One of my seminary professors once remarked that the preacher’s selection process for choosing a sermon focus from the assigned lectionary texts each week was similar to a horserace. The gospel text, as you might imagine, always begins as the clear favorite. After that, if there is to be a sleeper from the other three readings, it has to be interesting, or perhaps a lesson with familiar language or a well-known story for the preacher to dive in to it with gusto. Some weeks that horserace is tight—when multiple texts look appealing for a sermon. Others, well, not so much. In looking at this week’s scripture lessons with a focus on call, I’d have to say that 1 Corinthians would certainly not be in the running. When Paul says, “Shun fornication!” the only thing the preacher is thinking is to shun sermons about fornication. While I’ve preached some 7 or 8 times on the Second Sunday after the Feast of the Epiphany in Year B over the years, I can assure you I’ve never even considered the 1 Corinthians text.
Until today, that is.
A sermon on 1 Corinthians 6.
First, a bit of context. Corinth was a seaport city in that realm and was a buzz of activity. People came and went often, so they didn’t really worry about their reputations. In many ways, it was the “Sin City” of its day. Come and enjoy the pleasures of the flesh at Corinth. Eat to your heart’s desires. Experience physical ecstasy. Drink yourself silly. If it feels good, do it, because you deserve it. You can hear that in what appears to be the Corinthian mantra that Paul cites for them two times: “All things are allowable for me.” As long as no one gets hurt, go for it.
Which is not unlike our society today. But before you head down the path in thinking about a “younger generation” out there doing all sorts of immoral things, let me pull us back to the thrust of that Corinthian statement that Paul quotes: “Me.” As Dr. Lawrence Samuel wrote a few years ago in Psychology Today, “Almost half a century after the ‘Me Generation’ made headlines with its focus on the self, individualism is well on the way to becoming one of the central themes of the 21st century. Baby boomers did indeed look out for #1 in the hedonistic, therapeutic 1970s, but now individualism—acting in one’s own interests versus those of an organized group or government—is arguably the guiding principle of our times.” He continues, “Expressions of individualism are everywhere you look, making the me-ness of the ‘Me Generation’ look comparatively mild…. It is the ‘selfie,’ which serves as the poster child for contemporary individualism.” Theologian Clyde Fant puts a religious spin on all this. He writes, “Individualism has been raised to the level of divinity in this country, along with nationalism, and the wallet. [Many] are deeply committed to a laissez-faire life: it may not be your way, but it is my way. Yet,” he continues, “is that not also the mantra of the modern church? Are we willing … to bow down in humility at the feet of Christ? Are we willing to obey anything beyond our own whims?” In other words, before we start looking for the speck in a neighbor’s eye, we should check out the plank in our own.
“‘All things are lawful for me,’” Paul writes, “but,” he adds, “not all things are beneficial.” “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I won’t be dominated by anything.” Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. And if your desire for those things becomes an obsession in your life and all you think about, well then you might not be as free as you think. He then reminds them that all that talk about fulfilling their own needs is misplaced because of their new identity: “For you are members of Christ’s body, and you are not your own.” You can’t just go do whatever you want anymore, because it’s not just about you. You are Christ’s.
In a few chapters, Paul will go into great detail about what it means to be the body of Christ and how much we need each other. If we were all an eye like Monster’s Inc.’s Mike Wazowski, then how would we hear?, Paul asks. So while we remain individuals on one level in this metaphor—someone out there is a liver, while someone else is a big toe—yet we are also connected to one another and impact each other. So what we do with these bodies of ours matters a great deal.
Which is a long way to get to sex. The Corinthians had bought into the Hellenistic idea that the body was bad and the soul was good, so as long as your soul was connected to God you could do anything you wanted to do with your physical body. Ironically, the Church has historically said the exact opposite, that whatever you did with your body was bad and should be avoided. Paul is seeking the much needed middle ground. He is not saying that physical intimacy is bad; quite the opposite really. He’s saying it is powerful and good because it connects us not only in the flesh with skin on skin but with another person’s spirit, so we shouldn’t treat it lightly. When we engage in casual affairs or chase after fulfilling our lusts, the physical connection is happening, sure, but not the spiritual. So shun that, Paul says. The spiritual connection takes a level of commitment and a deep and abiding sacrificial love which cannot be encountered when you seek to fulfill your own lusts. And as a member of the body of Christ, Paul says, we should be seeking out commitment and fidelity and a deeper spiritual love.
Paul will get into this more in the next chapter when he says that in marriage you do not have authority over your own body anymore, rather your partner does. That in our commitments to another, we put them and their needs first as we care for them in love in a whole host of ways. And you can hear echoes of that in the language from the earliest marriage rite in the Anglican Church from 1662 when the man gives a ring to his beloved saying, “With this Ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” It seems this was seen as a bit racy for the earliest member of the US Episcopal Church because in the first version of our Book of Common Prayer in 1789 that line about worshipping the other with one’s body was removed. Can you imagine hearing that even today in marriage ceremony let alone more than 360 years ago? Eyebrows certainly would be raised.
Yet that is exactly Paul’s point. Physical intimacy isn’t about us and our own fleshy desires, it is about the other. In connecting with them in body and soul and caring for them and, yes, venerating them in love-making. Cherishing them. Giving ourselves to them fully. Committing to forsake all others and being faithful to them alone.
Just as we do, Paul says, when we choose to follow Jesus as his disciples, and we become one spirit with him. We are no longer our own. We’ve been bought with the price of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. What was once ours is now coupled with him. And we are members together with one another in Christ’s body, the Church, to whom Christ himself is wed according to Paul. We are the bride and Christ is the bridegroom. He gives himself fully to us out of love, and we are to give ourselves fully to him as a collective whole. We are no longer our own, but his.
Which is a hard thing for us hear as those who, as Professor Fant puts it, “have wedded themselves to the autonomous, undeniable, all-powerful Self.” To think that someone else has a say in what we do grates against us. And yet that is exactly what happens when we commit ourselves to Christ. Jesus asks us to follow him on his way. It grates because we do not trust well in our culture. We must look out for Number 1, we’re told, because no one else will do it. Yet trust is at the very center of our relationship with Christ, and with those we love romantically. When we are vulnerable and open ourselves up fully, we hope that our best interests will be considered. And that takes both trust and a deeper kind of love than we are used to.
Paul will point to this a few chapters in 1 Corinthians 13, which is a wedding ceremony favorite. Paul will describe how love is patient and kind and generous and humble and truthful and self-giving. That’s the love Christ has for us and for the Church, and that’s the type of love we should embrace in our relationships. Not a pseudo sort of “love” that seeks only our own gratification. Not a one night stand or a fling with someone with whom we don’t intend to cultivate a meaningful, sacrificial, and longterm relationship. Shun that, Paul says. These bodies of ours will be resurrected, and are the home of the Holy Spirit. Honor them in providing for the nurturing, delight, and well being of another with fidelity and not just in seeking our own desires.
What we do with our bodies matters greatly to Christ, so let us choose to glorify him with them in obedience and love. For those who are in committed relationships, by faithfully loving and lifting up the partners to whom we have given our lives and refusing to give into our culture’s lie that if no one gets hurt it doesn’t matter, and for those who are single either by choice or circumstance, to honor God with your choices, seeking out partners who would love you and whom you would love just as Christ loves the Church. We are not our own, we are Christ’s, and with that comes more freedom and life than we could ever imagine.