Intro

I want to say something about our letter from Paul this morning. This text has been used as a bludgeon against many people, to fill them with shame and despair. On behalf of the Church, I want to apologize for that behavior. It is hurt far too many people.
But I want to take a different tact this morning. And yes, I want to talk about sex.

But first, on Monday, if you would have seen me, I was decked out in Ohio State colors, ready for the beat down that was to be delivered to the Oregon Ducks later that evening. But, as I often do, I couldn’t help but notice the way in which sports teams echo the ways in which we attempt to neatly divide ourselves up by whom we choose to belong to.

I was wearing Ohio State colors, others were wearing Patriots gear, and even once you take those clothes off, you will find more things that we belong to: political parties, economic classes, countries, regions, ethnicities, education level, the list goes on and on. And that question of fidelity, of allegiance, of belonging is at the center of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that we encounter this morning. For Paul, the question at the center of all these questions is this:

Who do I belong to? Is it myself? The prostitute? My wife? Who?

And make no bones about it, this is a portion of Paul’s letter that is about sex, and questions of what constitutes a Christian sexual ethic, and this, dear brothers and sisters, is a sermon about that sexual ethic. But it’s also about God. It’s not something I want to shy away from and it’s a hard topic in our world, one couched in darkness and silence, which brings forth feelings of awkwardness, of privacy, and often, shame. For many of us, married, single, divorced, widowed, young or old, have struggled with these questions in our lives, and this struggle is getting progressively younger, as younger and younger people engage in sexual expression.

It’s an uncomfortable sermon, but one that we desperately need to bring to light, because the darkness around it is crippling for far too many people, for their faith, for their marriages, and for, even more simply, a healthy and holy sexuality.

But before I get in to these questions, I want to quickly set the stage for what’s going on in this first letter to the church in Corinth by Paul. Corinth was a large, prosperous, diverse seaport that was vital to the Roman empire. And it was a place that was informed by a historic Greek culture that wasn’t all that different from our own.

One of the gulfs in difference between their world and ours was a world in which use of prostitutes was a part of the Roman religious temple and sexual relationships with slaves, with those who were weaker or younger, were an important part of power dynamics and religious life. But, stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the fundamental beliefs in Greek culture were: personal freedom, adherence to cultural morality, and following the law.

And these questions are central to this section of Paul’s letter, where a member of the Christian community in Corinth is considering whether he can be with a prostitute or not. Yikes. And to our modern, Church-y ears, the answer seems obvious, but in this early era of the Church, things were a bit more messy.

Maybe G.K. Chesterton was right when he once quipped: ““Every time a man knocks on a brothel door, he is really searching for God.”

Creation

For Jews, and the early Jewish Christians, this question of belonging and sexuality was obvious, unlike the Gentiles who were coming to faith at the time that Paul wrote this letter.

From the beginning of the story of Scripture, sexuality was definitively placed in the midst of Paul’s question. Who do I belong to?

In the beginning, we get two wonderful answers to this question. We hear the story of Adam and Eve, and how Adam is created and belongs to God, and how Eve is created from Adam’s rib, and now Adam and Eve belong to one another. And this belonging, to one another and to God, is at the center of sexuality. To have a healthy and holy sexuality means to belong to another, and to celebrate that belonging.

And God says this is really good, and this reality, that Adam and Eve belong to God, and to one another, reflects what it means not only to be human, but to be created in God’s image.

There is even some evidence that this belonging is written into the fabric of the universe. In physics, there is this really crazy theory called quantum entanglement. In a really basic way, it explains that what happens to some pairs of particles is very strange. What happens is that when one particle is affected or changed, it affects the other particle(s) it is entangled with, whether it’s position, or spin, or velocity. Pretty cool, huh?

So, from the beginning, this idea of a holy sexuality doesn’t have much to do with “desires” or “needs” or even “procreation,” but with the idea of belonging. In short, sex is about who you belong to and this reality that who you belong to not only matters, but testifies to the God who created all of us in the first place. In other words, our sex is a public matter, a public witness to God.

But then something happens, something old, and something new, something common to the ancient world and to the lives that we live together, that belonging is ruptured.

Fall

For Adam and Eve, it’s ruptured by this really seductive offer from a serpent, that we can belong to ourselves, to be free and able to decide for ourselves. That we don’t actually belong to anyone other than our own selves. Not to God, not to our loved ones, but only to our own needs and desires.

And boy, what a mess did that make. For 2000 years, the church has said that not only does this rupture effect everything: violence, war, greed, but that in our effort to be free, self-determining, following our wants and desires, that we only end up belonging to sin, selfishness, pain, and evil.

That’s why Luther actually said that there is no such thing as “free will,” you always belong to something, the question is, who will it be?

And this is a point that Paul actually makes in the letter, which is that these ruptures of belonging, these questions of sex, are actually of the utmost important. Because a sin against the body, and are a different sort of sin than others. Not that it’s “worse” or more shameful, but that the destruction that it can wreak is beyond our imagination. For Paul, if we belong primarily to ourselves, and use our sexuality in that way, we are bound to find pain and suffering at the end.

Yet, here we are, and one of the most fundamental and pervasive aspects of Western culture is the abiding belief that we belong to ourselves. And we can conduct ourselives, and our sex lives, in such a manner. Even talking about it here in church is hard, because of this deeply cultural reality of personal privacy. In this culture, we belong most clearly not to God, or another spouse or partner, or even to the Church, but to ourselves.

_____

This story reminds me of one of the most deft cultural analyses of the last twenty years, the movie Toy Story. And the prophet himself, Buzz Lightyear.  Toy Story has lots of great storylines, but one of the central ones, is this struggle that Buzz Lightyear is going through, about to whom he belongs.

If you are not in the know, Toy Story is a story about a bunch of toys who come alive when humans aren’t looking, and particularly about the toys that belong to Andy. One of the enduring images of Toy Story is that each of these toys have the word Andy scrawled on their plastic feet, and the fact that they belong to Andy is of the utmost importance to their life as toys.

Except for Buzz, who believes that he really isn’t a toy, and that he belongs to himself, and his mission to defeat the Emperor Zerg, and he does everything in his power to be free and independent. And you know what happens to him? He ends up a toy that belongs to this dark and destructive kid named Sid. In his effort to be free and follow his own desires and wants, he actually just ends up belonging to another owner in the end.

And this is actually a great Segway way to tell you about what this word fornicator means that keeps showing up in our Epistle this morning. It’s a word that is tossed around by a lot of really destructive religious people in our world, but what it means is very simple: it means to sell access, to sell your belonging, to one’s body.

And the Greek word for fornicator? Porneia.
Boy, that word sure sounds familiar, doesn’t it.

Porn, adultery, prostitutes, abusive relationships, sex without fidelity. These are the things that are meant by this word Porneia, the ways in which we violate this belonging to God and to another in our lives. Pornography use? Higher than ever, it’s a 6 billion dollar industry. Adultery? In 2008, University of Washington researchers found that the lifetime rate of infidelity for men over 60 increased to 28 percent in 2006, up from 20 percent in 1991. For women over 60, the increase is more striking: to 15 percent, up from 5 percent in 1991.

And you wonder why I’m preaching a sermon on sex.

___________

All of that is pretty dreary, it’s pretty heavy, but it’s the reality of the world we live in. And it’s not just sex, but everything.

In our drive to be more free, we silly humans keep giving ourselves away to the highest bidder, the best advertised, the most seductive and shiny.

And the disappointment, the darkness, the pain are very real realities in our world. And the shame? Ooof. It can be overwhelming, since most everyone has struggled with these realities on one level or another at some point in our life.

Maybe it should be no surprise that one of the most poignant scenes in Toy Story is where Buzz has come to discover the reality of his situation and the shame and despair that he feels. He lowers his head, and refuses to talk with anyone, not even Woody, his best friend.

Sounds a lot like Adam and Eve, doesn’t it?

And in the midst of all of this, along comes this old rebel, Paul, not offering more shame, and more law, and more morality, but good news. Good news of a new future and a whole heck of a lot of grace.

Redemption

If you read this letter closely, one of the things you will notice is that while there are warnings and caution, there is no condemnation, there are no threats of hell or fire or brimstone. This isn’t a letter of morality and law, but is a letter of Gospel.

Instead of proposing a new sort of morality, a new law, for the people in Corinth, Paul makes a remarkable turn, a turn back to relationship and belonging. Using the old maxim of belonging that harkens back to Adam & Eve, Paul announces a new future to this man, and these people of Corinth, that despite all of our attempts to be free, despite all of our selling of ourselves to the next desire, the next want, the next need, that something has happened to us.

There are no threats, no shaming, no guilt, because Paul insists there is a new beginning, a new future that has opened up, regardless of our past, current, or future of our bodies.

Because, on the bottom of our little feet, like the toys from Toy Story, a new name has been written, Jesus.

Paul says at great price, on the Cross, our lives have been purchased from the jaws of pain and suffering and evil, to be transformed into something. Our bodies, our lives, our sex, belongs to God first and foremost.

And this is a big deal, because we can’t belong to both to porneia and to Christ. Nothing more can give you orders, can try to purchase you, can make you feel the shame and pain, because you belong to Christ.

As Jesus once said, one can serve money or one can serve God, and Paul is echoing that call of promise here, that our allegiance is no longer divided, but has been made whole. We fully, and unabashedly, belong to God and to one another.

And these physical bodies of ours? They matter because they matter to God. They matter because they belong to our beloveds. And they belong to one another.

These bodies, all of them, in their messiness, with their pasts, make up the body of Christ in our midst. So when we are asked about our sexual ethic in the Church? Our response should sounds a lot more like this:

We take sex seriously, because our bodies belong to God, and they are accountable to one another in this body, each of us, together, in the body of Christ. We don’t play shame games, or institute a new law of morality, but take seriously God’s new future where we belong to one another.

More than that, Paul says, our bodies are now the temple of God in the world. God dwells in this world, you might even say is incarnated, through us, and through these bodies. These bodies, are now the place where the public witness of God is made in the world, and that is a wonderful, beautiful gift.

Two thousand years ago, God came to take up residence in this world, and to ensure that we could never again belong to any other power or principality, that we were free, free to marry and love and belong. No more shame and guilt. But now, God has taken up permanent residence in this world, in our bodies, in this body, in order to make known this promise of new life and a new future for this tired old world.

No more must we keep asking who do we belong to, because the answer is clear: We belong to God. And, we belong to one another.

Restoration

And as for sex, that means that in this new future, opened up by the promise of grace, is all about fidelity and belonging. We should hold in great skepticism anything that makes promises about sex when they have little or nothing to do with whom we belong to.

So for all of us, whether we’re single, or married, or widowed, or too young or too old, sex isn’t just about a physical act, but is about the larger question of belonging and making public our witness of who our bodies belong to. For many of us, that marks our belonging to our spouse. For some others, you belong to this community and to your family.

And for all of us, we belong to this body, this communion of saints. And so we mark that belonging, every Sunday, by another body, the breaking of Christ’s body in the bread and the blood in the wine. It’s a bunch of bodies, in communion and community with each other, from the bedroom to the Altar, making God’s reign known in this world.

So, no matter where you are or where you have been, a new belonging is offered to you, fidelity in marriage, fidelity in community and belonging anew with God. So as we prepare to come to the table to receive the body of Christ, hear these words of God from the Song of Solomon:

My beloved spoke and said to me,

“Arise, my darling,

my beautiful one, come with me.

See! The winter is past;

the rains are over and gone.

Flowers appear on the earth;

the season of singing has come,

the cooing of doves

is heard in our land.

The fig tree forms its early fruit;

the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.

Arise, come, my darling;

my beautiful one, come with me.”