1 Corinthians 6:12-20
January 14, 2017
William G. Carter
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything.“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
When we read the letters of Paul, we are quickly reminded how the church had to make its way on the frontier. Many cities and civilizations were well established. Yet the gospel was completely new, even strange.
Nowhere was this more awkward than the affluent city of Corinth. Situated as a port city in the southern part of Greece, the merchants enjoyed great wealth. With a strategic location for the travelers of the world, Corinth was a crossroads of world cultures and an intersection of new ideas.
At the top of the mountain overlooking the city was a temple to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. If you were looking for love, Corinth was a city that was prepared to meet your temporary needs. The temple employed about a thousand specialists (let's call them "love merchants"). Their commerce was blessed in the name of Aphrodite. If you get my drift.
The Apostle Paul landed in Corinth around the year 42 or 43 AD, and stayed for a while to preach the gospel. He made some friends and worked very hard. After a while, he built a congregation of about fifty souls. Then, as now, building a church was a difficult enterprise.
It's difficult because people have long established habits; the news better be pretty good on a Sunday morning for them to give up their blessed weekend. It's difficult because Paul preached the gospel from the traditions of Israel, proclaiming a Messiah to people who weren't looking for a Messiah, teaching the Ten Commandments to folks who had never thought of disciplining their lives.
It’s difficult because the Christian faith point to central mysteries that demand some mental work. If there was common sense in the message Paul preached, the Corinthians could lean forward and nod in agreement. Yet for him to speak, for instance, of a crucified Messiah, it sounded almost as foolish as the notion of a resurrection.
Nevertheless Paul made some traction. He established a congregation. Then he moved along. That was his custom: go to a major city with a lot of international traffic, start a congregation so the faith can pollinate and spread, and go somewhere else.
It was a good plan for starting churches, but tough for sustaining them. In Paul’s absence, questions bubbled up. The church says, “We know you didn’t have time to tell us everything, so what about this? What about that?” Five or six years after Paul departed, they sent their concerns in a letter. Somehow it gets to him and he responds. What we have in the letter we call First Corinthians is part of his response. It’s the second half of a conversation that we haven’t heard.
Yet we can piece together many of their concerns. Apparently one of the concerns is freedom. They heard Paul say, “We are free in Christ.” Thanks to Jesus, we are not bound to the status quo. We don’t have to do whatever everybody else around us is doing. We can claim a different set of values. We can live a different way. Thanks to the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are free.
The Corinthians heard him say, “We are free,” and breathed a sigh of relief. In fact, that’s all they may have heard him say. We are free. I am free. And if that’s all you hear, it resonated with a long-established principle that still guides a lot of people in our own time and place. And here is the principle: that I can do anything I want. That I am free to pursue my own desires. That I am under no restriction about how I wish to live my life.
When my sister and I were teenagers, we were sitting on the couch one night watching a beauty pageant. One of the contestants declared, "I am my own person, I think for myself, I am responsible for my own dreams, and I am sufficiently empowered to pursue them."
My sister said, "Wow! She's got it together. I bet she's going to win." Indeed she did.
The idea sounds so enticing, that "I belong only to me," that "whatever I want to do, I can do." It sounds like freedom, but it’s something else.
This is the point at which the Apostle Paul enters the conversation. The word in the air is that “all things are legal for me,” a wonderful liberating freedom, and Paul quickly adds, “That doesn’t mean that all things are good and helpful.” You hear the difference?
He goes on: “Yes, all things are lawful, but some things dominate us, enslave us.” Think of the kid who starts smoking and then can’t give it up – that’s enslavement. Think of the man who loves good food and can’t get enough of it – it dominates him. Think of the person who takes a quick peek at a naughty picture, or puts a bet down on a card game, or kisses somebody they don’t even know. They felt free to do something, and then it builds, and grows, and takes over.
Is that freedom? No, it’s another form of enslavement. A lot of addictions begin with a supposition of freedom: that we are free to do whatever we want.
I’ve been a pastor long enough that I’ve heard the stories. The happily married man who fell into an internet chat room and couldn’t get out. The woman who did some babysitting on the side, and put the money on lottery tickets. The business man who took trips and ended up in places his family didn’t know about. All of them free, or so they thought, until all of them were enslaved.
That’s what Paul is warning his people about.
Ten years ago this spring, my dad and I took a tour of biblical sites in Greece. We spent a whole day in what’s left of Corinth. It is an astonishing place. Over there was the port, on the isthmus of Achaia. Over here, the market place, where goods, services, and news of the day were traded. And up there, the mountain that once housed the Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, with a thousand of her servant in shacks going the whole way up the hill.
Our travel guide said, “Maybe the best way to explain Corinth is to tell you it was a sailor’s town.” At that, my dad began to blush. Out of high school, he had served in the navy. He knew what it meant to go ashore in a foreign city, a place you had never been to, a place you would never see again, a place where secrets would be kept and all pleasures were available for a price.
I said to my dad, “Did you ever go to a sailor’s town?” He was a pretty righteous man, so he blushed and sputtered a bit. Then he said, “Not me, not in that sense, but a lot of my ship mates did.” And the inference was the shore leave didn’t turn out well for most of them. As Dad went on to say, in his own modest way, they kept a lot of penicillin on the ship.
“All things are lawful for me,” says the apostle Paul, “but not all things are beneficial.” “All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.”
It’s like the kid who goes into the shopping mall for the first time with a twenty dollar bill. Grandma sent it in a birthday card – twenty dollars! They can do whatever they want with it. They are free to spend it however they wish. Where to go first? Candy store? Clothing store? Get the ears pierced? Get something else pierced? Inevitably they discover most things they want will cost a lot more than twenty dollars, so they can’t wait to come back with more money and get whatever they want. They are free!
That kind of freedom is only an illusion. She is not “her own person.” She is merely a consumer. The consumer is that sub-class of the human species that believes that purchasing gives them purpose, that acquiring the external object will fill the hole in their own souls, that if they can only get more toys they will be content. It’s not freedom; it’s another form of slavery.
To this mindset, the apostle Paul speaks a Christian truth: that we don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to Christ. We are free from living like the rest of the pack because we belong to Christ. We are liberated from the need to consume other things, or consume other people, because our value comes from the love of Jesus, “who bought us at a price.”
In this passage, this is how he refers to the death and resurrection of the Lord, how it has both freed us from sin and death, but bound us to the One who truly gives life. “He bought us at a price.” The language is from the ancient slave market, where redemption meant purchasing a slave in order to set them free. That is the meaning of redemption.
So how should we live as free people? Paul says, “Glorify God with your body.” What a radical thing to say! Some people have always thought religion is supposed to free you from the baggage of flesh and blood, that somehow the liberating ideas will lift us out of our carcasses and closer to heaven. Absolutely not, says Paul. True faith begins by inhabiting our own skin, by walking on our own feet on the land where everybody else walks.
After all, we just celebrated Christmas, the stunning revelation that the Eternal God who is Spirit was found in a human baby named Jesus. The Word took flesh. God spoke in human words. In the human touch of Jesus, God healed aching human bodies and fed human stomachs. The word “spiritual” does not signify something amorphous. St. Athanasius put it this way, “God sanctified the body by being in it.”
Or as the apostle Paul declares in this word to the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?” By the way, Paul, which comes from God? Our bodies or the Holy Spirit? And the answer is “both.” Because we belong to God, for we’ve been adopted as the children of God. And what we do with our bodies is a reflection of God’s Spirit working in us and through us.
So the youth group kids said to their grandfather, “Grandpa, you have to stop smoking. Your lungs are a temple of the Holy Spirit.” And the mother can say to her teenager, “Please stop eating so much junk food; your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” And the apostle Paul could say to all the Corinthian sailors who were wandering up the hill, “Knock it off; our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit.”
It matters what we do with our skin and bones, it matters what we speak with our tongues and how well we take care of our feet. It matters if our A1-C is too high, or our blood pressure is too low, or if our PSA isn’t staying level. It matters if we don’t get enough exercise, or if we fill our blood stream with addictive substances, or if we intoxicate our minds with too much cable news. Our bodies matter, because our lives matter, because God can work to redeem the world through our bodies.
We know this to be true. In the name of Jesus, we do not feed the hungry by wishing it so; we prepare them meals. In the power of God, we do not comfort the grieving by praying for them from a distance; but by taking their hands and listening to their broken hearts. In the communion of the Holy Spirit, we do not correct the world’s injustices by merely thinking about them; we speak up with our tongues, organize up with our minds, step up with our feet, and push up for change.
Paul remembers his people and says, “You were bought with a price.” Look at the cross and consider the extravagant price!
And when it sinks in how much God has loved us to claim us as God’s own, it will make perfect sense to glorify God with our bodies.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.