Category: Epiphany

Preparing for Sunday: May 1, 2022

Preparing for Sunday: May 1, 2022

Third Sunday of Easter

Preparing for Sunday is a weekly time to prepare for Sunday worship. Based on the Revised Common Lectionary, Preparing for Sunday is a time to step away from the busyness of the world and reflect on what God is saying to us.

This week’s text is from Acts 9:1-20.

Do you have questions or answers to the questions? Leave them in the comments.






Here are some questions to think about the text:

  1. Was Saul’s experience one of conversion or a call to ministry?
  2. Why do you think the other people with Saul never heard the voice Saul heard?
  3. Ananias had his concerns about healing Saul. Was Ananias right to ask these questions to God?
  4. In his discussion with Ananias God calls Saul an instrument to the Gentiles. God was using Saul to bring the good news to Gentiles.  What does it mean to be an instrument of God?
  5. Does it matter that Ananias said he was sent to heal Saul? How is this an example of discipleship?
  6. What does it mean after his healing that Saul went to proclaim in the synagogue?

 

What are your answers? What are your questions? Feel free to share them by responding to this post in the comments section or sending an email to info@fccsaintpaul.org.

Preparing for Sunday: March 27, 2022

Preparing for Sunday: March 27, 2022

Preparing for Sunday is a weekly time to prepare for Sunday worship. Based on the Revised Common Lectionary, Preparing for Sunday is a time to step away from the busyness of the world and reflect on what God is saying to us.

This week’s text is from Luke 15:1-3 and 11-32.

Do you have questions or answers to the questions? Leave them in the comments.






Here are some questions to think about the text:

1. Of the three characters in this story, which one do you identify with more, the younger son, the older son or the father?

2. Who is the “prodigal” in this story; the younger son or the father?

3. Are grace and forgiveness fair? Why or why not?

4. Was the older son mad at his brother or his father?

5. Did the father extend grace to both sons? If so, in what ways did he show that grace?

6. Has there been a time when you were forgiven for something? How did that feel?

What are your answers? What are your questions? Feel free to share them by responding to this post in the comments section or sending an email to info@fccsaintpaul.org.

Preparing for Sunday: March 6, 2022

Preparing for Sunday: March 6, 2022

Preparing for Sunday is a resource for clergy and the laity to get ready for the upcoming Sunday using a text from the Revised Common Lectionary. This week’s text is from Luke 4:1-13.

Do you have questions or answers to the questions? Leave them in the comments.






Here are some questions to think about the text:

  1. The temptation of Jesus is found in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 4:1-11 and Mark 1:12-13). Read the other versions. What is similar in all three stories? What’s different?
  2. The passage tells us that it is the Spirit that leads Jesus into the desert. Theologian Justo Gonzalez says that “Even while the devil is tempting Jesus, it is God who is ultimately in control, and it is God who not only allows but causes Jesus to be tempted.” Do you agree that God is allowing Jesus to be tempted? Why or why not?
  3. What is the significance of Jesus being tempted? Does that make him any less the Son of God?
  4. Theologian Fred Craddock says that good can be found within temptation. He says the devil doesn’t say, “Do you wish to be as the devil?” but, “Do you wish to be as God?”  Do you agree or not?  How do you see temptation?
  5. Think of a time when you were tempted? How was it similar to Jesus in the desert? How was it different?  How did it change your faith? 

What are your answers? What are your questions? Feel free to share them by responding to this post in the comments section or sending an email to info@fccsaintpaul.org.

Preparing for Sunday: February 27, 2022

Preparing for Sunday: February 27, 2022

Preparing for Sunday is a resource for clergy and the laity to get ready for the upcoming Sunday using a text from the Revised Common Lectionary. This week’s text is from Luke 9:28-36.

Do you have questions or answers to the questions? Leave them in the comments.






Here are some questions to think about the text:

  1. After reading the passage for this week, read the following: Luke 9:23-27. In what ways do these two passages connect?
  2. Read Exodus 24:12-18. How are these two stories similar? How are they different? How do they ultimately connect?
  3. Jesus talks to Moses and Elijah about what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem. The word used to describe his death is the world “exodus.”  This is the same word that describes the Israelites leaving Egypt.  How is Jesus’ upcoming death like the Jews fleeing the Pharaoh?
  4. Luke is the only gospel that connects the story to prayer. Why is that important?
  5. What was the reason behind Peter’s talk about building three monuments for the occasion?
  6. What is the significance of the voice?

What are your answers? What are your questions? Feel free to share them by responding to this post in the comments section or sending an email to info@fccsaintpaul.org.

Preparing for Sunday: February 20, 2022

Preparing for Sunday: February 20, 2022

Preparing for Sunday is a resource for clergy and the laity to get ready for the upcoming Sunday using a text from the Revised Common Lectionary. This week’s text is from Luke 6:27-38.

Do you have questions or answers to the questions? Leave them in the comments.

Here are some questions to think about the text:
1.  Is love just a feeling, or is it also action? 
2. In verse 31 Jesus says the following: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  This is commonly known as the Golden Rule.  What do you think this means to you? 
3.  Who is an enemy as found in verse 29?  What does it mean to love an enemy? How did Christ love his enemies? Is it possible for us to love our enemies?
4.  What does it mean to show mercy to people?  Can you think of a time mercy was shown to you?
5.  What does loving our enemies or giving with no expectations have to do with God’s generosity? 

What are your answers? What are your questions? Feel free to share them by responding to this post in the comments section or sending an email to info@fccsaintpaul.org.

Preparing for Sunday: February 13, 2022

Preparing for Sunday is a resource for clergy and the laity to get ready for the upcoming Sunday using a text from the Revised Common Lectionary. This week’s text is from Luke 6:17-26.

Do you have questions or answers to the questions? Leave them in the comments.

For the Sake of the Gospel – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5B (1 Corinthians 9)

1 Corinthians 9:16-23 New Revised Standard Version

16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

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                Being that I’m a member of the professional class of Christians. That is, I make my living by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, I could justify myself a bit by suggesting that I’m paid to do the work of the ministry so that I don’t need another job. In other words, my salary and benefits allow me the freedom to share in the ministry of the church without the distraction of another form of employment. I should note that there is a lot of discussion about the sustainability of full-time ministry. Of course, it’s possible to do the work of the ministry without getting paid for it, or at least not paid full-time. Paul himself is often lifted up as an example of “tent-making” ministry. There are benefits to such a ministry. You are freer to say what you think needs to be said without the fear of losing your job. That was true for Paul as well. Then again, the point of preaching the Gospel is gaining a hearing.  

                As we near the close of the season of Epiphany, a season that focuses on sharing the light of Christ with the world, we encounter this reading from I Corinthians 9 designated for the fifth Sunday of Epiphany. In it, we hear Paul claim that while he could have derived an income from preaching the gospel, he chose to do so free of charge. While he doesn’t charge those who hear the message, he does feel a bit of compulsion from God to preach the gospel. In this, Paul is like most prophets. They may serve reluctantly, but they serve because they can do no other. They’ve been called, and so they deliver the messages entrusted to them. Perhaps this why Paul speaks of himself as being a slave to this calling. Therefore, whatever reward he might receive is due to his ability to offer it to his listeners free of charge, even though it is within his rights to receive financial support from them.  

                While he may be free, he has become a slave to all so that he might win his hearers to the Gospel. He becomes all things to all people, so he can win some over to the way of Jesus. Therefore, when it comes to the Law, he may feel that he is no longer bound to live under the Law, he chooses to abide by the Law to reach those within the Jewish community who continue to abide by the Law. The reference to the weak here underscores what we read in chapter 8, regarding food restrictions. It would seem that Paul no longer feels bound by the dietary laws of Judaism, but he’ll continue to abide by them so he can win over his Jewish audience. More specifically, he is proposing a Gospel that transcends the categories prescribed by the culture—thus, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, weak and strong. The only category not mentioned in this particular passage is male and female (see Gal. 3:28). Such a message could have been perceived as challenging.

                When it comes to preaching challenging messages, we need to make sure put ourselves in a position to be heard. For Paul that meant offering the message free of charge. That may not be true for us, but trust needs to be built for the message to be heard. I would guess that Paul had built at least a degree of trust in the Corinthian congregations. With this in mind, we might attend to this word from Lisa Cressman:

We want the gospel to spread to the ends of the earth, right? For that to happen, the gospel needs to be heard. If people tune out or dismiss a sermon because they feel defensive, shamed, or that we’re pushing them to pull down their beloved skies, they’re less likely to listen. They’ll tune us out, open their phones to check social media, or argue with us in their heads. Regardless, they’re not hearing the gospel. [The Gospel People Don’t Want to Hear, p. 48].

For Paul, gaining a hearing meant becoming all things to all people. That is, he embraced an adaptive form of missiology.

                As he describes his methodology, Paul speaks of adapting himself to the cultural context in preaching the Gospel even if he doesn’t feel bound by that context. However, we need to be careful that we don’t simply apply to Paul modern church growth concepts. He’s not saying that the end justifies the means. This isn’t an argument for “relevance.” A close reading of this letter to the Corinthian church reveals that Paul has strong beliefs that ground his message. A better way to view this is to think in terms of embodying the message. He might have discovered certain freedoms in Christ through his proclamation of the Gospel among the Gentiles that he is willing to relinquish to remain in fellowship with Jews whom he hopes to draw into the community of Jesus.  

                In making his message known, Paul exchanges his freedom for the status of a slave. In the Roman world, one was either slave or free. In that congregation, some members were slaves, and some were free. Paul, though free, identifies himself with those who are slaves. Ironically, Paul takes a bit of pride in his decision to take up this lower status for the sake of the Gospel. Ultimately, however, for Paul, he preaches because he can do no other. Thus, as Charles Campbell puts it:

“Paul’s emphasis on the divine
commission to preach (vv. 16-17) theologically creates space for anyone to
proclaim the gospel when God has laid an obligation on them. Ironically, Paul
might be considered the patron saint of all those whose calling to preach has
been challenged by the church. After all, Paul’s own preaching credentials were
themselves being challenged by the Corinthians—and he defines himself, like
women have done throughout history, on the basis of his calling.”
 [Belief: 1 Corinthians, p. 156].

Campbell’s reflections on Paul’s sense of calling reminds me of friends and colleagues who are women whose calling has been challenged. I think here of Aimee Semple McPherson, a powerful evangelist who launched her own denomination, though she had to overcome many barriers to fulfill her calling. Her response to her critics was that God had called her, and so she could do no other. I think of my friend Sarah Barton who wrote of her own sense of call to preach in a tradition that has kept women from the pulpit. She tells her story in her
book A Woman Called, which has inspired many women in her tradition to answer the call they’ve received. Paul makes the same claim here. He preaches because he must. By taking up this task that has been placed upon him, and adapting himself for that task, for the sake of the Gospel he preaches, therefore, he shares in its blessings.

Food Fight – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4B (1 Corinthians 8)

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 New Revised Standard Version

 

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For
if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

************

                For some reason, food is often the foundation for true fellowship. Living as we are in a pandemic that requires that we stay separated making normal fellowship meals not only difficult but impossible, we are probably feeling this more acutely. It’s not the food we miss. It’s the fellowship. But food can be a problem as well since people have different eating habits and requirements. So, once we can gather for meals once again, this example may bear fruit. Consider that you are sending out an invitation to a dinner party. You have a meal plan in mind, but then you begin to get the responses. One person notes they have gluten allergies. Another is vegetarian. Still another is vegan. Oh, one of your guests happens to be Jewish and can’t mix meat and dairy. So, what do you do? What kind of meal plan will work?

                It seems that the church in Corinth was struggling with food issues. At issue was food that had been sacrificed to idols. Some in the church didn’t think it was an issue where the food came from. Others were quite concerned. The debate once again divided the congregation into parties labeled the weak and the strong. There are plenty of suggestions as to the identities of the partisans, but no conclusive answer has been provided. However, the weak party does seem concerned about food offered up to idols.  

                Paul opens the conversation by contrasting “knowledge” with “love.” It would appear that the strong group was emphasizing their superior knowledge. In their wisdom, they apparently had decided that since the gods and deities that their neighbors worshipped in the local temples were mere idols. These monotheists decided that food offered idols had no impact on them or anyone else. So, why not eat food offered to idols. It’s just food after all.

                Interpreting this passage is complicated by questions of context. The issue is food sacrificed to idols, but what does that involve? We know that the temples often served meals featuring food that had been offered to the gods. Could it be that members of the community had chosen to participate in communal banquets or family celebrations held at the temples, which featured such food, believing that it did not affect them? In that case, it’s not just the food, it’s the location. A strip bar might have good food, but is that a good place for a Christian to frequent to get a good burger? Or could it be that the best meat in town was sold at the temples, which meant that if you wanted to serve a nice platter of steaks you would want to go to the temple meat market?  Either way, some in the community found all of this to be problematic and requested Paul’s intervention. The question posed here is rooted in an earlier one we encountered in chapter 6. In that case, while Paul might agree with those in the community who claimed that all things were lawful, he also reminded them that not everything is beneficial (1 Cor.6:12). In this case, knowledge is contrasted with love. Knowledge is fine, but love is superior.

                Now, our situation in life is much different from that of the Corinthians. Christendom might be fading, but Christianity remains the majority religion. There still are more churches in our communities than worship spaces for other religious traditions. It’s likely that the members of the Corinthian church were relatively new converts, whose family and friends were adherents of the local religions. They might feel as if they were being pulled between two poles. Since our situations likely are very different, what word might we hear in this passage that speaks to us?

                I think we have to start with the reference here to knowledge (gnosis). First of all, what Paul has to say here about knowledge shouldn’t be taken as an embrace of anti-intellectualism. It is also not a reference to some form of esoteric knowledge. The position articulated by the strong is orthodox monotheism. There are no other gods like the God they worship. So, Paul could agree with them on that matter, however, he is concerned about how knowledge is understood. Alvin Padilla notes that Paul has a specific form of knowledge in mind. This is the kind of “knowledge that lifts men and women to the point that causes them to have an exaggerated self-conception without concern for the needs of others” [Connections, p. 221]. Paul contrasts this self-centered form of knowledge with love. That’s because instead of puffing one up, love builds up others. That is important to Paul.

                Of course, Paul feels that it is necessary to address the question of whether these so-called gods really exist. Writing as a Jewish monotheist, he acknowledges the reality of gods and deities. That is, he believes that there are spiritual entities, so-called gods, that stand behind these idols. He believes there are demonic forces that can entice humans to worship false gods. He wants to make sure this doesn’t happen.

                Having acknowledged the reality of spiritual forces that might stand opposed to God, he confesses that for him and his community in Corinth there is one God (see Deut. 6:4-6) and one Lord (Jesus). Paul declares that it is through the Lord Jesus Christ that all things are made and through whom we ourselves exist. Having handled the question of spiritual forces, he can make clear his concern about how parties are dividing the congregation over matters of food.

                Since they appear to be the problematic group, Paul addresses those who have concluded that based on their knowledge of spiritual things the gods don’t exist, calling on them to recognize the needs of the members of the community who don’t share their elevated sense of understanding of spiritual things. He points out that those among the weak might see them dining at the temples and because their consciences aren’t as strong, might have their tender faith in God destroyed. In doing this, they sin against Jesus.

                I sense that Paul isn’t all that concerned about food issues, but he is concerned about the spiritual health of his flock. Consider that Paul insists that food won’t bring us close to God (1 Cor. 8:8). Food is, for Christians, adiaphora. There are no real food restrictions. Nonetheless, Paul concludes that “if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” (vs. 13). Now what that means for a modern dinner party is hard to say, though it might mean considering the needs of your invitees as an act of love of neighbor. That would definitely reflect what Paul has in mind here.  We might follow Augustine here in his view of the relationship of love to biblical interpretation: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought” [Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1:36:40, Kindle Edition]. Knowledge has its place, but love is of greater importance! If we affirm that principle, there won’t be any food fights!

               

                 

Time Is Short – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3B (1 Corinthians 7)

 

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
New Revised Standard Version

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

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                Jesus  is on his way! The end is near! As Larry Norman sang decades back, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” I came of age in the 1970s when everyone in my Christian circles was sure that the end was near. Larry Norman sang about the “Six O’clock News” and Barry McGuire turned his antiwar protest song “Eve of Destruction” into an apocalyptic message. We were sure that Jesus was going to return any minute. How did we know this, well we read Hal Lindsey’s best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth. He made it seem as if all the signs were there. These purveyors of apocalyptic messages weren’t the first Christians to offer such visions of the times. It seems as if every generation has its apocalyptic preachers. Going back a bit to the early nineteenth century, we can point to William Miller’s message. He thought he could pinpoint the actual date of Jesus’ return by unlocking the code he believed was to be found in books like Daniel and Revelation. Of course, he was wrong in his calculations and his followers went away disappointed. But he attracted a lot of attention, even among leaders of my own denomination. We can trace such visions all the way back to the first century. So, here we have Paul telling the Corinthian church that getting married, having children, planning for the future might be futile since the time was short and “the present form of this world is passing away.” 

             Over time the expectation that the end was near began to ebb and Christians began to settle in for the duration. It’s not that they gave up the expectation that Jesus might return in glory; they just began to realize that the Day of the Lord might be a bit delayed. So, you might as well prepare for the long haul, even if the times might be short. We just know the timing of this event. There is value in heeding the apocalyptic/eschatological messaging of Paul. It keeps us on our toes so we don’t get complacent.

                Unfortunately, not everyone interprets such directives in the same way. It appears that some of these newly converted Gentile Christians had embraced disembodied spiritual practices, which led to problematic sexual issues. Since the body is irrelevant, anything goes. Thus, at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul has to deal with matters of marriage and divorce, and there is more to come in the chapters that follow. Paul writes these words as part of his effort to explain how one lives faithfully in such times. In suggesting that the form of this world is passing away, Paul understood that to mean living into the new creation (2 Corinthians 5).  

                Paul’s time was a bit off. Jesus didn’t return in his lifetime. As we know, Jesus still hasn’t returned (and may not return in the way Paul envisioned). Nevertheless, apocalyptic thinking continues to make itself felt within the Christian community. Sometimes that can be helpful and healthy and other times not so helpful. On the positive side, the season of Advent invites us to hear again each year the call to be prepared and stay awake to what God is up to in the world. Unfortunately, apocalyptic thinking can lead to a form of hypervigilance that has dangerous political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental consequences. We are living at a moment in time when many Christians have bought into conspiracy theories that undermine democracy and endanger one’s neighbors. As an older example of susceptibility to conspiracy theories, I’ll point back to the 1970s and 1980s when UPC codes were first introduced. These now-ubiquitous icons that allow us to scan our groceries and other merchandise were portrayed in books and magazines as the mark of the beast. We were told that before too long we would have them emblazoned on our foreheads and hands so that the anti-Christ could keep track of us. So far that hasn’t happened, but these kinds of theories continue to flare up. Now the theories relate to stealing elections by cannibalistic pedophilic Democrats who control the Deep State. Apparently only Donald Trump can save us from these dark forces. Then there are the warnings being issued about the COVID vaccine. In this case, it is being suggested that tracking devices will be injected so that the deep state/anti-Christ can keep track of us (just a reminder since most of us carry smartphones with GPS, we’re already being tracked!). It’s this susceptibility to conspiracy theories that have led Christians to share false information about the presidential election and even join in the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

                As we ponder this brief reading from 1 Corinthians 7, perhaps it lends itself to having an important conversation about eschatology and apocalyptic messages found in Scripture and Christian history. We can have a conversation about the way we envision the emerging future and our role in it. We can consider Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God/Realm of God. What might the passing away of the form of this world look like?  What role do we play in all of this? If Jesus inaugurated the realm with his baptism, what role does the cross and resurrection play in all of this? If we take seriously the message of the Book of Revelation, which envisions a new heaven and a new earth, what does that have to do with the present? If, as Paul believed, the form of this world is passing away, even if that passing away is taking longer than he expected, what should we expect the future to look like? 

                Perhaps one way to read this passage is to hear it as a call to resist the worldly regime that opposes the realm of God. Might we hear this as an expression of the new creation that Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians 5? If so, we might hear this as a call to living out that vision in the world. Might this speak of a different set of values from the one the world that is passing away sets before us? As we ponder this message of Paul concerning the passing of ages, it’s important to remember that he was still living in the old age and was influenced by it. We see this in his views on slavery and gender roles. Paul wasn’t a progressive Christian thinker in the modern sense. Charles Campbell writes that Paul’s “own theology remains to some degree captive to the old age ‘cosmos’. On the other hand, one should not interpret Paul’s words in a static, moralistic way in order to reify any hierarchical status quo” [1 Corinthians,  p. 133]. To be faithful to Paul’s message concerning Christ doesn’t mean we embrace first-century social structures. So, Campbell continues: 

“Interruptions and tensions abound, even within Paul’s assumptions about the male-female hierarchy. In the midst of the old age, Paul gives us glimpses of the new creation. The old age nevertheless continues to exercise its influence, and even Paul remains captive to some of its perspectives and priorities. Paul’s own concession that he is often not speaking a command from the Lord, as well as the disruptive qualifications that punctuate his argument highlight his own recognition of the dynamic, contextual character of theology between the ages. At the turn of the ages, as we seek to do theology in the Spirit, we celebrate the glimpses of the new, even as we remain humble about the ways in which theology itself may remain captive to the old. We keep moving and struggling to resist the old-age hierarchies that are passing away.”  [1
Corinthians
,
pp. 133-134]. 

We still experience the penultimate reality. The realm of God has broken into this world, but we still live in the old creation. We see this in all the “isms” of our day, from racism to sexism and more. Thus, there is no place for complacency, even if the time is not as short as Paul envisioned!               

Freedom and Responsibility – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2B (1 Corinthians 6)

 

 

 

 

 

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 New Revised Standard Version

 

12 “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. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the  body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 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? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

 

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                For Paul, the way of Jesus is an embodied faith. Therefore, what happens in the body plays an important role in the way we express our faith. This may explain why he addresses matters of sexual mores in his letters. It’s not just that he’s prudish. He believes that how we conduct ourselves bodily is an expression of our discipleship. This is especially true of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches. What we have in 1 Corinthians is a missive to a rather new Christian community whose membership is largely composed of Gentile converts living in a famous port city. Corinth could easily have carried the moniker of “Sin City.” To get a sense of what this fledgling church was dealing with, take note of the references to prostitution. Paul the Jewish Christian would have been troubled by the lifestyle of the folks there in Corinth, which seems to have been carried over into the life of the church. Paul might advocate grace, but it’s not cheap grace. There are expectations. As John M. G. Barclay writes of Paul’s views on grace: “it is given ‘freely’ in the sense that it is given without prior conditions and without regard to worth or capacity. But that does not mean that it comes with no expectations of return, no hope for a response, no ‘strings attached.’” He goes on further to stated that Paul expects the gift of Christ’s grace to be transformative: “it remolds the self and recreates the community of believers” [Paul & the Power of Grace, p. 125].

                Paul tends to give the people he’s responding to a sense that he agrees to a point but then springs on them the trap. The other shoe drops. We that here in the opening lines of our reading from 1 Corinthians 6. Paul first writes: “All things are lawful for me.” While this might be true, he responds by telling the community that “not all things are beneficial.” Indeed, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” While the original Greek lacks punctuation, including quotation marks, scholars have a rather good sense that the slogan “All things are lawful for me” didn’t come from Paul. It appears to be a slogan popular among the Corinthians who had heard a message of freedom from Paul, which they received with gusto. They heard freedom from the Law as meaning no law (antinomianism). That seems to have caught hold in the congregation, with people taking advantage of their freedom to indulge in activities that Paul would not countenance. He offered them grace but expected self-discipline in response.

                Some of this embracing of freedom may have had its roots in a form of gnosticism in which the spirit was elevated above the body so that the body was irrelevant to the life of faith. You could do what you wanted in the body. It had no spiritual implications. That is not Paul’s view of things. So, when it comes to the body, remember the stomach is for food. The reference is a bit ambiguous, but at least at this point, Paul isn’t focused on food. He’s more concerned with fornication and prostitution. For Paul, illicit sexual escapades, including visits to brothels (which might have been the local religious establishments), were not in line with the faith he proclaimed (see 1 Corinthians 7).

                Passages like this are controversial in our day. Sexual mores have changed. In fact, marriage patterns have changed dramatically. Once upon a time, people got married in their late teens and early 20s. Now, marriage is often delayed into the 30s. There is, therefore, a long period between the onset of puberty and sexual maturity and when marriages are being consummated. So, you can understand that the possibility for people to engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage would be more commonplace than in earlier years, even among Christians. So, whatever we take from Paul’s message to the Corinthians, we will need to take into consideration changing societal and cultural contexts. Nevertheless, Paul’s attempts to bring to bear the holiness code of Leviticus to the lives of Gentiles might still have meaning for our day.

                I sense that while Paul is concerned about sexual behavior, even more important to him was the importance of holiness as the foundation for service to God. We might think here in terms of the behavior of Christian leaders, ranging from the sexual abuse on the part of Catholic priests and bishops to sex scandals among Protestant clergy. Although some, including Augustine, would counsel Christian leaders to embrace celibacy, I don’t think the kind of holiness Paul calls for requires an embrace of extreme asceticism. What it does mean is that we must be concerned about how we connect our personal relationships, making sure they are above board. To put it a bit differently, when it comes to the body not everything is beneficial! In our day respecting the bodies and persons of the other, embracing mutuality, is essential to an embodied faith.

                Paul roots his message in the order of creation, drawing from Genesis 2. He tells his readers that when they come together sexually, they become one flesh. So, don’t treat sex lightly. The sexual relationship unites people with each other.

                When it comes to the reference to prostitution, I wonder whether Paul might have not only illicit sexual relationships in mind but also certain religious rites that involve sex. Temple prostitutes became the conduit for union with the gods. Perhaps Paul is concerned that they might be drawn away from their faith in Jesus through engaging in sexual acts with Temple prostitutes as acts of worship of other gods (idolatry).

                Whatever Paul has in mind here, the opening point is well taken. We may have freedom, but freedom doesn’t mean anything, and everything, goes. This includes sex of course, but many other things that we may let dominate us. Consider the political landscape in the United States where vulgarisms, insults, and more have become the order of the day. In reaction to what is called “political correctness,” we find people saying whatever comes to mind, even if it is destructive and inappropriate. We see this as well in the resistance to wearing masks during a pandemic. People declare that they have the freedom to do as I please, even if that puts others at risk. This is true even of those who claim to be Christians. That is because this is an embodied faith. What we do in the body reflects on the body of Christ, which is the church. So, when I was watching the footage of the rioters breaking into the Capitol during the Congressional meetings to confirm the Presidential election and saw at least one person carrying the so-called “Christian flag” and breaking into the Capitol building, I saw that as a stain on the body of Christ. So, all things might be permissible, but not everything is beneficial.