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One of the great blessings of being a Presbyterian minister for over 40 years is meeting wonderful folks like Fran Jarrett, a long time member at St. Andrew. Fran is the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries who served in the Belgium Congo in the 1950’s. Once Fran told me the story of the conflicts between four tribal groups in the isolated region of the Congo where her family lived. These conflicts centered on food; in essence, these were food fights. Later these food fights became quite violent when the Belgium Congo broke out in civil war in the early 1960’s. Don’t think food fight like John Belushi in the movie “Animal House”. These were very real and violent differences.
Now the Luba tribe was, as we say, at the top of the food chain. They were meat eaters and so raised their cattle, goats, and sheep. Right below them was the Lulua tribe living on the river eating fish. Next came the Sala tribe whose main diet consisted of grasshoppers and grubs. I might add parenthetically that the Sala tribe dabbled occasionally in cannibalism, but that’s a different food group altogether.
Now at the bottom of the food chain was the Nyoka tribe. They ate snakes. That meant the Nyoka tribe was universally despised for eating critters crawling on the ground. Even the Sala tribe, with their grasshoppers, grubs and occasional cannibalism, looked down imperiously on the Nyoka tribe, the eater of snakes. Which reminds us that everybody needs someone to look down upon imperiously!
But I am happy to report that all four tribes had one dietary preference in common. Had they all met together for a peace treaty, they would all have agreed on the main dish-rats! Yes, they all ate rats! There, finally, something we can all agree on. Now Fran reminded me that rats in the Congo could be as big as hefty rabbits. These were not your typical laboratory rats. These were large main dish rats, husky enough to feed all four tribes. If only the Luba, Lulua, Sala, and Nyoka tribes could have sat down to discuss peace over a sumptuous feast of roasted rats! If only!
Now the early Christian community knew what it was to have a food fight. In truth, Gentiles and Jews had engaged in a food fight for over a thousand years. At issue was the Jewish commitment to kosher food. Paul as a strict Pharisee had never even countenanced the idea of eating non-kosher food-so no shrimp, lobster or pork, not on your life. Paul kept kosher zealously as he did everything else pertaining to the Law of Moses. But once Christ was revealed to him and he became an apostle to the Gentiles, Paul began to look at this issue differently. No doubt, Peter had told him of the vision at Joppa where he was told to eat both clean and unclean animals. Paul understood Peter’s vision as the church’s commission to move beyond strict observance of kosher food laws.
Nevertheless, the issue of food became quite contentious for the early church. Why? Because Jews and Gentiles found themselves in fellowship with one another in the church, many for the first time ever. They discovered that they did not always agree on the kind of food they could eat together, like those four tribes in the Congo.
Now remember that the central focus of worship for these early Christians was in fact a meal. The Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, was really a meal concluded with the words over the bread and the cup. That act of remembrance celebrated Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples and his self-offering for them. These meals presented an acute challenge. Would the community include non-kosher food in what became their love feasts?
At Antioch the whole issue boiled over when Peter and Paul were at table with Gentile Christians. It’s quite likely they were eating non-kosher food. But when Jewish Christians showed up, Peter withdrew from the table and would not eat with the Gentile Christians. This sent Paul right up the wall and he openly confronted Peter about his hypocrisy. This was a food fight of the first order, mano y mano, Paul versus Peter.
A second version of the food fight concerns meat that had been offered to idols. If you wanted to buy meat in the Mediterranean culture, you went to the butcher shop connected to the pagan temples. The left over meat from the pagan sacrifices was then sold to support the temple. Paul spends three whole chapters on this issue in his first letter to the Corinthians. Let’s just say Paul offers a bit of contextual advice about how to deal with that thorny food fight. Whether to eat such food boiled down to this: it was permissible if no one was offended, but not permissible is someone was. Interestingly, John the writer of the Book of Revelation disagrees. He was completely opposed to eating meat offered to idols. See Rev. 2: 14 and 20.
In his letter to the Romans Paul spends a good deal of time on yet a third version of the food fight. This time it was between vegetarians and meat eaters. Methinks the conflict between carnivores and vegans rages even to this day! Back then this conflict led to the vegetarians judging harshly the meat eaters and the meat eaters despising the vegetarians. Remember this was a food fight within the church, brothers and sisters in Christ on both sides of the table, as it were. Judging and despising one another over their choice of food!
Now Paul says that the vegetarians are weak in faith and he calls the meat eaters strong in faith. That is, the vegetarians seem to think that something that goes into your body can be inherently unclean and thus contaminate your body and spirit. But Paul seems to side with the meat eaters when he alludes to Mark 7:19. There the Gospel writer says that Jesus declared all food clean. Paul agreed that God created all things good, including all kinds of food-vegetables, fruits, fish, poultry, and meat of all kinds.
But Paul insists that the strong should bear with the weak and the weak should tolerate the strong. Judging and despising one another had to stop. For Paul, we must remember that the “kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Food should not destroy our fellowship. Love and tolerance should bind us together.
And that is why Paul finally concludes this section with these magnificent words, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Welcome one another, despite your diversity. The body of Christ must tolerate acceptable differences within the community. Luther calls such minor differences “adiaphora”, matters of indifference. So accept one another, even when you cannot completely agree on the menu. Enough of food fights. Our life together in Christ binds us together in ways that make our differences manageable.
Don’t destroy the body of Christ because of your feelings about food. Gracious. Remember that we eat from the same loaf, the broken body of our Lord. We drink from one cup, the life of Christ poured out for us all. That is why we welcome one another. Why? Because we ourselves have been so graciously welcomed into a fellowship of love and grace. Extend that love and grace to others, regardless of your differences with them.
At St. Andrew Presbyterian there is a banner at the entrance to the sanctuary that reads: “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” On the banner are pictures of the St. Andrew community, a wonderfully diverse company of God’s people. This banner reminded the congregation that all who entered into that sanctuary are children of God, loved by God, accepted by Christ who is the Savior of us all.
All kinds of people come through our doors here at First Presbyterian. Rich and poor. Theological liberals and conservatives and everything in between. Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and the politically disenfranchised. Gays and straights and trans-gendered and those who are simply confused about their sexual identity. The truly brilliant and those not so bright. The deeply committed faithful Christian and the skeptic and the ambivalent. Jesus once described the church as a net with all kinds of fish in it. We are not birds of a feather flocking together.
Our differences ultimately do not matter-most of it is a matter of red or green. What holds us together is this: Christ’s outstretched arms of love. Welcoming arms of mercy and grace that accept you just as you are.
Words of welcome, words of invitation from Christ himself: “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Here all of God’s struggling children find their true home in the arms of Christ. And thus we can say with Paul, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.” Amen.