On Gluttony

by Anders Jonåker

A note to our Readers: This sermon was preached as part of a series on “The Seven Deadly Sins” in November 2009 and has been translated with permission for Pietisten. Våra nordiska läsare kan hitta det svenska originalet på kyrkans hemsida, www.immanuel153.se, klicka på ”undervisning,” ”Dödssynd IV: Frosseri - Vecka 44.” —MS

First, I just want to say something about all this with “the seven deadly sins.” To begin with, it is not a biblical concept, but is instead drawn from the history of the Church. We heard the background to this in the introduction to this sermon series. Earlier in the Church there was a perspective that certain sins led to eternal damnation, and furthermore that these sins were almost unforgiveable. What I would say is that there is no support in the Bible for such a general condemnation on the basis of certain sins. We read in the letter to the Romans 3:23-24: “…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus....” The biblical principle is that everyone has sinned. On our own we can do nothing about how sin relates to God and to God’s forgiveness. It is God alone who forgives sins. In this we are all alike.

In light of this, the question easily arises, “Is there any point to talking about all this with sin, if in the end it is not possible to do anything about it?” The question is not all that simple. But it leads us to related questions about what the confessions of the Christian faith are and how Christian faith is expressed in the life of the human being. At any rate, sin reminds us every day of two things. First, sin needs to be forgiven. This happens through prayer to God for forgiveness. Every day, you can pray for forgiveness and be forgiven. Sin also reminds us of the nature of our lives, as it relates to ourselves and to others. This becomes most apparent when we pray the prayer of forgiveness contained in the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Forgiveness has a relational dimension. We who are able to accept forgiveness – are supposed to pass it on.

The deadly sins are not the only list of sins worth noting. There are also others in the Bible. In the letter to the Galatians there is talk of the “works of the flesh” and the “fruits of the spirit” (5:19-26). It is from here that we have derived what has been called the Catalogues of Sins (syndakataloger). These lists could become quite long if we were to immerse ourselves in them now. I, for one, do not see a purpose in that. The question that we have been posing these past Sundays is instead how we can find a balance in life, so that we appreciate and joyfully accept the gifts of God, both the bodily and physical, but also forgiveness and love.

The theme for the day – the deadly sin of the day – is gluttony. All of us certainly have some experience with this. The Swedish expression, “take a cake to the pastor” presents a rather common recurring dilemma. Not to mention Christmas smorgasbords. After a trip through Congo – one of the poorest of the developing countries – I have to say that the very tradition of Christmas smorgasbords fits very well the definition of the deadly sin of gluttony. Stuffing yourself with so much food – at the same time as so many are starving – for me this is becoming more and more unfathomable.

But the world is not black-and-white. For example, take Astrid Lindgren’s classic children’s book and film, Emil i Lönneberga. When Emil brings the residents from the poorhouse to his farm Katthult so that they can feast on all the carefully prepared Christmas food, this naturally devolves into a rare spectacle of gluttony. But when the last crumb is eaten, then you can certainly start to wonder if this really was gluttony according to the definition of the deadly sins. Or instead was it mere compassion when the abundance of God’s gifts were shared more equitably. The question of sin really has a horizontal dimension. “One bread and one body” – this is also what we pray during Communion. Here you can ask yourself why gluttony fits in the category of the seven deadly sins. Isn’t everything that God created a gift from God and intended to be a joy to human beings?

We can read about this in the account of creation, for example. An interesting detail is when God creates sea and light and the earth and human beings, and so on. There it says that “it was good.” But when food was created on the sixth day, there it says that it was “very good!” Look, it was very good. Not just good, but even very good. Don’t we have an indication that we actually are allowed to take part in all of this goodness? That we may take joy in everything that God offers on his table? “It was very good.” By this I want to defend the notion, first and foremost, that there is something completely good about all of these gifts that God gives to human beings. There is really nothing that we should be ashamed to receive. Quite the opposite these things do not exist just for our survival – but also for our well-being. “It was very good.” In the Psalms we read: “…bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart…” (Ps. 104:14-15). It can even be said about Jesus that he is “…a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19). Shouldn’t we here question how serious all this about gluttony really is? Haven’t the watchmen of the Church misinterpreted the words of the Bible regarding the gifts of God?

Also, if we look closer at the life of Jesus it is actually interesting the manner in which he spends time with people. It is to a great extent – in fact, a very great extent – during mealtimes. Why? We find one contributing factor in Genesis: well – for it was “very good.” Jesus demonstrated the gifts of God through his lifestyle. One of my favorite stories is the miracle of the wine at Cana when Jesus changes water into wine. You can almost see him walking into the kitchen area, tasting, talking with the servants until he suddenly realizes that this meal is so important that it needs something altogether extra. And then the miracle happens. The celebration that was threatened to come to a halt is brought back to life. The story also contains a symbolism that is reminiscent of Communion. It has to do with what God gives to human beings and how we humans are invited to take part in these gifts with one another. We should not belittle the relationship that Jesus has to the good gifts God created for human beings. Remember also that when the Kingdom of God will be accomplished it is compared to a great banquet.

“What’s the problem?,” you might ask. Well, it is what I indicated in the beginning – the social situation that we humans find ourselves in and the balance that is necessary for a life that is upright, just, and full of integrity. We are also here referred to ourselves, I think. How do I take care of myself when it comes to consumption, and how do I share life and the gifts of life together with others? “Every abuse is nourished by anxiety, lack of contact and trust,” as the organization Alcoholics Anonymous puts it. It is a void that has to be filled. In the lack of basic inner needs people seek comfort and fulfillment through, among other things, bingeing on merchandise, food and alcohol. We can pose this question: How does the Church and the Christian faith respond to this? There must be some reason that we tend to say things like, “this is sinfully delicious.” I once read in an advertisement for fatty salmon with mayonnaise on rustic rye bread the slogan: “Sin and Forgiveness.” There is an aspect of eating that is unsound. The age of prohibitions and rules has passed, and has proven to lead to the opposite result. People have lost the joy of faith due to all of the rules.

When we speak of the deadly sins, therefore, we are able to see the value of looking toward its opposite, the corresponding virtue. In today’s theme this is moderation, a concept that points toward balance. The Church lives in a rhythm of both festivals and fasts. The moderation of the fast is balanced out by the joy of the festival. Now, one could be led to believe that it is abstinence that is being recommended here. That is incorrect. It is rhythm that is the answer. In practice it can mean that the meals of the weekday are simpler and the meals of the weekend are more festive. The foundational part is eating together. If we read the stories of the New Testament, this theme is difficult to avoid. Sometimes one wonders if Jesus had time for anything else but eating with people? On that day when the Kingdom of God is realized, which according to the Bible will be concluded with one long banquet, we will hopefully receive the answer of what a good party is, without any gluttony or tedious moderation. That will be the day when everything is forgiven. That will be the day when all of God’s gifts will be shared in a renewed community, and not on the terms of unrighteousness.