1 Corinthians 6:12-20
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Our second reading this morning comes to us from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in the Greek city of Corinth. Letters, as a general rule, and letters that have become regarded as scripture, come for the most part in response. The angry letter someone writes to a business is in response to the service they received. A love letter is written in response to a person, or encounter that compels the writer to express their feelings on paper. A letter of recommendation comes in response to a request and the desire to see another advance. While in the canon of scripture this is named as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, it is widely recognized to be part of a larger and longer correspondence between the apostle who helped establish this fledgling Christian community and the people who are struggling to keep it together. From the very beginning, there has been something of a gap, a delta if you will, between the new life offered in Christ, and the way that life gets played out in a community of disciples trying to follow in the Jesus Way. It is a mixed bag because humans are a mixed bag. No where is this more evident than in the first century Christian community of Corinth. They were made up of Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, illiterate laborers and more learned merchants. Is it any wonder that they had trouble getting along? Paul’s letter is in response both to the reports of division within the community, as well as to the justifications he’s heard for some of the behaviors that are dividing them. Much of it sounds all too familiar. Listen for God’s Word to you this morning…
From the outset there are two basic arguments that Paul is challenging in this portion of his letter to the church in Corinth. They had learned Paul’s lessons well. Perhaps a little too well. His own words were coming back to haunt him. All things are lawful to me. It sounds a bit like Paul doesn’t it? Paul who spent the first half of his life living under a strict observance of Jewish religious law as interpreted from the books of Moses. Do these things, such observance taught, and you will be righteous, you will be blessed, you will be worthy of God’s salvation. Conversely then, to violate the law, failing to do all that was prescribed was to invite the unhappy wrath of God’s displeasure. Given the human proclivity to sin, to fall short and miss the mark of the law’s demands, any system of reward and punishment based on human behavior is bound to become a burden. Because no one wants to face divine condemnation, we end of serving the law instead of serving the Lord that the law is meant to point us toward. We become slaves to the structure instead of the substance. The people who heard Paul’s message had been liberated from what could be an oppressive form of religion. But they had taken that liberty for granted. To say, “all things are lawful to me,” is a little like the person who insists that “the customer is always right,” even when they’re wrong and want to speak to a manager. Or worse, the person who insists that, “this is a free country.” Just because you’re free, says Paul, just because all things are lawful once you stop living under the law, doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to abuse that freedom by doing whatever you want regardless of how it affects anyone else.
We’ve seen plenty of this over the last year of trying to get this pandemic under control. In the name of freedom people are refusing to follow simple public health protocols for reducing the spread of the virus. They insist that their freedom is a higher value than the well-being of the people who might suffer and die from a virus passed onto them by someone who was infectious but didn’t know it and refused to wear a mask. Or they’ll contend that their freedom of religion should allow them to gather together in an enclosed space for an extended period of time as they or others sing and speak, all of which creates the perfect conditions for spreading a highly contagious airborne pathogen. All things may be lawful. You can take that non-essential vacation, or gather with people from out of state to celebrate Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or the New Year. But it certainly isn’t beneficial to the cause of putting the pandemic behind us. In fact, such actions have only made things that much worse.
All things may be lawful, says Paul a second time, but when personal freedom becomes our highest value, we may no longer be serving the law, but we certainly aren’t serving the Lord either if all we’re doing is simply satisfying our own need to be free. It ends up dominating our lives. There is an entitlement at the heart of this assertion, “all things are lawful to me,” that is both familiar and unmistakable. It also runs contrary to the Spirit of Christ who (again quoting Paul from another letter), “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself.” Insisting that we are free to do what we want and to make our own choices regardless of the impact that it has on others could not be further from the Way of Jesus Christ.
This, then, gives way to a corollary to the entitled insistence that all things are lawful. In the context of the Corinthian church it has to do with dietary practice and sexual immorality, both of which are dividing this community. At the heart of both, however, is the nature of the body itself. Both our own personal bodies, and the body of the larger community. Perhaps one of the most intractable obstacles to a fully embodied faith is the dualistic idea that differentiates the body from the soul, or the spirit, or the mind. It’s a convenient idea for people who are resistant to the transformation that is offered in Jesus Christ, because it allows us to spiritualize our faith at the expense of the world around us. When all that faith is concerned with is the state of one’s disembodied spirit, then it doesn’t really matter what we do with our bodies. Again, all things are lawful. Food is made for the stomach and the stomach for food, goes the argument, it doesn’t have anything to do with the spirit so it shouldn’t having any bearing on the life of the community. Likewise, sexual immorality. It’s just some base physical act that has nothing to do with spiritual matters. So why bring it up? Only nothing could be further from the truth. Bodies matter to God, because they have been created and re-created by God.
Our oldest creed, the Apostles’ Creed affirms this. We may not always hear it because it comes in the litany of things we affirm at the very end. But in addition to the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins, we say not that we believe in the immortality of the soul, rather, we say that we believe in the resurrection of the body. In the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, our own human bodies are affirmed to be essential. They aren’t simply some shell to be beat up and discarded, they are the very temple in which the Holy Spirit resides with us and among us. If bodies were inconsequential then Jesus wouldn’t have spent the majority of his ministry healing them in one form or another; lepers, blind Bartimaeus, the paralyzed man lowered through the roof by his friends, the woman with the hemorrhage, the Centurion’s servant, the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, even Lazarus raised from the dead. And when he wasn’t healing bodies, he was feeding them either by the thousands on a hillside in Galilee, or over a table with sinners and saints alike.
This weekend we honor the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. As a general rule we don’t spend too much energy in our worship life attending to national holidays, the life of Christ’s church is so much larger than any single nation. But the work of Dr. King was deeply rooted in his Christian faith. Nevertheless, there were plenty of Christians who opposed what he was doing, challenging the injustice of the Jim Crow south and the systemic racism at the heart of the American experiment. They complained that he was being too political, that as a pastor he should not sully himself with such worldly matters but should stick strictly to the life of the Spirit, as though one had nothing to do with the other. Perhaps without knowing it, such critics were parroting the same Gnostic dualism that Paul was contending with in Corinth. Because it isn’t just our individuals bodies that are temples of the Holy Spirit. It is the collective body of Christ, of which we have been made members, that is a temple of the Holy Spirit. To allow the bodies of black and brown brothers and sisters in Christ to be suffer neglect, abuse, beatings and lynching is to allow the defilement of the very temple where God resides with us. To allow bodies to languish in poverty and hunger is to allow that temple to be defiled. And to misuse our freedom to disregard the well being of the close to 400,000 people who have now died from COVID in this country, and so many more who will suffer severe long-term consequences from it due to our reckless and irresponsible entitlement is to defile that same temple. Those bodies matter to God every bit as much as our own. To advocate on their behalf, to demand justice for the disenfranchised and dignity for the dispossessed is not to sully oneself in worldly matter at the expense of the spiritual. It is all spiritual. It all matters to God because it was all created by God. Paul couldn’t be more clear on this point. We are not our own. Our bodies and the freedom we enjoy are not our own. This world is not our own. It was all created by God, and our freedom, the redemption of our bodies and our souls have come at a price; a tremendous price paid on a Roman cross at the expense of God’s own son. None of it is ours to do as we wish. All of it is ours to use to the glory of God by honoring that which God has both made and redeemed.
The only thing that justifies any of us is Christ. To live and serve him is to live and serve for the good of the body; not the vanity of the world that values particular bodies over others for their narrow understandings of beauty, fitness and worth, but for the beauty worth and dignity given to all bodies as the very place where God has chosen to dwell among us, full of grace and truth.