The church at Corinth involved a group of people who straddled the world between the Greek philosophy and the developing ethos of Christian morality. The question in the reading we will hear this Sunday from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is addressed to people living 2000 years ago, yet cuts to the heart of one of the greatest challenges that face Christians today. Can something be legal yet morally wrong? Anyone who has considered the issue of adultery will appreciate that the question’s answer must be, “yes.” Just because something does not violate law does not mean that it is beneficial, to paraphrase verse twelve. The thirteenth verse extends this question further: do we let those things that are legal – for instance alcohol, food, the search for pleasure of various types—dominate our lives?
The struggle to be united, to be willing to consider others’ needs alongside your own and uphold the virtue of the common good within the Corinthian church is a struggle that tears at American society right now, as recent events have shown. Paul reminds the church at Corinth that they are no longer simply individuals, they are a body, the Body of Christ. Some members of the Corinthian church used their legalistic argument to continue visiting cult prostitutes, arguing something like: if one does not believe in the gods the prostitutes serve, that person is not engaging in idol worship by visiting a temple prostitute.
Think this doesn’t apply to us? Anyone who has struggled over what to do with a found wallet has faced a similar dilemma, or the Christian employer who rationalizes paying his employees as little as possible. It comes down to this: just because you CAN doesn’t mean you should. All children of alcoholics have to face whether they will maintain personal control after taking that first drink, and all people who have found themselves imbibing too much must decide whether to keep drinking.
For months, pleas have gone out to wear a mask during the COVID19 pandemic, but some people treat such appeals as limits on freedom rather as an expression of concern for those people around them. Politicians accept gifts from lobbyists and then vote on behalf of the lobbyists’ interests at the expense of their constituents. Such behavior may not be against the law, yet it violates the concept of representation. Recent calls for “unity” that lack both accountability and repentance previous divisiveness smacks of gaslighting, not of true justice or reconciliation. Being one body means actually feeling others’ pain as our own, and prioritizing an outward- oriented concern for the common good, even if it costs us something to alleviate a wrong.
As Christians living in the 21st century, we face every day a hundred interior negotiations between what we say we commit to as disciples of Jesus Christ, and what we commit to as people living in a post-modern capitalist society, based as it is on a heartless calculus of a few “winners” and a large pool of “losers.” Paul reminds us that being a Christian involves answering to the higher standard, to rise above what is allowed to what is for the greater good.
Our reading from Paul’s letter addresses an embodied morality, particularly regarding sexuality in the Corinthian’s cultural context. We live in a society that at once worships and vilifies all matters pertaining to the body. Ultimately, however, the point Paul makes is not denigrating the world of the flesh. Instead, he is making the point that it is through the body that we are united with Christ- not just metaphorically. Being united with Christ also unifies us with each other, as members of the body of Christ. Further, Christ did not merely clothe himself in a human body, but he became God incarnate. He did not masquerade as a human body- Christ HAD a human body, and through that experience in that body Christ lived, loved, suffered, and died.
As Christians, we have to be aware that what we do with our bodies and our actions through those bodies matters, not just to ourselves, but to those who are joined with us in the body of Christ. What we do reflects upon all who share our affiliation as Christians. Does what we do increase love, or does it increase division? This is a vital question for us today.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.