A Temple Not A Turnstile

God's Temple

Lesson: I Corinthians 6:11-20

I tried something that I read about in an article and sadly was not shocked by the results. If you type the name “Jesus” into Google, you get 577 million sites come up. But if you type in the word “sex” 1 billion 600 million sites come up. That means that there are three times more sites about sex than there are about Jesus and the reason that I was not shocked by that ratio is because it seems to accurately describe our sex obsessed culture.

When our parish was breaking from the Episcopal Church we made the news and one day a Fox reporter called to ask if they were getting the story right. I said, “No, not really. Y’all keep making it about sex but its not about sex its about the authority of Holy Scripture.” She said to me, “Oh I know Father but sex is what sells.” At the risk of sounding like my father talking about the good old days, just in my lifetime we have gone from not being able to show a married couple in the same bed in a TV show to commercials today that I would not have wanted my children to see much less try to explain.

Lest you think that this is a sign of the end of the world, or at least of civilization as we have known it, you may find some comfort in knowing that the first century Church also lived in a world that lacked a moral compass. Even within the Church there were some serious problems. In Corinth one guy was cohabiting with either his mother or stepmother and even in Arkansas they know that ain’t right. How encouraging it is that rather than just fretting about it, or tiptoeing around it, the Apostle confronted the sex-obsessed culture of his day head on. Perhaps he can give us some wisdom in doing a similar thing in our day.

The first piece of advice he gives is one that you might not expect from the Church. St. Paul’s council about sex is not a call to abstinence but to discernment. He calls for us to consider it not from the context of legalism but from the context of liberty.

If you did not know the text you would expect some Victorian diatribe about how sex is dirty or that it will send you to hell. Instead he says. “All things are lawful…but not all things are beneficial.” This is how he frames the argument. He begins in freedom. There is not even a hint of puritanical legalism in this council unlike in much of the American Church.

I have a friend that comes from a holiness tradition and they are so strict that anything that even looks sexual is to be avoided. But isn’t that often that in the eye of the beholder? In his tradition women are not allowed to wear makeup or jewelry. They are not even allowed to wear bobby pins in their hair because it could be confused as ornamental and Lord knows where ornamented women will take you. Next thing you know they will be playing pool, right here in River City!

But here is where such legalism ends up going. While they cannot wear any jewelry, they are allowed to wear watches because watches have a functional use. So now when their kids get engaged the girl gets an engagement watch! (I can hear Beth say “and it better be a Rolex”).

You can imagine in these kind of strict traditions that sex is a taboo subject. And when it is taught about it is taught that it is only for procreation. But that is hardly the freedom to which St. Paul calls us. Finding the answer for God’s intent is not found in legalism. “All things are lawful.” And to that the British add the expression, “just don’t take it into the streets and frighten the horses.”

Of course in a few verses St. Paul will add some qualifiers so that we do not fall into licentiousness. That is the other ditch to stay out of.

As we are particularly well aware, the Church must resist the temptation to overreact against legalism and go down the opposite path of letting the world set our standards for us. Until recent times the Church upheld the Sacrament of marriage. Scripture teaches that sex is a gift from God and is to be reserved for husband and wife. But in recent years strong pressure has been put on the Church to honor a variety of relationships outside of marriage and so some time ago Anglican bishops throughout the world met and addressed this topic. After prayer and study the bishops took a vote and it was 570 to 60 something in favor of the traditional understanding of sex within the union of husband and wife. You can imagine that the 60 something were bishops from the liberal west. This traditional understanding is the certainly the position of our Province here in North America, but the pressure to think differently continues.

In between Victorian prudishness and worldly licentiousness, St. Paul calls us into balance. “All things are lawful….not all things are beneficial.” To illustrate his teaching he takes the topic off of sex for a moment and uses the topic of food. That is a brilliant analogy because sex and food are both about our appetites but food is a little easier to discuss.

He gives a quote, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” This is not a quote from the Bible. Scholars believe that it was most likely a popular saying in Corinth. It is like saying “if you got it, use it” and St. Paul is refuting that position.

He refutes it because this saying reflected a widely held belief in that day that only what is spiritual is what really matters. Thus it is irrelevant what you do with the material, including your body and so it is only natural to give into your appetites. Paul says “No.” He argues that the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body so what we do with our bodies does matter. All foods are lawful to us but just because it is lawful does not mean that it is beneficial to us and so we are to use discernment. We are not to let things get out of control. Thus St. Paul adds another wrinkle to it to help us further decide if something is beneficial. He says, “I will not be dominated by anything.”

In today’s language we would say that it couldn’t be beneficial especially if it leads to addiction and most realize how easily our appetites can lead us down that path. As you know that can happen with food and drink as well as with sex.

In another place St. Paul says that we are to walk in the Spirit so that we do not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. As Christians there is to be only one controlling influence in our lives and that is the Blessed Holy Spirit and He cannot be truly leading us if we give into and become controlled by our appetites. We must choose between them.

Note that St. Paul’s standard of asking “is it beneficial” is just the opposite of today’s popular standard. When I was working with teenagers at a runaway shelter, and trying to teach some kind of universal ethics, the constant refrain of the kids was. “Who is it hurting?” That was their standard. Not “is it benefiting me?” but “who is it hurting?”

That is a very poor standard on a number of levels. First it is demeaning. It is really asking, “how low can I go?” instead of asking “how high can I climb?”

But second, it is too vulnerable to self-deception. Kids would try to defend casual sexual relationships by saying that if both parties agree then it can’t be wrong. No harm no foul, right? Wrong.

Physically you risk a lot when engaging in sexual immorality. It can and does result in life long complications and even death. Emotionally and spiritually the risk is even greater. As St. Paul points out, sex causes a union and extra unions can threaten the one union that God has ordained for you.

But St. Paul takes it a step further. The wrong use of sex also affects our union with Christ. Our bodies are to be temples not turnstiles. The union of husband and wife reflects the union between Christ and the Church, which is His bride. To have multiple unions, especially casual ones with prostitutes as St. Paul describes, is to destroy that image.

My pastoral advise to you is that if you have created wrong unions or if you have affronted the image of Christ and His Church with your lifestyle, then take it to confession. Through prayer and absolution you can have illicit unions broken and walk in forgiveness and freedom.

Often the topic of sex is accompanied by the topic of rights. “It’s my body so don’t I have a right to determine what happens to my body.” St. Paul would say “No” because he refutes the premise of that argument. “No it’s not your body.” “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body.”

This perspective, that we are not our own, changes everything. It is really a call to be stewards of our bodies, stewards of our appetites, in the same way that we are called to be stewards of our finances.

If we think that our money is our money then we will spend it any way we want and typically what Proverbs says will happen then happens. “A fool and his money are soon parted.” But if we realize that it all belongs to the Lord then we will deal with it very differently, and act as wise stewards including offering a portion to the Lord from that which is His.

Similarly if we think our bodies are our own, then we will do whatever we want whenever we want and usually suffer the consequences for doing so. But if we understand that we have been bought with a price, a very, very, very precious price, then we will become stewards of our bodies including offering ourselves as living sacrifices to God.

The truth is that when we are most selfish we are most miserable and when we are most selfless we are most happy. Demanding our rights makes us miserable but recognizing we are not our own and glorifying God in our bodies brings great joy. In fact the idea that we do not belong to ourselves is actually liberating because it takes our destiny out of our hands, which is an illusion to begin with, and places it in His, which is reality.

It is an astonishing thing to reflect on St. Paul’s teaching that our very bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We give great care to our chapel to appoint it properly in order to glorify God in this space. If you read the Bishop’s statement by the entrance, about consecrating this space, you will see that it forbids any secular use, reserving this space only for the worship of God.

But if we are right to be that diligent about preserving this holy space then shouldn’t we be equally diligent about setting our bodies apart as temples of the Holy Spirit? We do this in part by walking in sexual purity. That is what St. Paul was calling on the Christians in Corinth to do then and his words should ring just as true to us today, if not even more so. Amen.

A New Perspective

New Perspective

Jeremiah 31:7-14 Psalm 84:1-8 Ephesians 1:3-5, 15-19 St. Matthew 2:13-23

As some of you know I am not a football fan, which may call into question my man card. But as a graduate of Florida State University I do care about football when they play that other university in Florida, whose name escapes me at the moment. I also care about it when they play a bowl game as they did last week. I know we have some rabid Alabama fans in our parish and so given how the FSU and Alabama games turned out it hit me that last week was either a really great start to the new year or a really crummy start to the new year. It all depends upon your perspective.

Perspective is what St. Paul is praying for the Church at Ephesus to have in today’s lesson. And when we consider what St. Paul is praying for them, the perspective that he wants them to have is nothing short of astonishing. We can assume, as an inspired apostle, that he is praying for them to receive what God wants for them. And what is that?

He prays that they would 1) know what is the hope of their calling, 2) know what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints and 3) know what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe. Hope, riches and power. That’s what the Apostle is praying for. Hope, riches and power. Lest you think that I got a Joel Osteen book for Christmas I need to clarify further. You probably don’t need a spoiler alert for me to tell you that the hope, riches and power of the Apostle’s prayer are not what people typically imagine them to be nor what TV preachers often claim them to be.

First we need to understand that St. Paul uses the word “hope” very differently than how we use it today. When we speak of hope today we really mean something that we wish for and that may or may not happen. “I hope one day to get married.” “I hope one day to be rich and famous.” “I hope one day to win the lottery.” Some of those hopes may be realistic and some of them are improbable but none of them are assured. That is why we hope for them.

But when St. Paul speaks of “hope” it is not a wish, it is a reality but it is a reality that has yet to been realized. Hope is a pregnant woman awaiting the birth of her child. The child is a reality that is yet to be realized. So when St. Paul speaks in Philippians of the hope of the resurrection, he is not wishing for something that may or may not happen. He is assured of the resurrection but because it has not yet happened it is his hope. It is in the future but still he can take it to the bank today.Thus while the New International Version says “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you” the New Living Translation avoids confusion over the word hope and simply says “so that you can understand the wonderful future he has promised to those he called.”

It is important to note here that St. Paul is NOT praying that we will have a wonderful future; rather he prays that we will be enlightened so that we will understand that we have a wonderful future. A wonderful future is already a part of God’s plan for us who are in Christ. The problem is that we often lose sight of that in our day-to-day lives. We also lose sight of that when we are drowning in debt or dealing with health issues or even when we watch the 5 o’clock news. That is why we need the eyes of our heart to be enlightened.

Our understanding of the hope of our calling can and should impact our daily lives. That is why Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount not to worry about what we will drink or eat or wear but to seek first the kingdom of God. He is telling us to get our eyes off of the temporal concerns and focus on the wonderful future that God has for us. It’s not that we are not to care about our life here or that temporal things are unimportant. But rather we are to put our cares and concerns for this life in the context of the guaranteed wonderful life that God has in store for us. Why is that important to do?

To put it simply, if you think this life is all there is then it makes sense to do all that you can do to be happy now, even if that includes being unfaithful to the truth. But if you believe that you have an eternity of happiness before you, then you will endure what you need to endure in this life in order to be faithful.
The icing on the cake of this prayer is that we are told that Christ has been raised to God’s right hand in heavenly places and we as His Body are there with Him. We are even now seated with Him in heavenly places! This means that for the Christian, even tragedy is a temporary state. God has ordained us for a joy and glory that is everlasting.

There is a second thing that St. Paul prays. He prays that we will see what a rich and glorious inheritance God has given to us in the saints. Actually the Greek here is not really clear and I wonder if the Apostle did not intentionally make it ambiguous in order to leave us with a layer of interpretations. You can either translate the passage to read that we have a rich heritage WITH the saints or we have a rich heritage IN the saints. Or perhaps we are to understand it as both.

I saw a post on Facebook last week that got my attention. It had two photos. The first was a robin feeding a few worms to her baby birds. The second picture was of a huge steak and potato dinner. The caption below the robin with the worms was, “This is what you get from your pastor.” The caption below steak dinner was, “This is what you get when you study the Bible at home.”

I have been reading a lot lately about folks, particularly millennials, not leaving the faith but dropping out of Church. One fellow put it this way in a post. One guy said, “I don’t need to sit there and have some guy tell me how to live my life every week.” So instead they are staying home and “worshipping” through their Baals and Asherahs. I meant to say PC’s and Mac’s.

Of course one great advantage we have as an Anglican parish is that until they can figure out how to get the Body and Blood of Christ through the internet they still be need to come to Church. But that is beside the point. What I see in the Facebook post and folks dropping out are some Protestant errors coming home to roost.

The first error is that being a Christian is a private relationship between you and Jesus and Church optional. Some even see the Sacraments as optional. The irony is that you will not find that thinking anywhere in the New Testament. In fact you will find just the opposite. Those first Christians knew that the only way that they would survive is if they stayed connected to one another. Thus we read in the Book of Acts that they met not weekly but every day, continuing in the Apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, fellowship and the prayers.
St. Paul says that it is by one Spirit that we have been baptized into Christ’s Body and so being a member of Christ’s Body is no more of an option than my hand has to remain on my arm if it wants to survive. That is why the Church Fathers were want to say “He cannot call God ‘Father’ who does not call the Church ‘Mother.’”

The second Protestant error is that any individual is equally equipped to interpret the Bible as the Church. So many have an unspoken attitude which says, “I don’t need any commentaries or teachings of the Church, I will just trust the Spirit to show me the way.” This thinking is why we have literally over 33,000 denominations in 238 countries.

St. Paul even tells us in his letters that the letter is to the Church and not just to an individual. As such it is to be interpreted by the Church. All private interpretations must be compared to the interpretations of the Church. I have studied many cults and heresies and every one of them began with a man or woman who claims special private interpretation. But the Scriptures say that God has given teachers to the Church. It is their job to give the Church’s true interpretation of the text. So preaching is not some guy telling you how to live your life, it is the proclamation of God’s Word to tell us all how to live the Christian life.

I find it interesting that all the generations before us needed teaching and corporate worship but in this generation we see ourselves above that. I suggest to you that it is an abiding spiritual pride that would lead someone to think that they don’t need to be taught but can make it on their own.

Here is the sad thing. If we reject the riches that are to be found in the saints, in the Church, then we only manage to make ourselves spiritually poor. Corporate worship, corporate prayer, corporate fellowship all enrich the soul.

And to be very honest the Church also challenges us to grow in ways that do not happen if try to make it alone. As one disciple asked a hermit monk. “Whose feet do you wash?” God uses us to challenge one another. We have to learn to love the unlovely, and if you are thinking that you don’t know any unlovely then its likely YOU!
I would guess that most important attribute we are to cultivate as Christians is love and that cannot be learned alone. So God has given us riches in and with the saints.

The third thing for which the Apostle prays is that we would understand the incredible greatness of God’s power toward us. This last quality makes the first two a reality. It is all well and good for God to desire for us hope and riches but if He did not have the power to deliver them, then St. Paul’s prayer would just be an apostolic version of “Have a nice day”. If we can see that God’s power is perfect, then we can know that He will accomplish whatever He says he will accomplish. We certainly see God’s power to accomplish His will in the life of Jesus as revealed in our Gospel lesson today.

This is an interesting story. It is the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and it is layered with some interesting questions. Was their flight into Egypt an afterthought or was it a part of God’s original plan? Did Joseph improvise, adapt and overcome, or was there something greater going on here? We know that Herod was filled with rage that another king had been born, and so he crafted a plan to take Jesus’ life. But Herod’s plan failed. God warned Joseph through a dream to take his family and to flee to Egypt and in doing so they fulfilled an ancient prophecy that God’s Son would come out of Egypt.

But what are we to make of all of this? Since Herod was the instigator that forced them to Egypt was Herod then a servant of God? No, clearly he was warring against God. And yet God used that. And what about Joseph? Did Joseph take Jesus to Egypt as some kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy? There is no indication that Joseph even knew about the prophecy, otherwise he wouldn’t have needed an angel to come to him in a dream and give him directions.
What we see here is the power of God at work to accomplish God’s will. Somehow, in a way that only God can do it, both Joseph and Herod acted as free moral agents yet God had them accomplish what He had planned all along and even had prophesied through the prophets. It is a mystery how God can be sovereign and man can be responsible at the same time but we don’t have to understand how it all works in order to celebrate it. We just need to know that God is all-powerful and what He wills for us will be done.

So there you have it. Hope, riches and power. That is God’s will for us and that just might be a good thing to focus on in this New Year instead of who won the game. Jesus said that He gives peace but not like the peace that the world gives and so we can also believe that He gives hope, riches and power also not as the world gives. That is a very good thing given that the hope, riches and power of the world are transient at best and corrupting at worse. But when the come to us God’s way they come as grace upon grace. Happy New Year. Amen.