Freedom of the Body

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Epiphany.

1 Corinthians 6:12-19

“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.

***

On the day before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr gave a rousing—and mostly impromptu—speech to a group of sanitation workers striking in Memphis for fair and equitable treatment. He was tired, and ill; he’d been under threats and bomb warnings and there was a storm coming for the city; and so he had sent his friend Ralph Abernathy to speak in his stead, but at the last minute was persuaded to come down and share a word. It ended up being his final sermon. 

I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, like most spontaneous sermons, is mostly a remix of things King had said before—the values and concepts that were always at the top of his mind, ready to grasp at a moment’s notice. Like most of his speeches, it is a stunning mixture of faith and politics. And like most of his speeches, there were people who rejected it as “too political, too earthy, too physical.” People who wished their pastors would stop all this equal rights talk and get back to preaching on the spiritual life. People who said primly that their eyes were on heaven and nowhere else. 

King would have none of it.

“It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” he said, “in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day.”[1]

In other words, the physical and the spiritual are not opposing forces. They aren’t even separate categories. Our bodies are our temples. And the Christian faith leads us to care for people right here on earth.

Christianity has a long and frustrating history of wanting to separate out the spiritual world from the physical one, and an even more disturbing history of championing bodily pain as a method of spiritual purification. And that history springs directly from scriptures like the one we read this morning, scriptures that seem at first blush to decry bodies and all their desires, but upon deeper reading reveal altogether more vital gospel truths. 

The first thing to know about our scripture this morning is that it was not written to be scripture. It was a letter, a letter from a specific person, the Apostle Paul (who of course was just called regular Paul back then), to his newly planted church at Corinth, which was itself a new city of sorts, rebuilt and refurbished by Julius Caesar after a generation of sitting in ash and ruins after the last war. This new Corinth was a gleaming monument to Roman wealth and power, created from whole cloth as a major center of commerce. It sat right between Greece and the Pelopponese, which would have been a huge island except for this one land passage, where Corinth was, so everybody passed through there, and no one was really from there, and so it was a good place to start a new life and make a few bucks without really having to be accountable to anyone. 

So perhaps it’s no accident that when Paul comes in, preaching that Christ has saved us, and that for freedom we were made free, the Corinthians go for it. They form this new church, dedicated to Christ’s freedom, and Paul goes on his merry way. 

Until the balance gets out of whack. 

Since we’ve only got Paul’s letters, we’ve only got one side of the story. But it seems like some of the Corinthians took their Christian freedom to mean they could do anything they wanted, no rules, no responsibility, no accountability. They could do anything they wanted, with anyone they wanted, to anyone they wanted, and it wouldn’t affect their spiritual life at all. Perhaps influenced by the Greek notion of dualism, of separate and sometimes opposite bodies and souls, they began to make a distinction between the physical and the spiritual. As long as their spiritual side was good, they could do whatever they wanted with their bodies. 

Paul is not having it. 

Maybe you’re allowed, he says. Maybe you can do whatever you want. But it doesn’t mean you should, and it doesn’t mean what you do is good. Your body isn’t incidental to your faith. “The body is meant… for the Lord, and the Lord for the body,” he reminds them.

The argument he makes here is actually very Jewish. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, Jews had a strong sense of the holiness of the physical world, and of God’s hands-on creation of their bodies. Paul’s Jewish upbringing taught him that you couldn’t divide the physical world from the spiritual world, from the kinds of animals you ate to the way you washed your hands to your body posture when you pray. The physical world was shot through with the sacred.

Paul is particularly outraged by two reports: first, that the Corinthians are eating meat sacrificed to idols, keeping one foot in the pagan world either through arrogance or complicity. But more importantly for our scripture this morning, he is outraged that they are engaging in what the NRSV delicately and misleadingly calls fornication. 

We need to talk about this word for a minute, and I will also be as delicate as I can, but I think you all will catch my drift. The Greek word here is porneia. Without a lengthy introduction to Greco-Roman literature, it is hard to express the depth of cruelty, callousness, and degradation of what porneia covers, but trust me—it was a gnarly world in ancient Corinth. Roman men celebrated their right to use other people’s bodies—women, slaves, children, the desperate, the foreigner, the disabled. Those other people were considered mere objects for use. There was no kindness in these interactions, no respect, and certainly no real consent.

It is easy to get worked up about sex when talking about this passage. But Paul’s focus, believe it or not, is not on sex but on bodies. He is horrified that his congregation is engaging with prostitutes—but it’s not what you might think. His argument is not that prostitutes are evil, but that they are people

“Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” he thunders. “For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.”

That is the traditional formula for Jewish marriage, and it would have stunned the Corinthians cold. Most of the prostitutes of Corinth were slaves, whether they worked in a pagan temple or on the streets. They had no rights, no dignity, no autonomy, no personhood. To sleep with a prostitute meant nothing, because they were nothing. But Paul says that to unite with them is like marriage. It’s something real. They are someone real. 

To engage with the cruelty of the Corinthian sex trade was to force the body of Christ into cruelty and bondage as well. No wonder Paul is horrified. 

Classicist Sarah Ruden notes “for the polytheists, the essence of porneia was treating another human being like a thing. If I had been one of Paul’s typical early readers, whatever else I understood from his use of the word, I would have picked up that treating another human being as a thing was no longer okay.”[2]

Flee from porneia! Paul writes. The NRSV says shun, but the Greek word is flee, the word used for slaves running away from the horror of their chains. Get out of that landscape of cruelty, that culture of objectification, that world where you treat your neighbor, even if your neighbor is a prostitute, like they aren’t a child of God just like you. Run as far as you can, because only then will you be free.

You can’t separate out your spirituality from how you treat people with your body here on earth. Even—or perhaps especially—those most vulnerable to the cruelty and abuse of others. This extends far beyond sex, although it includes it. Treating other people like people, and not like things, is the everyday call of the Christian life. It is why we driven not just by social niceties but by our very faith to be kind to waitresses and call center workers, to mask up and wash our hands, to feed the kids at River Ridge and not just pray for them, to condemn abuse and slavery, to resist any dehumanizing language about “them” or “the other side” as if they were not people just like us. 

Your body is a temple, the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. So is theirs. We are called to treat them well, and treat ourselves well. Its another way of saying love your neighbor as yourself.

Theologian Paula Gooder has traced Paul’s writing about the body to discover that despite popular belief, Paul held not in low regard but in high: he consistently wrote and talked about how we use our bodies to glorify God. “An embodied spirituality,” she writes, “requires us to recognize not only that what we do with and to our bodies must live up to our calling to be worthy temples of God’s spirit in the world, but also that god’s spirit, by it’s very nature, brings life.”[3]

Friends, we have the freedom to be cruel. We have the freedom to be callous. We have the freedom to get others sick, and to treat the poor like objects for our economic use. For too long, we have had the freedom to abuse others based on the color of their skin. Even now, we have the freedom to scream and point fingers and land punches if we like, verbal or physical. We have the freedom to force Christ’s body here on earth into cruelty and bondage if we like, just like those ancient Corinthians did. 

But this is not the freedom we were set free for. Viciousness, selfishness, this is not how God is glorified in our bodies. When we mistreat others, so that they don’t have rest, or food, or peace, or safety, we are tearing down the very temples of God all around us. 

Preach Frank Crouch writes, “Christ does not set us free so that we can do whatever we want to do; Christ sets us free so that we can do whatever God wants us to do.”[4]

And God’s desire for us has always been community. God’s desire for us has always been to live out love, loving God and loving neighbor. God’s desire has been for us take our freedom and run with it until all are free. 

Not just in heaven. Not just later. But here and now. Let us have a faith that sets us all–all--free.

Amen.


[1] https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop

[2] Sarah Ruden, Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. Image Books, 2011. p 35.

[3] Paula Gooder, Body: Biblical spirituality for the whole person. SPCK Publishing, 2016. p 86.

[4] Frank Crouch, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:12-19.” WorkingPreacher.org. Jan 15, 2012.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s