Tuesday, January 31, 2012

To All People

Paul has a right to be paid for his work as a minister.   That's the essence of Paul's rather forceful argument in the first 14 verses of 1 Corinthians 9.  Paul first cites the other apostles as precedent.  They apparently were not only paid for their own work but were compensated well enough to have their spouses travel with them as well.  Paul then cites other careers; soldiers, farmers, and shepherds all receive a reward for their work.  Paul ups the ante a bit more by saying this is not merely a matter of human practice but a matter of the Law.  He cites Deuteronomy 25:4 "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain."  This meant that an ox was allowed to eat some of the very grain it was helping to prepare for human consumption as reward for its labor.  Surely if the law takes care to make provision for a farm animal to receive the proper reward for its work then at least as much would be true for a minister of the gospel.  Finally, Paul cites those employed in service in the Temple who share in the food from the sacrificial offering as reward for their work.  Paul says "In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel."  Right here in the middle of 1 Corinthians, Paul gives his best argument for a pastoral pay day.  What pastor wouldn't love to preach from this passage of Scripture?

But then we keep reading and find out that Paul hasn't collected on this pay day and doesn't intend to do so.  He says "But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision."  So then why this long argument for why he should be paid?

It seems that Paul, somewhat ironically, is actually defending his right to be paid in order to argue for his right to not be paid.  Or to put it more precisely, he is defending his authority as an apostle in spite of not having taken any money from the Corinthians.  It is important to remember that Paul as a preacher did not fit into a predefined role in his culture.  There was no widely recognized office of "pastor" or "elder" at this point in history with accompanying expectations of financial compensation.  Paul was a free lance missionary.  In the Corinthians view, what Paul was doing was probably most like the teachers of philosophy or rhetoric of the day; the best ones found wealthy patrons to support them with a steady income while the rest had to move from student to student to find pay.  The least employable teachers might have to take up a more menial task alongside teaching in order to bolster their income.  Of course, this is precisely what Paul had done working as a tent-maker while also preaching the gospel.  The Corinthians reasoned in reverse that perhaps if Paul had to supplement his income by such a lowly trade then perhaps he didn't really have much authority as an apostle or should not even be called an apostle.  The point of Paul's argument then is to show that he has every right to be paid and he has not foregone payment because of any lack of authority.  Instead, he has done so in order not to be a burden to the Corinthians.

But Paul's going without payment actually runs much deeper than merely avoiding financial burden for the Corinthians.  It is an embodiment of the very gospel Paul preached to them.  Repeatedly throughout Corinthians Paul has insisted that living out the gospel means not insisting on one's own status and rights but acting out of love for the benefit of others.  Paul argues in the opening chapters of the epistle that this is what Jesus has done for us; lowering himself to be crucified on our behalf.  Paul says his ministry fits the same pattern:  "That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel."

Now Paul is calling upon the Corinthians to do the same thing: to forego their rights and act out of love for the benefit of others.  This is where we realize that this chapter is not an aside disconnected from what has gone before.  In the previous chapter, Paul has just been exhorting the "mature" in Corinth to give up their right to eat meat in order to benefit those who are "weak" in their faith.  Chapter 9 serves as a model of Paul having done that very thing for the Corinthians themselves.  Although Paul may have moved onto the seemingly unrelated topic of his authority to receive payment, he does so in such a way that continues to address the Corinthians' fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel.  He is reminding the Corinthians (and us) yet again that the gospel is not yet another tool to be used in our own self-advancement.  It is actually about precisely the opposite of that.  The gospel way of life is one of humbling ourselves for the benefit of others.

Paul goes on to talk about how he is so radically free in the gospel that he has made himself servant to all, so free that he is able to change for others for the sake of the gospel.
"To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews.  To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some.  I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings"
It seems to me that one of our favorite hobbies as Christians is to fight over really inconsequential things as if they were essential.  As American Christians especially, we are pretty fond of insisting on our rights. What would the Church be like if instead of squabbling over every little detail to which we think we are entitled our language could sound more like Paul's?  What if we were so free in the gospel we could say:
"To the liberal I became a liberal, in order to win liberals.  To the conservative, I became a conservative.... To the foreigner... To the un-churched... To the skeptic...To the uneducated...  To the weak... To the poor..."

What if we could say about everything we do "I do it all for the sake of the gospel."?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Knowledge Serving Love

As Paul continues to respond to questions the Corinthians have written to him about, he addresses yet another issue in 1 Corinthians 8 that in itself is of virtually no relevance to us whatsoever - meat sacrificed to idols.  In the first century, it was common civic practice for Roman citizens to eat meat that had been sacrificed to some Roman god.  In fact, by many estimates it may have been nearly impossible in a thoroughly Greco-Roman city like Corinth to obtain any meat at the local market that hadn't been sacrificed to an idol.  This was simply the way meat was processed in much of the ancient world.  Additionally, participating in the ceremonies and festivals that produced this meat was an important civic duty.  Abstaining from these feasts would have been seen as unpatriotic.  For the wealthier Corinthians especially, the networking that occurred during these feasts was vital to their social standing.  If they attended the feast but refused the meat offered then they would be seen as not being gracious toward their host and would be dishonored among their peers.  If they avoided the feasts altogether then they would likely be branded as someone who was self-serving and didn't have the best interest of the city or the empire at heart.

But it seems that the congregation at Corinth was divided about whether or not eating meat sacrificed to an idol was acceptable Christian behavior .  Apparently some felt that it was not acceptable and that it was equivalent to participating in the worship of the idol itself.  Another group, probably the wealthier Corinthians who depended upon these feasts for their social standing, argued that this was non-sense.  "After all", we can infer them arguing from what Paul has written, "we all know that there is only one God.  These idols aren't real gods so they pose no real danger.  Therefore, we should all eat meat sacrificed to idols to demonstrate our knowledge about God.  Anyone who refuses to eat meat sacrificed to idols is simply weak in their faith and needs to mature so that they too can eat meat."

Its actually not a bad argument and Paul doesn't disagree with the logic itself.  Its very likely that Paul actually agrees with the Corinthians who say there is no real danger in eating meat that has been sacrificed to an idol.  But he does disagree with the foundation upon which they are basing their actions.  We see this in Paul's profound words in the opening verses of this chapter.
"We know that all of us posses knowledge.  This knowledge puffs up but love builds up.  If anyone imagines that he knows something he does not yet know as he ought to know.  But if anyone loves God, he is known by God."
Paul is agreeing with the meat-eating Corinthians in one sense, saying "Yes, you are right.  We all have the knowledge that there is only one God and that idols have no real power."   But then he immediately lets them know that they are using this knowledge incorrectly.  Instead of using this knowledge to serve others and build each other up they are using it to puff themselves up and tear down others they consider weak.  Paul essentially goes on to say that anyone who thinks they are "in the know" has actually missed the point entirely because the Christian life is not about being "in the know", it is about being known by God and loving as God loves.  In a few short sentences, Paul has completely turned the tables on the Corinthians' logic.  The meat eating Corinthians have built an ethic with knowledge as its supreme foundation.  Everything else is forced to serve this knowledge.  Paul says they've got it backwards because the Christian ethic is not built solely on knowledge (though its important) but has love as its ultimate foundation.  Christian wisdom is meant to be employed in the service of Christian love, not the other way around.  Furthermore, Paul reminds us that salvation does not consist in our knowledge of God but in God's knowing and loving us.  We have not saved ourselves by finding God.  It is God who has acted first and foremost to save us and the one who loves demonstrates this work of grace in their life.

As a result, even though Paul agrees with the meat-eating Corinthians in principle he tells them that they must stop eating meat sacrificed to idols because "by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died."  Paul's language could not be much stronger.  Paul is not talking about those who are "weak" merely "being offended" by those who eat meat.  Paul is concerned that if those who are less mature in their faith are coaxed back into the pagan temples as a show of spiritual maturity before they are ready then they may not become more spiritually mature but instead may slip right back into their old life.  (Paul's thinking is probably akin to what might happen if a group of Christians who were able to handle alcohol maturely were convincing a new Christian into going out for a drink with them not knowing that this new Christian was a recovering alcoholic.)  In such a case the meat-eating Corinthians would quite literally be using their knowledge to destroy the very salvation that Jesus' death has provided for their brother in Christ.

Obviously, the issue of meat sacrificed to idols is largely irrelevant to us today but the larger issue of the role of knowledge in the Christian community certainly is not.  Ever been in a Sunday School class that seemed to be little more than a contest to prove who had the most knowledge of the Bible?  Ever heard a preacher who seemed to be more concerned with showing off than making disciples?  Ever seen a "mature" Christian belittle the genuine questions of a younger/newer Christian?  I have.  A lot actually.  In fact, I've been that person more times than I would like to admit.  The truth is that this is yet another Corinthian issue that is still abundant in the Church today.  We still find it much easier and alluring to be "in the know" than to be a people of love.  Perhaps because knowledge can so easily give us a sense of self-importance and strength while love most often makes us feel vulnerable and even weak.  So we end up establishing a pecking order of status in the Church based on Christian knowledge just like the world outside the Church might establish a pecking order based on wealth or success.  But to truly be "in the know" in the Christian sense is to recognize that it is not about what we know but who knows us.  And anyone who truly knows and is known by God is a person who knows and is known by grace and extends that same grace to others.  Christian knowledge and wisdom are important but we have misused them if they ever serve any purpose other than building up our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Confusion from Corinthians: Part II

So if Paul's advice to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 is very contextually specific and that context is not the same as our context and Paul was wrong in his assumptions about their context anyway, where does that leave us?  In my post yesterday, I talked about the irony of preaching from any passage of Scripture but especially a passage like this one.  However, I also mentioned that in spite of that irony, I still believe that the Spirit speaks through a text like this, even if that speaking is so intertwined with human speech that the two are seemingly indistinguishable.  So the question now is "What does the Spirit have to say to us from 1 Corinthians 7:25-40?"

I think how we go about answering that question is important and I think my comparison of this passage to a counseling session from my post yesterday could be a helpful analogy.  In reading this passage, we are essentially listening in on a pastoral counseling session; not the kind of session that explores deep seated psychological issues but the kind that involves giving spiritual direction and pastoral guidance about an important life decision.  If someone came to me seeking such guidance there would basically be two questions I would have in mind:  "What principles/values/criteria do you want to guide your decision making process?" and "What does it look like to act on those principles/values/criteria in this given situation?".  Now let's imagine that I'm a really superb counselor and that the person leaves with principles and course of action in hand.  However, a week later the person returns to my office, now unsure of the previously determined course of action because something about the situation has changed.  In this instance, presumably the principles and values that guided the first decision would not have changed but the situation has so we would then discuss what living out those principles and values now look like in this new situation.  It may turn out that the resulting course of action in completely different, maybe even polar opposite of the previously determined course of action but in this case that is fitting because of the change in circumstance.

I think we can approach Paul's pastoral counsel in this passage in a similar way.  Paul is giving pastoral advice here based on assumptions about a specific context; namely the assumption that Christ's return would shortly follow his resurrection.  We can plainly see that our circumstances have changed since Paul gave that advice but the "principle" on which he based the advice has not and is still relevant for us.

One difference here - and I think it is a substantial one - is that we as individuals don't decide what those "principles" are... at least not if we really want to submit ourselves to the text and hear the Spirit's voice rather than our own.  If we really want to approach this text as Scripture and as a means of grace and not merely as just another piece of ancient rhetoric (which is always an option, of course), then we will not simply pick out the things with which we already agree and drop out the things with which we don't.  Instead, our "principles" are the rule of faith, the Nicene Creed, the apostolic teaching, the themes that are consistent across all of Scripture, the shared beliefs of the historical Christian tradition, and the present community of faith.  That is to say that we seek to hear the Spirit speak in this passage in fresh continuity with the places that the Spirit has spoken and continues to speak.

So then, what is the "principle", the theological foundation of this passage?  What is it that transcends context and is consistent across Paul's teaching and that of the Church?  It is what Paul states in v. 31: "The present form of this world is passing away."  If Paul preached to us here 2000 years later, I expect he would revise his estimate concerning the speed with which it was passing away but would not recant the idea that the old order is indeed passing away.  A new heaven and new earth, a new order, God's reign come to earth, is a central promise of the gospel message.

Fortuitously, we can return to part of the counseling analogy to consider what this meant for the Corinthians and what it means for us.  In our oversimplified counseling scenario, let's imagine that the decision was about choosing between two jobs - one that allowed more family time and the other that payed more money.  By the end of the counseling session the person decides that although family time is important the extra money could be more valuable at least until the economy gets better and more job opportunities open up.  However, a few days later the job that allowed for more family time offers to match the other company's offer.  Obviously, no one would consider it inconsistent or hypocritical to change's one mind in this scenario because the circumstances have changed.

This is essentially what Paul is communicating to the Corinthians and to us:  "Your circumstances have changed!".  The Corinthians are still making decisions based on the present form of this world that is passing away.  Paul is saying don't get married or buy or sell or do anything the way you would normally do it because that way of doing things is fading away and soon there will be a new order, a new kingdom, a whole new way of doing things.  Although this kingdom has not yet come, we still believe it is on its way and that the kingdoms of this world are on their way out.  As a result, we are not called to abandon all ties with this world but to live in it in a way that shows we are part of another kingdom.  We are to live knowing that our circumstances have changed.

This is essentially what repentance is about.  In the gospel reading which the lectionary pairs with this passage, Jesus says what is programmatic for Mark's gospel: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."  That word "repent" has become such a religious word for us that we tend to associate it with hell fire sermons and tear-filled, guilt-laden trips to the altar.  But it essentially means to turn around, to stop doing what you are doing and go in a different direction, to recognize that your circumstances have changed and to adjust your allegiances accordingly.  That's why Jesus ties it to the announcement of his kingdom.  The call to repentance is not a summons to a private religious confession.  It is an announcement that a new world older has arrived and it would be wise to join this kingdom movement because one day it will replace all others.  The Spirit is calling us to give up our allegiances to the kingdoms that our fading, powerful and alluring though they seem, and to pledge our allegiance to the kingdom of the crucified messiah.

Spiritual Powers of 10

I have come to think of the Holy Spirit as being sort of a zero.  That may sound heretical but stick with me for a couple of paragraphs before you bring out the torches and pitchforks.

Consider the role of the number zero in our mathematical system for a moment.  Zero has no value.  It represents nothingness; the absence of anything.  As a result, it could be tempting to think that zero is unimportant.  But it also serves as a place holder in our number system, reminding us that there is value represented by this number that has no value.  What's the difference between 1 and 1,000,000?  Nothing but a bunch of zeroes.... and 999,999 The reality is that without zero serving as a placeholder, our entire number system would fall apart.  It would be meaningless.  We would be unable to distinguish 1 from 1,000,000.  Lacking the number zero wouldn't change the reality that there is a difference between 1 and 1,000,000.  It would simply inhibit our ability to express that reality and therefore would limit our ability to carry out more complex mathematical computations.  The number that means nothing makes all the difference.

It seems like the Holy Spirit sort of functions the same way in our theology.  I believe that the Holy Spirit is active in my preaching, in the reading of Scripture, in the life of our community of faith forming us into the likeness of Christ.  I believe that without the Spirit all of these things, even Church itself, would be meaningless.  Yet have you ever tried to put your finger on the activity of the Spirit?  When I preach, can we separate what was me and what was the work of the Spirit?  When we interpret Scripture, which part of our interpretation is good scholarly research and which is the Spirit speaking?  And when our church looks more like Christ, is that the Spirit moving or merely people being good people?  The reality is that while we believe the Spirit is active and cooperates with our spirit in these things it also impossible to quantify the work of the Spirit of God... and for us it seems the temptation is always to think that saying something can't be quantified is the same as saying it has no value.  Since we can't say exactly what the Spirit is doing its not long before we begin to think or at least act as if the Spirit's not really doing anything and that this Church stuff is entirely up to us.

But to speak of being the Church without the work of the Spirit is like saying 1 = 1,000,000.  The difference between the Church in the power of the Spirit and whatever we call a random assembly of people singing a bunch of worship songs may appear to be nothing, a series of nothings, a series of unquantifiable happenings that appear to have no value.  But that series of nothings means everything.  It completely changes the equation.  It brings exponential transformation while remaining virtually unnoticed itself.

Often as I listen to people verbalize their faith, I hear a lot of talk about God the Father and Jesus.  The Holy Spirit seems to be the poor, forgotten step child of the Trinity, at least in the ways we often articulate our faith.  Of course, lacking the Holy Spirit in our theology doesn't change the reality that the Spirit is at work in the Church.  It simply inhibits our ability to express that reality and therefore limits our ability to more maturely understand who it is that God wants us to be.  Without recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit, all kinds of heresies arise in our theological formulations.  We begin to think that Jesus is merely an example to be imitated and that we can do that on our own so we don't understand why others don't just pull themselves up by their bootstraps like we did and become more Christ-like and as a result we become very un-Christ-like in our attempts to imitate Christ.  Or we think that God's work is primarily about forgiving us through Jesus' death so all we have to do is accept that forgiveness and there is no further work of transformation to be done in our lives so its ok that we aren't like Jesus because we could never be that perfect anyway.  Or we think evangelism and church growth is up to us and our programs...or on and on.  Good theology doesn't guarantee good practice but it at least helps us know the kind of practices to which God is calling us.  We not only need the Holy Spirit to be the Church.  We also need the Holy Spirit to be prominent in our articulations about the Church.  Without serious and deep reflection on the work of the Holy Spirit among us, our spiritual maturity will resemble the math skills of a child who can't count past 9.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Preaching Scripture and Irony

A passage like 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 forces me to freshly confront again just how odd a thing it is I do every Sunday; this thing called preaching.

In these verses Paul is continuing to respond to the questions the Corinthians have asked him and now turns his attention to those who are engaged to be married. Paul says he has no command from the Lord on this matter but offers his own advice as one who is trustworthy in the Lord.  That advice is "remain as you are".  If married, stay married.  If not married, then don't get married.  But if you do marry, then you haven't sinned.

When you read a passage like this one, you can't help but recognize you are reading someone else's mail.  In other passages of Scripture, even other parts of Paul's letters, its a little easier to forget this fact so we quickly elevate Paul's contextual advice to the level of universal maxim.  The whole "God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it." sort of idea.  But in this passage it is pretty obvious even to the casual reader that Paul is not making a statement that is meant for all people of all places at all times.  He is giving pastoral advice to the Christians of 1st century Corinth based on how he understands their current situation.  We are essentially reading over Paul's shoulder as he writers a letter that is not addressed to us; listening into a pastoral counseling session where we are not the ones being counseled.

And yet we are...

At least that is what the Church confesses when we call this letter Scripture.  Even though Paul was not writing to us, this was written for us.  Even though we are not the ones being counseled, this letter is for our counsel.

Not only is Paul not writing to us 21st century American Christians.  One of the biggest assumptions that seems to inform Paul's advice to these 1st century Corinthians was .... well....just plain wrong.  We can gather from Paul's letters that he expected Jesus to return and establish his kingdom very soon, probably within Paul's own lifetime.  What is more, this assumption directly impacts the advice Paul is giving the Corinthians in this passage.  It is, in fact, the very reason for it.  He advises them to "remain as they are" precisely because he believes it would be foolish to enter into a new relationship when the whole world as we know it is going to be changing so soon.  That seems like reasonable advice to me given the assumption of Christ's imminent return... but here I sit typing this blog post 2000 years later.

So here we have a text not addressed to us, answering a question we're not asking, and giving that answer based on an assumption that turned out to be wrong.  In spite of all this, the Church confesses that God has something to say through these words to a congregation of people who will gather in central Illinois on a cold Sunday in January 2012.  Surely, I'm not the only one who sees the irony here.

Despite the irony, on the aforementioned Sunday I will stand before the people with whom I share life and say of this text "Hear the Word of the Lord."  I will do this not simply out of obligation or for the sake of doctrinal commitments but with a steady love and passion for Scripture to which only a handful of other passions in my life can be compared.  I will do this not simply because I am their pastor but because over the course of my life I have experienced the reality of the Church's confession.  I have found to be true what those early Christians who first called this letter Scripture also found to be true as they read what was not addressed to them: that this ink on paper, with all its humanity and imperfection, is one of the places where the Spirit of God speaks.

There are many, many passages of Scripture like this one where I wonder how God can be speaking through these words; Paul's words about slaves and women, the God-commanded genocide in the book of Joshua, or Psalm 137 just to name a few.  It's tempting to simply ignore these parts, skip over them, or cut them out all together.  But for some reason those early Christians didn't do that.  For some reason, centuries after Paul wrote to the Corinthians when it was obvious that Paul had been quite wrong about the Lord's return, the Christians who were were deciding what should be included as "Scripture" didn't say "You know, we should really cut out that business about the time being short since Paul was obviously wrong about that."  Instead, they let Paul's words stand and affirmed that God's grace could still be found in them.

Maybe this says something significant about the very nature of Scripture.  Its just like us human beings (at least in the way Scripture talks about us) to think that in order for God to make use of something it has to be perfect, infallible.  But think about all the other means of God's grace in our lives; the broken body of our Lord in communion, our death in baptism, our prayers, our preaching, the Church.  Which of those aren't the very essence of brokenness?  Which are infallible?  Which aren't perfect and beautiful precisely because of their brokenness and fallibility?  We have these treasures in jars of clay.

This was supposed to be a post about first 1 Corinthians 7 and I am now no closer to knowing how I will preach from this vexing passage than when I began.  Nevertheless, I will sit before this text in all its vexation and I am confident that God's grace will meet me there once again.  Speak Lord, for your servant is listening....

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

More Intimacy with Jesus

Last week, I wrote about Intimacy, Mary, and Uninvited Guests.  This week, as we begin the season of Epiphany, I am returning to the place in 1 Corinthians where we left off last Epiphany: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, a passage that also speaks to intimacy - even a surprising kind of intimacy with Jesus.

Paul writes this portion of his letter to the Corinthians because they are apparently defending their right to go to prostitutes.  It may be shocking to our modern Christian ears to hear that a church was openly defending its right to engage in prostitution.  However, prostitution was not only legal in Roman society, it was probably a regular practice for most males in the gentile culture of the time.  Therefore, the Corinthians are not arguing for something exceptional but want to continue what was typical in their context.

It even seems likely that they have argued for this right by way of their understanding of the gospel Paul preached to them.  They're thinking probably went something along the lines of "Salvation in Christ is a strictly spiritual matter that has nothing to do with our physical bodies.".  The slogan "All things are lawful for me" that begins v. 12 may even be something Paul himself said (sounds a lot like Paul's letter to the Galatians) that the Corinthians have now turned against him to justify their sexual practice.  But Paul turns this slogan around to show the Corinthians that they are viewing the matter from the wrong perspective. "All things are lawful for me but not all things are beneficial.  All things are lawful for me but I will not be mastered by anything."  Sexuality (and the Christian life as a whole, for that matter) is not merely a matter of what is permitted but what is beneficial and to do everything I am permitted to do is not freedom but slavery to my own desires.

Similarly, the saying "Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food and God will destroy them both" may have been a twist on a stoic maxim that the Corinthians used to argue for the inconsequential nature of their physical actions since God would destroy the physical body anyway.  The line of reasoning would go on to say that just as the stomach is for food so also the body is made for sex.  But Paul interrupts this slogan by saying that "the body is not made for porneia (sexual immorality) but for the Lord and the Lord for the body"!

That surely had to be a twist the Corinthians didn't expect.  The body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body?!  Contrary to the Corinthians belief, the physical body is not inconsequential to God.  Instead of destroying the body Paul says that God will raise us up, body included, just as Jesus was resurrected to new life.

Paul continues by saying that our bodies are also members of Christ.  Therefore, for the Corinthians to go to a prostitute is the same as uniting the body of Christ to a prostitute.  This is because sex is not merely a physical activity without spiritual ramifications.  It is the uniting of two people as one flesh.  Perhaps what is most fascinating here is that Paul uses the same word (kollomenos) to describe one's uniting with a prostitute as he does to describe the union between us and Christ in two statements that are clearly meant to mirror each other.  "The one who unites with a prostitute is one in body with her".  "The one who unites himself with the Lord is one in Spirit with him."  That idea alone - that our union with Christ is somehow analogous to sexual union with a prostitute - ought to be enough to make us rethink sex and spirituality.

I don't imagine that I'll ever have anyone in my congregation try to convince me that engaging in prostitution is a suitable Christian practice but that doesn't mean we don't misunderstand sex and spirituality in many of the same ways.  We too often see the gospel as a merely spiritual matter that has little to no consequences for our physical bodies.  As a result, when the Church does teach that some physical actions are acceptable and other are not, as it does with sex, it seems forced - like an arbitrary list of rules that are leftovers from outdated cultural mores.

One of the things that I love about Paul in this passage of Scripture is that he doesn't simply impose a list of Jewish sexual norms on the Corinthians.  He could have just pulled out a few chapters of Leviticus and said "Here.  These are the rules you are supposed to follow when it comes to sex." but he didn't do that.  Instead, he made an argument about how the Lordship of Christ informed the Corinthians' sexuality.  Undoubtedly, the conclusions to which Paul comes regarding sex are shaped by his own Jewish heritage but he doesn't call on the Corinthians to simply agree with him by his authority as an apostle.  He does call upon them to consider how the resurrection, their union with Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit among them to make them the body of Christ all impact how they understand their physical bodies in relation to salvation.

Unfortunately, as Christians we often do exactly what Paul did not.  We take some verses of Scripture, even Paul's own words, and say "Here are the rules for Christian sexuality" and expect them to be accepted simply by our authority as the Church.  Rules aren't bad things.  Sometimes, especially when we are young and immature, rules protect us from harm before we can fully understand the reason we need those rules.  But at some point our faith needs to move beyond that and we need to begin reason about how the life, death, and resurrection of the one we call Lord radically changes our understanding of reality.

We might begin by asking what it says about sex that Paul can compare our union with Christ to sexual union.  But perhaps the more rarely asked question is what it says about our relationship with Christ that Paul can compare it to sex.  How is our intimacy with Jesus akin to sexual intimacy?