On Mondays, Katie, Greg and I meet to pick the hymns for the coming Sunday, and usually it’s a quick meeting. Katie comes prepared with a list of suggestions, and we talk about which hymns would best fit at what point in the service, and usually we’re done in under half an hour. Usually. But try to find a hymn that goes with fornication. Or perhaps I should rather say a fight song that strengthens our resolve to shun fornication, as Paul clearly urges his hearers to do in this morning’s passage from his letter (1 Corinthians 6: 12-20).
I thought I would talk about sexuality and spirituality today. Many seem to think that the two are worlds apart, and I thought I’d take Paul’s profound reflections on the body to explore how deeply connected they really are; then we’d sing “Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee,” consecrating our whole being to the glory of God.
I thought I would talk about sexuality and spirituality today. But I couldn’t get Charlie Hebdo out of my head. In response to last week’s cowardly murders in Paris, the men and women who now create and publish the magazine, put together a special edition and started printing. Before the assault on its Paris headquarters, Charlie Hebdo had a circulation of around 30,000. They had planned to print a million, but quickly tripled that number. Yesterday the magazine announced it would increase the print run to 7 million to keep up with international demand. Purchasing a copy has become a statement against violent intimidation and for freedom of expression. I thought the cover was a moving tribute, very well done (compared to what they usually put out), but then I heard the first reports about demonstrations in Pakistan and elsewhere – many people were deeply offended. I’m still trying to understand if the offense is the depiction of the prophet Muhammad itself or a perception of disrespect in the caricature or both. I realized again how small the world has become and how little we know about each other’s worlds. In Europe, in Russia and the Americas we have a long tradition of satire, caricature, and political jokes; we poke fun at people in power and at things we hold sacred – and we defend freedom of expression, particularly when it comes to irreverent expression, or even tasteless and offensive expression – we defend it because tyrants will do anything to prevent it. We bring that history, that struggle for freedom to every conversation about the press or Hollywood or protest marches that slow down traffic just when we want to get home for dinner after a long day at work.
Tomorrow our nation observes Martin Luther King day to remember how costly the struggle for freedom is and that it is far from over, because none of us are truly free until all of us are. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” Dr. King wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail in 1963. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Charlie Hebdo: the inescapable network of mutuality has become global in ways unimaginable in the 60’s.
What does it mean to struggle for freedom today, to imagine freedom, to think and talk about it? Freedom is a key dimension of our faith, with more facets than I could name this morning, so here are just a few: The freedom to be who we have been created to be. Freedom from slavery and oppression. Freedom to worship God without fear. Freedom to hear and interpret God’s word.
“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul declares in his letter to the Galatians. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). Freedom was very much part of Paul’s gospel proclamation: freedom from sin, freedom from death, the freedom to live as children of God through faith. But some believers in Corinth apparently were hearing a different tune:
I’m free to do what I want any old time. The cross marks the end of the power of the law and I’m free. “All things are permitted for me.”
The only law still in effect in their circles was the law of desire, supply and demand. They ate what they wanted, with whom, when and where they wanted. Only weak believers had scruples about eating meat that had been butchered and prepared in pagan temples; they stood above that, they were strong. They also slept with whom they wanted. There were plenty of temple prostitutes and they hosted some of the best parties in town. The only law still in effect was the law of desire, supply and demand. I’m free to do what I want and am able to afford.
“All things are permitted for me,” they proudly declared, and Paul calmly added a caution, “but not all things are beneficial.”
“All things are permitted for me,” and Paul didn’t necessarily disagree with their slogan, but quietly replied, “I will not be dominated by anything,” reminding them and us that misdirected freedom can easily turn into servitude to compulsive desires more powerful than our will. We may think of ourselves as free masters in control of our fate when in reality we are slaves of our appetites.
For Paul, freedom is not independence or individual license. On the contrary, freedom is about belonging to nothing and no one but Christ. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” he asks and he continues, saving for last the part most important and most difficult to hear in ancient and in modern times: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that you are not your own?”
We are not our own. In baptism we are set free from the powers that oppress us, but not in some abstract fashion so we can be whoever or whatever we want to be; we are set free by being made members in the body of Christ, and we are set free for being members in the body of Christ. We are free because we are his. We are free to become who we were made to be because we are not our own.
John Calvin wrote in the 16th century,
We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature. We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours.
Calvin continues with a second set of three brief statements, each one beginning, “We are God’s” – and that is of course as easily misunderstood as when Paul says, “we are free.” “We are God’s” is not spelled gods, but uppercase God’s.
We are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to [God] (Rom 14:8). We are God’s; therefore, let [God’s] wisdom and will preside over all our actions. We are God’s; to [God], then, as the only legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed.1
Men and women baptized into Christ don’t ask, “What is permissible? What is permitted, what is lawful, legal and what is not?” They ask, “How do we let Christ direct our life? How do we glorify God in our body – individually and collectively?” Paul picks up the thread from chapter 6 in chapter 10 where he writes, “’All things are permitted,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are permitted,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). Christian freedom presupposes an orientation toward the other and an obligation to foster his or her flourishing. Christian freedom is oriented toward the building up of a community that reflects our reconciliation in Christ.
So what does it mean to struggle for freedom today, to imagine freedom, to think and talk about it? I believe Christians have much to offer in those struggles and conversations, because the concept of freedom Paul gave us is not an expression of individual autonomy. Seeking to let Christ direct our lives to God we don’t strive to secure ourselves and thus increase rivalry, competition, and angry conflict. Our freedom is an expression of our belonging to Christ and in Christ, to each other. Dr. King called it the Beloved Community. In a speech in 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, he said,
“the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of [humans].”