Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 14, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When Christians in America today talk about sex, we tend to talk about it in terms of individual moral behavior. And we also tend to talk about sex from the perspective of sex being inherently bad or shameful unless it’s done the right way. The problem with talking about it as an individual moral issue is that the Bible says very little about individual moral issues, focusing instead on the ethics of the community as a whole. So, for example, in our lesson from Corinthians, Paul is not speaking to individuals but to the whole Corinthian community. We know this because Greek language is different when you’re talking to one person or to a group. And the problem with talking about sex as if it’s inherently bad or shameful is that what the Bible has to say about sex is a lot more complicated than can fit into the standard purity jargon. And I think it’s important to think about this a little bit more deeply in a time when sex scandals are in the news. So let’s look at our reading from Corinthians.
Before we talk about sex, though, we have to talk about community in Christ Jesus. Because that community of all believers is, for Paul, the absolute bedrock foundation for morality. All Christians are members of the Body of Christ, a metaphor Paul uses repeatedly throughout his writings, and especially in his letters to the Corinthians. We are members, one of another. Nobody can stand alone, and how we act affects others. If our actions hurt others, they are bad. If our actions build up the body, make it stronger or more unified or more healthy, they are good. We don’t have to worry about our eternal salvation because Jesus has forgiven and freed us from our sins. Therefore, we are free to pay attention to how our behavior affects our brothers and sisters in the here and now. If we hurt one another, we hurt the body of Christ. If we abuse one another, we hurt the body of Christ. If we ignore the needs of others for our own selfish gain, we hurt the body of Christ. And Paul explicitly addresses this message to the stronger, more powerful members of the community. The more power you have, the stronger your faith is, the greater your responsibility to take care of the weaker, poorer, more marginalized members of the community.
Paul’s morals have nothing to do with legalism, and everything to do with relationship. It doesn’t matter whether something is legal or not. It doesn’t matter whether something is normal or not. If it hurts people, especially if it hurts your brothers and sisters in Christ, you shouldn’t do it. And if there are people in the community who are more vulnerable than you are, it is your job to look out for them, as it is the job of the whole community. There’s an exchange from a book by Terry Pratchett that describes it well: “Sin, young man, is when you treat people like things,” said Granny Weatherwax. “Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—” said the young man. “But they starts with thinking about people as things,” Granny responds. I think Paul would agree. If you think about people as things—as commodities, as obstacles, as enemies, as burdens, as freaks—it’s a lot easier to hurt them. Because their needs and wishes and feelings are irrelevant, because they’re not really people. They don’t matter. But when you see people as siblings in Christ, instead, as members of the same body of which you yourself are a part, you act differently.
What does this have to do with sex? Well, everything. If you start with the assumption that other people are objects for your gratification, then prostitution, sexual harassment, and sexual assault become no big deal. If other people are there for your gratification, if they’re not really people, or at least not people worth caring about, then their wishes don’t matter and you can use and abuse them without a second thought. Instead of a mutual intimacy to build a relationship, sex becomes a means of domination. It becomes selfish and ugly, instead of a God-given gift.
In Paul’s day, prostitution was both legal and commonplace. In Corinth, people would hire prostitutes for their parties as a matter of course. Nobody thought much about it. Paul’s objection to prostitution was not that sex is inherently sinful. No, Paul’s objection to prostitution is what it does to the body, the Body of Christ. Say you were a Corinthian man, and you went to a party for your guild, and there were a bunch of prostitutes there for anyone who wanted one. They’re party favors. And it’s legal, and it’s fun, and everyone else is doing it, so why not? But in order to use a prostitute, you have to think of them as a commodity to be bought and sold, objects who exist for your personal gratification. You have to think of sex as a commodity to be bought and sold. So then you leave the party, and go back to your house. But you bring that attitude, that mindset with you; it lingers. The idea that women exist for your gratification, as commodities, instead of as people. It would affect the whole body of Christ, because it would affect how you thought of, spoke to, and treated the other women you knew. And that sort of thinking, that other people are not really people, it spreads. Pretty soon, it’s not just women. It’s men with less social or economic standing. It’s people of a different race or culture. It’s anyone who’s inconvenient. And thinking leads to actions, to all kinds of mistreatment. Once you stop thinking of people as people, any kind of mistreatment becomes justifiable. It affects you and everyone around you. It damages the body of Christ.
Prostitution isn’t legal today, but it exists right here in North Dakota. Girls and boys are kidnapped, raped, sold, beaten, and kept moving around to prevent them from finding help. It happens because some people think the pain and degradation of those young people is less important than the money to be made from them, or than their own gratification. Prostitution continues because there are too many people who don’t care who gets hurt as long as they get pleasure or profit. And it’s not the only sin or injustice that begins that way. When something bad happens, when people hear about someone doing something terrible, they often come to me and ask how someone could do something like that. And the answer is, because they don’t see other people as people. They don’t see other people as children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ. They see them as things, as commodities, as obstacles.
Then we turn to the revelations of sexual harassment that have been so public in the last few months. Here, too, is sexual misconduct that stems from treating people like things. And it’s not just Hollywood, or politics, or something that happens to a certain kind of women. There are far more cases than will ever be reported in the news, simply because most of the victims and perpetrators aren’t powerful enough or well-known enough for people to care about. I was in middle school the first time a pickup truck full of college boys yelled sexual things at me. These sorts of things aren’t new. I’ve seen a lot of people wondering why it happens, and how to stop it, and what are the right punishments for it, and what consequences for it are too much and what consequences are too little, and what about men who might say things they shouldn’t but don’t know it’s wrong?
This is actually something psychologists and sociologists have been studying since the 70s. In the vast majority of cases, the men who do things like this know perfectly well where the line is, they just don’t care. Or, if they don’t know where the line is, it’s because they don’t want to know. They don’t care about where the line is because they don’t care about their victim as a person; all they see is something they can use for their own pleasure. When harassers claim that they didn’t know any better, it’s a lie because either they did know better, or they chose not to know better. They chose not to see anything but their own personal gratification.
So how do we as Christians respond to all of this? How should we respond? Obviously, we should condemn the behaviors that hurt and injure people or take advantage of them, whether in a sexual sense or any other. But I think we need to go back to the basics, to the foundation of Christian ethics. And that foundation is the knowledge that we are all members of the body of Christ, that we are all children of God, created by him, named by him, and claimed by him. We are, each and every one of us, fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves us and all of creation. From the least of us to the greatest, every human being is a person who matters, a person for whom Christ died. When we forget that, we leave ourselves and our world open for all kinds of evil. When we remember that, everything else falls into place. May we always remember that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and one body together, and may that knowledge guide our thoughts and actions.