Jan. 14, 2018: Epiphany 2B (English)
Sermon for Epiphany 2B: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 and John 1:43-51
Zion Lutheran Church, January 14, 2018
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Live free or die!” That is the state motto of New Hampshire. This nation loves its freedom: Freedom from rules and regulations; freedom from government involvement; freedom to choose whether or not you want health insurance; freedom of speech, even for companies now considered persons; freedom to bear arms; freedom of all kinds. Live free or die.
The congregation in Corinth Paul is addressing in his letter today would have wholeheartedly agreed with all this. They thrived on freedom. In Christ they had been set free, and now they could do anything they wanted. They were saved. The Old Testament law no longer applied. So live it up; live free; alleluia!
And where did all that freedom get that congregation in Corinth? If you read Paul’s whole letter to that church, you discover where that freedom let them. Paul had to write this letter and a second one in order to address a laundry list of issues within that church. That list includes: Factions calling each other names like ‘foolish’ and ‘weak in faith’; factions fighting over who among the recent pastors had been the best; members of the church suing each other in court; arguments over sexual morality; singles and married couples each holding their own relationship status as more spiritual than the other; arguments over what constitutes grounds for divorce; fights over appropriate dietary practices; disagreements over the true meaning of the resurrection; and on and on and on.
So where did all that freedom get those Christians in Corinth? Into a huge mess.
“All things are lawful for me,” Paul quotes their slogan. All things are lawful. All things are allowed. I can do whatever I want, because I am free in Christ.
What the people in the congregation are discovering, however, is that freedom can be taken too far, so far that it ends up hurting them.
We have free will. We can choose to be irritable, grumpy, and insulting to others. We have that freedom. But we will soon discover that acting out our freedom in this manner will make us very lonely indeed, because other people have the freedom to avoid us.
Paul addresses the freedom to eat whatever we want. Yes, we have that freedom. There are no more dietary laws in Christianity, no need to keep kosher. We can eat everything in sight. And, as a nation, we have been doing just that. All this freedom has given rise to a nation where 38% of adults are obese. That obesity, in turn, has led to increased health problems and health care costs, lost productivity and wages, problems with self-esteem and depression, and much more. Our freedom to eat has caused many of us, as well as the nation as a whole, a lot of pain.
Paul also addresses the freedom of sexuality. Ever since the sexual revolution in the 60s, it seems to be a dating free-for-all out there. One-night stands are all too common. There is endless sexual freedom in this country. Yet all that freedom has a price, and we are finding out more and more about this price: sexually transmitted diseases, troubles finding committed partnerships, divorces, and an overall cheapening of God’s great gift of sexuality.
Is there such a thing as too much freedom? Looking at these examples, it seems there is.
Live free or die? All tings are lawful for me? Christ has set me free so I can do whatever I want? It seems extreme freedom always has a price attached, costing both ourselves and the people around us dearly.
The congregation in Corinth is falling apart because the people there are taking their freedom to be a total blank check to do whatever they want and to say whatever they want. How is Paul trying to get them back together?
First of all, he agrees with the Corinthians that, yes, in Christ they are free. That is a core teaching of the gospel. We as Christians are free. However, as Paul writes today, not everything our freedom allows us to do is good for us. As in the examples I mentioned before, we are free to be rude, to overeat, and to sleep around, but acting out our freedom in that way will not make us happy. It will not bring us to the peace and fulfillment we seek.
Paul writes that the freedom we have in Christ is a balancing act. We need to find out how to live in all that freedom in a faithful, fulfilling way. The guideline for finding this balance that Paul gives the Corinthians is this: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”
Christ bought our freedom. Now we are free: free from sin and death, free from dietary restrictions, free from Old Testament laws as a means to earn salvation, free from society’s rules as to who can be my friend, free from fear of a vengeful God.
However, when Christ bought our freedom, he also set us free for something: We are set free for service, for worship, for glorifying God by the way we live.
In other words, we are not set free to do whatever we want to do; we are set free to do whatever God wants us to do.
And God, above all else, wants us to live in community, in a harmonious relationship with both God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. These relationships are to comfort, strengthen, and direct us so we will serve all God’s people and take care of God’s creation.
Paul stresses that our lives originate in Christ; we were bought with a price. We live our lives not for our own sakes, but for the sake of God’s purposes.
This is true for us as individuals. Each and every one of us here has been set free by Christ. In baptism, God called us and gave us the Holy Spirit and brought us into his kingdom where we can live in the freedom of the gospel.
This is also true of us as a congregation as a whole. When Paul writes, “You were bought with a price; glorify God in your body,” then the “yous” are plural. You as a church, you as a local congregation, you are the people of God gathered here around word and sacrament, you together were bought with a price, and you together are to glorify God in your body, in the life and ministry of this congregation.
Living in the freedom of Christ does not mean that everything revolves around my life and my church and my opinion and my understanding of the gospel and my glory. Instead, freedom in Christ means that we are free to serve God without fear, free to love our neighbor, free to say ‘no’ to things that are harmful to me or others or the world, free to immerse myself in the kingdom work of God and to find in that my hope and my peace and my joy.
This past Wednesday I was teaching the group of catechism students at Calvary, the other church I serve. We were talking about exactly this balancing act Paul is addressing in his letter. The topic of the night was law and gospel. Law gives us rigid guidelines and leads us to ask: What can is allowed and what an I get away with? Gospel leads us to ask: What is my love of God and my love of neighbor calling me to do?
One of the youth brought up the case before the Virginia Supreme Court where a man named Turner had hung a black-faced dummy in a noose from a tree in his front yard. We discussed this case. The law might very well say that Mr. Turner was allowed to do this; the first amendment right to free speech might just make it legal to do such a thing.
However, what does the gospel say? Does it express my love for God and neighbor to display something so painful and racist? Absolutely not. It might be legal in the eyes of state law, but as Christians, we are called never, ever to do such a thing, never to abuse our freedom in such a way that would hurt our neighbors.
The very next day, President Trump uttered his controversial comments about El Salvador, Haiti, and African nations. The same truth applies to those remarks. Does President Trump have the right to use such a derogative term and offend other nations? Probably, in a legal sense, under the first amendment, he does.
The gospel rule of love, however, would never lead us to say such things. If we love God, who created all human beings, and we love our neighbors all over the world, we would never say things that hurt, put down, shame, and offend others.
The White House experienced exactly what the congregation in Corinth experienced when they exploited their freedom and went too far: chaos, hurt, factions, aggression, unhappiness, people ready to walk out. Whenever we make it about us and we ask what is legal, as in what can I get away with, this kind of mess will be the result.
Let us be ambassadors for the gospel’s rule of love. Let us follow Paul’s call to give God the glory in the way we act and speak and interact with other people. Not only will our lives be better, but we will bring healing to our congregation, our communities, and our world. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.