In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If there were one single verse of Scripture that could sum up the spirit of this age, that could sum up the way our world and our culture thinks and acts, it might very well be 1 Corinthians 6:12: “All things are permitted to me.” All things are lawful for me. All things are acceptable for me. Right? There is no hard and fast rule. The only things I can’t do are the things that are decided in law to try and protect people. But those are arbitrary. They are relative. There is nothing that is wrong in itself. Sometimes we say things like, “All things are permissible, except those things that might harm someone else.” As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s fine. But even that we’ll let slide if we think we have to. If we really, really want to do something, or if something or someone stands in the way of our happiness, we will still do things, even if they hurt or harm other people. So even that statement is negotiable for us.
This is the way our culture works, and so sometimes we in the Church, we as Christians, we look around us and we say, “Things have gotten really bad. People do whatever they want. They kill, and rape, and bully, and steal. They’ve completely lost their moral compass. They’ve lost any sense of right and wrong. They do whatever they want, without regard for the consequences.” And there are consequences. I doubt there’s anything that anyone can do that doesn’t affect someone in some way, positively or negative. Everything we do has consequences for somebody. We are not completely independent, and we can’t be. Whether the consequences happen immediately or down the road, there are consequences to our actions. As we look around at our world, we see these things, and we seem surprised. But I’m not sure why we are. Are we surprised that unbelievers do what they think is right? What they’ve decided will be good for them or for others, what they’ve decided is moral? Are we really surprised or shocked that sinners sin? Maybe it’s because we’ve forgotten what sin is according to the Scriptures. Maybe we’ve believed the lie that sin is simply the bad things we do, and if we do too many bad things, then we should be called “sinners.” But that’s not how the Scriptures define sin. Sin is what we do because it’s what we are. From the moment of conception, we are infected with sin through and through, so we go on to sin. We are sinful, we are sinners, so we sin. That’s what the Scriptures say. Or maybe we’re surprised because things seem to have changed in our society so rapidly. We remember other times, and we say, “Things weren’t like this before. People didn’t act like this. They knew right and wrong.” And it’s probably true that things have changed. But not because we used to know right from wrong, and now we don’t. In previous generations, more people disapproved of certain public actions. There were more cultural restraints in place and they kept outward actions in check. Now the cultural winds have changed; different things are disapproved. The cultural restraints have disappeared, so that people do things publicly and openly that they wouldn’t have done in the past. Not because they didn’t want to, or because sinners change; they just did all those things privately. They still did them. Sinners will always sin. The question is whether they can get away with their sin publicly and openly.
But the more important issue is that thinking too much about what unbelievers do or what happens in our culture—too much looking “out there” can keep us from looking in here, in our own hearts. Because Paul is not writing this letter to the world. He’s not writing a letter to the editor, or publishing it to condemn the Corinthian society. And he’s certainly not writing this letter so that the Christians in Corinth have more ammunition to fire away at the debauchery in their world. We don’t have Paul’s instructions so that we can know how bad things are out there in the world. Paul writes this letter to the Corinthian Christians, to the churches in Corinth, so that they—and we—will look and see what is in our own hearts, our own minds, our own lives. He is not shining the light of the Law on the the wider culture. In fact, he says it: What do I have to do with judging outsiders? God judges those outside. What good does it do to go around condemning unbelievers, who are already condemned? He says that Christians are to judge those inside the Church, beginning with my own dark heart (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).
The problem in the Corinthian church was not that they were surrounded by a world gone to hell, but that they had absorbed the spirit of the age. The Corinthians said things like, “All things are permissible, lawful, for me.” But the Christians were saying the same things. And maybe they had covered it over with a veneer of the Gospel. They were members of the church. They gathered together and they ate the Body and Blood of Christ. But they were still talking and acting like the people around them. They sued other believers; they separated the rich and the poor at the very table of the Lord; they even sinned in ways that the heathen Corinthians did not, like the man who married his step-mother. The Christians said, “All things are permitted.” The Christians said, “Food for the body and the body for food, but God will destroy them both.” So it doesn’t matter very much what we do in our bodies. Particularly, it doesn’t matter what we do with our bodies sexually. Oh really? Let’s ask Jesus if it matters what we do with our bodies. Do bodies matter to Jesus or only souls? They matter enough to Jesus that He has one. He is born with skin and blood and bone. He grows in that body. He dies in that body. And then, when he is raised from the dead, He still has a body. Yes, a glorified body; yes, a resurrection body. But it’s still a body. A body in which His disciples can recognize Him. A body in which they can touch the holes of the nails and the spear. A body in which He can eat fish in their presence. And He still has that body. He is ascended and glorified, and He gives us that body and blood to eat and drink. The same body born of Mary; the same body crucified, resurrected, ascended, and glorified. Beyond our understanding and beyond the ability of humans to make themselves believe, but, still, His words are Truth.
And so it matters what we do in our bodies. Because of the resurrection. God raised Jesus in His body from the dead, and by that same power He’s going to raise each of our bodies from the dead. You have become one spirit with Jesus, but not apart from your bodies. In your bodies, you are members of Christ, who has been raised from the dead. If the dead are not raised, Paul says, then we can eat, drink, and find whatever pleasure we can, because tomorrow we die, and our souls go to heaven. But because Jesus is raised, then the dead are raised, and we belong, in our bodies, to Jesus and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.
And particularly, as Paul writes here, it matters what we do with our bodies sexually. Some people, even Christians, seem to think that the Church has some hang-up about sex. That Paul, and Christians following him, have these repressed desires that cause them to focus on sex. That we’re just trying to keep people from following their “normal” and “natural” human desires. Well, in one sense, that’s true, since all our “normal” human desires are distorted by sin. But that’s not the most important reason. The most important reason is that the relationship between a husband and wife, especially the sexual relationship, was created to be a reflection of the relationship between God and His people, between Christ and His bride, the Church. Just as God is Father not because of human fathers, but human fathers are meant to reflect God the Father; so we didn’t just project the idea of human marriage onto Christ and the Church; instead, Christ and the Church are meant to be reflected in husband and wife. This is why Paul says to flee sexual immorality, and why it is different from other sin: because sins against the marriage relationship—whether adultery, divorce, fornication, homosexuality, pornography—they all strike at the heart of the reflection of Christ’s promise to the Church. And that makes them particularly serious. Even so, as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned, sin is sin and unrighteousness is unrighteousness. So Paul says that the unrighteous will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Not the sexually immoral, nor adulterers, idolaters, those who engage in homosexuality, the greedy, the drunkard, the slanderer, the gossip, the thief, the liar. And as they were in Corinth, so we are today. Sin remains in the hearts of sinners, in your heart and mine. That old life of Adam is only death, only damnation. But Paul says, “Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were made holy, you were justified, in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” You are no longer identified by your sin; your identity is with Christ, not as a sinner. You were washed and Jesus put His Name on you, and the Spirit of God gave you faith to believe it. You have the resurrection life of Christ. The Resurrection is not only a future promise of what will happen; it is also a present strength. You don’t see it, and it will never, in this life, mean that sin no longer afflicts you. You and I continue to struggle against sin. In the Spirit of God, we daily put sin to death and long for the resurrection of our bodies so that we will no longer have this battle. But that’s why we need Jesus! We need Him to deliver His forgiving word to us daily, weekly. We need His living Body and Blood to hold us up in the midst of this world. Our outer nature is wasting away day by day, but He is daily renewing our inner nature. You were bought with a price, not with silver or gold, but with the holy, precious blood of Jesus and with His innocent suffering and death. You are not your own; you are His, to live under Him in His kingdom and to serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. So that you will glorify God in your body, as you carry around both the death of Christ, and His Resurrection. Until God raises us up by His power.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 1/17/15