Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
The passage that we read this morning from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is all about sex. You could probably tell that even if I just read you two of the Greek words that are used over and over in this passage: porneia and pornē. Obviously, the root of these words gives us the English word pornography. Graphy means the writing or depiction of something, so pornography is the writing or depiction of porneia. And a pornē or a pornos is someone who does porneia. But that doesn’t actually tell us what porneia is, specifically. The Greek also came into English much earlier by way of the Latin fornicati as fornication and fornicators. But again, I’m not sure that gives us very clear sense of what porneia is, does it? It has something to do with sex, that’s for sure. And based on how uncomfortable you’re probably feeling right now with your pastor saying porneia over and over again, it probably refers to some kind of sexual activity that we’re supposed to think of as wrong or immoral. But what does it include and what does it exclude? In a US Supreme Court decision, Justice Potter Stewart, referring to pornography, said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” Maybe I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. Is that the most we can say about porneia?
And if you are feeling uncomfortable right now, that is on purpose. I’m not doing it on purpose; I’m just reading words directly out of the Bible. The person who’s trying to make you uncomfortable this morning is Paul. Paul is actually working pretty hard to offend his audience here, particularly starting in verse 15 when he says that if you have porneia with a pornē, it’s the same as if Jesus had porneia with a pornē. Paul is trying to shock his audience.
Paul constructs this shocking image by bringing together two different biblical metaphors. First, he goes back to the Adam and Eve story, and he reminds his readers that the Bible says that when two people have sex, they become one flesh. When we refer to this text from Genesis, we are usually talking about two people getting married. When they marry, they become one flesh. But Paul is actually right, that’s not what the Bible says. Do you remember Adam and Eve having a marriage ceremony? I certainly don’t. And ancient Hebrew doesn’t actually have words for husband and wife, only for man and woman. So it doesn’t say that a husband leaves his family and cleaves to his wife, it says that a man leaves his family and cleaves to his woman. What Paul is arguing here is that it’s not just when two people get married that they become one flesh. Whenever two people have sex, they become one flesh. There are lasting consequences to that momentary action. And in the ancient world, where there weren’t always legal marriage ceremonies, at least not for ordinary people, sometimes it was that momentary act that created the marriage. It wasn’t that you weren’t allowed to have sex until you were married, it was that once you had sex, you were married. But the important part for Paul here is that when two people have sex, they become one flesh.
Paul takes that biblical principle and he combines it with the Christian teaching that the community of Christians together forms the Body of Christ. Every individual person is joined together into one body. We are the hands and feet and eyes and ears of Christ. And anything that happens to one part of the body effects all of the other parts of the body. The Church is the Body of Christ.
By putting those two things together—two people who have sex becoming one flesh and the Christian community being the Body of Christ—Paul creates an image that is designed to shock and scandalize the Corinthians. The image is of Jesus become one flesh with a pornē, a woman who is sexually impure, usually understood as being either highly promiscuous or as a prostitute. That is an image that is designed to scandalize. If you sleep with a pornē, that means that you’re making Jesus sleep with a pornē too. It’s designed not only to shock, but to terrify.
We don’t have all of the details, but we’re pretty sure that at least part of the Christian community in Corinth held views that we would label today with the word “gnostic”. To put it concisely, gnosics drew a very hard line between matter and spirit, between body and mind. They thought that everything in the material world was irredeemably evil and that only the spiritual world could be visited with God’s grace. So the goal should be to escape the physical world and be united with God in the spiritual realm.
This belief led to two very different lifestyles. Some gnostics tried to avoid all kinds of fleshly desires by abstaining from just about everything: no alcohol, no sex, no marriage, only simple food, that sort of thing. Other gnostics thought that, since only the spiritual world had any meaning, it didn’t matter what you did in the physical world. You could live as libertine a lifestyle as you wanted to. No problem with any kind of sexual activity you could imagine because none of it really mattered anyway. Christ Jesus had made believers free from all laws.
So Paul’s very provocative message may be designed to warn this second group of people. Keep in mind that if you are a member of the Body of Christ, then whatever you do with your body, it’s like Jesus is doing it himself. Rein yourselves in.
However, even though I told you at the beginning that this passage is all about sex, I don’t think it really is. Like I said, Paul is using the sexual imagery here to be intentionally provocative. Sex sells, right? This may be the first-century version of click bait. Wait, what did he say? But I think that Paul is actually trying to make a broader point. He’s just using a particularly steamy example.
And the boarder message—the message I want to focus on this morning—comes right at the beginning of the passage that John read for us today, at verse 12. “I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful. I have the freedom to do anything, but I won’t be controlled by anything.” Depending on the translation that you have in front of you, you might find that some of those words are in quotation marks. Paul is having a dialogue with an imaginary opponent. The opponent says, “I have the freedom to do anything.” And Paul counters with, “Yes, that may be true, but not everything is helpful.” The opponent says again, “I have the freedom to do anything.” And Paul hits back, “Yes, but I won’t be controlled by anything.”
This is a question about freedom and what it means. It’s a question about how we are to live out our freedom. It’s a question about the differences between legality and morality. It’s a question of freedom and slavery, and where one ends and the other begins.
As American Protestant Christians, we have a very high view of freedom. We get most of our theology of freedom from Paul, actually. He’s the one who tells us that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from any works of the law. Technically, that’s actually Martin Luther, but he draws all of ti from Paul. It’s not following all of the rules that saves us. It’s the grace of God, working through the faith of Jesus Christ, that saves us. So, in that sense, we are free from the law. We are not bound by it.
And of course, there really is no higher American principle than freedom, or liberty. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Unalienable rights. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. Or, put another way, freedom. Some of these freedoms are spelled out the Bill of Rights: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to peaceably protest, freedom of religion, freedom to bear arms, freedom from unlawful search and seizure, freedom from self-implication, freedom from excessive bail, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. FDR talked about four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
As USAmericans, we take our freedom very seriously. In fact, not matter where you are on the political spectrum, chances are that you are going to justify your position based on the principle of freedom and rights. The problem comes when the freedom of some impinges on the freedom of others. The argument is over where we draw lines between conflicting freedoms.
To give a very blunt example, I could theoretically argue that if I am completely free, then I have the freedom, or the right, to kill anyone I choose. Of course, that is pretty obviously an infringement on the freedom of others, specifically the people I would be killing. So we generally don’t call that freedom, we call that murder. But it technically is a limit on my freedom. I am not allowed to do anything that I want. Things might be trickier if I thought that someone was trying to kill me. Would I then have the freedom, or the right, to defend myself by killing that other person before they kill me? Most people would agree that I would have that right, or that freedom.
The truth is, though, that in the real world, our freedoms are always bumping up against each other. I might argue that I have the right to say whatever I want to say while I’m at work. But if I am being verbally abusive, my coworker could argue that they have the right not to be abused while they are at work. Do I have the freedom to do whatever I want on my land? What if what I want to do on my land is to dump lead into the river that provides another town with drinking water? Do they have the right to clean water?
Arguing on the principle of freedom usually sounds quite lofty and righteous. However, arguing from the principle of freedom can also lead into some very destructive directions. Because there is no such thing as absolute freedom. If I have absolute freedom, then no one else has any freedom at all. If there was complete personal freedom, then what we would have would be complete anarchy, which I imagine most people would not experience as very free. Freedom is a worthy aspiration, but it can be taken too far, and we need to think carefully about how our own expressions of freedom impact the freedom of others.
And that’s a bit like what Paul is saying here. “I have the freedom to do anything.” Okay, yes, in theory. However, not everything is helpful. Not everything is beneficial. Not everything that is legal is good. Just because I can do a thing, it does not follow that I should do that thing. Things can be legal and yet not be moral. I may have the freedom to do something, but not everything I am allowed to do actually moves things forward. Not everything is helpful.
Paul goes on, “I have the freedom to do anything, but I won’t be dominated by anything.” Sometimes, when we think that we are expressing our freedom, we are in fact being enslaved to the thing that we think makes us free. The most obvious example is addition. I may have the freedom to drink all that I want. But at a certain point, am I exercising power over the drink, or is the drink exercising power over me? Am I making free choices? Or are my choices actually being limited? The fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, put it this way: “Paul means that if we are free to choose, then we should remain free and not become a slave to any particular desire. Anyone who orders his desires properly remains the master of them, but once he goes beyond this limit he loses control and becomes their slave.”
We’ve heard the slogan “Freedom isn’t free.” It’s usually taken to mean that freedom must be defended, sometimes with blood. But I submit it also has another meaning. Sometimes freedom isn’t free, in the sense that what we say we are doing in the name of freedom doesn’t always make us free. Sometimes it enslaves us to greed, prejudice, ambition, or to the whims of a charlatan. Sometimes what we call freedom isn’t really freedom at all. What calls itself freedom can be tyranny in disguise.
I am free to do anything. But not everything is helpful. True freedom requires responsibility. Our actions have consequences. Our inaction has consequences. Sometimes those consequences are easy to see. Other times they may be obscured.
But if we are to be true followers of Jesus Christ, then we cannot simply ask, Am I free to do this thing? No, we must also ask, Is this thing helpful? Is this thing beneficial? Does this actually promote freedom, or does it lead to enslavement?
And we may also ask that even more provocative question, If I am a member of the Body of Christ, then what am I forcing the Body of Christ to do? How do my actions, as a Christian, reflect on Christ and his gospel? Am I promoting the kind of freedom that Jesus brings? Or is what I call freedom really something else altogether?
In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Freedom does not mean that we are alone. Freedom does not mean that we are not connected to others. Freedom does not mean that our actions do not have consequences. They do!
So as we consider our freedom, and the freedom of our nation, the freedom of our fellow citizens, our fellow members of the family of God, let us not sink into the trap of asserting, “I have the freedom to do anything.” There are many things we are free to do, in the sense that no one can stop us. There are many things that might even be legal for us to do. But not everything is helpful. Not everything is beneficial. True freedom comes when we seek not only our own freedom, but the freedom of others, especially the freedom of those for whom freedom has been long denied.
If we are members of the Body of Christ, then let us act like it. Let us be moved not by own impulses, but by the will of Christ. Let us seek not only our own freedom, but the freedom and the wellbeing of all of God’s children.