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.