Imagine a dinner table, where there are several hungry people sitting, and they begin to eat. But instead of forks, knives, and spoons folks just ripped meat off the bone with their dirty hands and shoved it in their mouths. Food scraps are scattered across the table. In addition to no utensils, there are no individual glasses; instead jugs are passed across the table to those who wanted a drink.
Growing up, this was a typical dinner when my mom was out of town. Actually, it’s a description of how people ate in the year 1650—an account that 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 as this one, the book explains how choices about food shaped cultural and political identities back in the earliest days of our country.
McWilliams’ book broaches the expression, “You are what you eat” in a unique manner. He explains how the idea “You are what you eat” applies to entire countries as well as to individual citizens because the decisions about which crops to grow and what food to eat had an impact on regional identities in colonial times. And, he contends, it also fueled the desire to secede from England.
McWilliams said, “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 Native American 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!”
From all this we can glean that what you eat and how you eat it can sometimes define the person—“You are what you eat.” But unfortunately what you ate, and subsequently, who you were, became yet another source of division in our already heavily divisive world.
It was true in Colonial America. It is true today. It is true in the Corinthian church.
In First Corinthians, the apostle Paul addresses the 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, gathered together, in the name of Jesus Christ.
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 would frequently sacrifice an animal to a Greek god or goddess, burn some of the meat on an altar, and then eat some in a ritualistic meal. The remainder of the sacrificial animal was sold to the local market, which then turned around and resold it to the public. It was kind of gross, but economical— you could probably get a pretty good deal on some day-old idol-meat.
This posed a problem for the Christians of Corinth, who didn’t want to be associated with meat that had been sacrificed to a Greek deity. Given their choice, they would never eat such meat, but it was tough to avoid, since it could pop up at the local supermarket, or at a neighbor’s dinner party, or in a religious festival that had important social significance.
So they ask Paul, “What’s a Christian to do?”
Paul’s answer 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, really, only to a block of wood or stone. There is no God but the one true God.
He stresses that Jesus is Lord over all, therefore, food that has been sacrificed to idols is still just food. The problem is, not everyone has this knowledge or belief.
Like British aristocrats who look at corn and think “pig food,” there are Corinthian Christians who look at idol-meat and think “pagan poison.”
They believe if they eat this stuff, their conscience will be defiled—they believe you are what you eat. The best course then, 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.
Paul says, “If food is a cause of their falling 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.
This becomes a powerful take away for us today.
Can you imagine 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 log from our own eye before we attempt to remove the splinter from a neighbor’s eye.
That’s the kind of table manners we want around our dinner table. That’s the kind of table manners Jesus wants too.
“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— 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. And the place to begin is in the development of personal relationships across political and theological barriers.
This requires, however, 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.
In our world today, it means encouraging the conservatives to talk with the liberals, and liberals to talk with conservatives, and to build such deeply personal relationships that church members will trust and support one another as they seek to do Christ’s work in the world.
Jerry Creedon, pastor of St. Charles Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia, believes that this approach is essential, and he insists that Christians today need to find a way through conservative and liberal frameworks to “an underlying experience of faith.”
What this means is that we are challenged to identify shared Christian principles that reach beyond the typical political boundaries, and can be embraced by Republicans-Democrats, Conservatives-liberals and all points in between. These unifying principles can be as simple as seeking justice and ending hunger.
After all, these are the core stances that have shaped the work of Bread for the World, a nationwide Christian citizens’ movement, which provides a faithful, nonpartisan voice on hunger issues both here and abroad.
Rev. Creedon points out that Bread for the World has both Republicans and Democrats working within its organization. Former GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole and former Clinton administration budget director Leon Panetta are on its board of directors.
All of its leaders and partners are intently focused on the mission to make social policy that helps those who are hungry but don’t have adequate food. By remaining true to shared Christian principles, in spite of differences, Bread for the World is able to speak with a unified Christian voice. And they do it through strong personal relationships and shared Christian principles.
These are the table manners we are called 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 they soon learned that 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 God’s 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 God gives us Jesus, the Bread of Life.
There is much good food for us to eat, all provided by our God who wants us to be healthy and satisfied and strong.
So let us eat our fill, of all God provided and show each other, and the world, the love that is grounded in personal relationships and Christian principles.
If we do, we’ll be minding our faithful table manners. Amen.