Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany.
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning meat that has been sacrificed to a false god: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. If anyone thinks they know something, they don’t yet know as much as they should know. But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.
So concerning the actual food involved in these sacrifices to false gods, we know that a false god isn’t anything in this world, and that there is no God except for the one God. Granted, there are so-called “gods,” in heaven and on the earth, as there are many gods and many lords. However, for us believers,
There is one God the Father.
All things come from him, and we belong to him.
And there is one Lord Jesus Christ.
All things exist through him, and we live through him.
But not everybody knows this. Some are eating this food as though it really is food sacrificed to a real idol, because they were used to idol worship until now. Their conscience is weak because it has been damaged. Food won’t bring us close to God. We’re not missing out if we don’t eat, and we don’t have any advantage if we do eat. But watch out or else this freedom of yours might be a problem for those who are weak. Suppose someone sees you (the person who has knowledge) eating in an idol’s temple. Won’t the person with a weak conscience be encouraged to eat the meat sacrificed to false gods? The weak brother or sister for whom Christ died is destroyed by your knowledge. You sin against Christ if you sin against your brothers and sisters and hurt their weak consciences this way. This is why, if food causes the downfall of my brother or sister, I won’t eat meat ever again, or else I may cause my brother or sister to fall.
“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”
That is a line, of course, from the most famous logician of the modern era—the Vulcan alien Spock from the original Star Trek series.
Spock’s devotion to logic is iconic. Even the most nerd-culture averse can probably picture him with those pointy ears, the raised eyebrow, and the deep, resonant voice complaining that one of Captain Kirk’s schemes was not… logical.
Spock came from an alien race that had stomped out their emotions in order to live in a world of cold, pure, logic… and to some extent it seemed to work. But at times, the approach left something wanting.
Spock was such a hit that all the subsequent iterations of Star Trek have a similar character, someone who excels in the world of the factual but falters against feelings. There’s Data, the android who wants to be a man, Odo, the gruff shapeshifter who struggles to fit in, Seven of Nine, the ex-borg who must regain her humanity, and finally T’pol, another entry from the Vulcan category.
If any of that means something to you, then we grew up in very similar households.
My point is that something about a character who follows logic to the exclusion of all else struck a chord with the American viewer, so much so that the franchise kept returning to the theme over and over again. The character allowed the writers to ask questions like these:
What is the value of logic?
What is the limit of logic?
What do you lose by ignoring logic?
And what do you gain?
It’s worth noting that the franchise is neither pro nor anti logic. Sometimes Spock wins the day. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes other characters need to be pulled back to the integrity of his approach. And sometimes they show him his lens needs to be a little wider.
I don’t think the Apostle Paul could have imagined a world like that shown on the Star Trek series, but I think he would have appreciated the tug-of-war between logic and emotion. It is that same tension that he is working with here in Corinthians. The passage is about idol meat, but that is only a case study. The real question here is about how to be right.
In case you were wondering, Paul is not arguing here for vegetarianism. The concerns about idol meat are not so much the meat, but the idolatry. Briefly, in the city of Corinth, as across the Roman empire, people would sacrifice animals to the gods, as a way of incurring their blessing. Luckily, the gods tended to like the fat and bones best, so the good stuff was left over, and either sold in the marketplace or served at temple dinners. These early Christians would have found their plates full of idol meat at every turn—at meals with family and friends, at business luncheons and political meetings, at the butcher’s stall. And it would have made things very awkward for them, both personally and professionally, to sit down at the dinner table and eat the bread and vegetables their hosts offered but not the meat.
And so the Christians of Corinth, who have promised to turn away from every idol and pagan rite to follow Christ, figure out a solution to this sticky morass of etiquette and religion. “They argue that there are no other gods. Just the one true God. So there’s no danger to Christians in eating the meat. All the other gods from all the points in the supply chain aren’t real. Whatever rituals have been performed involving those gods and the animals or meat are meaningless, because the gods don’t exist. It’s a total intellectual argument. Pure logic. Everyone see the logic of it?”
Spock would be so proud.
Yet others aren’t so sure. The pull of paganism is strong; it greases the economic, social, and political wheels of Corinthian life. Can you really get so close to something that tempting and not get sucked in? If you’re new to this Christ thing, and you see all the Christians hobnobbing it in the temple, doesn’t that make it seem like you really don’t have to be all that exclusive with your new faith?
The first group rolls their eyes, and writes to Paul. They boast that they have figured out this elegant solution to do what is most convenient for them, and if he could tell everyone that they’re right, they would really appreciate it.
And he does—but perhaps not how they wanted.
“Paul steps in and says, basically, “You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right.” He doesn’t argue with the logic. In this time when we can’t seem to agree on basic facts, basic logic, when we can’t agree that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, notice what Paul does. He says the logic is correct, they have thought their way through the problem clearly and correctly. But he doesn’t say, “and here is how to make your argument more forcefully, more convincing.” He says, “Your argument isn’t loving enough. These people may be confused, but your argument isn’t doing enough to keep them connected with Jesus Christ. Yes, we are just talking about food, and food isn’t going to matter one way or another, so rather than insist on being intellectually right, step back and decide what’s more important. Being right or remaining connected to one another and to Jesus.” 
In other words, Paul says, there’s a right way to be right, and this ain’t it.
It’s true that the idol meat doesn’t really matter as a purely intellectual argument. But if it is damaging other people’s faith, if it is making them think they don’t have to take Christ all that seriously, if it is driving them away from a congregation made up of boasters lording their rightness over everything—than it’s better not to eat the meat. Better to put all your personal ease and convenience—even your own rightness—aside, to build up their faith.
I admit that I bristle at this a bit. I grouse at the idea that someone else’s faith is my responsibility. I want cold, hard, logic to always give us the way forward.
But people are messy, and while logic is a tool, it cannot be the whole toolbox. Paul offers up as equally important the role of love. What is the loving argument, he asks? What can you do to love these people? What can you do to help them love God? Even if it’s not 100% logical?
A few years ago, a friend held a congregational meeting about a sanctuary renovation at her church. It was the most dramatic, contentious, chaotic congregation meeting, with folks shouting at each other and threatening to leave the church if their ideas for sound systems, paint colors, and chancel restorations weren’t followed to a T. It got ugly, and two parishioners came to blows.
I thought she was exaggerating when she told me that. She wasn’t.
Somebody in that argument, of course, was right. There was a sound system that was best for the space, and a color that would be most pleasing, and a restoration company that would do the best work for the fairest price. Some people were right, and some people were wrong. But no one—right or wrong, remembered to be loving.
People left the church. Not the ones who were shouting—they stuck it out and eventually made up—but the ones who were watching. The ones who were watching their leadership be right, in exactly the wrong way.
There are a lot of arguments going on right now. Arguments about health care and politics, arguments about race relations and policing, arguments about safety and masks, arguments about stocks—apparently something’s happening with Game Stop?—arguments about schooling and parenting, arguments about what the church should be doing during a pandemic. And of course there’s all the little arguments of our lives—about who unloaded the dishwasher last and how much to spend on takeout and whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich. We’re drowning in arguments, and that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes arguments—even real, uncomfortable conflict—can give us clarity about what we value. Can help us make the way forward. Sometimes arguments can give us ideas we never considered, or solutions we’d never find alone.
But only if we approach them with love.
It is possible to argue in love. It is possible to have loving conflict. But only when we give up our stranglehold on being right at all costs, and accept our responsibility to be loving—to speak with kindness, honesty, clarity, and compassion, even when we’re mad enough to chew glass.
To argue in love does not mean we have to condone behaviors that are clearly wrong, or that damage us or other people. To argue in love means to have the goal in mind, not just of our own vindication, but of the good of the whole community. Sometimes logic will help us get there. But sometimes we have to meet people where they are.
“Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”
This is a line from Spock, but not from the original TV series. It comes from the last of the original movies, when Spock is older, and has seen much. Logic has taken him far, but learning to work with people—their fear and frailty, their passion and ridiculous courage, their convictions and their way of seeing the world—it has made him softer. More loving.
He does not discount logic, but he sees it now as only a piece of wisdom, wisdom that builds a better future.
The Christian life is not a life of pure logic. It is also a life of love. Of being right, but in the right way. Of looking to the good of others as much as ourselves. Of building each other up—even if it means sacrificing our favorite meatball sub.
Paul declares that he will not eat idol meat if doing so takes someone farther from their faith in Christ. Do we have that same strength, to be more loving than we are right?
It may not be logical, Captain. But it is our holy calling.
 Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
 Rev. Catherine A. Merrill. “The Love of Idols.” January 28, 2018. Brookline Community Church, Brookline, NH.