So today, as I prepare to deploy in a few hours, I wanted to share some parting words of wisdom to sustain you in my absence. But the only thing that I could think to say was to be on your best behavior and don’t turn the parish into a seedy nightclub with a name like The Copa Chrysostom. So instead I will just focus on the bit we have from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, without delving too much into the prostitute bits – because that might get kind of awkward.
There is a lot going on in this passage, but the overall theme on which Paul is focusing, has to do with our behavior and what we should and should not do and in some cases how much we can do of certain behaviors. And this last part is really the piece I want to discuss today, because that is often the place where decision-making is at its most difficult. For I assume most of us would not be at a loss about whether or not to become the kingpin of a Belarusian drug cartel, but how about taking that second brownie or buying an expensive watch? The question, I think many of us run into is just how much of worldly things are we allowed to indulge in. Where is that line between in the world and of the world?
Paul puts it like this, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” Now the background for this probably relates to the very early Christian question about just how Jewish you had to be in order to be a Christian. Did you have to follow the law or where you now set free? And in that one of the things that often came up were the Jewish dietary laws – did you have to stick with the Mogen David or could you branch out a little, and maybe enjoy a nice Argentinian Malbec now and then. And it seemed that as people abandoned dietary laws some might have been indulging a bit too much. This is why Paul follows up the opening statement by saying, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” And since we are on the subject of food it would seem as good of place as any to get this conversation started about the proper amount of worldly things that the Christian can and should partake in. And the good thing with discussing food is that it does a very nice job of framing the question, because we all eat. So let’s take a moment and think about our relationship with food.
At its most basic we need food to live or as Django said in the movie Ratatouille, “Food is fuel. You get picky about what you put in the tank, your engine is gonna die. Now shut up and eat your garbage.” But we of course know that for most people food is more than just fuel, it is one of life’s great pleasures (that is if it is not prepared by Norwegians). And therein lies the issue. If we simply looked at food as fuel we could treat ourselves like a car and fill up the gas tank when needed and avoid it when not needed. But because it can bring such joy there is the temptation to over-indulge and to give food too great of importance in our lives. After all gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. And so the question becomes; where is the line? Where is the balance between having enough to be properly nourished and gluttony? And this is not an easy thing to judge. Some Christians across the ages have pushed towards asceticism arguing that food should be viewed as simple fuel and should not be tasty lest it become too tempting. In fact, one of the Desert Fathers by the name of Evagrius Ponticus stated, “Keep to a sparse and plain diet, not seeking a variety of tempting dishes. Should the thought come to you of getting extravagant foods in order to give hospitality, dismiss it, do not be deceived by it: for in it the enemy lies in ambush, waiting to tear you away from stillness.” In other words Satan lurks in every jelly donut and deluxe nacho platter. But that is not a universal sentiment. Others have not followed such an ascetical line of thinking, after all Dom Perignon was a Benedictine monk. Now, I really don’t know how good of monk Dom Perignon was, but still it points to the fact that some Christians have been very comfortable with food for mere pleasure. For unless I have been seeing the wrong doctor, I don’t think that anyone has ever received the medical diagnosis that they were not drinking enough champagne. And so the point is that even in the Christian community there is no consensus on where the line is between appropriate eating and gluttony – so what are we to do? How do we make sure that we are not being dominated by anything as Paul says? Well since we have been on the subject of champagne, let me bring in an example that, while not providing a definitive answer, I think can help guide our thinking.
A few years ago in the Wall Street Journal there was a sort of humorous article about various countries and how much their government said was an appropriate amount to drink on a given day. The funny part in the article was that there was no consensus and there was a huge variance. Some countries said you should only have a half of a drink a day while others said that you could have as many as six drinks. I believe the six drinks came from the Basque region in Spain or maybe it was Northern Wisconsin. But, anyway, the author of the article’s conclusion was not so much about which one was right but rather argued that the answer was probably more personal. That is, most people know when they have had enough and if that is one drink and you live in the Basque region of Spain you shouldn’t have five more because the government says that it is okay. And I think finding the line in our Christian walk is much the same, the limit will have to do with our interaction with whatever we are dealing with. We need to sort of know when we are beginning to have an unhealthy relationship with something in our lives; when something becomes more important to us than God. And this will vary from person to person. And while I know this may not be the most satisfying answer, because it puts the responsibility back on us, it is probably the right one.
Paul this morning is most likely addressing those who have said that by Christ replacing the law they could indulge as much as they wanted. But it would seem that in this indulgence they were being dominated by their cravings. Somehow through the death and resurrection of Jesus they found a new god as Paul states in Philippians, “their god is the belly.” The real issue being addressed today is when something that is not God becomes more important than God. If we use the freedom found in Christ to replace him with something else we have missed the entire point. But beyond that the question comes down to whether or not we have made anything in our lives more important than God? And while I know we have used food as our primary example anything can fall into this category, even seemingly pious things. The question that we all must ask when doing anything is do we still love God above it or in our love of the worldly has God been relegated to a second position. And I wish I could give you a step-by-step program to identify such things, but I cannot. We must spend time in prayer and reflection so that we may see if we are loving God first, so that we may be his both now and forevermore.