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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Philippians 3:17– 4:1
August 25, 2013 - Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

         Gluttony seems like sort of a puny sin. You may wonder why it even made the list of the seven deadlies. Arrogant pride that puts down other people, yes. Vicious anger which destroys harmony in families and communities, yes. Unrestrained lust which ruins marriages and pollutes your soul, yes. But eating too much? It just doesn’t seem like that big a deal.

         However, William Willimon says, “curiously, of all the Seven only Gluttony is today more condemned, feared, and shunned than any of the other sins, though not feared as a sin.” He means that we are more judgmental than ever before regarding the consequences of overeating, that is, overweight. Willimon says the “thing that gets us about Gluttony is not the sin but the fat, that globulous bane of middle-aged existence, that to which Americans are succumbing in alarming numbers.”

         There are plenty of health professionals, diet book authors, and exercise gurus ready to tell you that gluttony is wrong. It’s wrong because it’s bad for you, bad for your body. Yet long before anyone knew much about clogged arteries or blood sugar levels the Christian church decided to include gluttony on its list of the worst sins.

         The Bible doesn’t say all that much about gluttony. I had to search and think a bit before choosing the passage I read as the sermon text. Proverbs 23:20 and 21 warn about hanging out with gluttons and drunkards, saying they will end up poor, but that’s about it.

         Thomas Aquinas, however, has a lot to say about gluttony. Maybe that’s because he was such a large man. There’s a story that when he came to eat with the other brothers in his monastery, they had to cut a semi-circle of the table for Thomas to be able to sit on the bench and fit. And when he died at the early age of 49 in an upstairs room, his body was almost too heavy for the brothers to carry downstairs.

         Thomas thought gluttony, that desire for too much food, is what led Adam and Eve to take the forbidden fruit from Tree in the garden. He said that gluttony is eating food in five excessive ways: “too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily.” In each case the operative word is that little “too,” which means going overboard in some direction. He said gluttony is not just desire to eat, it’s “inordinate desire,” wanting food with a desire that is out of order, out of control.

         We tend to think gluttony is all about that category in the middle, eating too much, but Thomas wants us to see other ways food can control our lives. When Paul warns in our text in verse 19 about those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” he’s not talking directly about those who eat too much. He’s talking about those who were obsessed with eating a proper Jewish diet. We’ll get to obsession with proper food in bit, but let’s look at Thomas’s five ways to make your belly your god.

         To eat “too soon” is to be unable to wait for a meal or to break a fast earlier than you had committed to. Some people have medical conditions or take medication that requires them to eat at exact times, but others of us—and my wife can tell you I’m one—just get impatient when supper isn’t ready on time. Or we rush to the front of the potluck line. Or we keep little stashes of snacks so we can eat whenever we want between meals.

         “Too expensively” is mostly self-explanatory. It’s a desire for the perfect food which spends inordinate amounts of money. Whether it’s hundreds of dollars for a pound of Ethiopian coffee beans or $70 for an ounce of Spanish saffron or $25 a pound for super tender beef, you can pay way too much for food. And when you think about the fact that what we paid to have some nice steaks or a fine bottle of wine might have fed several children in India or Congo for several days, it becomes even more problematic.

         It’s not gluttony to celebrate your anniversary at a nice restaurant or buy some fine ingredients for a home-cooked meal. But it may be sinful to regularly and constantly spend a huge portion of your income to have the best of everything. Paul warned the Corinthians about wealthier members of their church sitting down to eat their expensive food while poor members of the congregation went hungry. We can think of ourselves in relation to the church around the world. Can we pay too much for meat and vegetables and sweets at times like last year when refugee children in South Sudan were eating tree bark to survive?

         As for the middle category, we all know it’s not good for us to eat to much, but we are still obsessed. We don’t get the Food Channel at our house anymore, but everyone in our family had favorite shows on that network. Beth and Joanna watched “Iron Chef.” I liked seeing Guy Fieri cruise around to “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” digging into awesome barbecue, burgers and desserts, not to mention huge pancakes or monster bows of chili.

         In Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis talked about lust and the ugly practice of the striptease show, an audience watching a girl undress. Then he wrote:

Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights go out, that it contained a mutton chop or bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food?[1]

         Lewis’s point was that it was totally absurd to imagine our appetite for food being as messed up as our appetite for sex. His image of a “food striptease” was supposed to be ridiculous. He would be amazed to find that seventy years later our appetite for food has become distorted in the same way as our appetite for sex has been.

         As recently as 1992, Peter Kreeft wrote, “We do not have stripteases with potato pornography.”[2] But look at us now. A show on chocolate-making can have us oohing and ahing like we were making love. Watching a Food Channel star slurp down king crab can make me drool like any old lech at a nudie theatre. “Food porn” is a huge industry. We are not getting pleasure out of eating food—that makes us feel too guilty—we’re getting pleasure just looking at it. And that is still gluttony, a disordered desire for food.

         That “too much” category includes alcohol. Drunkenness is gluttony. Excess in drinking is an age-old sin still very much with us, ruining lives and homes daily. We could probably add prescription drugs to this category as well.

         It’s harder to pin down exactly what’s wrong with eating “too eagerly.” I think of my friend’s sixteen-year-old grandson who is a 6’ 5” football player visiting them. He consumed everything in sight on the dinner table in a few minutes and went looking for more. It’s probably just normal for a teenage boy, but for the rest of us to always be eager and ready to eat is a problem.

         The last form of gluttony, eating “too daintily,” may be the way many of us as Americans fall into this sin. It means being too selective, too picky, too choosy about one’s food. Those people Paul was writing about here in Philippians 3 were causing divisions in the church by their insistence that only properly-prepared Jewish food was acceptable. That was how they were making their belly into their god.

         In The Screwtape Letters C. S. Lewis pictures a woman who prided herself on eating very moderately. The work her tempter had been doing on her put her in the “All-I-want state of mind.” “All she wants is cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servants or friends who can do these things ‘properly.’” So she makes life miserable for everyone around her, refusing to eat what she’s served, demanding it be taken away and something smaller and “proper” brought to her. The tempter says, “her belly now dominates her whole life.”

         You and I can eat “too daintily” by insisting that our food be organic or free-trade or free-range or free of carbs or whatever the latest scheme is for a healthy or politically correct diet. We can do it by refusing to eat what friends or family cook for us and demanding whatever it is we think is better or healthier or more in keeping with our political views. We can do it by spending hours making sure food is prepared just exactly the right way, while we neglect relationships and spiritual life.

         So gluttony is more complex than it seems at first glance. It’s not just the overweight person with the super-giant-humongous cheeseburger in one hand and a 64 ounce soda in the other. Gluttony is all ways we focus on food to the point that it becomes god-like for us. Instead of consuming it, food consumes us.

         We should recognize other eating problems as modern forms of gluttony. They are psychological disorders which call for sympathy and good therapy, but anorexia and bulimia can begin as a sinful focus on food, or maybe on one’s appearance. Which may be another way our bellies become gods for us.

         Many people, especially but not only women, become focused on food because they first become focused on the shape of their own bodies. Whether it’s hour glass figures or six-pack abs, we are bombarded with messages and images telling us to seek ideal shapes for ourselves. It’s not just fashion or sports sending the message, but medicine prescribes ideal weights and measurements. And at the very center of that perfect body we’re supposed to have is a belly. And it’s either too big or too flabby to meet the ideal, or possibly too thin. Nobody has a perfect belly.

         So food becomes our enemy and our obsession as we try to appease and placate and shape our belly god, because even as we try to quit eating so much or to eat the right thing, food still dominates our minds and our hearts. We may be eating less, but we’re spending more time thinking about food in order to do so.

         As Christians, though, we believe food is good, just like we said about sex. It’s part of God’s creation. It should be obvious, but it can be easy to forget. With all the constantly changing warnings about what you should and should not eat, we joke saying, “If it tastes good, it’s bad for you.” But that’s not a Christian thought, not a biblical thought.

         Just like He made us male and female, God made us to eat and to enjoy eating. He filled the world with all sorts of delicious and beautiful foods to eat, from blueberries to bagels, from mushrooms to maple syrup, from wine to watermelon. He could have made us to eat our food like a cow eats grass or a car uses gasoline, pure fuel without any taste or real pleasure in it. But instead God made us to enjoy this part of His creation, to have food as a reason to give Him thanks and praise for His creative genius.

         There is food at the center of our faith. Jesus took two delicious, wonderful, ancient human food creations, bread and wine, and made them the vehicle and emblem of His grace to us, the salvation which comes to us through His broken body and His shed blood. He wanted us to eat and drink as a way to know and love Him.

         Yet all that true and proper joy in food as the gift of God goes away when we make it an aim and goal in and of itself. When we eat solely and totally focused on our own pleasure in eating, then we edge toward gluttony. When we worry and fret over what we eat completely focused on what it will do to our health or figure, that’s also gluttony.

         Like some of the other sins, gluttony leads us to destruction by setting up an idol. With some sins, that idol is external, money or what other people have, but with gluttony we make part of our own self into our god. If your god is your stomach, then you yourself are god. That was the problem with Lewis’s woman who wanted nothing more than a bit of crisp toast. She was totally focused on herself, to the pain and misery of everyone else.

         What do we do about the sin of gluttony? The answer begins with what Paul tells us here in our text. At the end of verse 19 we read about those Jewish foodies that “their minds are set on earthly things.” And then verse 20 goes on, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Neither a delicious meal nor a perfectly configured body is the aim and purpose of our lives. We were made for something far greater, far better. We’re meant to live not in the hope of good food or good health, but in the hope of being with and being like Jesus Christ.

         That’s the promise and hope which stands against all our gluttony. Paul expands it in verse 21, “He will transform our humble bodies by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” We live in these humble bodies. St. Francis would call his body “Brother Ass,” not to be crude, but to express the feeling that the body is like a dear and loved domestic animal. It needs both kindness and discipline. It can be troublesome at times, but the body is our constant companion.

         God made our bodies, made our bellies, not to rule us, but to join with our soul in giving Him praise and honor. Our bodies are not bad. We’re not hoping to get rid of them some day and run through heaven as wild, naked souls. We are looking for these bodies which get tired and which hurt and which constantly tempt us, whether it’s with sex or food, to be transformed, to be like our Lord’s own resurrection body. Christ is coming from heaven to raise our bodies from the dead and make them like the body of His own glory.

         At the beginning of the text, Paul asked his readers to imitate him and the other apostles. In relation to gluttony Paul gives us the way to imitate him a little further on in Philippians. In chapter 4 verses 11 and 12, he says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”

         What was that secret? It’s in the next verse, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The answer to a false god is the true God. The answer to gluttony and to any sin is to be content and strong in Jesus Christ. Don’t try to give up food just to be healthy or skinny. A strong body isn’t bad,  but we’re all going to get sick and flabby in the end. Whether you one full of food or one that’s flat and buff, our hope is not a perfect belly. It’s a perfect Savior who invites us to praise Him with our whole beings, including these humble bodies.

         So Paul tells us at the end of our text, the beginning of chapter 4, “Therefore my brothers and sister, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” Stand firm in the Lord. Your stomach may be firm or not, but your hope and future are firm in Christ. May that hope feed your soul. Amen.

         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1960), p. 89.

[2] Back to Virtue (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), p. 178.

Last updated September 1, 2013