They were hungry, so they ripped meat off the bone with their dirty hands and shoved it in their mouths. Food scraps were scattered across the table. No forks, spoons or individual cups. Pots of cider were passed across the table to the person who wanted a drink.
Sounds like a typical dinner when Mom is out of town, right?
Actually, it’s a description of how people ate in the year 1650. It comes from a book called A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, by historian James McWilliams. In addition to describing such lovely colonial meals, the book explains how choices about food shaped cultural and political identities back in the earliest days of our country.
You’ve heard the expression, “You are what you eat.” Well, this idea applies to entire countries as well as to individual citizens. Decisions about which crops to grow and what food to eat had an impact on regional identities in colonial times. It also fueled the desire to secede from England.
Take the Pilgrims. They quickly found that there was a problem with the Massachusetts soil — it would not grow wheat, a fundamental crop for proper English families. Corn was much better suited to New England soil, but back in their homeland corn was something that you fed to pigs. In time, the Puritans began to copy the Mohegan and Pequot nations and grow corn, and after a while they even began to like it.
But when colonial leader John Winthrop visited London and made the case that corn was completely fit for human consumption, people looked at him as if he were recommending that they eat dog food. Winthrop returned to Massachusetts and began to realize that his people weren’t as English as they used to be.
In time, the colonists started to take pride in their ability to feed themselves, independent of their homeland across the Atlantic. And when British soldiers began stealing food from colonial stockpiles, you can understand why revolution became such an attractive option!
What you eat and how you eat it can sometimes define the person. You are what you eat. It’s as true today as it was in Colonial America, and in the Corinthian church of the first century as well. In today’s Epistle, the apostle Paul addresses the critical question of whether or not Christians ought to eat food that has been offered to idols. He gives them some instruction in the table manners they will need as they sit down as one community together.
Now it’s important for us to realize that idol-food is a big deal in Corinth, and unfortunately it’s found all over the city. Corinthians will frequently sacrifice an animal to a Greek god or goddess, burn some of the meat on an altar, and then eat some of it in a ritualistic meal.
The remainder of the sacrificial animal is sold to the local meat market, which then turns around and resells it to the public. It’s kind of gross, but economical — you can probably get a pretty good deal on slightly used idol-meat.
This poses a problem for the Christians of Corinth, who don’t want to be associated with meat that has been sacrificed to a Greek deity. Given their choice, they won’t ever eat such meat, but it’s tough to avoid the stuff, since it can pop up at the local supermarket, or at a neighbor’s dinner party, or in a religious festival that has important social significance.
So what’s a Christian to do?
Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that therefore, meat that is offered to an idol is not offered to an idol at all but to a block of wood or stone. There is no God but the one true God (1 Corinthians 8:4). He stresses that Jesus is Lord over all that is, so he has power over even the food that has been sacrificed to idols.
Problem is, not everyone has this knowledge or perception. Like British aristocrats who look at corn and think “pig food,” there are Corinthian Christians who look at idol-meat and think “pagan poison.” If they eat this stuff, their conscience will be defiled.
The best course, according to Paul, is to do your best to avoid eating idol-meat. He recommends these table manners not out of knowledge, but out of love. He knows that there is really nothing poisonous about this food, but as a compassionate Christian he doesn’t want to do anything to cause a brother or sister to stumble. “If food is a cause of their falling,” concludes Paul, “I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (8:13).
You are what you eat … or, in this case, you are what you do not eat. Paul’s refusal to eat meat shows that he is a compassionate Christian, one who values love above knowledge. More than anything else, he wants to behave in a way that nourishes, strengthens, and builds up the Christian community, the body of Christ.
What a different church we would be if everyone followed the example of Paul. Instead of fighting over political positions, we would put our passion into outdoing each other in love. Instead of picking on our theological opponents, we would put effort into picking up anyone who has stumbled and fallen. Instead of judging people who have different racial, national, cultural or sexual identities, we would remember to remove the two-by-four from our own eye before we attempt to remove the splinter from a neighbor’s eye (Matthew 7:5).
That’s the kind of behavior that you want around your dinner table.
“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” says Paul to the Corinthians (8:1). He knows that knowledge can lead to a certain puffiness or arrogance — just watch the Sunday morning political shout-fests on TV — but love inspires compassionate attitudes and actions that succeed in building up the church. By focusing on the way of love, we can become a community in which people of different views can actually get along.
The place to begin is in the development of personal relationships across political and theological barriers. This requires building a foundation of understanding and trust, long before any controversial issues are discussed. In the world of Corinth, this means getting the meat-eaters to talk with the non-meat-eaters, and to develop such strong bonds that they would not dream of creating any stumbling blocks for each other.
We are challenged to identify shared Christian principles that reach beyond the typical political boundaries, and can be embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike. These are the table manners we need to practice if we’re going to be able to sit down and eat as one family of faith. These are the qualities that a church community has to embrace if it is going to avoid getting caught up in the food fight of passionate partisan politics.
When the Puritans arrived in Massachusetts, they assumed that the best food to eat was the food they had always eaten. They had grown up with wheat, so they felt strongly that wheat was what a good Christian family was supposed to eat.
But wheat-eaters starve in New England — the soil simply won’t support it. So the Puritans had to focus on corn, and they found that this new food enabled them to survive and even thrive.
So, what are we going to eat around our Christian dinner table today? The food we have consumed in the past, the stomach-turning wheat of partisan politics and mutual condemnation? Or are we going to adapt to the new corn of strong personal relationships and shared Christian principles?
God wants us to be well nourished as a community of faith, and strong enough to do his work in the world. God knows that we are what we eat, and our choices about food shape our identities as faithful or faithless people. That’s why he gives us Jesus, the Bread of Life. That’s why he offers us the fruit of the Spirit, the nourishing fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
There is much good food for us to eat, provided by the God who wants us to be healthy and satisfied and strong. We can eat our fill, and show each other the love that is grounded in personal relationships and Christian principles.
If we do that, we’ll be minding our manners.