First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 2

William Loader

Epiphany 2: 17 January  1 Corinthians 6:12-20

There is a conversation going on! We are hearing one side of it. This is fundamental for understanding the two letters of Paul to the Christians at Corinth. We know of at least two more letters, one sent before 1 Corinthians and referred to in 5:9 and one written between 1 and 2 Corinthians, referred to in 2 Cor 2:3. We know of delegations from Corinth before 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 1:11; 16:17) and of a letter (7:1). Our passage has slogan like statements, which appear to be slogans emanating from Corinth, perhaps inspired originally by Paul's preaching.

In our passage Paul is addressing issues which he has heard about. He begins by citing a slogan: 'All things are lawful for me'. He cites it twice, each time modifying it. We have to assume Paul is not disputing the basic idea. For Paul Christians are no longer under the law; they are free. Paul makes such claims in the context of envisaging a life filled with the Spirit, bearing the fruits of the Spirit. We can see this in Galatians 5 or Romans 8. Paul appears to have been misunderstood as stating that Christians are lawless. In Romans 6 he explains how this is totally wrong: what baptism celebrates is the birth of a new life, a particular kind of life and living. His opponents argued that his assertions of freedom would create chaos (see Rom 3:8!): people needed laws and commandments to control them; depending on the fruit of the Spirit was not enough; it was outrageous to dispense with the Law. Paul argues in response that the just demands of the Law get more than fulfilled when people walk with the Spirit (Rom 8:4; Gal 5:13-15).

Was Paul right? His opponents could point to Corinth and say: I told you so! So Paul modifies this freedom: not everything is appropriate and, more telling: I won't want to be in the power of anything or anyone other than Christ. This is interesting because being under the power of someone or something is a way of speaking of a god or a spirit. The concept is worth exploring: what dominates your life? The issue is idolatry, but also more than that: certain behaviours and attitudes. The language of idolatry returns at the end of the passage - not by chance.

There appears to be another slogan in 6:13. Food is for the stomach and stomach for food. Perhaps it extends on to what follows: and God will destroy both. So what? Well, it would mean that we should not be greatly bothered about such physical things, including physical behaviours. The comment that God will destroy both the stomach and food could be Paul's response. Then he would be responding to a slogan which implied that food and the stomach are physical matters which should not affect our spirituality with the claim that what we do will be under judgement. Either way the slogan may have first arisen in the context of arguments about foods. That will be the topic when the freedom slogan next appears (10:23). Here, however, the focus is the body and sex.

Paul's abrupt shift in 13b to sex and the way he develops that theme shows that sexual behaviour has been in mind from the beginning. The argument against sexual immorality, specifically, engaging in sexual intercourse with a prostitute is based on certain assumptions about relationships. You might have thought that Paul could have just cited moral strictures, but it is typical of Paul (and helpful) that he grounds his warnings and is not prepared simply to cite authoritative rules. His argument is this: when you engage in sexual intercourse with a prostitute you enter her power sphere; you fall under her authority. Your relationship with her then competes with your relationship to Christ. This is interesting because prostitutes were often linked to temples and were sometimes understood as a sacramental way of communing with the god. That idea lurks behind the closing verses in a striking metaphor which speaks of our being bought with a price and being a temple of the Spirit. Paul is playing with the idea that our relationship with Christ is like sexual intercourse paid for with a temple prostitute achieving divine communion.

Paul bolsters the argument about competing relationships of power by using Genesis 2:24, which in its ideal of male-female partnership speaks of man and woman coming together to become one flesh. While that entails much more than sexual union, it is this aspect which Paul singles out. But then he argues that sexual intercourse, itself, creates much more than physical union. It creates a oneness with power dimensions comparable to the oneness in Spirit created when someone 'joins' Christ. Paul is not thinking of flesh or the body as in opposition to Spirit, but of both as having all the dimensions which make up life.

You cannot be devoted to two competing gods. It would be a mistake to turn Paul's argument around and suggest that even marriage, itself, creates a competing relationship. Perhaps some had done that. The next chapter suggests this is so. There we find another slogan: it is good not to have sex at all! Paul has to counter that slogan, too, even though at another level it was his own lifestyle choice. For Paul the main thing is: there cannot really be a divided loyalty. As God is one and Christ is one, so what we do needs to be coherent. His argument has less to do with laws of immorality and more to do with what happens in relationships and how they can compete with our relationship with God. The case of the temple prostitute is clear. It is worth exploring this slant on morality: sometimes things compete with our relationship with Christ (and God's relationship of love for the world). Paul's logic challenges inconsistency with that primary relationship, whatever form it takes (apparently moral or immoral). Less morally spectacular (because not sexual) but just as destructive can be financial dealings or compromised loyalties which sell people short and promote injustice and poverty.

It is always possible that Paul is using a rhetorical ploy. Perhaps no one at Corinth was visiting prostitutes at all. At most some of those who renounced sexuality were doing so secretly. The alternative is that Paul was really dealing with people who had a negative attitude towards sexuality and engages in this moral flourish in 6:12-20 simply to win the hearts of those anti-sexual members before then turning on them to subvert their assumptions, much as he does in Romans 1:18-32 before in Romans 2 turning the tables on those who would be cheering him. Paul would mean everything he says in 6:12-20, as he does in Romans 1, but it is really a 'softening up job' to confront the anti-sexual members in the next chapter. In any case Paul regularly shifts our focus from morality to relationships, just as he shifts our focus from law to freedom. But his notion of freedom is wise to issues of power and confronts the splitting and compartmentalisation which refuses to let God be God and love be love in everything.

Gospel: Epiphany 2: 17 January John 1:43-51

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