Sermon preached in St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church’s Zoom service on the Second Sunday after The Epiphany, Year B, January 17, 2021. This was the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, a week and a half after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building in Washington, DC on January 6, a few days after the second Impeachment of President Donald Trump on January 13, and three days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20.
Text: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians deals with two basic body functions: eating and having sex. Food and sex are so fundamental to human survival that it’s not surprising that controversial issues are always arising about them. These issues relate not only to the biological body but also to the social body and the political body.
We encounter such issues in our own families. When our whole Senn family gets together for a family meal, which we haven’t done since Thanksgiving Dinner in 2019, preparing a menu is an obstacle course. One member is a vegetarian, another is a vegan, one has gluten intolerance, another has food allergies that are so life threatening that he always brings his own food and utensils with him. Out of love for one another, we do our best to accommodate family needs, as well as personal likes and dislikes. They all know I won’t eat mushrooms.
Food issues were raised to a higher level for the early Christians because when they got together for dinner, it was to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The Eucharist was celebrated in the context of an actual meal. Christianity looked like another supper club in the Greco-Roman world.
There were no guidelines on what should be served other than that bread and wine were needed for the sacrament. And even then no particular kind of bread or wine was specified.
In the gatherings for the Lord’s Supper the host prepared the menus; it wasn’t pot luck. But one of the problems Paul had to address in chapter 11 of 1 Corinthians was that different menus were being served to different social classes, which was the social custom, as well as the problem of the patron and client classes starting to eat before the slaves got off of work. They ate what was left, which was also the social custom. Paul’s argument was that the Lord’s Supper broke down these social customs.
Back in the Civil Rights Era of the early 1960s it was said that those who ate and drank together at the Lord’s Table should not have to eat and drink separately in the cafeteria. Anglican Bishop J. A. T. Robinson said back in the day, eating and drinking together at the Lord’s Supper is social dynamite. Martin Luther King, Jr. was arrested twice trying to end segregation in department store lunch counters: once in Atlanta in 1960 and again in Birmingham in 1963.
Within the mix of Paul’s congregations there were Jewish Christians who wanted to observe the dietary laws set down in the Torah. What provisions should congregations make for kosher food? Meat was not an everyday luxury for most people in ancient societies. It was reserved for festivals and special events. Meat could be procured from animal sacrifices. Could Christians eat meat that had been offered to pagan deities? Some said they could because those deities weren’t real. But those deities were real enough to recent converts. Should the strong in faith suppress their appetites for the sake of the weaker brethren?
With a kind of an anti-legalism view, some said “All things are lawful for me.” They held that because of their freedom in Christ, they were not bound by the old rules and regulations. Paul himself, as a former Pharisee who had observed the kosher food laws, no longer felt bound to those laws. “But not all things are beneficial,” he replied to this group. Your freedom in Christ is not helpful if it tramples the piety of fellow members who want to keep kosher or puts recent converts in bad faith by eating offerings to pagan deities.
Paul doesn’t flatly contradict those who say, “All things are lawful for me,” but he qualifies it, twice. “’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.”
Some things aren’t worth making an issue over if it disrupts the common good. And certainly Christ has not set us free so that we might be free to destroy ourselves with self-destructive behavior—or behavior that is harmful to others. Those evangelical Christians who won’t wear masks during a pandemic have apparently not been reading St. Paul.
What Paul is arguing is that what is lawful or permissible is not an important category in a healthy church. Jesus has set us free from worrying all the time about what is and isn’t permissible so that we can instead freely choose what is healthy and life-giving and fulfilling. Paul warns us against making an idol of our freedom where we begin to think of freedom as an end in itself and end up making harmful choices as an immature assertion of our personal freedom. He suggests that we sometimes restrain our personal sense of freedom for the sake of the neighbor.
Martin Luther sounded very Pauline when he placed this aphorism at the head of his Treatise on the Freedom of a Christian: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” The Christian life is lived as a paradox between being free of the law and being bound in service to God and love for our neighbor.
Paul quotes another one of his opponents’ slogans that probably represents the attitude of the Epicureans: “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” In other words, indulge your bodily appetites because that is what they were designed for. There’s nothing ultimate about food choices. Both the food and the belly that receives it will die.
But it is clear from what Paul goes on to say that people were applying this slogan to sexual appetites as well as to food. Indulge your sexual appetites because that is what your body was created for.
But wait a minute, you Christians. “Your bodies are not your own.” Like slaves, “you were bought with a price.” As slaves were branded, so the price of your redemption in Christ is branded on your forehead: the sign of the cross given to you when you were baptized. You are baptized members of the body of Christ. You have received the Spirit of Christ. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Should the body that is a temple of the Holy Spirit joined to the body of Christ be joined to the bodies of prostitutes in the temple of Aphrodite?
That’s the sex issue in this chapter. Paul doesn’t deal with sexuality in the abstract. It’s always in concrete cases. In chapter 5 he dealt with a man in the congregation who was living with his father’s wife. In chapter 7 he deals with marital relations, such as how believers should relate to their pagan spouses. Here in chapter 6 he deals with prostitution.
Prostitution was a big business in ancient Corinth. Corinth was Greece’s major sea port. Lots of sailors and merchants were coming and going. Lots of prostitutes, male and female, were plying their trade. But the biggest employer of prostitutes was the Temple of Aphrodite. Male and female prostitutes were engaged in sacred sex in these pagan cults. These prostitutes were mostly slaves gifted to the Temple by patrons and money paid for their services went to the support of the Temple. Sex with the temple prostitute was like being joined in union with the goddess.
Now, if you are united with the body of Christ by baptism, what does it mean for you to share your body with a prostitute? It means you are committing idolatry. You are supporting pagan worship. “Shun fornication!” thunders the apostle.
The body is not inconsequential. Our body is who we are and whose we are. We are created by God, ransomed by Christ, sanctified by the Holy Spirit for worship. We are created, redeemed, and consecrated to glorify God in our bodies—bodies that God will glorify by raising them from the dead.
So we should give attention to what we put into our bodies and what we do with our bodies. Not only in terms of what we eat, but also for what reason we lay them down. We can lay down our bodies to demonstrate for social, economic, or political action. We can lay down our bodies to defend the common good, as lay officers often do. We can lay down our bodies to try to demolish the common good as those who assaulted the US Capitol in support of a lie about a stolen election did on January 6.
I marched twice with Dr. King in the 1960s: first, through Marquette Park in Chicago for integrated housing in 1966 as the white mob hurled bricks and bottles at the marchers; and second, against the Vietnam War in Washington in 1968 as we processed to Arlington National Cemetery for a service.
When we lay our bodies on the line for a cause we have to ask: are we demonstrating for a better society or are we seeking to destroy good order? Do we march for truth and justice or in support of a lie? For what purpose do we use our political bodies? Do we use our bodies to glorify God and serve our neighbor? That’s the overriding issue Paul is raising.
Our Gospel reading is Jesus calling his first disciples, Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael. We are called to be disciples of Jesus in our baptism. Our Christian calling is not realized by keeping dietary rules or by flouting them but in meeting the needs of our hungry neighbor. Our Christian calling is not found by pursuing our own ideological agendas, but by following the One who has shown us what the ultimate in bodily human life looks like, lived to the full, poured out for the love of others, and offered for the life of the world, Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God. Amen.
Pastor Frank C. Senn