Grace Presbyterian Church
January 14, 2018, Epiphany 2B
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Bodies and Temples
Or, to frame it in the social media sphere in which it most rapidly spread, #metoo.
The simple statement, though present in social media for a decade, touched off one of the most sweeping responses late last year as a wave of accusations (many heavily verified) of sexual abuse, harassment, or assault surged forth in many if not most fields of endeavor in American society. Just to recap a few:
1) a large number of women (and some men too) abused, or assaulted, or harassed by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood power brokers;
2) a number of Alabama women reporting being inappropriately approached by Judge Roy Moore while in high school (when he was in his 30s);
3) several other politicians choosing to resign in the face of other (again, highly verified) accusations (not to mention a president who not only has been accused multiple times but has also bragged about such behavior in the past);
4) a large number of current and former US Olympic athletes in gymnastics reporting assaults and abuse stretching over decades at the hands of a single team doctor;
5) prominent orchestra and opera conductors such as James Levine and Charles Dutoit accused of improper physical contact with musicians;
6) enough accounts of sexual abuse or assault against young women by church pastors or youth leaders to spawn its own unique hashtag, #churchtoo.
Indeed, enough accounts of such abuse within the bounds of the church (again, highly verified) were brought forth that the church had no real standing to criticize Hollywood or Washington. Not only young women abused by pastors or youth leaders, but also women in ministry harassed or assaulted by fellow ministers. I was particularly overwhelmed by the number of my colleagues in ministry responded with #metoo, or how many of my former seminary classmates for that matter.
In the continuing reverberation from these revelations, one incident from just last Sunday is particularly revealing about the church and its failures in this area. A Memphis area megachurch was treated to an announcement by one of its associate pastors of a sexual assault he had committed twenty years ago, as a young youth pastor in a church in Texas. The young woman had reported the assault to senior pastors in that church, who had told her to keep silent and not go to the police. His announcement, along with a long-distance and impersonal “apology” to the victim, was met in this Memphis church with a standing ovation. Only after a week of public scrutiny did that church announce that the associate pastor would be placed on administrative leave.[i]
So no, the church really doesn’t have much space to cast aspersions on the larger world’s tolerance for sexual immorality. And if a pastor wanted to preach a full sermon on that subject, the church itself could provide ample fodder for it simply based on its ongoing tendency to shame the victims of sexual assault while simultaneously elevating and shielding its perpetrators, all the more so the higher such perpetrators are placed in the church. It could be done with little difficulty.
And at first glance today’s reading from 1 Corinthians would seem to support such a sermon. Paul can be pretty prudish, and his reactions in chapters 5 and 6 are long on condemnation if sometimes short on substance, to the point that we can’t always be sure exactly what he’s castigating the Corinthians about. Clearly at least some of the Corinthians had got it in their head that Paul’s talk about “freedom in Christ” either in a previous letter or during an earlier visit somehow meant that a Christian (and a Christian male, to put it more precisely) could pretty much do whatever he wanted – hence the apparent Corinthian motto, repeated here twice by Paul, “All things are lawful for me,” with “lawful” here carrying more the shade of “permissible” rather than any legal force.
Paul rebuts that slogan with two different answers – “but not all things are beneficial,” speaking to the possibility of harm from such behaviors, and “but I will not be dominated by anything,” an echo of his language in the letter to the Romans about the enslaving power of sin. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s at all a good idea. Eventually he returns to his condemning the habit of some of the Corinthian men to frequent prostitutes, using the “body of Christ” language also found frequently in Romans to amplify that condemnation.
Between these verses themselves and the preceding passages in chapters 5 and 6, it would be easy to make that the whole sermon. Easy, but not right.
At first there seems to be a tossed-off aside about not sex, but food: “’Food is meant for the body, and the body for food,’ and God will destroy both one and the other.” It seems an odd fit, but Paul has slyly inserted the idea that there are other ways to dishonor the body besides sexual immorality.
As a result by the time we get to verses 19 and 20, Paul is able to fling the discussion wide open, taking off the limitations of that particular subject, and pointing to a much broader and more encompassing point about our bodies and our relationship to God. To speak of us as being “a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” introduces one half of the idea; if we truly believe that the Spirit dwells within us, as first witnessed on the day of Pentecost and experienced again and again throughout the New Testament, how do we possibly commit acts that defame or damage the body? It becomes all the more challenging when it becomes clear that Paul is not only speaking of individual bodies but the body, again the body of Christ – the whole community.
The other half of that construction comes in verse 20, with the terse reminder ”you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God with your body.” That “price” was, of course, the crucifixion of Christ; a crucifixion that did not – indeed, could not – happen to an abstraction, or a spirit being, or any kind of immaterial deity. Only a flesh-and-blood human being could be crucified. Only an incarnate God – “God-with-us,” as you might remember from all those Advent and Christmas readings – could be crucified. Again, the Incarnation matters. Bodies matter to a God Who deigned to be embodied.
To be clear, debasing or dehumanizing another person can never be reconciled with glorifying God with your body. But bodies matter wholly. That crack about food points to another indulgence of the Corithians, that will come up more forcefully later in the letter; their tendency to turn the Eucharistic meal, the meal with the Lord’s Supper in it as we would call it, into a debauchery of excess food and drink, with more well-off families already gorged and inebriated before poorer families have even had a chance to eat anything at all, much less the supper of our Lord observed. There’s no way this can stand as “glorifying God with your body” any more than consorting with a prostitute could.
Now for most of us, this hits closer to home than the other stuff in the chapter. If you’re like me, getting into food and its overindulgence is where Paul really has “done quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.” But food can be as much a vehicle for dishonoring God with our bodies, whether consumed in excess or its opposite; abusing the body by under-nutrition or starvation is no less dishonoring than abusing the body by overindulgence.
OK, that’s bad enough, but the imperative is still open-ended. What other ways do we harm the body?
What about the games we play, or watch other people play? Some sports encourage their participants (not openly, of course) to “do whatever it takes” to be the best, even to the point of getting doped up on all manner of literally godawful pharmaceutical supplements that wreak havoc on God’s creation. Some sports literally break bodies, leaving them unable to function properly after playing careers are over. Some sports break brains, leaving them unable to function properly after playing careers are over. I don’t have to spell that out for you, do I?
What about work habits? Do we or have we ruined bodies by overwork or overstress? Or conversely, do we fail to exercise them and maintain them in good health? Do we fail to keep our minds exercised and sharp in order to keep our bodies well? Yeah, this isn’t territory we like to think about too much on an individual basis for sure.
But again, individual basis isn’t all we are challenged to consider. How is the whole body of Christ affected by such abuses of the body, by such failure to glorify Christ with our body either individual or collective?
And the most challenging part of it all, perhaps, is that no matter how much we strive to “glorify God with your body,” that body will inevitably fail us. Whether through cancer or injury or simply the ravages of age, that body will break down and render us immobile or infirm, or just flat-out die on us. Yet we still strive to “glorify God with your body” because God glorified us by taking on the body, living as one of us, dying even as one of us.
“For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God with your body.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #2 Come, Thou Almighty King; #187 Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us; #468 In My Life; #702 Christ Be Beside Me