Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 14, 2018
1 Corinthians 6:12-20 Commentary
In Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, at one point someone observes a husband and wife stealing coy glances at each other over dinner and just generally displaying their love. This leads one character to utter the wryly cynical observation, “The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.” That line is funny because it is a riff on the much more common line about people airing their dirty laundry in public. When a family bickers at McDonald’s, when a married couple continues an argument from home even when seated at someone else’s dinner table, we say it’s bad form, like holding up soiled clothing for all to see.
But if the media and the tabloid press are any indication, all the world loves public displays of dirty laundry. Nothing so swiftly arrests people’s attention as a public dispute, a cat fight between two old friends. We in the church likewise know that the world pays precious little attention to Christian folks until and unless something scandalous can be displayed. If you go to YouTube, you’ll find any number of video sermons but the ones that get millions of views are not solid and orthodox proclamations of grace but ridiculous sermons that are loaded with silliness or fraught with controversial statements. Clean laundry doesn’t sell newspapers. Dirty laundry on the other hand . . .
All of which brings us to I Corinthians 6. It’s pretty clear when reading through I Corinthians that this letter was written in reply to a letter the Corinthians had first sent Paul. Reading between the lines, we can tell that the Corinthians bombarded Paul with all the questions that emerged from their fractious little band of believers. Scholars think that the congregation in Corinth was probably not much larger than 50-75 people. That’s not much but if the history of the church has proven anything, it is that where 2 or 3 are gathered, there arguments may abound.
And so they wrote to their founding pastor and said things like, “Pastor Paul, we’re not sure whom we’re supposed to follow in this Christian thing: some are following you, others claim Peter, others claim Apollos, and a few think they have Jesus all to themselves. Any ideas there? Pastor Paul, we’ve got a guy here who has shacked up with his mother-in-law. Thoughts? Pastor Paul, when we have potlucks that include the Lord’s Supper, all the food is getting snapped up by the rich members who can knock off work earlier than the poorer folks, who end up going hungry. Any opinion? And oh yes, a faction of our members believes there is no such thing as the resurrection from the dead. Is that important or can we live with diversity on that one?”
Questions, questions, questions. And mostly Paul answers those questions the way you’d expect. Whom should you follow? Christ alone, for goodness sake! What to do with the sexually immoral man? He’s out! What about the Lord’s Supper? Wait for one another for the sake of Jesus, who always waits for you. And the resurrection? It’s just a wee bit important (and if it isn’t, then we are of all people the most to be pitied!).
Those are the answers you’d expect from Paul. But in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul gives an answer that is decidedly unexpected. The questions must have gone something like, “Pastor Paul, a few of our members have cases pending at the Corinth Circuit Court. Do you have any opinion on Christians filing lawsuits against one another? And how about some of our men from the flock still visiting the local prostitutes? Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
Now you’d expect Paul to be about as blunt as a spoon here and say, “You’re suing one another?! Knock it off!” And in essence that is what he says but the way Paul gets there is quite simply startling. Because Paul says far more than “Kindly settle your disputes in-house and don’t bother with secular judges and as to the prostitutes: NOOOOOO!.”
Paul’s actual reply—while still conveying his negative judgment on these activities—is more nuanced and more theologically supple because what made Paul’s jaw drop in response to these questions was his shock over the congregation’s inability to realize who was who in the cosmic scheme of things. And so his response is laced with the rhetorical question, “Do you not know?” And what was it that the Corinthians seemed not to know? That they are saints. That they are members of an eternal kingdom of light and wisdom. That from God’s perspective, the lowliest member of the congregation was wiser and more important than even the smartest lawyer or judge in the world. That they have been made one flesh with no less than Jesus himself. Thus when you become one flesh with a prostitute, guess who comes into the bed with you . . .
“Do you not know? Do you not know? This was the answer the Corinthians didn’t see coming. The Corinthians saw themselves as one more little social network, one more civic association, one more little Members Only club. There was the Rotary Club, the Garden Club, the Book Club, Friends of the Library, the PTA, and the church—aren’t they all the same? That’s what the Corinthians thought. But Paul looked at them and saw saints in shining robes on their way to take up their graced place in God’s eternal kingdom.
But what about our congregations today? Maybe lawsuits and prostitutes are not the issue but what are the issues of the day and do we know who we are as members of Christ’s Church in the face of those matters? Do we parse out our lives from the vantage point of our being the shining body of saints Paul saw?
We live in a society that encourages us to see the church as just one social network among many. Our culture encourages us to bow down before the real centers of power that are located in Hollywood, on Madison Avenue, and above all in Washington D.C. And so we are wowed by celebrities of all kinds. We’re fascinated by Britney and Paris and Oprah and Angelina, by Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise and George Clooney. We spend hours reading about their antics and their deeds. We watch the TV to absorb every nuance of what happens in the citadels of “real power” in Congress and on Wall Street and at the Supreme Court. And even in the realm of fictional characters, we gravitate to the TV shows about lawyers and doctors and judges and CEOs. Speaking as a pastor, I can tell you that we clergy frequently pine for the cache, the prestige, the sheer social clout that gets afforded to other professionals in ways that seldom come to pastors.
So Paul comes to us, gets in our face, and with wonder in his eyes asks yet again, “Do you not know who you are?” We’re enamored with and impressed by all the wrong things. The best status in the world, both now and most certainly in eternity, is already ours! We’re saints. We’re children of God. We are the target of all the grace and mercy and love Jesus Christ our Savior has to offer. Do you not know?
Knowing this helps us deal with those who treat us as fools for being Christians. And goodness knows that in recent years we’ve seen a small floodtide of best-selling books that say exactly that. The unholy trinity of Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens assure us that being people of faith is retrograde, backward, delusional, and irrational. To these people, belief in God is no different than a belief in the tooth fairy. Similarly, maybe our neighbors see our coming to worship every Sunday as a waste of time. Maybe pastors sometimes feel dwarfed by the prestige of other professionals. Maybe we do get called foolish and silly by some. But so what? We are the eschatological community of the cosmic Christ! We’ve got a spot reserved for us by grace in nothing short of the New Creation of our God. We’ve got a front-row seat for all eternity to witness all the great things our Creator and Redeemer God has done and will do. The slights and insults and snide critiques we receive for now really don’t quite compare to all that.
By every worldly standard and from every objective point of view, the little church at Corinth was a mess. It was an embarrassment. The grown-ups at Corinth were behaving like silly school children, squabbling and scrapping on the playgrounds of life. They couldn’t even get through a simple little potluck without hurt feelings. They couldn’t hold a worship service without members muttering under their breath as they walked back home. I’m glad we don’t have these problems in any churches today . . . But how wonderfully startling it is to see Paul look at this pathetic little band of believers and, with a tear in his eye, be able to say, “You’re saints! You’re God’s shining community! You’re beautiful!” That’s what the eyes of love can show you. That’s what a God-informed vision shows you.
Years ago in the movie Moonstruck there is a charming scene in which a married couple in their late-60s are talking one night before bed. The husband is standing at the bedroom window, bathed in the light of a brilliant full moon. From the other side of the room his wife says, “You know something: standing there in that light with that look on your face, you look about 25 years old!”
Well, no he didn’t! He was a wrinkled old man with a paunch and bags under his eyes and hair that was now more white than even gray. But to his wife’s eyes of love, he was still the young buck she had fallen in love with four decades ago. Paul’s view of the church at Corinth was like that. He saw the Corinthians bathed in the light of God’s grace in Christ and even though an objective observer would see just a contentious bunch of galoots, Paul said, “You know something, standing there in that light of Christ, you look like the saints of God.” And so they were. When we can go out into the world knowing who we are and holding our heads high as the children of God, maybe some in the world will see Jesus in us, too. It would be like airing our clean laundry in public!
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11 now over 16 years ago, Time magazine came out with a special edition. The lead article in that edition was written by Time editor Nancy Gibbs who opened her article this way: “Aggressors have always known that if you want to humble an empire, you attack its cathedrals.” In other words, in a capitalist society of free enterprise, those soaring Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were our national church, our cathedral, the place where we as Americans placed all our hope and confidence and pride. Among the many pictures of the Twin Towers that got published in the wake of their destruction was that picture of a little church that was near the base of the towers. The picture has the church in the foreground but is angled upward to show the majesty of those towers of glass and steel that fairly dwarfed the church building.
That’s pretty much the world’s perspective all the time: the church is dinky, tiny, uninfluential, ridiculous. The church is properly dwarfed by the soaring citadels of money and fame and power. And sometimes we let this worldly view of the church influence us. We feel helpless. We feel despair. We feel small. We wish we would rub shoulders with the big boys and really shake things up. But then, long about the time we feel that way, the Holy Spirit gently cups our faces in his hands and whispers into the ears of our hearts, “Do you not know? Do you not know? Do you not know?”
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