Life Without Limits:
This week we continue our study of 1 Corinthians. We began by noticing Paul’s deep and abiding concern for the unity of the church. We traced that concern last week through Paul’s warning to those who might take on the role of teacher in the church. He used a metaphor of building on a sound foundation with materials that will stand the test of time. In particular, he sounded a strong warning towards those whose ministry might create divisions in the church.
The foundation of sound doctrine, according to Paul is “Christ crucified,” the “foolishness” of the cross, and something he called “the mind of Christ.” Taken together, these three phrases point to a frame of mind radically different than that shared by the world around us. Taking our cue from Philippians 2, we recognize that the “foolishness” Paul talks about is a form of surrender. In the cross, Christ turned aside from the rights and privileges of Godhood and embraced humility and self sacrifice. The key to this attitude is to let go of our need to be “seen as” so that we can place ourselves totally at the disposal of those around us.
One way of understanding the next several chapters of 1 Corinthians (chapters 4-6) is to see them as Paul’s attempt to hold a mirror before the church in Corinth that exposes their own pride as the root of many of the problems their church is facing. This pride is the very antithesis of the “mind of Christ.”
In Chapter 4, Paul draws attention to how little he seeks approval in the eyes of others (3:3). He then launches into a somewhat sarcastic contrast between the way the church in Corinth sees itself (We have arrived!)and the way in which Paul and the other apostles are actually living (living sacrificially for the advancement of the kingdom.) (This passage runs form 4:4 to 4:15) He closes the passage by begging the Corinthians to surrender their pride and live according to the example of humility and sacrifice that he himself has set.
Chapter 5 begins with a rumor of sexual immorality which Paul believes should make the church ashamed, but which has become, instead, a point of pride. One of these days, we should spend some time talking about Paul’s advice to the church in how to deal with this situation. For today, though, we’ll offer the Cliff’s notes version: the church has somehow managed to turn itself inside-out. They have taken to using judgemental language toward the pagan world around them and language of permissiveness within their walls. Better, Paul suggests, that we learn to hold one another accountable and extend grace to the world around us.
On the subject of judging people, Paul begins chapter 6 by entreating the church to resolve their differences internally rather than taking one another to the courts. These law suits, Paul points out, simply demonstrates to the world that we are no better than the pagans. Clamoring to protect our “rights” against one another, Paul need hardly remind us, is ample evidence against us that we haven’t quite attained to the Mind of Christ.
Theological factions, open immorality, embarrassing legal entanglements. All of this traces back to the same source: We really don’t understand the foolishness of the cross.
This brings us to today’s reading (6:12-20.) At first, verse 12 and 13 seem like non-sequiturs. The NIV editorial notes don’t help. There’s an italicized sub-title between verse 11 and 12 letting us know that Paul has changed the subject from Lawsuits Among Believers to Sexual Immorality. This is an unfortunate over simplification. In fact, Paul has not changed the subject at all. The subject of both halves of chapter 6 is the same: What happens when we focus on our “rights” and entitlements instead of on the needs of those around us?
Apparently, the Corinthians view the grace extended to them through Jesus Christ as a new favored status that places them above the law and the conventions of the world. Maybe they mistook forgiveness for permission. Or maybe they thought that their citizenship in an eternal Kingdom trumped all other claims on their lives. At any rate, the notion that “I have the right to do anything.” has become a new mantra which Paul feels he must refute not once, but twice.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say–but not all things are beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”–but I will not be mastered by anything.
The argument coming from the Corinthians is an extension of Paul’s own theology. He has insisted to the rest of the early Christian community that Gentile believers are not under the constraints of the Jewish Law. It’s an important point to him. He believes that the inclusion of Gentiles in the church is a fulfillment of the Old testament prophesies, a sign that God was binging all things under his authority at last. In Paul’s view, making these people subject to the law would mean that salvation was really still only available to Jews. Paul would defend their statement that they “have the right” to ignore the Torah. However, he suggests that two very important questions be asked:
1. Do you control your behavior, or does it control you?
Paul might suggest that many of the commandments from Torah are not arbitrary in nature. They are there to protect us from behaviors that have the potential to enslave us.
Maybe you hadn’t noticed, but freedom is sort of a big deal to God. Maybe you missed the movie where Charlton Heston led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Maybe you missed the point of the “How long, O Lord” cries of God’s people in exile. God likes freeing people, and has a strong preference that when he sets somebody free they sort of try to stay that way.
Addictive behaviors abound. It’s easy to single out some of the most egregious: drinking or drug use, for example. Others might be harder to identify. One that Paul is going to talk about is sex.
In the ancient world, prostitution was thought of as ordinary commerce. Many extolled it as a safety valve against adultery, which was usually defined specifically in terms of sleeping with somebody else’s husband or wife. Paul raises questions about just how much self-control a person has if they need a safeguard against adultery. Just how much does the marital covenant mean if a person needs an escape hatch built in? Is this a behavior that you control, or a behavior that controls you?
2. Is it beneficial?
The word “beneficial” here in the NIV is a very weak translation of the Greek. The NASB uses the word “profitable” which is (IMHO) even worse. Can they really use this word in a discussion of the evils of prostitution with a straight face?
The major problem with both words is that they miss the central thrust of Paul’s argument. The Greek word is “sumphero,” which means (literally) “to bring together.” Paul’s question is not “does this benefit anybody?” It is (to pick up on our discussions from the last couple of weeks) “Does it benefit Y’all?”
Does it bring us together, or does it do violence to our community?
To clear the ground to answer this question, Paul first has to deal with another piece of homespun wisdom he attributes to the Corinthians: “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The general idea of this saying is that, at the end of the day, the physical world is a passing thing and what we do with our bodies is of little consequence. Paul disagrees with both halves of that sentence. He points to the Christian belief in a bodily resurrection. Our bodies do matter.
In the meantime, he reminds us, our bodies are part of a much bigger truth. In a sense that he will fill out in much more detail later in the book, we are members of Christ’s own body. When we disgrace our own bodies, we bring disgrace to Christ himself.
Can a behavior that cheapens the idea of covenant, that denies the presence of Christ in our midst, that denies the resurrection power of Christ to transform those whom he has saved… can such a behavior ever be thought of as “beneficial” to our Y’all-ness? As something that “brings together?”
Our pride has ambushed us again. To speak of our “rights” in such cases is self-centered and prideful and frankly a little ridiculous. The foolishness of the cross demands that we lay down such questions and ask new ones.
Is this really the behavior of a free person, or have I simply returned to Egypt by a different route?
Does this behavior create connective tissue or scars in the body of Christ?
Sermon Abstract 2-2-2020: