Idolatry as Fellowship

This is an after-the-fact write-up of a homily I prepared and gave back on Friday.  It is from the Votive Mass On the Holy Eucharist, and the readings I chose are: Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Psalm 116:10-19, I Corinthians 10:1-22, John 6:47-58.  This homily is an exposition of the passage from I Corinthians 10.

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First of all, I want to point out the 3-part structure of the passage.  It starts off with a case study from ancient Israel (v1-5), then Paul gives some teaching on it, applying it to his readers’ lives (v6-14), and then he rounds it off with a second case study from the Corinthians’ own church (v15-22).  We shall examine each of these sections in turn.

Looking at the story from ancient Israel, the first four verses give us a clear but incomplete prefiguring of the gospel sacraments.  Israel was “baptized into Moses,” meaning that they were bound to the covenant which Moses mediated; this is just like how we Christians now are baptized into Christ, meaning that we are bound to the covenant which Christ mediates.  The Israelites ate manna, the “bread of angels” (cf. Deut. 8:2-3, Psalm 78:23-25), which powerfully evokes the presence of the pre-incarnate Body of Christ.  Thirdly, the “water from the rock which is Christ” points to the water which flowed from Jesus’ side on the cross, which in turn points to the procession of the Holy Spirit upon the Church.  In short, the ancient Israelites under Moses had protoypes for the Christian rites of Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation.  But despite these beautiful gifts of what we could call “proto-sacraments,” they still sinned and God had to overthrow them.

Paul says that we can learn from this.  In verse 7, he explains that after participating in this awesome protosacramental worship experience they still immediately got up and sinned.  Check this verse out in multiple translations, because it gets a lot of great images to describe it!  In particular, this sin that they pursued was idolatry.  And God punished them swiftly and powerfully for this.  What we need to learn from this is not only that we need to stand firm against temptation, but especially that God will provide us “a way out.”  In other words, God will give us the strength to escape sin; we don’t have that strength on our own.  And as verse 14 says, we can start by fleeing from idols!

However, identifying what counts as idolatry these days can be quite difficult.  Very few people build statues and worship them, or overtly give reverence to material things like we see in accounts of the ancient world.  That is why Paul gives us this second case study in verses 15-22 – to give us a more up-to-date example.

This second example begins with some powerful words about the Christian Sacrament of Holy Communion: the blood which we bless is a participation/service/sharing in Christ’s blood, and the bread which we break is a participation/service/sharing in Christ’s body, and by multiple people eating one loaf together, the many are made into one body.  Most Protestants today have gutted this passage, turning it into an analogy of spiritual things, devaluing the physical act, but that is a grave error.  Understanding these statements strong hinge upon the meaning of the word that is translated as participation, or service, or sharing, depending on which translation you pick up.  For, as we continue to read through this passage, we find the same word used in a couple more examples.  In verse 18, Paul uses the then-familiar example of the Israelite Priest making a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple, and how in eating that he participates/shares in the altar, somehow effecting a union between Israel and God.  Even further, verse 20 warns us not to participate/share with demons.  But what does this word really mean?

The Greek word behind it, I was surprised to discover, is one that has become familiar and popular in Evangelical circles lately: κοινονία.  Koinonia denotes intimate household fellowship, one of the closest bonds of fellowship there is.  It’s about a real sharing in one another, building and maintaining a common identity, and being parts of one another’s lives.  So now we can unravel these three examples of fellowship.  Celebrating Holy Communion is an intimate fellowship that binds the Church together with one another as well as with God, much like how the Israelite priests used to preside over sacrifices that brought restitution between God and Israel (or at least prefigured the true restitution to come in the true sacrifice of the Messiah).  On a similar, though more chilling, note, participating with pagans in idol worship is binding an intimate fellowship with demons.  Yikes!

But looking at verses 19-21, it seems like Paul goes on a tangent.  Why does Paul feel the need to bring up the issue of pagan food offerings to idols anyway?  When we read about the power of Christian fellowship, it doesn’t beg the question in our minds to infer that false religions carry similar power.  But Paul was writing to the church in Corinth, and this was a prominent issue that they faced.  He already dealt with it more fully in chapter 8, and he brings it up again now just briefly to make sure his readers don’t get sidetracked.  So while the bread of the Christian Eucharist is a holy instrument of God’s Spirit to bind us together with one another and with him, the food that pagans sacrifice to idols is nothing, as their idols are nothing.  But the religious ceremonies they carry out in worshiping false gods are a binding of fellowship with demons.  So while their physical acts are empty, their spiritual acts are dangerous, and we should stay away from that.

The key to all this, particularly comparing the example of ancient Israel with the example of the Christian Eucharist and their common application in between, is recognizing that ancient Israel’s idolatry is equated with Church-Age bad fellowship.  It’s easy for us today to think of idolatry as worshiping statues, but in fact fellowshipping with demons is itself a form of idolatry.  As verse 22 puts it, would we rose God’s jealous wrath?  Are we stronger than he?

But why should Paul ask “are we stronger than he?”  The answer to this is found back in verses 7-14: our strength to fight sin is in Christ, not in ourselves.  We don’t want to come out of beautiful sacramental worship, particularly the Eucharist, thinking that we are now empowered to go out and defeat sin on our own.  No, the Eucharist binds us into deeper fellowship with Christ, and it is his strength that empowers us to continue the battle against sin.  As for the question of idolatrous fellowship, this is best addressed by asking ourselves what we seek to do that steps on and pushes aside our fellowship with God.  Some warning signs can include when we are itching to get out of Sunday morning worship to go watch the football game, when we prefer communion with friends over communion with God, and when we are “too tired” to pray at night.  Bad fellowship hurts us, even binds us closer to demons, enslaving us further to the power of sin.  Bad fellowship also angers God.  Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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