Corinthians

(Note: I preached this sermon on the second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 2012)

Every week when we gather around the sacrament or when we dedicate our offerings of money and praise to God, we pray the Lord’s Prayer. And here we pray the traditional version, so every week we pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” Do you ever ask yourself what kinds of temptation you are asking God to keep you away from?

We know, of course, that life is full of temptations. And Christian life introduces some temptations all its own. That’s what I want to talk about today. Because the church in Corinth was struggling with the special temptations of a religious community. And Paul the Apostle was writing to them in order to help them understand these temptations and hopefully resist them.

Now Paul had planted this church around 50 A.D. during his second journey to the northern Mediterranean world. Corinth was a port city. It was a relatively new city that thrived on charging merchants for moving their goods from one sea port to the other. The worship of the emperor was strong there. So was the worship of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, who had a temple in the city. Like a lot of new cities, the population was ethnically and religiously diverse. It was an excellent place for traveling gurus and teachers of wisdom to come and teach for pay. Paul himself must have seemed a lot like these roving teachers.

Now there are many temptations in such a place, as there are many temptations in our world. And we learn from Paul’s letters that the Christians in Corinth were susceptible to all of those ordinary temptations, and then some. Specifically, they were tempted by the thought that their new religion gave them a kind of immunity to the world. This temptation expresses itself in different ways. You can believe, on one hand, that since you are a person of faith, you can do whatever you wish without any harm to your soul. And you can believe, on the other hand, that your own righteousness and holy living gives you the power to judge your fellow human beings, and to demand more of them than God in fact demands.

Some people, in other words, had too little morality. Other people in this church had too much, you might say. And so of course they quarreled, and they submitted their complaints to Paul for advice and instruction. There is a culture war in Corinth. And the peace cannot come from picking one side over the other. The peace can only come from Jesus.

That is the message of the first letter to the Corinthians. In it, Paul seems to be quoting some of the teachings that are current in the church and offering his responses.

For example, it was being taught that “All things are lawful for me.” Paul of course had preached that the Law of God, which condemned all people for their sinfulness, had been overcome by Jesus Christ. Those who believe in Jesus do not live under the power of the Law, which judges and condemns sin. Rather they live under grace. But some of these Corinthians had gotten the idea–understandably, I think–that the freedom that comes through Jesus was freedom to do whatever they wished. And so a member of the congregation was living with his stepmother. Paul did not approve.

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” people in Corinth were saying. This seemed to have been meant as an excuse to over-indulge in all kinds of bodily appetites. Gluttony was one, obviously. And hunger is a metaphor for other things too. A town that was dedicated to the temple of the goddess of love thrived on the profession that Paul discusses in the following verses. Some Corinthians were living very much in the world, very much entangled in the old ways of living that they knew before they heard Paul’s message. Paul did not approve.

Those are the temptations of people who live heedlessly on account of their faith. Our reading today doesn’t include the other side of the story, but there were also people teaching that no one should marry, and that husbands and wives ought to refrain from intercourse with each other. There were people who were offended that some of their brothers and sisters still ate with idol-worshipers at meals that included food offered to those idols. They wanted to require additional fasting and ritual observances and so forth. These are the temptations of people who are a little too righteous, a little too aloof from their world.

Now both sides in this dispute have a point, don’t they? Jesus Christ really does free us from the law of sin and death. Food is meant to nourish us and we are meant to eat. Human beings were made for intimacy, for unions that reflect God’s creative love for the world. And at the same time, we are not freed to do just whatever we wish, but we are free to act in love and humility and patience. An appetite can become a compulsion when we feed it too eagerly. The rigorous and demanding among the Corinthians were not wrong to be disgusted by the city in which they lived.

Paul calls on the Corinthians to remember who they are and who they belong to. “All things are lawful for me,” but all things are not beneficial. And I will not be dominated by anything, Paul writes. Yes, you can eat and drink, and no one can judge you for doing so. But every appetite can draw us away from our love of God. I will not be dominated by anything, because my loyalty lies elsewhere. “Food is meant for the stomach, and the stomach for food,” but God will destroy the one and the other. I feed my stomach, I enjoy feeding my stomach, but I do not belong to my stomach. I belong to Jesus. I belong to Jesus, who holds both my life and the things that give me life in his almighty hand.

So when Paul turns to the extra-exciting sins here in these last verses, this is what he’s talking about. When Paul talks about prostitution, he may have in mind the brothel associated with the temple of Aphrodite. He’s saying that Christians shouldn’t join with the holy meal of the believers on Sunday and then go mess around at the temple brothel on Monday. You are God’s temple. And while the culture around them didn’t think that sex was any big deal, Paul says that it’s a big deal indeed, that whatever we tell ourselves about it, it makes two people into one. It’s an intimate and dangerous thing. Like everything else in our lives, it is meant to serve God, and it can’t serve both God and the idol of the local temple.

This is not Paul speaking as an abstinence-only educator. And it’s not at all to say that any of us has the right to scorn or attack women who engage in this industry because they are abused or oppressed into doing so.

The point, rather, is that we can’t take our faith, or our high morals, and walk around as though no one and nothing else matters. If a Corinthian Christian was telling himself, “I’m a Christian, I am waiting for the Lord, and so a visit to the temple brothel can’t hurt me,” he was deluding himself. And he was demeaning the importance of the person–in many cases a young person, or a slave–on the other side of that transaction. And if a different Corinthian Christian was telling himself, “I don’t even think about women, and anyone who does is condemned” he was deluding himself, and he was cutting himself off from the people he was bound to love. And he was cutting himself off from the Lord who called all of these people together to be a special people.

When Paul says, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” this is good news. His audience knew all about temples–like Aphrodite’s temple right there in Corinth. They knew about special places to offer prayers and bring gifts and so forth. What they did not know, what they had never heard before, is that the Spirit of God, through Jesus Christ, takes up residence in them. They had never heard that their lives and their loves touch God through the temples of their flesh. They had never heard that their individual bodies become part of the larger body of the church, in which we are accountable to each other. And they had never heard that this body of the church was also the body of Christ in the world–the body that bears witness to the forgiveness of sins, to the blessings poured out on children and widows and the poor, the body that serves everyone in need. That is why Paul, even though he is stern, ends on a note of good news: you were bought with a price. It is good news for us, too. We do not belong to the world that pushes and pulls us in every direction, that makes us scorn or resent each other, that tries to put our own needs on God’s throne. We belong to Christ, and through him we belong to each other. Amen.

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