizing their family relationships, their friendships, and all those they would associate with not around extended relatives, common interests, shared status or level of income but around Jesus. Communion shattered societal norms of friendship and family.

The early church was just that: a family. They provided for one another; they paid one another’s debts; they ate in one another’s homes; they adopted uncared for children in one another’s families; they opened their homes and finances to one another and even called one another “brother” and “sister”. And that, believe it or not, was every bit as weird and suspicious to the Roman world as it would be for us today. For people to share in one another’s lives like that, to that degree – to not just call each other “brother” but to actually treat one another as immediate family members, was considered “unnatural” in the Roman world. But at the same time it made some people uncomfortable, it drew thousands of other people to the table, and into God’s kingdom.

When we take communion we aren’t just affirming our union with Christ in mystical fellowship; we’re affirming our union with one another as friends, but more than just acquaintances who share a common faith. We’re affirming a union that’s more like limbs to a body or the members of a family in a household. When we take of the same bread and drink of the same cup we receive the same Jesus and recognize that no one among us recieves more or less than another. 1 Co. 11:27 warns us to take this proclamation with utmost seriousness. This verse is usually used as an exhortation to "search your heart" for any moral failing that might make you unworthy of participating in communion. Sometimes a moment of silence is even provided to help you uncover any unconfessed sin that you might need to take care of before taking part. Maybe that's not a bad idea - but it has nothing to do with what Paul's actually concerned about.

Verses 20-22 give us an idea about what "unworthiness" he has in mind: “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.” Apparently when the Corinthians came to the Lord’s table the wealthy (those who owned homes) pushed their way to the front of the line in their debauchery and left nothing for the poor brothers among them – those who “have nothing”.

In verse 33 Paul says what he has in mind as behavior "worthy" of communion: “So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Partaking in a worthy manner isn't an act of pious individualism; it involves honoring and loving all those who have recieved Jesus as members of the same family. The reconciliation of God's Creation, the advent of His shalom has begun in us, upon whom the "ends of the ages have come" (1 Co. 10:11), and communion signals the inbreaking of God's coming era of mutual, self-giving, Christlike love.

Next time you receive the elements, think about what you’re about to do. You are receiving Jesus as the satisfaction of your souls, and fleeing idolatrous cravings as "that which can never satisfy". You are identifying yourself with one people of God and committing yourself to honoring the most "unseemly" of its members. Only if you believe these things can you, as it says at the end of ch. 10, “eat or drink to the glory of God”.

24 comments:

Sameer said...

Good post, good pictures. I wonder why people always confuse the "wolf will lie down with the lamb" imagery (Isa. 11:6) with a lion and a lamb...

Ephraim said...

Blue,

I realize that this is not the main point or purpose of your post, but I would like to bring it up since it does relate to how we believe our practices are an expression of our faith.

You said:

"The issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols wasn't so much a crisis of personal morality, but a call for the Corinthians to be a distinct people from their pagan neighbors (something Israel failed to do)."

If it was Israel's failure, and hence the source of their rejection, to remain separate from the practices of their pagan neighbors, please tell me, are there any pagans celebrating christmas in your neighborhood?

Shalom

TheBlueRaja said...

Sameer,

Dude, there's a lion chewing grass in there somewhere.

Ephraim,

Though I realize that many of the traditions of Christmas have been traced back to pagan fertility rituals, but that's quite possibly the farthest removed thought from the mind of the average participator. In Corinth the significance was immediate - participating in meals oriented around temple sacrifice made a person's affiliation with idols unambiguous. Christmas has no religious significance for most people - pagan or Christian. It's a commercialized, Hallmark intoxicated, farcical season of robotic, simulated merriment. At best it's an opportunity for families to spend time together. In any case, I'd say that it's a far cry from "meat sacrificed to idols". Notice that in the case of those who have LEFT the temple, having purchased meat sacrificed to idols, Paul allows a believer to eat the meat without asking any further questions about it. The difference, of course, is that eating meat as a part of a temple sacrifice affliated a believer with pagan worship unambiguously, which was not the case with eating in an unbeliever's home.

I'm getting a Christmas tree. I'm decking the halls. My bowels are full of holly (I'm trying to make an appointment to take care of that one). But for me it's the same thing as shooting off fireworks on the 4th of July even though I belong to an alternative kingdom to the pagan one in which I live.

Do you have objections to the whole Christmas thing, Ephraim?

Ephraim said...

Blue,

Objections?! Why, whatever do you mean! :-)

I suppose christmas could be looked at as the thread that won't unravel the whole thing (Christianity in all its forms on earth), but I prefer to look at it as one of the threads that make up tapestry of our illusions (how's that for a metaphor?).

It could be benign to participate in the holiday. It may also be of no real and everlasting consequence to eat stuff that YHVH said not to eat. In fact it may ultimately prove to be "no big deal" about any of the temporal things we find here on this planet. Our liberty may be restricted by our conscience alone. I doubt it, and it is a scary thought.

I'm free, my friends are free, the gift was free, grace abounds, and yet, there is this unsettling thought that floats occasionally through my mind;

goes something like this:

am I not understanding my liberty properly? What do I have the liberty to do? Why is my liberty different than others who claim to have the same liberty that I do? Why is it that if I choose to allow something, no one even cares. But if I choose to not allow something, immediately my liberty is judged and I am called a legalist. (Extreme yes, but just to make the point, you understand).

Scripture is painfully clear in regards to Israel's problems with its neighbors. The mandate to be separate was superbly defined. No questions there.

So we fast forward to Sha'ul (Paul) telling Greeks not to eat meat offered to idols because they would be sharing in the table scraps of devils. And that mixing the table scraps of devils and the meal prepared for them by the LORD would not be a good idea.

Mixing. That's what got Israel into such trouble. If an Israelite wanted to go wholesale into a pagan culture and be assimilated beyond all recognition, that was one thing.

If an Israelite took some of the pagan practices and mixed them with the practices of YHVH, that was something else. One is a divorce. The other is adultry. While we could argue that the results are the same, and they are, it is the process of how one goes about it that should be the point.

Do you not object to the root and branch of christmas?

TheBlueRaja said...

I guess I don't go for the whole "root and branch" thing. It's called the genetic fallacy I believe. I'm not calling you a legalist, Ephraim; I just don't think that the origin of the holiday has very much to do with what it actually is now.

marc said...

ephraim,

Thankyou for sparing me this xmas discussion at Purgatorio. We were having so much fun over there, I think you sensed the mood and moved on. Much appreciated.

Sharad,

I was discussing the subject of communion over lunch today with an emergening church friend of mine and we talked about the supportive nature of communion in the context of body life, that is the church also being the body of Christ and partaking of that fully as well. In other words, a non involved, drive-by communion act is just not going to have the same benefits as it does for those living in and experiencing real fellowship as a means of grace.

What are your thoughts?

TheBlueRaja said...

I'd agree, with that, Marc; I don't think communion can really be appreciated by someone who doesn't see the communal significance of it. It's frankly a very awkward fit into the spiritual disciplines of ruggedly individualistic personal piety - it's as though communion were nothing more than a personal time of self-examination where everyone happens to haul their prayer closets to church the same morning.

By the way, would you identify me as "emergent"? Just curious.

captive no more said...

Hi, Blue,
I enjoyed the post. I particularly liked this:

I default into thinking of the church as a service; but Paul thought of it as a family that extends even beyond those now living (the children of Israel "ate spiritual food" and "drank spiritual drink"). The relevance of Israel's appetite for idolatry and the Corinthian confusion over meat sacrificed to idols are all bound together by verse 17 – when we partake of Christ together, we become family, and we are thus (verse 24) to “seek the good of one another.”


In the practical outworking of your church body what does this family life look like? Strengths in your church, areas you're working on. How do you weave new people into your body? Outreaches into the community? Ways your body fellowships together.

Tommy said...

Your thoughts on the Lord's Supper seem to me to point in the right direction, brother. We've wrestled a lot with the meaning and praxis of the Lord's Supper here in Pamplona, and have recently begun including an entire meal...a step forward I believe.

Regarding Christmas, I confess some sympathies with Ephraim...not because of Christmas' genetic history, but because of its present association with the worst vices of capitalism, which not coincidentally engenders some of the same (socioeconomic) dynamics Paul was eager to keep the Corinthians from. Check out Horsley's discussion (i.e. of Christmas) in Religion and Empire: People, Power, and the Life of the Spirit. Something about a king born in a livestock trough and later crucified makes me think using my riches to buy presents for rich people in his name is problematic...though there is certainly more to Christmas celebrations than the gift-exchange, much of which seems to me worth perpetuating.

TheBlueRaja said...

I of course agree with you, Tommy (though I think that rich people can still practice generosity with other rich people without being guilty of bbourgeoise excess).

Tommy said...

I agree, but I think that the best of individual intentions can serve larger sociopolitical forces for the ill of the Kingdom. Our peace with our genuine, individual generosity can shield us from appropriate criticism of the larger forces it serves, which would at least make us ask whether such is the appropriate means or context for our generosity...Admission: I'll be purchasing a host of gifts for rich people this year and doing very little for known brethren suffering scarcity of basic provisions near and far. Hopefully the Lord's Supper will cause me to continually reflect on this discrepancy and improve my discipleship!

TheBlueRaja said...

Couldn't agree more, Tommy.

To be honest, for me Christmas is a holiday where I've come to give token gifts in an obligatory way. I have a hard time "christianizing" it, and I'm feeling the need to less and less as each year passes.

I think it's easy to get a false sense of "seasonal urgency" when it comes to giving to one another around Christmas time, and I'm personally more concerned about the degree to which my budget reflects a duty to the less fortunate the rest of the year (as are you, no doubt).

I'm frankly not even prompted to think about the issue around Christmas; I see it almost as a nightmare where it's suddenly everyone's "birthday" - and so I buy the customary gifts.

As to the ways in which we support evil regimes with our spending practices, that's a knotty one I'm still trying to untangle in daily spending practices.

Ephraim said...

so,

"I just don't think that the origin of the holiday has very much to do with what it actually is now."

has it now become truth? Did a transformation occur in something other than the current cultural expressions?

Does teaching our children a lie become acceptable if it is wrapped up in warm, snuggly memories?

Wouldn't it be something to hear from a 1st cent believer who had a head full of warm, snuggly (ok, sensual) memories from his days of feasting at the temple of (insert Greek god here), talk about that Jew (Paul) who was telling them that all that good stuff had to go?

What in the world was he (Paul) talking about? All that good food and fellowship. Friends and family gathered around the sacrifice, candles (ok, oil pots) glowing, decorations up, winter solstice upon them but warm in the temple.

Man, that guy (Paul) could certainly ruin a party. I thought we had freedom in the Messiah. And the temple service and sacrifice had moved away from using infants and children and now only used animals. What's the big deal?

I don't know, what is the big deal?
God knows my heart right? I'm doing all this for Him, right? Gifts, fellowship, decorations that make the children happy. This is good stuff, right?

I'm just trying to get on your good side Blue.

TheBlueRaja said...

Sadly, Ephraim, I don't have a good side. Both sides are covered in coarse Indian fuzz.

1) Yes, a transformation does occur when a cultural act that is not immoral in itself is given new significance. The word gay no longer means "happy". The word "faggot" no longer means "bundle of sticks". This also takes place with certain practices. Buisness professionals have hair over their ears, whereas this considered a sign of rebellion in a bygone generation. Women no long wear corsets or bustles without any connotations of being "loose" sexually. Notice that Paul's problem here isn't with a practice that no longer has popular connotation of polytheistic worship. The practice he advocates against is an active signifier of idolatry. The acts involved are rendering worship to false gods; it's idolatry qua idolatry. Not so with Christmas, where decorating your home and opening presents aren't inherently evil acts. But more importantly, they don't signify anything like conscious idolatry to those who engage in them. Christmas is simply not a time of worship OF ANY KIND for most Americans. It's a false comparison.

2) I'm not sure what you mean about "teaching our children a lie". I teach my children about Jesus. I tell them that the things they'll see and hear around them this time of year about "Santa" is just a silly story. I tell them that the tree, etc. are just things we do for fun, like BBQ on Labor Day. And, subtracting the worship of Jesus, that's what most people think that Christmas is.

3) Your picture of reminiscing about temple sarifice is anachronistic and foreign to the cultural context. No one would argue with the fact that Greco-Roman gods were worshipped in the temple. Yet no one would argue that their Christmas tree gives homage to fertility gods. Notice that Paul somehow has NO PROBLEM with eating the SAME MEAT sacrificed in the SAME TEMPLE as long as it's eaten at someone's home (1 Co. 10:26-27). Why is that? Don't they know the origins of the food? It's even MORE closely connected than any association with pagan rituals you might care to name about Christmas. It was just sacrificed in the temple down the street. And the only reason Paul says a person might NOT want to eat it is for the sake of the other man's conscience. You're going to have to explain Paul's reasoning there, Ephraim. Is he a hypocrite? Is he being inconsistent?

In regard to Christmas, you might paraphrase verses 25-30 this way:

Let anyone decorate and open presents on Christmas without asking questions as to the ancient, obsolete associations with paganism, FOR THE EARTH IS THE LORD'S, AND ALL IT CONTAINS. If an unbeliever invites you over to their home on Christmas, and you want to go, participate without asking questions about ancient fertility rituals. But if one of them says, "This tree is dedicated to Venus" do not participate, for the sake of the one saying such a thing, and for conscience's sake. I mean not for your own conscience, but for the other man's; for why is my freedom being judged by another man's conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?" How would YOU paraphrase it?

4) The fact that you'd have to explain to someone the "pagan origins" of what we now call Christmas before you denounce it would come to a shock to most people, who think that it is a Christian holiday. Those who know its a religious holiday think it's got something to do with Jesus. But the fact that you'd have to first explain that it's NOT a Christian holiday shows that it's nothing like what Paul was addressing in the issue of temple sacrifice. It's not an act of "associating oneself with idolatry".

Ephraim, this issue has nothing to do with wanting the kids having fun or to fit in to our culture; it's just not a biblical issue. Outside of the materialism issue, this just isn't a biblical quibble you have. At best it's a call to get back to the historical roots of Christmas -- so we can reject them. But no one CARES about the historical roots - they don't even know the ahistorical supposedly Christian roots! Moreover this passage actually seems to say the oppositte of what you want it to say.

I'm not calling you a legalist, Ephraim. I think your heart's in the right place. I just don't think the Bible's on your side on this one.

Ephraim said...

I knew I could count on you Blue. Good response!

I've got to go now, but if you don't mind, yours is the best comeback I've seen for awhile and I would like at least one or two more shots at it.

OK?

Shalom

Sameer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
marc said...

Blue,

The thought never crossed my mind to consider you "emergent". But what do I know? Its a nebulous label as we've seen.

Ephraim said...

Blue,

In one sense you are right, this is currently perceived by many Christians to be a non-biblical issue.

But for me, and this is for me and my family, we do not find the practice of christmas, in any form or fashion, on the list of approved set-apart times given by YHVH to His people. Since it is not on His list, I don't want it on mine.

But the Festival of Lights, now that's a different story (literally). I can get into that. Yeshua did.

Thanks for the exchange, you are a worthy opponent. Good steel.

Talk to you later.

Shalom

TheBlueRaja said...

Marc,

I didn't think you thought so (and I don't think I am); just curious.

Ephraim,

That's great if you don't want to participate in Christmas. I think you might be hard pressed, however, to find many other practices on the list of activities mentioned in the Bible. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries (and a host of other customs related to weddings), etc. Likewise there are a host of practices that Jesus didn't really "get into" - like driving, for instance (or marriage, or parenting, or shampooing his hair, or sitting at a dinner table with chairs, etc). That's not to say that you should practice Christmas - but it's to say that the fact the Bible doesn't mention it isn't necessarily a reason.

Thanks for your kind words! Hope some of that helps.

Rose~ said...

You don't think Jesus shampooed his hair?

It's deck the halls with "bowls" of holly. Getting that one wrong could really hurt.

I've enjoyed reading your discussion here.
The post was great too!

:~)

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks so much, Rose! Yeah, I knew it was bowls of holly - I just saw an opportunity for obscene punning, and I took it!

Sameer said...

"But for me it's the same thing as shooting off fireworks on the 4th of July even though I belong to an alternative kingdom to the pagan one in which I live."

I think that perhaps partaking of *this* celebration is more damaging to a Christian witness than is Christmas. Whereas the latter may no longer carry cultural import vis a vis paganism, Independence Day arguably does still communicate fundamentally unchristian allegieance. In the first place, it continues to represent the legitmation of the violent revolution of American forefathers, and in the second place it is still designed to foster just the sort of patirotism and nationalism that your earlier posts seem to speak against.

Whereas no one is likely to confuse you for a Mithra worshipper on Christmas, you are very likely going to be confused for a patriot when celebrating the 4th of July.

TheBlueRaja said...

Sam,

I appreciate your point, though I might quibble about the local significance of firworks in my neighborhood. We live around young families who think of the 4th almost exclusively as opportunities to drink beer and blow stuff up to impress their deviant offspring.

Your point's well taken, though, and I of course agree wholeheartedly that festivities which emphasize community idenity like the 4th of July are in more direct competition with communion than those with more personalized significance.

TheBlueRaja said...

Geanan,

I just realized i missed your comment! Maybe it was a subconcious act of self-preservation. That's a hard question!

I'm afraid the practical outworking of this in our body has been a struggle. We still fight to try and give people a sense of community idenity that transcends thier individual families, workplace loyalties and nationalism; but the compartmentalized thinking which relegates church life to "programs" and "activities" is ingrained so deeply that it's hard to know how to fight it.

We have so many wonderful believers who display a high degree of personal faithfulness in our church; we have friendly and inviting people who chat for hours on Sunday (we have to practically physically break up the "greeting time in the service" so we can fit a sermon in!); but it's still hard to know how to break down the wall of separation between personal problems, personal finance, personal joys and community life.

Any suggestions?