Comments, Observations, and Questions
On this second Sunday after Epiphany, the lectionary reading from the Epistles seems to have little to do with Epiphany, unless we consider the behavior of the Body of Christ to be an epiphany of Christ’s own glory. If that is the case, then this text is very relevant, because it deals with the bodily behavior of those who are in the Body. In fact, Paul ends with this. “Therefore glorify God with your body.”
Even if the relevance of this text to Epiphany is a bit tenuous, its relevance to the behavior of the contemporary church is obvious. If I were to preach on this text, my sermon title would be, “Sex and the City of God,” a takeoff on the wildly popular TV show from a few years back, Sex and the City. A careful study of this text reveals that 21st century America did not invent sexual immorality or its moral(?) defense. The seaport city of Corinth was so infamous for its sexuality that “to corinthianize” became a hip way of talking about sexual immorality of all kinds. In the same way as today’s churchgoers engage in premarital sex and view pornography at the same rate as their secular counterparts, the members of the church at Corinth were mightily tempted “to corinthianize” right along with their pagan friends and neighbors.
They had even found a way to justify their behavior by using themes from the gospel Paul had preached to them. As happened in other churches (cf. Romans 6 and 7, for example), the Corinthian Christians heard Paul say, “You saved by grace alone through faith alone, and not by works of the law.” They twisted that to mean that works did not matter at all. What I do cannot add to or subtract from my salvation, so I can do whatever I want. Grace has set me free in a radical way, so “everything is permissible for me.” When that distortion of the Gospel was mixed with the typical Greek idea that the body was unimportant compared to the soul, we can understand how the members of the Corinthian church might have adopted the kind of freewheeling attitude toward sexual behavior expressed by Demosthenes. “We keep mistresses for our pleasure, concubines for daily concubinage, but wives we have in order to produce children legitimately and to have a trustworthy guardian of our domestic property.” That sounds a lot like today’s “open marriage,” “friends with benefits,” “if it feels good, do it.”
In our text, Paul shows us the gospel way to reply to such an abuse of Christian liberty. Interestingly, he does not respond to this antinomian libertinism by reverting to his previous Pharisaical legalism. The way to control the abuse of grace is not to crack the whip of the law. Instead, Paul reminds them of their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Referring to all three members of the Trinity, Paul’s answer to sexual immorality in the name of Christian liberty is to remind them that they are, in fact, slaves to God in both soul and body. “You are not your own; you were bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God with your body.”
To get the full impact of Paul’s conclusion, we need to follow the argument leading up to that conclusion. Given the power of sexual impulses and the force of the sexual current in our culture, we’ll need to marshal all of Paul’s words to help our congregations resist the lure of sexual immorality. He begins in verses 12 and 13 with a prudential approach. He will turn to some pretty heavy doctrine in a moment, but he begins kind of slow and easy by appealing to their reason. Quoting one of their slogans (“everything is permissible for me”), he says, in effect, “Well, that may be, but not everything is beneficial, helpful, advisable.” Even if you are free to do anything you want, doing some things would be downright stupid. You are free to inject heroin into your veins, but then you would become a slave of that drug, and that would ruin your life. That, in fact, is exactly where Paul goes with his opening argument. As you use your freedom, be aware that you may very well be mastered by the very thing you think you are free to enjoy. That would not be wise, would it?
“Well, no, it wouldn’t,” replied the Corinthian libertines, “but sexual activity isn’t exactly a deadly drug. It’s just a natural appetite, like hunger and thirst.” Apparently, the Corinthians were using another slogan to justify their sexual activities. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food.” Everybody knows that. That’s just the way things are in the order of nature. The implication was that sex is the same way. Just as we need to eat and drink to satisfy the body, so we need sexual activity to be normal, healthy human beings. “It’s just a normal bodily function. What’s the big deal?”
Paul undercuts this very popular modern attitude toward sex by destroying the slogan about food. Sure, eating and drinking are natural and necessary for physical life, but neither food nor your body is ultimate. “God will destroy them both.” Your ultimate frame of reference in deciding how to satisfy the natural appetites of your body should be God, not nature. “The body was not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord and the Lord for the body.” Life is not about eating or drinking or fornicating. It is about the Lord who both created and redeemed your body. As the creator of your body, God knows how it works best. And as the redeemer of your body, God knows what your body is ultimately designed to do. So doesn’t it make sense to glorify God with your body?
To further drive home the message that “the body was meant for the Lord and the Lord for the body” Paul hauls out the big doctrinal guns. In verse 14, he begins with the doctrine of the resurrection. Greek philosophy thought that the soul/mind was much more important than the body. In fact, they taught that death liberates the human soul from the prison house of the body. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ didn’t talk that way. At the heart of that Gospel was the death and physical resurrection of Jesus. Some of the Corinthian Christians apparently bought into the philosophy of their city and denigrated the resurrection. Paul deals with them definitively in chapter 15 of this letter. Here in verse 14, he connects Christ’s resurrection to ours. “God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” That’s how important your body is to God. Jesus died and rose not just for your soul, but also for your body.
In fact, “your bodies are members of Christ himself.” Here’s the second big gun. For Paul, union with Christ was a huge theme. Being in Christ was the new reality initiated by Christ’s death and resurrection. And now here he says that union with Christ is not just a spiritual thing. Because we are saved body and soul, our bodies are in Christ, too.
If that seems too, well, physical, Paul makes sure we don’t miss the import. “Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?” Then he goes on to recall the Bible’s original teaching about sex and marriage, from Genesis 2:24. “The two shall become one flesh.” That’s what happens in sexual intercourse. So, if you physically unite with a prostitute, you become one flesh with her. And if you do that, you have made a member of Christ into a member of a prostitute. Do you want Christ to be physically united with a prostitute? “Never!” shouts Paul in horror. If you think that sexual immorality doesn’t matter because it is just a physical activity, like eating and drinking, you have forgotten this fundamental reality of union with Christ.
In verse 17 Paul begins to roll out another big gun by emphasizing spiritual union with Christ. “But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” After a stern command to flee sexual immorality and some difficult words about sinning against our own bodies, Paul introduces the great doctrine of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our bodies. This is how we can be spiritually united with Christ who is physically in heaven. By virtue of the fact that the Spirit of Christ lives in every individual Christian, our very bodies are now the temple of the Holy Spirit. Where does the Spirit live in the world? Not in that elaborate building over in Jerusalem, now destroyed by the Romans, but in the humble flesh and blood dwelling of our bodies. In I Corinthians 3:16, the whole Body of Christ is called the temple of the Spirit, but here it is each individual body of Christ’s followers.
Finally, Paul’s argument comes to a thunderous conclusion in verse 19 and 20 with a reference to our redemption by God through Christ. Calling up the familiar image of a slave market, where human beings are bought for a certain sum of money, Paul says that each of us has been bought. He doesn’t name the price, but every Christian knows that it was the death or, more precisely, the blood of Christ (Romans 3:25, I Peter 1:18,19). Now, we are no longer slaves to sin and Satan and death. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” said Jesus himself (John 8:36). But, freed from all that would destroy us, we are now servants of God. Contrary to the modern notion that “it’s my body and I can do what I want with it,” the Gospel says, “You are not your own.” So, glorify God with your body. It belongs to him.
How will the world see the glory of the invisible Christ? Our reading on this second Sunday after Epiphany says that he is glorified when the members of his Body on this earth use their bodies in sexually pure ways. True to his own experience of salvation, Paul calls us to such purity not by laying down some new sexual code of ethics, but by calling us back to the Gospel we already know. Notice that he says three times, “Do you not know?” Each time he recalls some essential element of the Good News, showing that we should flee sexual immorality because of what the Triune God has done, is doing, and will do with our bodies. The way to navigate the troubled waters between the absolute freedom we have in Christ and the complete obedience we owe to Christ is to focus on the North Star, Christ himself as the epiphany of the Triune God.
In a culture that hears a text like this as a cold blooded restriction on the free exercise of glorious gift of sex, the opening words of a centuries’ old catechism put Paul’s final words in a warmly comforting framework. Question One of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer is, “That I am not my own, but belong– body and soul, in life and in death– to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the Devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” Belonging to Christ, body and soul, is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, the best thing. So glorify God with the body bought with the precious blood of Christ.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 18, 2015
1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Commentary