Friday, December 09, 2011

A Major Conflict

Friday, December 9, 2011 -- Week of 2 Advent , Year Two
Karl Barth, Pastor and Theologian, 1968

Today's Readings for the Daily Office
(Book of Common Prayer, p. 937)
Psalms 31 (morning)       //       35 (evening)
Haggai 1:1-15
Revelation 2:18-29
Matthew 23:27-39

It strikes me that, in this portion of the book of the Revelation, we get a peek into an early church fight that was also a conflict between two contibutors to our New Testament.  The fact that the church honors both authors and their writings as sacred writ, revelation that is authoritative for our doctrine and worship, tells us something profound about theological disagreements and our relationship in community.

The issue is meat offered to idols.  Other than in Israel, virtually all of the meat that was sold in the public markets in New Testament days would have been dedicated to one of the civic gods through some public ritual of prayer and sacrifice.  Residents attached both a patriotic and a religious significance to such rituals.  To be a law abiding neighbor under Roman rule, one honored the observances of the civil religion as a sign of loyalty and identity. 

Could Christians eat such meat?  That was a crucial issue for the early church scattered throughout the Roman Empire.  If the butcher had performed the customary and proper rituals, thanking the gods and dedicating the life of the animals and their meat to Apollo (at the renowned temple in Thyatira) or to another one of the gods honored in another community, would it be an act of idolatry for a follower of Jesus to eat that meat?  Would a Christian be participating in the prayers and loyalty to another god by eating meat offered to idols?

Paul devotes a significant portion of his letters to this question.  His answer is permissive.  Christians know that those other gods are no gods, only God is God and Jesus is Lord.  So don't worry about it.  Enjoy the meat and eat it giving thanksgiving to God through Jesus Christ.

He notes one exception.  If you are dining with one whose conscience is immature, who still might believe in the existence and presence of other gods, out of consideration of the weakness of their conscience, you might refrain from eating on that occasion so as not to tempt them into what they (falsely) regard as idolatry.  They are immature and theologically incorrect, says Paul, but they are your brothers and sisters, and you should be generous to them.  Respect their scruples when you are at table with them.  Tomorrow night at your house -- bar-b-que joyfully.

The author of the book of the Revelation to John disagrees.  He regards eating meat sacrificed to idols as a form of spiritual fornication. 

Yesterday we read the words of the angel to the church in Pergamum, calling the teaching of tolerance toward food sacrificed to idols "the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel."  Balaam was an ancient prophet who was a symbol of cultural accommodation (Numbers 22-25).  John calls the practice of eating food dedicated to the other gods "fornication."  (2:14, 20, 22) 

Today, speaking to the church in Thyatira, a city with a famous temple of Apollo, John lashes out against a local church leader, a Christian woman prophet whom John calls "Jezebel."  He condemns her teaching as "beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.  ...Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead."

This woman prophet in the church of Thyatira might have been one appointed by Paul or someone aligned with Paul's missionary movement.  We know that Paul appointed women leaders in the church, and that Paul taught that eating meat dedicated to idols was permissible. 

The writings of Paul and John stand in eternal disagreement about this issue of eating meat offered to idols.  It was an important conflict in the early church.  Almost all meat in Greco-Roman cities was dedicated to the city gods.

As the church authorized the books of the New Testament, the church did not demand theological consistency by eliminating the words of one or the other of these early Christian leaders.  (Although the acceptance of Revelation as canonical was resisted for some time.) 

So I think the church today can also tolerate, honor and accept strongly held contrasting theological views and still maintain community.  We have an ancient tradition of holding to a very few essentials (and those are debated) while allowing diverse opinions on secondary theological themes.

It is clear that John did not regard the issue of meat offered to idols as a secondary issue.  He was passionate about the subject.  Our sense from Paul's writing is that he was equally passionate.  If they had ever been in the same room at the same time talking about the issue, I can imagine the fireworks. 

But the church embraced them both in the New Testament canon, and the particular issue went away, for the most part.  (I've heard stories from missionaries in tribal lands that raised the question anew in more recent history.)

What questions that threaten to create division and schism might be comparable in our time?  Issues of gender and sexuality come to mind.  Other issues about exclusion and toleration also come to mind -- the discussion about our relationship with other faiths. 

We have a New Testament model.  We may speak our sincere beliefs with power and passion, even with inflammatory rhetoric.  But we should also hold on to our shared identity and communion as surely as the binding of the New Testament holds together both Paul and John.


Audio podcast:  Listen to an audio podcast of the most recent Morning Reflections from today and the past week.  Click the following link:
Morning Reflection Podcasts

About Morning Reflections
"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
An online resource for praying the Daily Office is found at -- Click for online Daily Office
Another form of the office from Phyllis Tickle's "Divine Hours" is available on our partner web site at this location -- --  Click for Divine Hours

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church
is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

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Our Rule of Life: 
We aspire to...
    worship weekly
    pray daily
    learn constantly
    serve joyfully 
    live generously.

Lowell Grisham, Rector
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, Arkansas


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