Poolesville Presbyterian Church
01.15.12; Rev. David Williams
Scripture Lesson: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
In struggling through my reading and your hearing of today’s text, my
first reaction to it is similar to one often encountered by parents of
young children as they negotiate the dynamics of our culture.
The family has gathered for restful togetherness on a Friday night
after dinner, curled up with popcorn around the glow of lighted
electric diodes radiating from a big corner flat screen. The film for
the evening is one remembered from long ago, through the fondly hazy
recollection of many years. The earnest little faces of your
younglings beam at the screen as the movie begins, and for a while,
all is well.
Then, about ten minutes in, there’s a tickle in your memory. Did I
watch this in the theater? Or did I see an version edited for
As that thought struggles to surface, you’re suddenly reminded,
simultaneously, of two things. First, PG movies back in the 1980s
didn’t involve the same vocabulary that they do today, and second,
your memory of the dialog in movies isn’t always quite as reliable as
With that reminder, the parents in the room turn
slightly white, and the little ones giggle, as one or more of them say
with barely constrained glee, “Oooooh! Daddy! THAT was
This is, of course, an entirely hypothetical situation. Ahem.
And Paul, well, Paul feels inappropriate today. Yes, it’s scripture,
and yes, it’s part of the great sacred story of our tradition, but,
really? Reading through this excerpt from 1 Corinthians 6 feels like
that moment after Thanksgiving Dinner when that relative who loves
telling off color jokes starts in on the one about the priest, the
rabbi, and the oh no, you’re not going to tell THAT joke, and you try
to shush him because UNCLE PAUL, there are CHILDREN in the ROOM, but
he Just. Won’t. Stop.
Again, this is entirely hypothetical.
So how to approach this one? What’s the appropriate illustration for
such an awkwardly inappropriate passage? I mean, there are plenty
of images out there for exploring the concepts the Apostle Paul wants
us to explore, but very few are what I’d describe as sanctuary
appropriate. Having been tagged by this passage in the cycle of
readings, I really do want to cry out...NOT IT!
And so, instead, I’ll do what Presbyterian pastors generally do when
they’re forced to deal with a problematic passage. Let’s take a look
at the history and the language a bit more closely, why don’t we?
Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth spring from his deep care for
this endlessly troubled community.
Corinth was a centrally located trading hub in the Roman Empire, and
was legendary for it’s dog-eat-dog, do anything to get ahead,
I’m-gonna-get-me-mine mentality. In part, this was because Corinth
was a city recently repopulated by Rome. Everyone there was new, and
unlike the more rigidly structured hierarchy in more established
corners of the Empire, the residents of that city were able to rise
and fall based on their skills, their abilities, or sheer
Proving yourself a winner and back-stabbing your way up the social
ladder of prosperity was the Corinthian way.
It’s what Corinthians
did, to the point that Roman historians and social commentators at the
time invariably mention what a heartless, hyper-competitive,
uncharitable, and self-absorbed city Corinth was. Corinthians did
not need reality television. They were reality television.
As tends to be the case in such communities, there was a strong
tendency to view other people as objects, as rungs in the social
ladder, as convenient stepping stones and nothing more.
This approach to other human beings was completely opposed to the
ethic of love that is at the center of Christ’s teachings. As the
Apostle Paul struggled to convey that really rather basic principle to
the Corinthians, one of the primary ways they struggled with
fulfilling the requirements of the Christian life was through their
often predatory approaches to one another.
For Paul, this manifested itself most intensely in the way that the
Corinthians commonly approached the most intimate relationships in
In this passage, Paul is playing with Greek words in a way it’s a bit
hard for us to grasp in the English. The word that’s translated
“prostitute” in verses 15 and 16 in the New Revised Standard version,
and translated “harlot” in older English versions, that word is the
Greek word porne. The word “fornication” in verses 13 and 18 is
porneian, and has exactly the same root. The connection between the
two, in Paul’s original language, goes deeper than we tend to hear in
our own language.
In connecting forms of porneia, Paul is making a
point. If human intimacy was approached as a transaction, in which a
partner was viewed as just an object to be purchased, then the new
life Paul taught as he spread the Gospel was threatened.
For Paul, the purpose of Christian life was to be utterly personally
transformed by our connection to the love of God. Through our
connection to that love, which Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 as
the single highest and most important gift shared by all Christians,
we are also connected to one another in love, a love that defines our
The Christian life, if it is to mean anything,
demands that we recognize that we are woven up together by the love of
God. None of us are objects. None of us are things.
While this passage is typically viewed as just being about Christian
sexual ethics, I think it’s important to realize that while Paul’s
point should be well taken in that realm of adult moral life, it goes
further than that.
Paul gets so irritated at porneia because it is the form of
relationship that is the complete opposite of selfless, compassionate
agape love. That way of being in relationship is diametrically
opposed to our connection to one another in Christ. Porneia is
transactional relationship. Porneia is objectified relationship, in
which another human being becomes viewed as less than human. In
response to this, there are things we need to open our eyes to if
we’re to live into being the transformed persons Christ intends us to
First, we have to recognize porneia in culture. Our society, like the
community that formed in Corinth, is one that is unusually prone to
objectification and commodification. We are, after all, encouraged to
think of ourselves first and foremost as consumers. We are bombarded
by images of product, and images of other human beings who exist
primarily to provide us with products and services, or sell us
products and services.
We can easily stop treating them as human, worthy of love. Instead,
they become inanimate means to the end of our profit or satisfaction.
Porneia is not just something that crawls and seethes in the darker
recesses of the Internet. It is a state of mind that increasingly
permeates our society, one that needs to be resisted if we are to
remain true to our calling to pursue Christ’s Kingdom grace.
Second, we need to recognize the impact of porneia in ourselves. As
Paul tells us in verse 18, porneia is not just a sin against another
being. It is a sin against our own body. How so? Paul is often
accused, unfairly and inaccurately, of being one of those folks who
divide up the spiritual realm from the physical. But so much of
Paul’s teaching is about the transformation of our physical reality,
as we shift ourselves into a life conformed to the grace of the spirit
of the living God. The purpose of Christian faith is the
transformation of our lives, right here in this world. Our actions in
the now matter. The way we live and act here in the meat and and
blood and bone of our being matters.
When we live as if others are objects, things that can be purchased,
used, and discarded, then we are living outside of the bounds of the
Kingdom of grace that Christ proclaimed.
Living that way effects
us. It changes us. Those who treat others as not a you, or a thou,
but an “IT,” those souls are the ones that most quickly become an “IT”
themselves. That relationship weaves its way into our being.
Don’t be “IT.” Let it not be so, for you and for me, AMEN.