Sermon for January 17, 2021
Years ago a member of the congregation was disgusted with a sermon I delivered. Her disgust focused on one word I said: prostitute. It is truly a troubling word. What comes to mind is a wholly unholy industry that makes money with pornography, sexual trafficking, and other activities usually at the expense of the suffering and degradation of women. I cannot remember why I used the word ‘prostitute’ in that sermon, but it could be I was saying if Jesus encountered a prostitute, he would not condemn but forgive and call her to a new life no longer an object of sexual pleasure but a changed and forgiven child of God.
I hope no one will be offended but in the second reading today we hear that word, prostitute. The apostle Paul was addressing issues brought to his attention among the Christians in the important Greek city of Corinth. On his missionary travels Paul had proclaimed the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. A community of the faithful, a congregation had been founded. According to the book of Acts Paul remained in Corinth for 18 months teaching the faith. Paul had a trade, a tent-maker or leather-worker, and it is said he would set up shop in the market district which would give opportunity to share the gospel. When Paul left the city he certainly kept a keen interest in Corinth and found out what was going in the tiny Christian community not through Facebook but by letter and messengers.
Paul heard some disturbing news. Paul heard of sexual immorality practiced by Christians that would even shock non-Christians. Apparently some were quite arrogant about their sinful sexual behavior and would even boast about it. They even came up with slogans. We heard about them in the reading today. Some were saying “All things are lawful or permissible for me” to which Paul countered “But not all things are beneficial”. Some would repeat “All things are lawful or I can do whatever I please” to which Paul replied “but I will not be dominated by anything.” Or how about this one, “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” And Paul responded with a blunt warning, “And God will destroy both one and the other”. The idea of the Corinthian “I can do anything I want” crowd was to extend the food satisfying hunger to engaging prostitutes as nothing more than satisfying a very human desire. Prostitution was prevalent in the city of Corinth, there were even schools to train prostitutes-both men and women-for they were used not only for sexual acts, but also to provide intellectual and entertainment stimulation. In the ancient city of Corinth there was even a yearly festival to celebrate the service of prostitutes. I mention this background so we have a picture of the culture of the city where the church lived. Another factor of the time that would have disturbed the apostle Paul was prostitution was often associated with religion, the gods of the Greeks. There was a temple in Corinth dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and sexual pleasure.
There was an interesting discussion in Confirmation class last Wednesday over the question, “How has Christianity been counter-cultural throughout the ages? How is it still counter-cultural?” The class did not understand the meaning of the word ‘counter-cultural’. I tried to explain just how does our Christian faith challenge some of the popular ideas around us? The class was insightful and came up with the understanding of power. For our culture power is often associated with business and financial success or the idea jokingly referred to as the one who has the most toys wins the contest of life. One student said for the Christian faith success is understood more in serving others.
Christians as counter-cultural, resisting what is popular, was on the mind of the apostle Paul. He made that clear in the very opening of the letter writing, “To the church of God that is in Christ in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” Christians are sanctified or set apart to serve the Lord Jesus who has saved them by grace. Christians are saints through their baptism into Jesus Christ, into his body so to represent him in the wisdom, comfort, encouragement and guidance of the Holy Spirit. So Paul will make the case reminding his listeners that their bodies are not made for sexual immorality by being joined to prostitutes. If the prostitute was associated and supported by the temple of a Greek goddess this would mean idolatry. Just before our lesson today Paul did warn that wrong-doers will not inherit the kingdom of God, and the first two examples he mentioned were those engaged in sexual immorality probably meaning being joined to prostitutes,, and idolaters. Paul then reminded them of their hope and pardon, “And this is what some of you used to be, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God.”
It is tempting to slip back into the popular ways of a culture that gives permission to do what one pleases, “all things are permissible for me”. As long as I am self-satisfied we do not worry if it is beneficial or helpful for others. The apostle Paul would preach the good news of freedom in Christ, that is a freedom from trying to make oneself right and deserving of God’s love. God’s love is a gift; God’s love is unconditional; God’s love was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt for the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This gives us the freedom to know that we are loved by God no matter what we have done; this gives us the freedom to know that God will not abandon or give up on us; this gives us the freedom to know that our trust in Jesus means the forgiveness of all sin, the joy of salvation. In another letter the apostle Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free: Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” But do not misunderstand Paul wrote, “you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Paul was really calling Christians to be counter-cultural. He wrote that being joined to a prostitute was not merely satisfying a basic hunger. He said the “two shall be one flesh”, an intimacy that is not meant to be bought with money or last for a one night stand. Sexual intimacy is meant to be under protection of marriage, faithfulness, commitment and love for the other. Baptized, that is joined to Christ, grants us the inheritance of the resurrection, the promise of new life, new bodies, no longer afflicted with sin, sickness and death. With such an inheritance the faithful should use their bodies to give glory and gratitude to God. Paul will say, and this is counter the culture to the hilt: “you are not your own….for you were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body.” Jesus has paid the price for our freedom, freedom from domination by sin, freedom from the record of sins, freedom from condemnation, freedom from blindly following what culture says because we know of no other path. Jesus paid the price for our freedom with his own body on the cross. And with his resurrection has become the life we all deeply long for, life in him. Paul wrote in today’s text, “Your body is a temple or sanctuary of the Holy Spirit within you.” The Holy Spirit is ready to give us a different kind of power, the power not to look out only for ourselves, but serve one another. Paul used two images to get across our calling to counter the culture of selfishness which too often leads to violence: your body is the Holy Spirit’s Temple, and you are a member of the Body of Christ, called to be with other Christians for the common good.
How can we use our bodies for the common good? Two examples. Remembering Martin Luther King’s birthday last Friday, I read one of his sermons. In this sermon he gave a brief history of racism. Africans were kidnapped and sailed in ships to the United States as slaves. This became so important economically the white slave owners had to come up with the myth of white supremacy, as if people of a different skin color were by nature inferior. The myth of white supremacy has led to what King called the crucifixion of millions of Negroes. Then in the next sentence he wrote “With Jesus on the cross we must look lovingly at our oppressors and say “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Culture tempts with the solution of violence and revenge. Just think of the mob that trashed the nation’s Capitol, with far too many with bloodshed on their minds, wearing or shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. I was angry and wanted to see arrests and punishments. Accountability yes, but dehumanizing them and also myself, no: Jesus taught us healing by praying for forgiveness.
In the magazine of the ELCA Hunger Appeal, Lifelines, there is the story of Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Huntington Station, New York. Because of the COVID threat they shut down all their outreach ministries except one: they have a drive through food pantry. There are pictures of members using their bodies—arms, hands, and strong backs unloading food from trucks, bagging it up, and bringing it to waiting cars. The culture may say it is a time of disease and danger, shut down and hunker down. But the pastor of the congregation said, “You find life by giving it away, and when you’ve been blessed you discover that the abundance in a time of scarcity and fear is a tremendous spiritual blessing to you.”
We are members of the Body of Christ, our bodies are Temples of the Holy Spirit, so we are well equipped by the love and grace of Jesus to counter selfishness and fear with the never-failing supply of love we have from God, love we are called, set apart, and sanctified to share.