Saint Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth is a heavy one. While we do not have the letter the Corinthians sent to Paul, we can deduce some of the realities of their situation from what he writes in response. This is clearly a community divided on what it means to live as followers of Christ. Conflicts abound over practices and ideas, some of which are Paul’s own teachings though twisted and shoehorned into positions that he did not intend. While our own communities may or may not be living through exactly the same conflicts as the Corinthians to whom Paul is writing, many of the larger principles that the apostle comments on are still relevant to our own lives today.
The bulk of today’s passage is commentary from Paul on fornication which seems to be a major concern in the life of the Corinthians at this time. This may seem an odd choice of example when the passage is read in isolation, as is typical in our liturgies. It is not so strange, however, in the larger context of the epistle. The entirety of the preceding chapter (1 Corinthians 5) is Paul’s commentary on the immoral sexual behaviour among the Corinthians. This use of fornication as an example of the difference between things which are lawful and things which are beneficial is a return to an earlier point, not something Paul pulls out of thin air.
I do not plan to spend much more of this time of reflection speaking particularly on fornication and sexual immorality. These are important issues for consideration, to be sure, but they are narrow examples of a larger issue. It is this larger issue which Paul seems to want to tackle in 1 Corinthians 6 from whence our passage today is taken.
One of the prominent themes in the letters of Paul is the freedom which we have been offered by God in Christ. Paul comments on this in 1 Corinthians, chapters 7 and 9, as well as Galatians 5.1 and Romans 8.1-2. For freedom in Christ to appear so frequently in his letters, it surely appeared in his conversations and preaching among these communities when Paul visited them in person. Paul’s teaching that we have been freed from sin and death by our adoption into life in Christ is a powerful and beautiful message. However, as so often happens to teachers, authors, and other public voices, when he hears his message returned from the Christian community in Corinth, it has taken on a slightly different character.
It seems that some of the Corinthians are claiming that if they have total freedom through their life in Christ, then they may do as they please, when they please. All things are lawful and therefore nothing is forbidden. This is not what Paul intended the Corinthians to understand and he seems irritated that they have misinterpreted it in such a way. The apostle reminds them “ ‘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.” (1 Corinthians 6.12) Paul is reminding the Corinthians, and subsequent generations of disciples like you and I, that just because we may have a free will and the power to do as we choose does not mean every choice that we make is a good one. This is vitally important for life as a Christian.
We readily acknowledge that God is the source of all that exists in Creation. All that is has its being because God has made it so. You and I do not exist because we willed ourselves into being or somehow fashioned ourselves, but because it pleased God to make us, to bless us, and to call God’s creation very good. (Genesis 1.26-31) It stands to reason, then, that our purpose is not to be self-serving and concerned primarily with our own desires but that our purpose has something to do with our relationship to the God who made us. Our purpose is not to be self-serving, but to be God-serving.
Whenever the Church—which is the mystical body of Christ—baptizes a person, we welcome them into that same body. Whatever their existence may have been before their baptism, the new Christian descends under the water to die with Christ and emerges from the water in their new life, sharing eternity in the resurrection of Christ. Clearly this is an incredible gift given to the newly baptized, but is also a gift given to the rest of the Church. If we have all been baptized and died to be given a share in the resurrected life of Christ, then it means that we all share that same life. If we were separate, isolated lives before our baptisms (and I am not convinced that this is so) we are certainly not after we rise from the water. We have been baptized into the one life in Christ which includes all of the baptized from all places in all of history. We are many parts gathered together into one Body, in the way that many strands gather together to form a single rope or many plants gather together to form one garden. Each parts needs the work and support of the others to flourish.
Paul goes on to remind us that our bodies are important not only to us for how we might use them, but important to God: “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?” (1 Corinthians 6.13b-15a) And again the apostle says “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.” (1 Corinthians 6.19-20) He is reminding the Corinthians, and each of us, that while they have the freedom to choose to do as they will with their bodies, not every choice is a good one. We have responsibilities which we must consider in our decision-making. Responsibilities born of our relationships to God and, through our baptism into life in Christ, to one another.
When it comes to making appropriate choices about what we ought to do in our lives, my observation is that humans tend toward extremes. Do this, do not do that. Go to this place, do not go to that other place. And so on. I understand the desire for simple rules like this, especially when they can be reduced as far as a binary: this versus that, here versus there. The simplicity of these rules makes them easy to follow and, for those charged with educating and shaping others, it makes “good” choices easy to teach. It gives the rule-follower a certainty that they are making “good” or “right” choices. The trouble with these simplistic kinds of rules is that at some point we will all be confronted with situations where there is no simple application. Most of human life is complicated, full of ambiguity and uncertainty into which clear-cut, simplistic rules do not fit.
The simplest option for Paul would have been tell the Corinthians to stop having sex altogether. Like a parent disciplining a child using a toy inappropriately. “You can have it back when you’ve learned how to be responsible with it.” Paul is a wise enough man that he knows that no community will obey such a teaching and he is aware that while it is the simplest option, it is likely not the best option. (Paul does advocate for celibacy as a holy way of life, but admits this is not realistic for all people.) After all, our bodies were made and blessed by God, including their capacity for sex, and to deny this would be counter to God’s full wishes for us. Paul believes our bodies are as important as temples to the Spirit and we have the Incarnation as evidence that God believes human bodies are important. Surely God had no need of a human body, but chose to take on our fleshly existence in Jesus Christ that humanity and divinity might be even more closely joined in our salvation. As Saint Irenaeus of Lyons said:
Paul must take the much more difficult path of trying to teach how to discern which uses of the body are appropriate and which are not. Critical assessment and decision-making is so much more work than a simple yes/no, this/not that teaching. It is more work both for a teacher, like Paul, and for the disciple, like the Corinthians. It means assessing each situation and considering not only our first instinct, which is usually what is best for ourselves, but also what is best for the whole Body of Christ and, indeed, the whole of Creation.
In the case of the Corinthians, sexual immorality is a concern for the potential physical consequences, but also for the consequences it has for the relationships within their community. In the case of a Christian community in Canada today, it might be a disagreement as simple as the colour a room should be painted or it may be as complicated as how to respond to issues such as systemic racism, our ongoing choice to perpetuate poverty in our society, the colonialism bound up in the Anglican Church of Canada, or the fraught relationships between settler and Indigenous peoples across this continent.
There are no simple yes/no rules or answers to how to address these situations, but we know that God desires good for all of God’s Creation and so we, created to be God-serving people, are called to this work. We are called to address these issues, small and large, simple and complicated. It is work that is difficult, painstaking, and slow, but it is also holy, conciliatory, and a part of our own repentance and drawing nearer to God.
Like the Corinthians, in our own baptisms we are received into the resurrected life in Christ. We are given freedom that we might perfectly serve God in all things. Like the Corinthians, we must discern the best ways to use that freedom, not for ourselves, but to glorify the God whose life we share, even when the work of discernment is long and hard. Like the Corinthians, we are not called to this life and work alone, but in concert with all of the other members of the Body of Christ and with one no less than Christ at our side.
Thanks be to God.