Sunday, January 15, 2012

Whose Body?

Preacher Mark Driscoll's blog got a lot of traffic this week. Much of it was due to its title: "There's No Such Thing as Free Porn." Which means it would come up as a result when people Googled the phrase "Free Porn." Did he do it on purpose? Well, he did ask readers how they found his blog.

Another preacher Ed Young just spent 24 hours in bed with his wife…on the roof of his church! They did not have precarious sex but the event was streamed live on the internet. It is a publicity stunt to promote a book they wrote to encourage Christians to have a healthy sex life.

These two preachers are illustrating 2 approaches to sex that Christians take. One is to discourage certain practices while the other, less often seen, is the encouragement of what is, after all, a gift from God. Which is correct?

Both, actually. C. S. Lewis, following Aristotle, pointed out that what is good is often found between 2 opposite errors. In this case, the proper use of sex lies between the poles of the rejection of sex and an indiscriminate indulgence in every variant of it. Sadly, both excesses have been seen in the church.

Paul was celibate, at least by the time he became an apostle. Given that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, which required its members be married, I'm of the school that believes Paul was a widower. It explains his excellent advice on sex for married couples found in 1 Corinthians 7, namely, that not only the wife's body but also the husband's belong to their spouse, implying that the other's pleasure is a top priority. But Paul was one of those rare individuals who found himself able to remain celibate. He realized this and while he wished other Christians were as well, so they could concentrate on spreading the gospel without being tied to mundane concerns, he never required it of those who did not have the gift. Indeed, when laying out the qualifications of deacons and bishops, he stipulated only that they have no more than 1 wife. Nevertheless, very early in the church, there arose this odd idea that truly holy people were celibate. Part of this was the remaining influence of Gnosticism, which saw all matter as evil. While condemned as heresy, this attitude of seeing the flesh as evil insinuated itself into the church.

You see this especially in the large number of female saints honored primarily for choosing martyrdom over the loss of their virginity (usually to lustful pagan kings.) And of course the hierarchy of the church soon consisted largely of celibate men, though this did not become an absolute rule until the Middle Ages. Passing over those who were widowers, the last Pope who was married at the time of his election was Adrian II in 867. In the Eastern Orthodox church candidates for priesthood are allowed to marry up until the time of their ordination, though only celibates are eligible to become bishops. In eastern European countries when the Roman and Orthodox churches are in competition, there are 17 different Eastern Rite orders in which Roman candidates for priesthood are similarly allowed to marry before ordination. And as you know, many Roman Catholic priests and bishops were and are sexually active despite vows of celibacy. All of this is not only an unrealistic position to take upon sex, it is more importantly a major distortion of the Biblical teachings about the subject. And it has done a lot to discredit Christianity in the eyes of the world.

The other extreme, which we might call "holy promiscuity," has never been a feature of mainstream Christian churches but is seen quite frequently in cultic offshoots, especially if the cult leader is seen as a special prophet or as semi-divine. Sometimes the cult leader is quite open about this and his right to sleep with his followers is seen as his prerogative, as with David Koresh; sometimes it is hidden, as it was in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints under Joseph Smith. Plural marriage was a secret doctrine that Smith disclosed to certain key followers while he publicly denied and denounced the doctrine. Unfortunately, he did not always share this doctrine with the husbands of the women he took as his wives which led to schisms in the church. Only after Smith was killed and Brigham Young emerged as the leader of the majority of the Mormons, was polygamy publicly proclaimed. Most splinter groups, like the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints which followed Smith's son and widow, denied Smith ever taught the doctrine. After congressional anti-bigamy laws imperiled the church, the church's president Wilford Woodruff received a revelation that ended the practice in 1890. Split-off fundamentalist Mormon groups still practice polygamy. This has led to an underground railroad-like movement helping unhappy plural wives flee and the phenomenon of Lost Boys, young men expelled from these communities ostensibly for bad behavior but in reality because they compete with older and more powerful church members for eligible young girls.

What does this have to do with today's epistle--1 Corinthians 6:12-20? Paul is writing to a church in a port city so notorious for its immorality that Corinth's name became a verb for fornication. There was a temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love better known to us as Venus, which was said to have 1000 temple prostitutes, both male and female. They would process down the temple hill and through the city, trolling for "worshipers." It is said that the soles of their sandals were embossed so that their footprints left an impression that read "follow me." So Paul had his work cut out for him when it came to teaching his converts Christian sexual ethics.

Worse it looks as if his critics are using his own teachings on grace against him. Paul had been a zealous Pharisee, who tried to obey all 600 plus regulations derived from the Torah or Law of Moses. The problem was while the law was excellent at diagnosing sins, it had no power to help a person overcome his sins. In Jesus Paul found this power, and forgiveness and reconciliation with God based not on his own doomed efforts to be perfect but on God's grace. This rectified relationship with God is bestowed on us through faith, trust in Jesus as the Son of God who died for our sins and who rose from the dead to give us new life. When we open our hearts to Christ, his Holy Spirit enters us and therefore we do not have to worry about obsessively following all those laws. We live righteously through the Spirit. Some of those laws, like the ones concerning ritual purity and those badges of religious identity like the kosher laws and circumcision, no longer applied, especially to Gentile converts who did not have to become Jewish in order to be Christian. In Christ we are free from the law, proclaimed Paul.

Some Christians took this to mean that they could do whatever they wanted. And as he did elsewhere, Paul quotes his opponents arguments and then refutes them. But since in this instance they are repeating positions supposedly based on his theology, what he does here is restore some of the nuances and qualifications that were being ignored or oversimplified.

"All things are lawful for me," these Christian libertines would say, figuring since good works cannot save them, what they do is of no consequence. "But" Paul adds, "not all things are beneficial." God's moral laws are not arbitrary. They are for our own good. Not just the obvious ones like "Don't murder" or "Don't steal," but the ones like "Don't hate your neighbor" and "Don't commit adultery." What you do has an effect on you, on how you think and behave, on who and what you become.

What we are meant to become is Christ-like. We were created in God's image. But our sins mar, distort, obscure, and chip away at that image. In Jesus Christ, God's Son, we see, as Paul says in Colossians, "the image of the invisible God." And we are to grow into that image. But that means we can't let sin hinder the process.

Paul then repeats the assertion that "all things are lawful for me" this time adding, "but I will not be dominated by anything." Anything that gives you pleasure has the potential to become addictive. Alcohol and recreational drugs hijack the brains reward system. But neuroscientists have found that people addicted to immaterial things such as gambling and the internet have similar changes in their brains. Even without benefit of brain imaging, Paul realized that people become slaves to sin, doing what they know is wrong and even what they hate, a trait often seen in addicts. And he points out that even activities that are legal can come to dominate your life. We've all met sports fans or Trekkies or hobbyists or collectors that we thought could use an intervention. The otherwise innocent interest they share with others has completely taken over their lives. How much worse it is when a sinful, self-destructive habit takes control of you!

The next saying Paul quotes seems off topic. "Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food." However, people often see a parallel between the appetite for food and the appetite for sex. It's a false one, though. Failing to eat food will kill you. Failing to have sex will not; it just feels that way. Sex is only a necessity for the species as whole, not for any particular individual.

Paul makes a different point. Food and our earthly bodies are temporary. People are immortal. It would be tragic if things that are temporary deflected immortal beings from their trajectory towards God. And make no mistake, we were meant for God. Not only did he create us in his image but part of that image is the ability to love. As the source of all goodness, God is the natural object of our love. And yet we let the fleeting things of this world come between us and God's eternal love. It's like falling in love with an online gaming avatar rather than a real person. The digital figure is a pale imitation of the real thing. And the things we love in this world are but dim reflections of their creator, made even less like him by the distortions of sin.

Sex outside of committed love is a distortion of what sex is supposed to be. Paul comes at this from a Scriptural perspective and uses the phrase "become one flesh," found in Genesis, to describe the natural outcome of having sex. Again, Paul could not know this, but sex normally causes the brain to release oxytocin, a chemical that causes people to bond. It is also released when a woman gives birth so she may bond with her baby. God created us to love those with whom we reproduce as well as those that result from it. Having sex with someone with whom you have a casual or merely business relationship such as a prostitute is a perversion, biologically, psychologically and theologically.

But quite beyond that, our bodies are not our own. They are God's. He created them, Christ redeemed them and the Holy Spirit dwells in them. God does not despise bodies; in Christ he took on one himself. But they can be used to glorify their creator or dishonor him. When we misuse them or abuse them or neglect them we turn them into a mockery of what God intended them to be.

Because human beings, all human beings, are created in God's image, any insult or deliberate injury done to them is, symbolically, done to God. All sins may be seen, therefore, as blasphemy. When we disparage people, when we torture or batter or rape or exploit or kill them, we are doing it to God. Jesus says that in the last judgment we will be judged by the good we do or do not do to each other, because we are, in effect, doing it to him. That's a sobering thought.

While Paul was specifically addressing illicit sex in this passage, and while that aspect is ignored by today's Christians as much as it was by the Corinthians, the idea that our bodies are sacred has wider implications.

Personally, what does this mean in regards to how we take care of our bodies? 63% of us are overweight or obese and it's largely because we eat too much and exercise too little. A third of us get too little sleep, which can also contribute to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. If our bodies are not ours but God's we should take better care of them. And we haven't even touched on smoking, drinking and other forms of substance abuse. Or risky forms of sex. It's one thing to risk your life or health to save someone else. It's another to engage in dangerous behavior simply for personal pleasure. Courage is a virtue; foolhardiness is not.

Socially, we have already established the fact that Christ equates how we treat others with the way we treat him. We need to ask ourselves what this means in how we behave towards those less fortunate. Do we assume that their problems are always of their own making? Do we automatically associate wealth, popularity or attractiveness with virtue and poverty, unpopularity, or the unattractive with vice? St. Francis famously hugged a leper, seeing Christ in him. Mother Teresa would sometimes give rounds to her nurses, saying, "Jesus broke out in hives today in room 102. Jesus could not keep his food down in room 108. Jesus was incontinent in room 109." Could we bring ourselves to embrace those who least remind us of Jesus, knowing that they are nevertheless created in his image?

Finally, you may have wondered what our duty to God is. Is it enough merely to worship him? As God says in Hosea, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice..." And in Mark it says, "To love him with all your heart and all your understanding, and all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." God is not interested in people who go through the motions and say the words but do not obey him in how they treat others. God is a God of love. As it says in 1 John, "If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen." Yet we often hear people who call themselves Christian say terrible things about individuals and whole classes of people and yet are not called on it by other Christians. I'm not talking about those who say "I disagree with this person" or "I think this approach is wrong;" I'm talking about people who resort to insults and name calling and wishing people misfortune. Jesus said that anyone who insults his brother or calls him a fool is in danger of going to hell.

God does not make rules about how we should treat our bodies and those of others because he is a spoilsport or killjoy. He lays down rules for the same reason any loving parent does: to keep their children from hurting themselves or others. But he wants us to do more than refrain from doing evil to ourselves and others. He wants us to be good to everyone, if not because we feel that way then because everyone is his creation, a bearer of his image, however dim or distorted, whom he loves and whom he wants to redeem. And when we invite his Spirit to live in us, then we become temples, places where God dwells and we must act accordingly. We do not belong to ourselves. We belong to God. And we couldn't be in better hands.

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