Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Trade-offs, Knock-offs and Settling for Less

The scripture referred to is 1 Corinthians 6:12-20.

I was reading a blog on which people were posting silly, obvious and bizarre product warnings. A label on an air conditioner warns owners to “Avoid dropping air conditioners out of windows.” That's the last thing I want to do with it. One brand of iron warns consumers not to iron their clothes while wearing them. Ouch. That reminds me of the clothes label on a kid's shirt that tells us to remove the child when drying. Uh, thanks. Most shampoos bear the legend “For external use only.” Are some people unclear on how to use shampoo? A string of Christmas lights that tells us they are “For indoor/outdoor use.” So what are they excluding? Outer space? There is the powdered baby formula that helpfully tells us “Must add water.” Anyone who can't figure that out should not be left alone with a baby. My favorite, though, is found on a can of mace: “May irritate eyes.”

The sad thing about these “Well, duh!” warnings is that some corporate attorney felt strongly that each of these was necessary. Does that mean an iron manufacturer was sued by someone who tried to touch up his shirt while he was still in it? Did someone try to get clean hair by swigging Head and Shoulders? Did someone somewhere think that Mace was a suitable substitute for Visine?

Not all risks are as obvious as those, however. After 9/11 a lot of people were so spooked they chose to travel by car rather than fly. Yet each year only 200 people die in plane crashes whereas 40,000 die in car accidents. Practically everyone here has had or knows someone who has had a serious car accident, some of which easily could have been life threatening. But we drive so frequently and are so familiar with the procedure that it lulls us into a false sense of safety. Which is why we put on makeup, eat, text, search our playlists, check our Facebook, jot notes and do a whole lot of other things when we should be focused on driving. This doesn't even include bad habits of driving itself like tailgating and disregarding the signs that tell us the speed limit and when not to pass. I'm not saying we should refuse to drive ever again but that we should never forget how dangerous it is and we should at least avoid behaviors that needlessly risk our lives and those of others.

Paul is dealing with something similar in today's passage from 1st Corinthians. Corinth was the “Sin City” of its day. In fact, the town's name was turned into a verb that meant “to get debauched.” So some of the Christians there liked it when Paul talked of being freed from the law and living by the Spirit. What they took away from this was that obeying the law was bad. I've met so-called Christians who espoused these views. They weren't pro-murder or pro-theft but they felt that saying you shouldn't get drunk or stoned or sleep with whoever you liked was tantamount to siding with the Pharisees.

But they were misinterpreting what Paul meant. Paul meant that having the right relationship with God was not a matter of legalistically observing the letter of the law of Moses. Rather it is a matter of living in the Spirit. That means responding wholeheartedly to God's Holy Spirit and living a life that embodies the Spirit of Christ. Unfortunately some members of the church at Corinth took it to mean that the only thing that was important was the life of the Spirit; what you did with the body was not important. In our reading Paul quotes his opponents and then refutes their ideas.

First Paul takes on the idea that freedom in Christ means that anything goes. He points out that even if “all things are lawful for me,” it doesn't follow that all things are beneficial. It's true of human law. You are free to do lots of things that are not in your best interest. There are no laws against eating 10 times as many calories as you actually need each day but the result will be anything but beneficial. Stupidity is not illegal, sad to say. Though texting while driving is against the law, painting your toenails while doing so is not. That doesn't make it a good idea. Freedom in Christ doesn't mean freedom from using your head. Wisdom and discernment are still Biblical virtues.

Paul also points out that just because something is lawful doesn't mean you should let it take over your life. Of course this is true of things that are bad for us. But let's forget about drugs and alcohol and the like for a minute. Using Dr. Drew Pearson's definition of addiction—any behavior that one persists in despite mounting negative consequences—we've seen that nearly anything can be addictive for some people. There are people addicted to sports, to eating, to following politics, to surfing the net, to collecting things, to exercise and to any number of otherwise morally neutral activities. Things that are thought to be harmless can in excess disrupt lives.

People can even be addicted to things that are good, like certain religious practices, to the detriment to the rest of their life, to their family, even to their own spiritual life. In this case it is a matter of the practice in question being out of balance, just like an exercise enthusiast can overdo running or weight lifting to the point that it is destroying their joints and their health. It is literally too much of a good thing. Jesus said we are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That means there should be a balance between the 2. The Christian life is about prayer and worship and studying the Bible and also about getting out into the world and serving others. Remember that in Jesus' parable about the last judgment in Matthew 25 the big sin is neglecting the physical and social needs of others. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also said that lots of people will think their place in the kingdom of Heaven is secure because they preached and cast out demons and did miracles in his name. Jesus' withering reply, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you evildoers!” Even a virtue can become a vice if it crowds out other healthy parts of life. This is what Jesus objected to in the Pharisees: a lack of a sense of proportion that let them value ritual over our more important duties to our neighbor.

The freedom we receive in Christ is freedom from sin and whatever else enslaves us. Paul says it therefore makes no sense to turn around and become enslaved again. That would be like celebrating graduation from rehab by going to a bar.

The next thing Paul says is another quote from his opponents' arguments: “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” The thrust of this saying is that both are natural and are meant to be used. Paul responds in 2 ways. First Paul agrees that both of these are natural but then points out that they are both temporary. Too often we forget that most of what we encounter in this life are transitory. And it is not merely material things that pass away but also governments, cultures and even temptations. On the other hand, our life in Christ is eternal. And it would be silly to trade away what is eternal for what is temporary. That would be the ultimate in short-term thinking.

Next, however, Paul denies the implicit analogy between eating and illicit sex and reveals the true nature of the argument. “The body was not meant for fornication...” The Greek word porneia, here translated fornication, includes everything from adultery to incest. The relationship between sexual sins and the body is not at all like the relationship between food and the body. The body needs food to live. The urge to have sex with someone may feel like a need but it isn't. And if it is the wrong person, forgoing such sex can save your life. Because of heterosexual promiscuity, AIDS is orphaning generations in Africa. Here in the US after a decade of declining, sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise. That includes syphilis which was almost eliminated. And STDs are especially going up in those over 60 years old! Germs do not engage in age discrimination.

Uncommitted sex is not good for a stable love life either. Scientific studies found that people who live together break up at a higher rate than married couples, even if the cohabiting couple marry later. And we've seen how adult sexual promiscuity negatively impacts children's lives, through broken parental relationships and poverty. It also causes problems for those offspring maintaining adult relationships once they've grown.

And yet Paul doesn't uses any of these pragmatic reasons for avoiding sexual sins. After all you can speed occasionally and not crash and you can fool around occasionally and not get caught or get a disease. People always use these exception to excuse their indiscretions. Paul takes another tack. “The body is not meant for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Paul raises a question even Christians rarely think about: to whom do our bodies belong?

Our bodies belong to us,” is the modern politically correct answer. That what we do with our bodies is no one's business but our own. But we get our bodies from God. Yes, our parents provide us with their DNA and a place in which your body could develop but they don't decide which genes we get from whom, which genes will be switched on and which will be switched off and how they will combine into a unique individual. And we are more than mere matter. We are also spiritual beings, created in the image of God. We bear the signature of our creator. We are his.

Part of the image of God in us is our ability to choose. And we have not always chosen well. To save us from the consequences of our bad and self-destructive choices, we were redeemed by Jesus Christ. So we are doubly his, by virtue of being his creations and by virtue of his having bought us with his blood.

Perhaps the Corinthians were influenced by some kind of incipient Gnosticism. It was a philosophy that radically separated the material from the spiritual. Matter was bad; spirit was good. Salvation was achieved through secret knowledge that enabled one to transcend the body. Some Gnostics were ascetics, who sought to subdue the body through extreme physical deprivation and discipline. Other Gnostics felt that since the body was inherently bad, you couldn't redeem it. So you might as well let the body do what it wanted while your mind was occupied with higher things. This last variety of Gnosticism seems to be the one that was infiltrating the church at Corinth.

Paul, however, was saying that the body and the material world are important and are capable of redemption. They are not to be despised. God did not create this world just to destroy it. He wants to put it right again. Just as Jesus did not return from death as a disembodied spirit but as a complete person, God is working towards a physical world that is directed by and embodies his Spirit of love, justice and peace.

The embodiment of the Spirit of God in this world starts with us, the people redeemed by Jesus. We are to be his hands and his eyes and his mouth and his arms and everything else of his to the world. That's why we can't simply do whatever we like with our bodies. Especially when it comes to making parodies of committed human love. The world is inundated with inferior knock-offs of what God intends for us. People have come to accept that this is all that is available. They ignore the inner voice that says that love should be lifelong, that those who truly love should commit themselves to support each other through any adversity, that they should be unafraid to declare their commitment before God and others. In place of “till death do us part,” we have substituted “till the way we feel about each other at this moment changes do we part.”

I find it ironic that at a time when 1 out of every 2 new marriages does not last, when the number of people marrying has declined by 50% since 1970, when 68% of couples cohabit rather than or before marrying, that the people who have been waging a concerted legal campaign to marry in the traditional way are gays. Heterosexuals have always been able to marry and they have been discarding it so callously lately for the hazards of uncommitted sex whereas gays, having been forbidden to marry for centuries, have been eager to seize the opportunity to trade their so-called wild “anything goes” lifestyle for fidelity and a family. Who'd have thought back in the 60s and 70s that the straights would be the ones abandoning the nuclear family and that the gays would be the ones defending it?

We have lowered our expectations of ourselves and of each other. And so relationships are now entered into with no thought as to whether it will be long-term or not. And just as this short-term thinking has invaded our most intimate, foundational relationships, it has infiltrated every other relationship in society. People run their businesses as if their client were one-night stand, to whom they have no long-term commitment. Politicians have led on the voters with empty promises until they have gotten what they wanted from them: election. Even parents' commitment and unspoken promises to their children has eroded, so that not merely fathers but also mothers abandon their flesh and blood for a lover. And those children have learned that they cannot count on the relationship that should nourish, buttress and protect their home life. Children from broken homes have not only have trouble in school and with their mental health but, lacking a positive model of a stable adult relationship in their developing years, they in turn have trouble establishing long-term relationships as adults. Because they've learned that everyone is on the make, everyone is looking for immediate gratification. They've learned that promises are merely a way to get what you want and in no way should be seen as real obligations. They've learned that any consequences of your actions can be weaseled out of, just as baby daddies do with the children who are the consequences of their acts.

Shun fornication!” Do not fall for the easy way, the way of exploitation, of short-term thinking. I'm sure Paul hoped his audience would react to his warning with the kind of “Well, duh!” that accompanies the warning not to drive or operate heavy machinery after taking sleeping pills. But he knew and we know that in this matter most people do not think with the 3 pound organ that resides in their skulls. As Christians we must model God's truly loving, committed, long-term approach to all relationships. We must remember that when we accepted Jesus into our life, we did not merely adopt an external moral code . We invited God to come and dwell within us. And that means turning ourselves into a fit habitation for the Spirit of God. We are to be temples of the Holy Spirit. We are to be lanterns of God, bringing his light into the darkness, exposing what is inferior, degraded and distorted, highlighting what is better, nurturing and inspiring. This is what we were made for. This is what God wants for us. Let us not settle for parodies of faith, hope and love. Let us show the people of the world that there is more to life than settling for scraps of temporary pleasure. Jesus told us that he will never leave us or forsake us. Let us do the same for those we love. And let us thereby renew the foundations of human society.  

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