Have you been to a bookstore recently? I know that most of us would have said yes a few years ago, but with everything on-line these days, I honestly don’t know whether or not many people go to bookstores these days…anyways, I digress.
A few weeks back, just after the New Year, my friend and I decided to meet at Barnes & Noble for some coffee, conversation, and of course endless browsing of books.
New Years is always an interesting time in my opinion. Growing up in Ohio, this time of the year was surrounded by the often bitter cold, wintery precipitation, and darkness. It’s from this uncomfortable darkness and cold that many people in this part of the world begin their new year, with new opportunities, new resolutions, new hopes and dreams.
And so on this particular night just a few weeks ago, heading to meet my friend at the local bookstore for some coffee and conversation on this cold and dark night, I couldn’t help but notice the energy at this bookstore. As I entered the well-lit entrance, one could feel the radiance of the building with all of its lights, warmth, and people busily bustling up and down the aisles in contrast to the outdoor elements. Each display seemed bigger than the next with books of every subject matter, genre, and age. The Christmas books had all been marked for sale along with the calendars and gift bags. And now, as I walked slowly through the store toward the café, I couldn’t help but notice that a new series of publications had seemed to arise on display overnight. Now each table, each display, each sign shared topics such as Paleo cooking, Cross-fit exercises, and self-help guides to end depression, build wealth, and find the soul mate of your dreams.
All of these, of course, are marketed for the millions of Americans each year who make a resolution in some form or fashion to better themselves in some way; and the books will offer them that quick answer. For many it will be to lose weight. Others will resolve to get a gym membership. Still others may change their wardrobe, get a makeover, or hire a trainer. With the New Year comes the opportunity to create a new you. Out of the darkness and cold, we resolve to better ourselves this New Year…and there’s a different book that will help us accomplish each and every one of our goals.
We live in a world, and in a nation in particular, that is obsessed with quick fixes, sex, appearance, power, wealth, self-gratification…we can go on and on. We are raised to believe that we can accomplish anything we want if we just work hard enough, and once we accomplish our dreams the world is ours to rule and conquer. This self-gratifying mantra within the American dream has led on one side to incredible ingenuity, creativity, and accomplishment. In a matter of a few hundred years we have shaken off the chains of monarchy and oppression, and have become our own masters; masters of our own destiny.
But there is a downside to this accomplishment in the spirit of the American Dream…you knew it was coming, right? For every self made millionaire, there are millions of individuals who live in poverty. For every sculpted and toned model, there are multitudes of children and adults who are obese or live with poor self image. For every red-blooded American who married the perfect spouse, has the perfect kids, with the perfect home, car, and job, there is story after story of individuals and families who scrape and claw each day to simply survive; to eat enough food so their stomachs don’t hurt all night, and to stay off the streets. One could say that our ideal of self accomplishment is just that; a great ideal, but how do we respond when the story does not go as it should; when the book that was supposed to answer all of life’s questions does not have all of the answers?
The Apostle Paul will go on to talk about the Christian family as one body in his first letter to the Corinthians. We, as Americans, have been focusing on our individual images for so long; what about the corporate body image?
I want to get into today’s Scripture, but I feel we need to be clear about what we’re discussing this morning. This is one of those passages that pastors might describe as ‘loaded’, or ‘a landmine’. When discussing this passage with a group of young adults who meet to discuss faith matters, many of them shared stories of how this passage has been used to shame individuals, and I’m not just talking about premarital sex. One young adult shared how other church members told her that she was going against God’s plans when she received chemotherapy to fight her cancer. Others shared how self-described Christians used such scripture to chastise them for their physical appearance, eating habits, and even sexual identity. Still others shared how some of their friends have put their own bodies at physical risk of injury and illness for the sake of appearance, using this scripture to condone such dangerous behavior instead of speak against it. What I would like to do, to avoid such ‘landmines’ is to first speak to the context of this passage, and then for us to listen for God’s voice in the midst of Paul’s words this morning.
Richard Hays, professor at Duke Divinity School, shares some insight into this dialogue, and Paul’s use of diatribe in chapter 6. The Corinthians lived in a culture of individual liberty, with a philosophy of ‘sophoi’ meaning that the ‘enlightened’ person is free to do pretty much anything (including sexual gratification with prostitutes, which was common for this particular culture). In the spirit of Platonian philosophy, the body was separate from the soul, and therefore what the body did on its own did not necessarily affect one’s soul. One could say that the ancient Greeks and contemporary Americans shared many of the same values of self-gratification, independence, and materialism.
If we were to simply read this scripture, many of us would be confused as to who is saying what given the use of quotations with the NRSV translation of the Bible. Remember that while this letter is entitled ‘1 Corinthians’ in all actuality, it is likely that Paul was responding to an initial letter from the Corinthians. Professor Hays illuminates this style of writing, sharing that Paul is in a sense assuming what the Corinthians would be saying in the quoted text, and then Paul would respond. Given this understanding the text would read something more like this:
Corinthians: ‘All things are lawful for me’
Paul: But not all things are beneficial
C: ‘All things are lawful for me’
P: But I will not be dominated by anything
C: ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the body for food’
P: The body is meant for the Lord and the Lord for the body.
C: ‘And God will destroy both one and the other’
P: And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.
Paul’s response is that the body is not separate from our spirit, but is very much a part of our spiritual lives. The Reformed Tradition would call this the whole ‘person’, or body and soul together. The Spirit is within the body…not separate like the philosophy of sophoi would suggest.
Paul would continue in the following verses with this image of the body, as he will even continue with this image in the remaining chapters as he describes the Church as a body in Christ.
Verses 15 and 18 use the image of a sexual union to contrast the concept of union with Christ. While in both scenarios we do become united, as the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis teaches, if we are in Christ, we have the opportunity to unite with him in the Spirit. This teaching would once again contrast the sophoi philosophy; our bodies, and how we use them, are not only part of the rest of our lives; they are integral in how we live our lives on this earth and for eternity. Our values, therefore, must be prioritized towards the Kingdom of God, and not of the world.
Verses 19-20 seek to conclude Paul’s imagery here, as we read the verse that has often been used to discuss how Christians understand our physical bodies, and Paul concludes with a play on words using the image of the prostitute in verse 20:
19Or 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?
20For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
In a context where many of the audience would readily identify with the temples and synagogues of the day, whether of Jewish origin or Greek, Paul challenges them to think outside the box yet again. Not only are our bodies integrally connected with our spiritual lives, but they are also housing the very Spirit of God within them. God does not only dwell within the reverent and grand structures and houses of worship that the ancestors have built and that they may worship in during that time, but God also dwells within them.
The Apostle Paul has intricately woven together not only a response to the actions and questions of the Corinthians, but he has also communicated a revolutionary understanding of the physical body and the importance of holistic health and well-being for us all. If we are to understand that the Spirit of God dwells within each of us, then the very foundation of how we live our lives changes forever; not only for ourselves, but for all who we encounter.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is not its own book, proudly displayed along with the latest books on the Paleo Diet, getting out of credit card debt, and yoga books at the neighborhood bookstore. We don’t often hear about people’s resolution to include following Paul’s words more closely in 2015. But maybe we should. What would it look like for us to embrace this understanding of our bodies, as living temples of God, as we live our lives in the New Year? How would we treat others differently if we understood each person to encompass the very Spirit of God within them?
My hope this year is for each of us to see ourselves …and others with new eyes, and to see the very breath of God within us all. We are holy beings! And our daily lives, from the food we eat, to the exercises we participate in, to the jobs we take, and the way we treat others should all reflect this. This is our corporate body image we should strive for.
The Good News this morning is this: We are temples of the Holy Spirit of God within us. We are not our own Gods, able to do and say whatever we please without any regard for others or any consequence. Our very person, and every person, is God’s, spirit and body as one. We are all God’s creations, and our lives should reflect this good news.
Thanks be to God, who is within us, and amongst us.