January 12, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Note: I happened to make a new sermon on this text recently and preached it at a church in my area on January 4 and so for this week I am taking a break from the usual notes on the text to show how on this occasion I assembled those same notes into a sermon. I pray it will spark even more creativity in you!
“The Child’s Leading”
Don’t you wish sometimes you could have been there, could have seen them in person? I mean the disciples and, of course, Jesus himself. You hear people say things like that once in a while. Wouldn’t it have been something to have been able to meet Peter, to shake Matthew’s hand? What if even now we could somehow go back in time to hear the Sermon on the Mount? Often when people wish for such things, the motivation seems to be a combination of healthy curiosity and the idea that maybe it would be easier to believe the gospel if we could have seen gospel events unfold before our very eyes.
But I myself doubt that latter point. I am not at all convinced that seeing the disciples would make the gospel easier to believe. In fact, seeing the disciples in person might just make it more difficult! The disciples were not, after all, from among society’s upper echelons. They were not highly educated, well-dressed, or outwardly impressive. The odds are that if you could have met up with Jesus’ band of followers, the first thing that would have struck you would have been their commonness. You would perhaps notice their dirty fingernails, the callous on Philip’s big toe, the missing teeth that were on such obvious display every time James grinned. You might be surprised at how short and stubby a couple of them were and would note the poor grammar that they often employed.
We need to forget about the illustrations from those well-meaning children’s Bibles some of us grew up with. In those pictures the disciples tended to be pretty handsome with well-groomed beards, sporting robes worthy of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. In such depictions the disciples were always clean and remarkably Anglo-Saxon looking. The fashions may have changed over time, but in an era when tunics and robes were what people wore, we often visualize the disciples wearing the ancient equivalent of Armani designer suits. Probably, though, they were far more common and ragged looking. But this morning, we need to wonder if we are so very different from them ourselves. Maybe we’re not much to look at, either. But as we may yet see this morning, maybe that’s Good News after all.
Because somehow that rag-tag group of uneducated fishermen were in touch with the deepest truth and dearest secret of the universe. Those ordinary fellows changed history by their witness. It’s quite remarkable. In fact and as Frederick Buechner once noted, this all has a fairy tale-like feel to it.
Most everybody has a soft spot in their hearts for fairy tales. There is just something about a fairy tale’s reversal of expectations that intrigues us. There is something delicious about finding out that the frog is really a handsome prince, that the ugly duckling is the one that grows into the most resplendent of all swans. We enjoy it when the moment of truth comes for the characters in a story, as when the Hobbits discover that the scruffy-looking character of Strider, whom they never quite trusted, is actually the true king of Gondor.
Fairy tales are stories of transformation, and that’s what happened to these simple people we call the disciples. If you took the disciples and brought them all together into one room, you would never in your wildest imagination guess by looking at them that this weak-looking pack of ordinary folks could change the world. But they did. The disciples changed the world because it was to them that the secret of the universe was first revealed.
That’s why Jesus called them in the first place. If you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to start somewhere. And if in the end you’re going to save the world through humility, gentleness, compassion, and sacrifice, it makes sense to begin with a bunch of fellows who couldn’t get much more humble if they tried! The messengers fit the message. In fact, over the course of his ministry if Jesus had any significant struggles with his disciples, it was the struggle to keep them humble and ordinary-looking. Every time a couple of them started angling for power or arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, Jesus slapped them back down to the street level of service.
The disciples needed to be common, ordinary, and above all humble if they were going to do Jesus any good and so change the world. Still, Jesus did need them and that’s why he called them. But in the calling process, there was more going on than we realize. Our passage from John 1 is a case in point. Jesus has already attracted Simon Peter and his brother Andrew when he calls also a man named Philip to follow him. No sooner does Philip join Jesus’ still-small group of disciples, and he runs to fetch his brother, Nathanael. Near as we can tell, Nathanael, though a follower of Jesus, did not become one of the inner-circle of twelve disciples. Yet his particular call to follow Jesus is remarkable.
Based on the external evidence alone, you’d have to say that Nathanael dove in based on little more than a kind of spiritual parlor trick: Jesus claims to have seen Nathanael sitting under a fig tree even before Philip went to go get him. The fact that Jesus seemed to know that was a neat trick but not exactly the most startling thing in the world! Still, it was enough for Nathanael to sign on even as it motivated him to declare openly that near as he could tell, Jesus was the Son of God and the king of all Israel. Nathanael’s confession was pretty simple but in this story, Jesus reveals some pretty amazing things if we pay close attention to this story. Because twice in this brief passage there are very clever, very telling allusions or references to a key Old Testament figure: Jacob.
The first reference crops up in the curious way that Jesus greets Nathanael. Jesus says, “Well now, here comes a true Israelite, a man in whom there is no guile.” The NIV translated that as “in whom there is nothing false,” but that’s not quite right. The Greek word used in verse 47 is the word for “guile,” which can also mean craftiness, being tricky, underhanded. There are not too many biblical characters who are described as being full of guile, but the most famous person who was a trickster par excellence was Jacob himself: the crafty deceiver who eventually was re-named Israel. That’s why some have paraphrased Jesus’ words here to say something like, “Here is an Israelite with no Jacob in him! Here is a son of Jacob who is not a chip off the old block!”
Jacob, as you may recall, always got ahead in life by his own wits. He relied on his own cunning and craftiness to snag life’s goodies. He outsmarted dim-witted Esau, did an end-run on his nearly blind father Isaac, and then spent the better part of twenty years finding ever-more creative ways to snooker his Uncle Laban out of just about everything he owned.
For some reason, though, God liked Jacob. Once, when fleeing the wrath of Esau, Jacob had a dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. In that dream God assures Jacob that despite all the stunts Jacob had pulled, God was with him. And God would stay with Jacob, finally and quite literally wrestling him into an understanding that the best things in life come by grace alone. It’s not about the power to snag what you want. No, it’s about being humble to receive what only God can give.
“Here comes an Israel who is not Jacob,” Jesus basically said when he first saw Nathanael coming his way. It was nice for Jesus to say this, all the more so considering that the last thing Nathanael had said before meeting Jesus was a kind of sneer: “Nazareth! Can anything, or anyone, good come from that backwater town!” That’s what Nathanael said, and apparently it was an honest thing to say.
Because Jesus as much as replies, “You’re right, Nathanael: I’m not much to look at. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m the One!” Nathanael believes this, and Jesus then responds by declaring himself to be the living Bethel. When Jacob had that dream of a ladder to heaven, he declared the place where he had the dream to be “bethel,” beth-el, Hebrew for “the house of God.” Jacob was surprised to find himself at the intersection between God and this earth. And so he called the spot “God’s House,” “Bethel,” the place where God and people meet up. But in John 1 Jesus now tells Nathanael that he himself is that intersection point: if you were with him, you were in the presence of God!
It’s as though the whole story of the whole Bible is getting a re-boot, a fresh start. Jesus is founding a new Israel, a brand new people. Gone are the days of craftiness and guile when people had to live by their wits to survive. A new era of innocence has dawned, a time that requires an almost child-like, naive ability to embrace the fairy tale-like truth of Jesus. It may be yet another way of saying that to enter the kingdom of God, you need to be like a little child. And in many ways, Nathanael and the others were like children.
If you wanted to be cynical, you could say that the only reason Philip and then Nathanael were so quickly impressed by Jesus was because they were rather naive bumpkins. There is something innocent, child-like in the way Nathanael comes to faith, and even Jesus says as much. “You believe just because I told you about the fig tree!? That’s nothing! Just wait until you realize that I am the walking, talking Bethel–the place where God and humanity, meet! Just wait until you see the angels, my friend!”
But far from criticizing Nathanael’s simple faith, Jesus is commending it. This is someone who is innocent enough to believe that something not just good but something of God really did come from Nazareth. Apparently we need a little naiveté to embrace the gospel’s fairy tale-like depiction of God himself living inside the man Jesus. We need a little holy innocence to believe that in that small band of ignorant fishermen, a cosmic treasure lay hidden. The disciples, as it turns out, are the frogs who turn into princes.
And when it comes right down to it, we know that we are no more impressive-looking, no more outwardly dazzling than those simple disciples we meet in the Gospel story. The world still thinks the church looks like a dead end, a non-starter. In recent years popular New Atheist authors like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have publicly sneered at people of faith and have used words like “immature” and “retrograde” and “child-ish” to describe what they think of people like us. Christians who go to churches on Sunday mornings are no different, Richard Dawkins has said, than people who believe in the tooth fairy, in river sprites, in spirits who inhabit elm trees.
But by grace we know that somehow, we, too, have been put in touch with the dearest truth of the universe: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. We don’t mind being child-like if that’s what it takes to believe this. And so we hang onto our faith in the gritty realities of this world. Because in fairy tales, as surely in our present situation, dark and terrible things are present; good and evil wage horrific battle, and some good things are lost along the way. But the child-like aspect of faith keeps hope alive because our willingness to embrace and believe the unlikely has given us a glimpse of Joy. We’ve caught an Epiphany glimpse of a larger world in which God is the Creator and Jesus is the true King.
We don’t stop noticing the bad things that happen, and sometimes in the teeth of war and its carnage, of death and the sufferings we endure on this earth, sometimes the Joy-inspired hope we bear causes us to weep even more than those who don’t have faith. We are innocent enough to believe unlikely things but not so innocent as to miss seeing that the gospel often has a tough time making it in a world of guile, cynicism, and despair.
And many of us gathered here this morning know all about this. Over the past week I like many of you no doubt have seen some retrospectives on the year 2014. The New York Times and other news websites have featured collections of photos from the last year and they weren’t pretty. We saw beheadings by ISIS and now a new war to combat those people. There was a terrible war between Israel and Gaza with so many children blown up. We saw fighting in Ukraine and a passenger jet with many children on it shot from the skies in July. We saw Taliban thugs shoot up a school in Pakistan and kill 150 or more kids. We saw Ebola ravage West Africa, and civil war take the lives of so many people in Sudan. Closer to home, some of you lost loved ones this year, had cherished jobs taken away from you, have seen conflicts with children or grandchildren escalate to the point that we did not even all manage to get together over the recent Christmas holiday.
Oh, we believe in Jesus, we are still wide-eyed in our wonder over him. But our eyes are open, not shut, and we see again and again the very realities that required God’s Son to become incarnate here, right in the midst of life’s struggles and sorrows. We follow Jesus but always we remember that the shadow of the cross is ever present. That cross is what it took for even God’s own Son to start setting things to right again.
It’s a lesson the disciples learned eventually, too. Through betrayals and denials and abandonment, the disciples went the distance with Jesus, finally and by grace alone arriving on the other side of that great event we call Easter.
That’s the only place you ever find Nathanael again, too. Nathanael makes just one other appearance in the Bible and it comes in the very last chapter of John. Nathanael is a kind of book-end character for John’s gospel, appearing in only the first and final chapters. By the time you get to John 21, Jesus had been killed dead in plain sight of the disciples. The shrewd powers that be looked at Jesus, asked if anything good could come from Nazareth, and concluded, “Nope,” and so they dispensed with him, crossed him out. But in the ultimate reversal of expectations, the dead one became alive again. And finally the morning dawned in John 21 when Nathanael and the others were fishing in a boat only to see some hazy figure on the distant shore, cupping his hands to his mouth and calling out, “Catch anything?”
They knew then who he was and so rowed back to the shore as fast as they could. Nobody said much. John says they didn’t even dare to ask, “Is it you, Jesus?” They felt like they were in a dream, a dream of heaven come down to earth. But you know how it is with good dreams sometimes: you don’t dare say anything for fear you’ll wake up and it will all disappear like a soap bubble wafting in the air. But they knew it was Jesus.
Nathanael knew it, too. This Jesus now looked like he had been to hell and back, bearing scars and looking somehow different, changed, but he was undeniably alive. And when at breakfast that morning he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them, there was no longer any doubt who this stranger on the beach was. He was the same man who, years before, told Nathanael that he hadn’t seen anything yet. Having now been to the cross and back, Nathanael agreed.
Back on that day when he first came to faith, Nathanael had been pretty innocent all right. But in a way, despite all he’d seen, suffered, lamented, and wept about, he was still innocent, still child-like enough to believe that the one he watched die was alive again, that the truth of Jesus as our living Bethel was no dream. And every once in a while, out of the corner of his eye, Nathanael was just sure he saw the flutter of angel wings above Jesus’ head.
And by grace, so can we. So can we. Hallelujah and Amen.
*** My thanks to Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row 1979, pp. 115-117) for some inspiring help on some of this sermon’s reimagining of Nathanael.)
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Over the last quarter-century, audio, visual, and computer technology has advanced more rapidly than our ability to prevent these gizmos from taking over the minds of our youth (and of some of us not-so-young too!!). Not so long ago, parents who wanted to monitor what their kids saw or listened to had a somewhat easier time of it. The TV only got three channels and there were no DVD or Blu-Ray players around. If the kids were going to listen to music, it would have to be whatever came out of the Hi-Fi in the living room, and so mom or dad could listen in easy enough. Dirty pictures were limited to dirty magazines, and kids did not have ready access to such things.
I need not point out how much has changed. Cable TV, the Internet, I-Pods, I-Pads, wireless access to the web, streaming movies from Netflix, and the like allow kids to be exposed to far more than was possible before. As a general rule, we do not want children to hear things they are too immature to handle.
But what if the heavy-duty message in question comes to a child directly from God himself?
Over the years we have tended to view I Samuel 3 as a charming, Sunday school-like tale filled with some humor, told with good narrative style that builds up suspense, and conveying the bottom line that sometimes God works through children. Many children’s sermons on this passage (including probably some of mine) end by saying, “So you see, boys and girls, God can talk to you, too. Will you listen for God just like Samuel did?”
What we forget is that the message Samuel heard clearly frightened him. God himself told the lad that this message would tingle the ears of everyone who heard it. But it was Samuel’s ears that were to tingle first! If even adults would get the willies hearing what God had to say, you can imagine how this child felt. The next morning Eli practically had to threaten Samuel just to get the boy to cough up the truth. Maybe part of Samuel’s hesitation stemmed from the fact that he knew Eli would not like the message very much. But I suspect another reason was that Samuel was afraid Eli would wash his mouth out with soap!
Why did God make a young boy the messenger for something so grim? That question becomes even more poignant when you realize that Eli had already heard this message. If you look at the very end of I Samuel 2, you see that someone who is called “a man of God” had recently come to Eli and delivered to him a harsh word of judgment from Yahweh. For too long Eli had allowed his two sons to turn the house of God into a brothel. Hophni and Phineas were dreadful lowlifes who mugged some of the people who came to worship God even as they raped others. Sometimes they stole the people’s offerings and other times they forced themselves on some of the lovelier young women who came to worship.
But Eli, for all his good points, also bore a striking resemblance to Milquetoast. Even as his sons carried on like some drunken sailors at Mardi Gras, the most their father could manage was to stand on the sidelines wringing his hands, shaking his head, and mumbling ineffectively, “Boys, stop. Please. Don’t do that!”
Eli was eminently easy to ignore.
In a way, Hophni and Phineas embodied everything that was wrong with Israel during the time of the judges. People were just generally running wild and running amok, doing what was right in their own eyes. Long ago Yahweh had given them a blueprint for living. Now people kept sketching their own plans for life, making up the rules as they went along.
So as bad as Hophni and Phineas were, many of their compatriots were no better. To put it mildly, this was not what God had had in mind when he led the people out of Egypt and settled them in the Promised Land. If things did not turn around, Israel would become as thoroughly pagan and secular as Babylon, Egypt, or any other nation you could name. Samuel the man, and also the two biblical books that bear his name, represent the new thing God was about to do in order to bring about precisely the turn-around that Israel needed.
And it begins with the return of God’s Word. Samuel in this third chapter did not tell Eli anything new. But because it clearly was a Word from God, Eli took it seriously. We are not told in chapter 2 how Eli reacted to the prophecy of the stranger. Did he chalk this stranger up as a crackpot not to be taken seriously? Did he take it with a grain of salt? Or did he believe this man’s prophecy that Eli’s sons would both die on the same day and that, as a result, Eli’s family line was finished in terms of the priesthood? We don’t know. What we do know is that when Samuel delivers the bad news, Eli believes it as God’s Word and seems to resign himself to the fate that awaited him and his family.
Eli received God’s Word from Samuel and he took it seriously, difficult a Word though it was. Precisely that attitude would turn Israel around eventually. Because in this chapter it is clearly the case that the divine Word occupies center stage. As this new corner is turned by Israel, it will be the Word that creates the change.
Just look at how this concept of the divine Word weaves through this chapter. We begin right off the bat in verse 1 with the declaration that “in those days the word of Yahweh was rare; there were not many visions.” The people were both deaf and blind when it came to receiving communication from God. Yet by the end of this same chapter in verse 21 we are told that because of Samuel’s presence at Shiloh, all of a sudden God’s bringing his word became a common occurrence once again and, what’s more, Samuel’s word then went out to all Israel. So we go from a kind of Mojave Desert of the divine Word in verse 1 to a monsoon rain shower of that same Word by verse 21.
And the source of this radical change can be very neatly tracked down to the precise midpoint of chapter 3 in verse 10 when Samuel says, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Your servant is listening.
Maybe it was the listening that made the difference. Maybe the reason God’s Word had been rare was not so much because God wasn’t trying to say something but because no one was tuning in, no one was listening. And just maybe that is true in life more often than not.
Language is central to who we are. We can be touched, moved, stirred, reduced to tears, or deeply angered through words alone. The invention of the telephone made this clear. “Reach out and touch someone” used to be an advertising slogan for a phone company. It was an odd catch-phrase when you think about it because when on the phone, the one thing you cannot literally or physically do is touch the other person (if you could, you would not be on the phone in the first place!). Yet we’ve all been “touched” while on the phone (or now when we are on Skype or Facetime with someone). We now know that a person can be touched by words even if you can’t see the person who is speaking them. We all know that you can be on the phone, unable to see the person on the other end of the line, and yet the words that come through the receiver can melt your heart, break your heart, make your heart skip for joy.
It is said of the great eighteenth-century preacher George Whitfield that he had such a powerful speaking voice that he could make grown men weep and women faint dead away just from how he pronounced the word “Mesopotamia”! That may be an exaggeration, but we do know the power of words, don’t we? We know that we can be mesmerized by speech. And we also know that we can be fundamentally changed by what we hear. And if that is true in ordinary human discourse, think how this is magnified when we talk about what I Samuel 3 wants to talk about: the Word of the Lord.
“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” And what we may hear in so listening can change the world.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Author: Doug Bratt
The poet begins by professing, O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. In doing so she recognizes that God knows human beings perfectly. So the Lord doesn’t just know when people get up and when they sit down. God even knows our most secret thoughts. The Lord doesn’t just know when you and I leave and when we come home, when we get up in the morning and when we go to bed at night. God is also “familiar” with all our “ways.” God knows absolutely everything about you and me.
So God, the psalmist insists, doesn’t just hear the words we say. God also knows what we’re going to say before we even say it. The Lord knows what we’re thinking. God, quite simply, knows. People can generally hide from other people what they think of them. But no one can hide that from God. God knows exactly what people think of each of each other and the Lord. The Lord perceives even thoughts. God is the divine mind reader.
So people may be able to hide things like lust and envy from others. But they can’t hide them from God. God knows our ways. The Lord completely knows human thoughts. People may be able to choke back the words of anger or gossip that sneak up to but never actually cross their lips. People may never know what others are tempted to say. But God knows. Before words even move from minds to tongues, God knows them. Human beings may be able to hide feelings of pride or contempt for others from each other. They can’t, however, hide them from God. God knows peoples’ feelings completely.
A little mystery between people is sometimes a good thing. If people so intimately knew each other’s thoughts, they’d have a hard time loving, much less liking them. But there’s no mystery between God and people. God knows everything about them. But is that a good thing? Consider, after all, the implications of such complete knowledge. In the hands of people, it would be like a weapon of mass destruction. People might even use their knowledge of our hearts to condemn, blackmail or destroy us.
So it’s a good thing that people don’t know each other’s hearts thoughts. But what do we do with our realization that God knows all those things . . . and more? In the days before ultrasounds, people thought of the mother’s womb as the ultimate secret place. No one could peer inside it. God, however, insists the psalmist, peeks even into mothers’ wombs. God sees what probably no one prior to the twentieth century ever saw.
So there we have it. God knows. God is watching. God is listening. As Neal Plantinga said in a memorable sermon on this passage, “Around every corner, at the end of every hallway, up or down any flight of stairs, there is God.”
Plantinga points out that people generally respond to God’s inescapability by trying to attack God. If God keeps chasing, crowding, intruding on privacy, human beings sometimes lash out at the Lord. People try to get rid of God, reject God, deny God or remove God. They pass laws and pursue policies that deny God’s claim on them. People try to re-imagine God. Or simply try to kill God.
Isn’t that, after all, precisely what happened at the cross? In Christ God came so close that people could see and touch him. Christ watched peoples’ every move and even knew their every thought. As a result, at Calvary, in a real sense, human beings killed God. After all, Jesus Christ, says Plantinga, “brought God too close, much too close, and when God gets too close, people want to cross him out.”
What, however, if people respond to God’s closeness in a radically different way? What if people simply give in to God’s loving closeness? What if people surrender themselves to God’s intimate knowledge of people and their foibles? What if you and I faithfully receive this inescapable God?
This inescapable God, after all, graciously chose God’s children before God even created the world, even though God knew what we’d be like. This inescapable God redeemed God’s beloved from sin, Satan and death, while they were still sinners. This inescapable God moved in and pitched God’s tent among us in Jesus Christ even though God knew we’d kill him for it. This inescapable God sent the Holy Spirit to live in us even though God knew we wouldn’t always pay much attention to the Lord. This inescapable God is for God’s people even though God knows us better than people can.
This inescapable God knows every secret. But even the moral greasiness of secret hearts doesn’t repulse the Lord. With God, even the muddy character of so many secret actions doesn’t drive God away. Instead, the Lord hems us in – behind and before. The hands God has laid on God’s children are the hands that tenderly and lovingly hold the whole world. They’re the hands that were bruised and battered for human iniquities. They’re the hands that were scarred for the sins of all of God’s children.
So it might be terrifying to know that we’re known so completely. Or as the psalmist learned, it may be comforting to know beyond all comfort. It depends, as Plantinga says, on who’s doing the knowing.
Is there anything that human beings simply should never know? Might some knowledge be simply too dangerous or inappropriate for the treasure chest that is the human mind? In his book, Forbidden Knowledge, Roger Shattuck suggests that the knowledge of good and evil Adam and Eve gained by sinning in Eden harmed them. From this, and other material he has studied, he deduces that some knowledge is simply too dangerous or destructive for people to have.
This, however, runs quite contrary to the desperate thirst for knowledge that fuels some parts of our society. Human knowledge sometimes seems like an avalanche that is gathering momentum and growing as it tumbles down the slope that is history. So should humanity feel free to pursue the answer to every conceivable question and mystery?
Perhaps there are things human beings should never know. Exactly when and how we’ll die, for instance. The full glory of eternity. The fate of currently unbelieving loved ones. The details of others’ sins. Maybe even whether our unborn children are in some way impaired.
Yet there’s at least one more thing people defintely shouldn’t know: each other’s hearts. It would be too destructive for people to know what either good or evil lies there. Think, after all, how knowing each other’s hearts might affect our attitudes toward and treatment of them.
If, for instance, we knew the full goodness that lies in each other’s hearts, wouldn’t we be tempted to treat each other as gods? Or if we knew how much others admired, appreciated and respected us, might we be tempted to think of ourselves as gods? Might we not also be tempted to manipulate those who secretly viewed us so highly?
Or think about it this way. How could we be good and kind and loving and compassionate toward others if we knew the full extent of the evil that lies lodged deep in their hearts? How could people ever treat each other as God expects if they knew just how sinful others are? In fact, if others knew the extent of the evil in others’ hearts, perhaps none of us would ever be able to look each other in the eye.
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Author: Stan Mast
On this second Sunday after Epiphany, the lectionary reading from the Epistles seems to have little to do with Epiphany, unless we consider the behavior of the Body of Christ to be an epiphany of Christ’s own glory. If that is the case, then this text is very relevant, because it deals with the bodily behavior of those who are in the Body. In fact, Paul ends with this. “Therefore glorify God with your body.”
Even if the relevance of this text to Epiphany is a bit tenuous, its relevance to the behavior of the contemporary church is obvious. If I were to preach on this text, my sermon title would be, “Sex and the City of God,” a takeoff on the wildly popular TV show from a few years back, Sex and the City. A careful study of this text reveals that 21st century America did not invent sexual immorality or its moral(?) defense. The seaport city of Corinth was so infamous for its sexuality that “to corinthianize” became a hip way of talking about sexual immorality of all kinds. In the same way as today’s churchgoers engage in premarital sex and view pornography at the same rate as their secular counterparts, the members of the church at Corinth were mightily tempted “to corinthianize” right along with their pagan friends and neighbors.
They had even found a way to justify their behavior by using themes from the gospel Paul had preached to them. As happened in other churches (cf. Romans 6 and 7, for example), the Corinthian Christians heard Paul say, “You saved by grace alone through faith alone, and not by works of the law.” They twisted that to mean that works did not matter at all. What I do cannot add to or subtract from my salvation, so I can do whatever I want. Grace has set me free in a radical way, so “everything is permissible for me.” When that distortion of the Gospel was mixed with the typical Greek idea that the body was unimportant compared to the soul, we can understand how the members of the Corinthian church might have adopted the kind of freewheeling attitude toward sexual behavior expressed by Demosthenes. “We keep mistresses for our pleasure, concubines for daily concubinage, but wives we have in order to produce children legitimately and to have a trustworthy guardian of our domestic property.” That sounds a lot like today’s “open marriage,” “friends with benefits,” “if it feels good, do it.”
In our text, Paul shows us the gospel way to reply to such an abuse of Christian liberty. Interestingly, he does not respond to this antinomian libertinism by reverting to his previous Pharisaical legalism. The way to control the abuse of grace is not to crack the whip of the law. Instead, Paul reminds them of their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Referring to all three members of the Trinity, Paul’s answer to sexual immorality in the name of Christian liberty is to remind them that they are, in fact, slaves to God in both soul and body. “You are not your own; you were bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God with your body.”
To get the full impact of Paul’s conclusion, we need to follow the argument leading up to that conclusion. Given the power of sexual impulses and the force of the sexual current in our culture, we’ll need to marshal all of Paul’s words to help our congregations resist the lure of sexual immorality. He begins in verses 12 and 13 with a prudential approach. He will turn to some pretty heavy doctrine in a moment, but he begins kind of slow and easy by appealing to their reason. Quoting one of their slogans (“everything is permissible for me”), he says, in effect, “Well, that may be, but not everything is beneficial, helpful, advisable.” Even if you are free to do anything you want, doing some things would be downright stupid. You are free to inject heroin into your veins, but then you would become a slave of that drug, and that would ruin your life. That, in fact, is exactly where Paul goes with his opening argument. As you use your freedom, be aware that you may very well be mastered by the very thing you think you are free to enjoy. That would not be wise, would it?
“Well, no, it wouldn’t,” replied the Corinthian libertines, “but sexual activity isn’t exactly a deadly drug. It’s just a natural appetite, like hunger and thirst.” Apparently, the Corinthians were using another slogan to justify their sexual activities. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food.” Everybody knows that. That’s just the way things are in the order of nature. The implication was that sex is the same way. Just as we need to eat and drink to satisfy the body, so we need sexual activity to be normal, healthy human beings. “It’s just a normal bodily function. What’s the big deal?”
Paul undercuts this very popular modern attitude toward sex by destroying the slogan about food. Sure, eating and drinking are natural and necessary for physical life, but neither food nor your body is ultimate. “God will destroy them both.” Your ultimate frame of reference in deciding how to satisfy the natural appetites of your body should be God, not nature. “The body was not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord and the Lord for the body.” Life is not about eating or drinking or fornicating. It is about the Lord who both created and redeemed your body. As the creator of your body, God knows how it works best. And as the redeemer of your body, God knows what your body is ultimately designed to do. So doesn’t it make sense to glorify God with your body?
To further drive home the message that “the body was meant for the Lord and the Lord for the body” Paul hauls out the big doctrinal guns. In verse 14, he begins with the doctrine of the resurrection. Greek philosophy thought that the soul/mind was much more important than the body. In fact, they taught that death liberates the human soul from the prison house of the body. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ didn’t talk that way. At the heart of that Gospel was the death and physical resurrection of Jesus. Some of the Corinthian Christians apparently bought into the philosophy of their city and denigrated the resurrection. Paul deals with them definitively in chapter 15 of this letter. Here in verse 14, he connects Christ’s resurrection to ours. “God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.” That’s how important your body is to God. Jesus died and rose not just for your soul, but also for your body.
In fact, “your bodies are members of Christ himself.” Here’s the second big gun. For Paul, union with Christ was a huge theme. Being in Christ was the new reality initiated by Christ’s death and resurrection. And now here he says that union with Christ is not just a spiritual thing. Because we are saved body and soul, our bodies are in Christ, too.
If that seems too, well, physical, Paul makes sure we don’t miss the import. “Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?” Then he goes on to recall the Bible’s original teaching about sex and marriage, from Genesis 2:24. “The two shall become one flesh.” That’s what happens in sexual intercourse. So, if you physically unite with a prostitute, you become one flesh with her. And if you do that, you have made a member of Christ into a member of a prostitute. Do you want Christ to be physically united with a prostitute? “Never!” shouts Paul in horror. If you think that sexual immorality doesn’t matter because it is just a physical activity, like eating and drinking, you have forgotten this fundamental reality of union with Christ.
In verse 17 Paul begins to roll out another big gun by emphasizing spiritual union with Christ. “But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” After a stern command to flee sexual immorality and some difficult words about sinning against our own bodies, Paul introduces the great doctrine of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our bodies. This is how we can be spiritually united with Christ who is physically in heaven. By virtue of the fact that the Spirit of Christ lives in every individual Christian, our very bodies are now the temple of the Holy Spirit. Where does the Spirit live in the world? Not in that elaborate building over in Jerusalem, now destroyed by the Romans, but in the humble flesh and blood dwelling of our bodies. In I Corinthians 3:16, the whole Body of Christ is called the temple of the Spirit, but here it is each individual body of Christ’s followers.
Finally, Paul’s argument comes to a thunderous conclusion in verse 19 and 20 with a reference to our redemption by God through Christ. Calling up the familiar image of a slave market, where human beings are bought for a certain sum of money, Paul says that each of us has been bought. He doesn’t name the price, but every Christian knows that it was the death or, more precisely, the blood of Christ (Romans 3:25, I Peter 1:18,19). Now, we are no longer slaves to sin and Satan and death. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” said Jesus himself (John 8:36). But, freed from all that would destroy us, we are now servants of God. Contrary to the modern notion that “it’s my body and I can do what I want with it,” the Gospel says, “You are not your own.” So, glorify God with your body. It belongs to him.
How will the world see the glory of the invisible Christ? Our reading on this second Sunday after Epiphany says that he is glorified when the members of his Body on this earth use their bodies in sexually pure ways. True to his own experience of salvation, Paul calls us to such purity not by laying down some new sexual code of ethics, but by calling us back to the Gospel we already know. Notice that he says three times, “Do you not know?” Each time he recalls some essential element of the Good News, showing that we should flee sexual immorality because of what the Triune God has done, is doing, and will do with our bodies. The way to navigate the troubled waters between the absolute freedom we have in Christ and the complete obedience we owe to Christ is to focus on the North Star, Christ himself as the epiphany of the Triune God.
In a culture that hears a text like this as a cold blooded restriction on the free exercise of glorious gift of sex, the opening words of a centuries’ old catechism put Paul’s final words in a warmly comforting framework. Question One of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer is, “That I am not my own, but belong– body and soul, in life and in death– to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the Devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” Belonging to Christ, body and soul, is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, the best thing. So glorify God with the body bought with the precious blood of Christ.