Wow... the lectionary provided us with some pretty choice passages this Sunday. What follows is my take on 1 Corinthians 6: 11-20. If you'd like to see video of the sermon, you can check it out soon on my congregation's website, Messiah Lutheran Church.
Wow, the geniuses who came up with the lectionary really served us up a doozy this week. We have two stories in 1 Samuel and the Gospel of Saint John about God calling disciples… and neither of which is particularly uplifting. The Samuel story is really problematic because it ends with God being pretty mean to poor old Eli. The story from John isn’t too bad, but it’s just kind of dry, no? But then, we got one really coming at us out of left field with the epistle reading… it’s Saint Paul writing to those bothersome Corinthians all about the loaded topic of fornicating! While I firmly believe there’s good news in all these readings my sisters and brothers, they definitely all take a great deal of unpacking to get there, and given that we probably need a little something to warm us up on such a cold winter’s morning, let’s just talk about the fornicating! I figure it’s probably been a couple months since I’ve gotten too controversial in one of my sermons, so why not give it a whirl.
Has anyone here ever heard of the Houses of Hillel and Shammai? Although I had heard a bit about Hillel cause most Jewish student centers on college campuses are named after him, I hadn’t really heard the full story myself about Hillel and Shammai until I got to seminary either, so don’t worry about it. That said though, it might be a little bit too history-nerdish, but try to remember about Hillel and Shammai, because their story can definitely go a long way in helping us figure out difficult ethical issues and sort through difficult Biblical passages as Christians. This is a bit of an oversimplification of their story, but essentially Hillel and Shammai were two competing Jewish sages who lived not long before the time of Christ. Now when these sages disagreed about important matters of Torah or Jewish law, they and their respective followers tended to hold two competing schools of thought. The Shammai folks generally tried to stick more to letter of the law, to do things exactly by the book, while the Hillel folks tended to spend a bit more time thinking about context, how a particular piece of Torah would be applied, the sort of spirit and intent behind what was written in the Scriptures.
The most famous practical example of these two ways of thinking was in a bit of an argument the Hillel and Shammai folks got into over white lies. Now according to the last part of Leviticus 19:11, you’re not supposed to lie: “you shall not lie to one another.” But what happens (and this is the exact example Hillel and Shammai got in an argument about by the way)… what happens if on her wedding day, a not particularly attractive bride asks you if she looks beautiful? Should you lie, be nice, and say she’s beautiful, or should follow the law exactly, and truthfully say, “have a blessed wedding day darling, but no, you are ugly!” Now the right course of action I think seems obvious to all of us, but the Shammai folks would disagree… tell her she’s ugly they’d say, stick to the law! Now the Hillel folks wouldn’t say the law isn’t helpful in this matter, not at all! In fact, in order to give proper respect to the law, think about it a little, what Leviticus 19:11 trying to get at, what’s the intent? What’s the Spirit of the law? In the end, Hillel famously said, “every bride is beautiful on her wedding day.”
During Christ’s time actually, the Shammai folks were more popular. As opposition to Roman domination grew, the more hardline approach of the Shammai folks was more appealing. Eventually though, taking the Shammai approach to foreign policy with the Roman Empire is partially what led to Jerusalem and especially the temple being destroyed around 70 CE. As Jewish leaders reconstituted themselves in the succeeding years, Shammai’s way of looking at things was largely thrown out… you must take one’s context into account when interpreting the law. The spirit of the law is what truly matters! In the end, the Hillel approach largely triumphed, and it grew into majorly influencing the beautiful faith of Judaism we know today (and Christianity too by the way).
So when you see these controversial, difficult Bible passages my sisters and brothers, whether they be in the Old or New Testament, remember this whole Hillel/ Shammai thing… prayerfully try to discern the spirit of the author’s writing, and indeed how the Holy Spirit is currently at work in the author’s writing, right now, in this day in age, in twenty-first century Schenectady or wherever you might find yourselves.
Now when thinking about all this fornicating business, and indeed all the other various types of sexually-related sins listed around it in 1 Corinthians, let’s keep our context in mind. As Christians we’re all members of a religious movement that hasn’t always gotten matters of gender and sexuality exactly right over the years. All the women who were kept out of the pulpit simply because of their gender. All the folks told to stay in horribly abusive marriages by their local priest. All the recent divorcees, who in the midst of crisis, at the time they needed the support of their faith communities the most, were shamed out of churches. Now I imagine we may have some different views in the congregation related to marriage equality, LGBT issues and the like, but wow, I’d hope we could all agree that things like what happened this past week, when a church in Colorado decided to cancel a young woman’s funeral fifteen minutes after it was supposed to begin because she was gay, I’d hope we could agree that things like that are well, far less than ideal and certainly not reflective of Christian love.
Unfortunately, although many of the congregations in our denomination and others have been improving in recent years, it’s our history as Christians and notable news stories like the one out of Colorado this past week that have made so many folks, and not just people of my generation, associate Christianity not with God or love or Jesus but with being uppity and mean about matters of sexuality. I’ve seen it with my own eyes a bunch of times… Christians talking all about how their “pure” but in the end pretty much just putting themselves over someone else by shaming people who wouldn’t fit their standards of “purity.” These sort of actions, this sort of shaming that takes place far too often in Christian circles in matters related to human sexuality, is in the end complete hogwash, and needs to be called out as such, for at least two reasons.
First, when we put ourselves over and above someone else, whether or not what that other person is doing is actually sinful, it’s all too easy for us to forget about our own things that need improvement. Second though, and even more importantly, we end up just looking silly like Shammai, calling someone ugly on their wedding day. Paul wrote all this business about not fornicating to a church in the first century that was rife with conflict. The text seems to suggest people were committing all sorts of sexual craziness because they thought they were freed by forgiveness in Christ to do whatever they pleased, and as would obviously happen, the Corinthians just ended up hurting each other. They were messing up their relationships with God and with one another. If you take the Hillel approach, and look at the spirit of what Paul is trying to say to the Corinthians, here’s where you start to find the good news! In our day and age, in a time when the church has screwed up issues related to sex for so long and so many people feel so unwelcome in Christian communities because of it, it’s not as much the sexuality that’s getting in the way of being in relationship with God and one another, it’s this over-zealous judgement and shaming that’s the real problem. That’s not to say we should go out and be like the Corinthians doing whatever we want, not at all, misusing the gift of sexual intimacy can really hurt people, but wow, in our context, that over-zealous judgement and shaming is what's really hurt people and truly getting in the way of far too many folks knowing the joy of Christian community.
When you look at the spirit of what Paul’s trying to say with all this fornicating stuff, in the end, he’s saying take Christ seriously. Take Christ seriously! Outside of gathering to hear the Scriptures publicly read, being baptized and celebrating communion (all actions which involve other people, by the way), the best way we can know Christ in this world is simply by seeing Him in the face of other people, oftentimes in the face of people where you would not expect Christ to be. Christ is breaking into your life each and every day! Take that seriously! If you’re part of a community where sexuality is getting in the way of seeing Christ in one another like in first century Corinth, sure, chill out a bit with the sexuality. If you’re part of a community where judgement and shaming is getting in the way of seeing Christ in one another, as it certainly is in many of today’s churches, chill out a bit with the judgement and shaming! Christ, my sisters and brothers, is constantly trying to break into our lives, to heal us, to save us, to liberate us, to make sure that we know we our loved, no matter what. Christ is trying to teach us something too by sometimes showing up in the faces of those we’d least expect it. And indeed, Christ has promised to do these things. And yes, our God in Christ is a God who keeps promises. Amen.
Dustin serves as pastor at Messiah Lutheran Church, a Spirit-filled church following Jesus Christ in Rotterdam, New York. An evangelist, urban gardener, mountain climber, community organizer, saint and sinner, he spends most of his professional time wrestling with God and proclaiming liberation in Christ. Otherwise, Dustin likes hiking, playing frisbee, hanging out with his fiancée Jessie, his amazing pup Willy Bear and pretending to know how to sing.