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?