Why Should Christians Care About Sexual Ethics?

Sermon, January 14, 2018 – 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

Our reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians brings up a subject that we don’t like to talk about.  We’d really rather avoid the subject altogether.  In fact, when I went to read commentary on this passage at one of my go-to sermon preparation websites, I was amazed to discover that it pretty much completely avoided the subject altogether.  In today’s culture, the Christian perspective on sexuality is the elephant in the living room.

In one book that I recently read, The Benedict Option, the author, Rod Dreher, commented “It’s easy to get why secular people don’t understand the reasons for Christian sexual practices: many Christians today don’t understand them either.”  This same author later commented “Sexual practices are so central to the Christian life that when believers cease to affirm orthodoxy on the matter, they often cease to be meaningfully Christian. It was the countercultural force of Christian sexuality that overturned the pagan world’s dehumanizing practices. Christianity taught that the body is sacred and that the dignity possessed by all humans as made in the image of God required treating it as such.”

I recall one priest commenting that it had gotten to the point for him that when one of his young parishioners came to him expressing serious doubts about the truth of Christianity, the discussion would almost inevitably lead to the parishioner’s desire to avoid living by the Christian sexual ethic.  We live in a society in which the ideals of the sexual revolution have so permeated our consciousness and beliefs.  In fact, many scholars argue that it is the explosion of the sexual revolution that played the greatest role in the collapse of the practice of Christianity in western society.  Rod Dreher comments “This is why the modern repaganization called the Sexual Revolution can never be reconciled with orthodox Christianity. Alas, that revolution has toppled the church’s authority in the broader culture and is now shaking the church itself to its foundations.”

This is a very important subject.  And so when Paul addresses the subject of a Christian sexual ethic, we would be wise to listen.  In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul was responding to a series of questions which were causing division in the church.  The subject of the passage we read today is Christian sexual behavior and the specific question was whether it was okay for a Christian to visit a prostitute.  Now, you might be scratching your head right now, wondering how on earth the Corinthian Christians could have possibly thought that it was okay for a man to visit a prostitute.

What you need to understand is that in the culture of the ancient Roman world, visiting prostitutes was regarded as pretty mainstream.  Men did not face any social stigma for visiting a prostitute, any more so than he would for eating a meal or drinking wine.  That was the pagan sexual ethic.  Prostitutes were typically slaves, and slaves were there to serve the needs and desires of citizens.  In ancient pagan society, men had the right to visit prostitutes, and they regarded their sexual appetites to be akin to their other appetites for food, drink and carousing.

When we understand this context, we can begin to understand what Paul is saying.  Reading through the passage, we notice that Paul is responding to two sayings that some in Corinth appear to be using to justify men visiting prostitutes.  The first saying is “I have the right to do anything” and the second is “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”  Let’s consider both statements in turn.

The statement “I have a right to do anything” was one of the arguments being put forward by the Corinthians to justify their visits to prostitutes.  It may even have been a misunderstanding of one of Paul’s own statements concerning salvation by grace instead of by the Law.  In any case, this statement “I have a right to do anything” sounds like it would fit in perfectly into American culture today.

Paul responds to this statement with two objections.  First, he says we might have the right to do something, but not all things are beneficial.  Yes the Gospel is a message of freedom, but that doesn’t mean that everything is helpful to us.  We are not called to exercise our right to fulfill our appetites but to be children of God.  Think of an Olympic athlete.  They have the right to do whatever they want – they could sleep in, be a couch potato, or eat unhealthy food.  But would doing any of that help them out in their goal to win an Olympic medal?  No.  They know that they must exercise their liberty in pursuit of their greater goal.  And so it is with Christians who have the greater goal of being followers of Christ.

Second, Paul says that while we have the right to do anything, we should not be mastered by anything.  Our culture teaches us that we are not really free unless there are no external limits or demands on the individual.  This is the underlying ethos of both the technological and sexual revolutions.  And yet, this is a lie.  Consider our smartphones.  Most of us think how liberating these devices are.  They make our lives so much easier.  But they also have created an invisible prison for us.  When we discover that there are no cellular or Wi-Fi signals where we are, we become anxious.  We are enslaved by our technology.

Or consider the sexual revolution.  We have defeated the oppressive and controlling institution that is marriage.  Sex outside of marriage is now commonplace and morally acceptable.  But statistics show that the clearest indicator for poverty in a community is its rate of out-of-wedlock births.  Our supposed freedom leads us to the prison of poverty.  Or consider pornography.  We have the freedom to view pornography anywhere we want thanks to the internet and smartphones.  But pornography has wrought serious damage on our society, dehumanizing women and doing serious damage to the brains of young men who become incapable of having a normal relationship with real women.  All too often we think we are free when the ugly reality is that we are enslaved to our base desires.

The other statement used by the Corinthians to defend having sex with a prostitute is “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”  This reflects a devaluing of the physical body in favor of the immortal soul.  This was a Greek idea that remains very powerful and influential even today.  The idea is that the body is not much more than a machine – the stomach was made for eating, so why not indulge?  The sexual organs were made for sex, so why not indulge?  And it doesn’t matter anyway, since the physical body doesn’t last and has no significance.  This attitude frequently leads to one of two contradictory attitudes.  Either batter your body into total subjection and ruthlessly control all your physical appetites; or let the body have its full scope and satisfy every whim and fancy, because it is of no moral significance anyway, and certainly does not affect your soul or spirit.  This particular Corinthian problem seems to be the latter.

Paul rejects this devaluing of the physical body.  He makes five important points about our bodies.  First, he says “the body is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord.”  God values his creation and he values our physical existence.  Rod Dreher writes “Christianity is not a disembodied faith but an incarnational one. God came to us in the form of a man, Jesus Christ, and redeems us body and soul.”

Second, Paul affirms the importance of the physical resurrection of our bodies when he says “by his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.  Our bodies are not meant to rot and decay, but rather to be raised up.  We will live out eternal life not as disembodied souls in heaven, but in transformed, resurrected bodies on the new earth.

Third, our bodies are united with Christ.  Paul asks the rhetorical question “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?”  We are all members of the body of Christ.  Christ lives within us, and in the sacrament of the Eucharist we eat his flesh and drink his blood.  Christ is within us.  The Bible holds up the marriage between a man and a woman as a sacramental illustration of the relationship between Christ and his Church.  This is one of the deep mysteries of human sexuality – a man and a woman coming together in a covenanted bond of commitment points to the strong, covenanted bond of life-giving love that Christ has for his Church.  For us to unite with a prostitute is to break our bond with Christ.

Fourth, Paul tells us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit dwells within us.  In the ancient world, as today, temples and churches were sacred places.  To denigrate our bodies or abuse them is to desecrate God’s temple.

Fifth, Paul reminds us that our bodies were redeemed for us by Christ.  He says “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies.”  When we follow Christ, we acknowledge that Christ redeemed us by dying for us on the cross and rising from the dead.  Without him, we would be lost in sin.  Our bodies would be lost to death and decay.  But Christ redeemed our physical bodies.  We owe it all to Jesus.  And so, our natural response must be to honor God with our bodies.  We need to live as disciples of Christ, and not as followers of our own desires and passions.

Our physical bodies are very important.  Christianity is an incarnational faith.  We believe that God came into our world as a man – a living, breathing man.  We believe that God created physical matter not to destroy it, but because that was his good purpose from the beginning.  We believe that God’s plan for salvation includes the resurrection, transformation and sanctification of our physical bodies.

Because our physical bodies are important, we need to understand God’s purposes for sexuality.  If we misuse or abuse our bodies in a sexual manner, it is as if we are being unfaithful to Christ, just as we would be unfaithful to our husband or wife if we were having an affair.  When we dig into what God says about sexuality by examining the Scriptures, we can see that God’s purpose for sexuality is deep, mysterious and sacramental.  A man and a woman coming together in a committed, covenantal marriage is a sacramental image of the life-giving, sacrificial love that Christ has for his Church.

A Christian understanding of sexuality communicates some very important messages to us.  First, it tells us that our physical bodies are not just disposable bits of matter to be abused by ourselves or others.  It tells us that we are all members of Christ’s body and temples of the Holy Spirit.  Both our and others’ bodies are sacred places.  To abuse our own body or anyone else’s is to abuse God himself and his temple.  Second, a Christian sexual understanding points sacramentally to the deep love that Christ has for us.

The way we treat our bodies and exercise our sexuality says something about how we regard God who gave us these things and whose presence we claim dwells within us.  God is calling us to order all aspects of our lives so that we will live consistently with his purposes.  While the Christian sexual ethic may be shunned and scorned by our culture, we ignore it at our peril.  Its power goes far deeper than we realize.  If we are truly followers of Christ, then we need to cede control of this most powerful of our primal urges to God’s wisdom and purpose.  Anything less puts our relationship with God at serious risk.  Let’s use our liberty wisely.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory;  Amen.