Sunday, January 15, 2012

Not It

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 televis...

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 you thought.  

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 inappropriate!”

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 self-centered ruthlessness. 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 their lives. 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 ethical interactions.

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 be.

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.

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