To know and be known is one of the deepest human longings. I believe it is one of the ways in which we bear the divine spark – this longing for communion with the other. And our readings this week (RCL John 1:43-51) are all about invitation into intimate relationship.
In the call of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-10) we have the voice in the night that calls our name and the eventual response of “I am listening.” In the gospel story of the call of Nathaniel we have the surprise of being seen more fully than can be understood and the invitation to “Come and see.” And in the beautiful language of Psalm 139 “O Lord you have searched me and known me... such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain it.”
Such expressions of invitation are usually spoken of in terms of “calling” – and many of us have stories of our call to faith, to ministry. But these are stories not only of call to vocation - to obedience and to work – but calls to relationship. More than anything else we are being called into relationship with the divine. They are stories of the longing of God for us, for particular people, and for all people, and of God’s desire to be known by us in response to the divine’s intimate and loving knowledge of us. And it is in this context that we can come to our letter from Paul to the community of faith in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), which is where I want to focus. Well, who wouldn’t – we don’t often get to talk about sex in church. Although of course that is not what we are talking about in any narrow sense.
So let us begin with some context. Firstly Paul is in the middle of a conversation with the community in Corinth. We know that there were more than two letters between him and this community because of internal references to other letters within the text that we no longer have. So he seems to be responding to issues that have some history and are referred to in the form of “slogans” or key phrases such as “All things are lawful for me” and “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” and “The body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” These may be slogans from teachings Paul gave earlier or they may be alternate teachings that the community have engaged with.
Secondly Paul is doing with these slogans, or key phrases, what all well educated first century folk trained in rhetoric would do – he is taking a given topic and then arguing something much more and a little different – just as we learnt in the high school debating team when we were given a topic and told whether we in the affirmative or the negative and learnt to argue from both sides! ‘ “All things are lawful for me” – ah ha, but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me”, but I will not be dominated by anything – boom boom!!’ Which isn’t to say that Paul did not have a clear and strong view, it is just that given the contentious context in which he preached and encouraged new converts he needed to engage with the issues of the broader community as his people struggled to work out what it meant to live a life of faith in their particular context.
And that is the third point about context: Corinth was the metropolis of its day. It was a city in which many cultures, religions, trades, philosophies met – it was one of the great melting pots. The new Christians of Corinth were not only drawn from varied backgrounds they were having to work out their values and practices in a competitive market place of ideas and beliefs and religious practices. Including that some of the temples had temple prostitutes and that part of the religious practice of some groups was to engage in sex with these prostitutes as a way of communing with the gods of that temple – the human act of union was understood to not only represent but to facilitate union between humans and the divine.
The other thing I would want to say about my understanding of Paul, that will help us understand what is at the heart of this passage, is that he is mystic not a moralist. Or rather for him mysticism and moralism are not separate. He was converted in one of the most powerful mystical experiences we could imagine – he was struck blind and then given new insight, he was taken up to the highest heaven and shown things he could not speak of. Saul became Paul through a mystical experience and his theology at heart, I have slowly come to understand, is that of a mystical understanding about the union between human and divine and the all consuming nature of that union. And because of that all consuming - all of me, every aspect of my life - nature of the call to relationship with the divine, then those aspects of human behaviour that the moral code comments on are important workings out of our love with and for the divine, or as he so often speaks of it, as fruit of the spirit of God within us.
Just listen to the language he uses and how quickly he moves from the language of morality to the language and insights of the mystic: “The body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body... Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? ... Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
So with all of this in mind what might our readings this week be pointing to in our own lives? I believe that we are being reminded that God is longing for us from before we can breathe on our own and throughout our lives, whatever our circumstances, always calling us into a relationship of intimacy and love. And having entered into that all consuming love we are reminded to regard our union with Christ as sacred, precious, to be guarded and honoured.
That while all things are lawful for those who are in the perfect freedom of love, not everything is beneficial for us. That if we want to stay in union with Christ then we - literally and metaphorically- need to be very careful about whom we give ourselves to because who and what we are in relationship with has a great deal of influence over us which will either be good for us or not so good for us. And God wants nothing less than what is good for us and for others. We are, in this week’s readings, being encouraged to live lives that will most lead to our flourishing – nothing less than fulfilling abundant authentic life is intended for us.
Even so , come Lord Jesus Christ, come.