Part of the problem is the challenge of how large or small to make the sections that we look at each week. How long or short do you make a series on a book like 1 Corinthians. On TV here in New Zealand this last week a documentary series called 'New Zealand from above" has begun to air. It explores regions of this country by using aerial and satellite photography occasional dropping down to make contact with the people who live in that landscape. I found that was a helpful metaphor to the approach I am taking with this series. Both from above as we see the big patterns and vista and from the ground as we tread through the whole landscape up-close and seeing all the details, we can grasp and understand and see the beauty and grandeur of the landscape and the Spirit is able to speak to us a we endeavour to remain faithful allowing people to explore and apply the Word of God.
About six month before Kris and I got married my mum went to the doctors because she was worried about a metallic taste in her mouth. Now our family doctor was really wonderful because my mum was often worried about little things like that but he took her seriously and ran some tests and sent her off for scans. It turned out she had bowl cancer. About six week before our wedding she went into hospital and had it operated on. She was a bit wobbly and sore at our wedding but was there and despite a re occurrence of bowl caner about twelve years later, which was diagnosed and dealt with again, she lived to be eighty five.
As we are working our way through the book of 1 Corinthians we see Paul dealing with a whole raft of symptoms that are presenting themselves, that speak of some deeper issues in the church. The church has thought they were spiritual and healthy, they boasted about their wisdom but Paul is able to tell by what is happening; division and squabbling, not dealing with Church disciple and in the readings from today lawsuits and people visiting prostitutes that things were not right. These were outward signs of false understanding of the gospel that needed to be dealt with, Issues that reached to the very core of who they and we are in Christ, their identity and ours as the new people of God and how we embody and live that identity out.
Greek society was known for their involvement in the courts, they were a litigious society. The Greek playwright Arisophanes has one of his characters look at a map and ask where Greece is located. When it’s pointed out to him, he replies that there must be some mistake-because he cannot see any lawsuits going on. Some in the church were continuing to take each other to court. Paul challenges their going to those outside the church for judgement as it was a bad witness.
Paul says if they are wise and spiritual why are not able to deal with it themselves. One of the theological problems in Corinth was that they thought they had already arrived, that they were reigning with Christ. So Paul picks up their understanding of what that meant and asks in a series of rhetorical questions, if they are to be involved with Christ in judging the unrighteous, even fallen angels how come they can’t deal with these trivial matter. If they are to judge the unrighteous how come they take matters before the very people they will end up judging? Isn’t it better to seek reconciliation themselves? It’s full of sarcasm as Paul asks them…isn’t anyone wise enough to do that?
Now Paul is not saying the roman court system was bad or corrupt, In Acts 18 when Paul was in Corinth the Jews had tried to have him arrested and punished the proconsul Gallio deals quite justly with the situation. Civil courts and the justice system are to be respected and honoured the challenge is how do we as believers deal with these kinds of disputes. We need to live differently that the world around us.
A lot has been made of Paul’s eschatology here that is his understanding of what will happen when Christ returns. Can I just say two quick things about that? Firstly, if we focus on that we can miss the challenge to live as the new people of God here and know, just as the church in Corinth were, and secondly while what Paul is saying here comes out of an understanding of Daniel 7:22 I wonder if Paul isn’t using the Corinthians own misunderstanding and words to challenge their behaviour.
Paul goes on to say that by simply having this dispute that both sides have actually lost, they’ve been defeated, it’s game over. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount had showed that we should love one another even when we are wronged, and not seek retribution. Paul will later sum this up in Romans as not returning evil for evil. That’s hard for us handle, particularly in a society where we value our rights and our dignity and that is almost as litigious as the Greek. Gordon fee points to the fact that by enduring undeserved loss the plaintiff enters into the true meaning of the cross. If Paul stopped there it would sound so unjust, that the plaintiff was at fault but Paul goes on to challenge the guilty party by saying that we should not behave like this, that we are called to live differently than the society round us.
Paul gives a list of lifestyles or identities constructed round particular behaviour as being outside the Kingdom of God. Paul uses the same list that he had used in chapter five, sexually immoral, greed, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers, and you can see how some of those would have been pertinent to the situation in hand and again we get the idea that no sin is worse than the others. He adds four new categories… Idolaters we can understand. Adulterers is significant as Paul will go to talk about prostitutes and in the next chapter marriage. Thieves, fits in with what the law suit is about, it’s about property or a shonky business transaction, and of course the one category that is most contentious in our society, what the NIV translates as men who have sex with men.
I need to focus on this briefly, firstly there are two words used in Pauls’ list one which means a male prostitute, usually a young man who sells their bodies for sex to other men, a rent boy. The other is the person who takes advantage of such young men. There is some debate whether these words actually are meant to mean all homosexual behaviour or refer specifically to that unequal exploitive relationship. Paul’s Jewish background would make him see all such behaviour as abhorrent, and we are left to wrestle with questions about did the ancient world have an understanding of sexual orientation like we do and is this something like slavery that our attitude has been changed about, by the Spirit, over time. By saying that some of you were once like this infers that the church has had to deal with issues of sexual orientation from its earliest days.
What Paul goes on to say then is helpful as he says that we are not trapped in identifying ourselves in all these old categories. Many of you were like that he says but in a wonderfully Trinitarian formula he redefines who we are and invites us to live out that new identity. We are washed made clean by what Christ has done for us, we are ‘sanctified’ set aside for the use of God by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and justified made right before God. This is the identity that should influence our behaviour; we are not locked into other definitions of who we are. To the people involved in disputes and suits this is the basis of working the issue out.
Paul then moves on to correct a misunderstanding of freedom that had developed: that freedom in Christ is licence to do whatever they felt like. Paul even quotes one of their slogans ‘ I have the right to do anything’, and Paul challenges that by saying yes you are free to do anything but are all things beneficial and yes also while you are free to do anything you want- don’t let your freedom lead you back into bondage. William Barclay sums this up by saying ‘Yes Christ has set us free from sin, not free to sin’.
Paul moves on to explain that in terms of another issue in the church at Corinth…Visiting prostitutes. Corinth was a city that has a reputation for its prostitution, it was a port city, but also dominated by the temple of Aphrodite, and there were well over a thousand temple prostitutes, male and female, dedicated to her. It was simply a way of life in Corinth, but Paul again calls the believers to be different.
He sees this not only being an issue of freedom and different cultural standards but an issue that comes from the Corinthians misunderstanding of what it is to be human. The Corinthians had a saying that food was for the stomach and the stomach was for food and God will destroy them both’… basically our bodies are made for sex so it’s ok…That our bodies do not matter in the scheme of things, what was done with the physical body did not have an impact on spiritual life. Greek philosophy and in particular Plato held this duality between the body which would pass away and wasn’t really important and the soul which would carry on and could know an ultimate reality beyond the physical. In the Jewish understanding of what it was to be human, there isn’t that split. We are so used to the Greek philosophical understanding that we think it’s a Christian understanding. We often talk of the human being, being made up of body, mind or soul and spirit. We talk of God saving the soul to the point that often people have focused on that and left dire physical needs go unaddressed.
But in the Jewish and biblical understanding of what is a human being body and soul are not separate, the body is not the throwaway casing, like a banana skin. We were created in God’s image, the complete package. Salvation and peace are formulated in terms of shalom, or wholeness. Our physical bodies, as part of the wider body of Christ are the temple of the Holy Spirit, God dwells within us. Paul affirms that our bodies will be raised with Christ a theme continued in chapter 15.
This then forms the basis for Pauls’ teaching on sexual immorality. Paul says what we do with our freedom in our body actually matters. The Corinthians might have thought that sex simply had to do with a physical part of them, but Paul says it affects all of us. He uses the words of genesis that the two become one flesh. The biblical view of sex is that it is wonderful and great, it was created as the physical expression of the deepest communication between two people; it was to be expressed and treasured in a man and women committed to forming a new family unit.
Paul’s instruction then for the church at Corinth is that they should flee from sexual immorality, and to honour God with their bodies. For me the picture of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife comes up when I hear that term. Joseph wants to honour God so runs away from Potiphar’s wife advances. I turned up to visit a friend who was a policeman one day and was asked to council a Christian young man in the interview room. He had been with his mates when they had broken in to a school and robbed it. He hadn’t gone and done the burglary with them rather he had stood at the school gates and waited for them, basically acting as a look out, and after they had done the job, he accepted some of the stuff they had stolen and of course got caught with it. He was devastated by the fact that his witness with his mates had been ruined. I told him how he dealt with that lapse would be equally a witness to Christ, and suggested that next time he adopt the Joseph method of avoiding immorality and simply high tail it away from his mates. That is good practical advice for dealing with things that tempt us towards immorality of all kinds.
Again Paul uses a Trinitarian formula to finish his argument. He points out that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, that God sent that spirit and that while we have been given freedom from sin, that Christ paid a high price for us, to buy us free. There for we should honour God in our bodies as they belong to him. In our society today we are coming to understand this idea of honouring God in our bodies not only applies to moral issues but how our physical well being has a huge impact on our spiritual lives. As I searched for images to go with this text for the service it was hard to find any that didn’t include running or other exercise. And I have to say that I find that challenging. How am I honouring God in my body if I’m over eating or not exercising enough? I need to some more fleeing.
Let me finish with two quotes from NT Wright who always seems to put thing so succinctly…
Because Christianity means freedom nothing is allowed to give me orders. Not my appetites, not my habits, not the surrounding atmosphere of my culture with its hardly noticed pressures towards certain styles of life… “
“ if you spend lots of money on a house you don’t go spray painting silly patterns on the door” you don’t graffiti it. In the same way those who have been bought at a tremendous cost must remind themselves of what special people they are and live accordingly.”