This Sunday marks some major transitions.
Up until now, our attention has been on the infant Jesus. We celebrated his Nativity, his presentation in the Temple, and the good news of the Word having come in the flesh. Beginning with this Sunday, however, we read in John's Gospel about the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry through the call of his first disciples.
There is also a noticeable shift in the Second Lesson for today. Previously the readings were primarily doctrinal, focusing on the significance of Christ for faith. But beginning with this Sunday, we encounter a series of readings from 1 Corinthians that consider Christian behavior.
It is generally thought that Paul founded the church in Corinth while he resided there for a year and a half (Acts 18:11), spanning the years 49 to 51 A.D. Sometime later, about 54 A.D., he wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:8, 19). Paul needed to respond both to reports of dissension and immoral conduct at Corinth (1:11; 5:1), and to an actual letter that he had received, in which the Corinthian believers asked a series of questions (7:1).
Paul begins, in previous sections of 1 Corinthians, with exhortations to be unified as a body of believers (over against divisiveness), to maintain good sexual behavior (over against some specific examples of bad behavior), and to settle disputes (over against going to secular courts).
In our present text, Paul now takes on one of the most difficult issues for Christians, both ancient and modern. He addresses how to negotiate between the freedom that the believer has in Christ, and the obedience that that same person owes to Christ as Lord.
"All things are lawful for me," the NRSV reads, but a better translation would be "All things are permitted for me" (also see the NIV: "Everything is permissible for me"), because:
We are free in Christ, Paul insists, to carry on our lives apart from restraints of any kind - laws, customs, mores, etc. We are free to deny systems of belief and behavior others wish to prescribe for us. It is quite possible that Paul is quoting a current slogan of the believers at Corinth. It is equally possible that they learned it first from Paul during his time there.
Well and good, Paul says, but that does not mean that all is beneficial (6:12a). The danger is that one will become dominated by something else (6:12b). Paul is so insistent on the last point that he switches to the first person with an emphatic use of the pronoun: "But I (egō) shall not let myself be dominated by anything." Anything, that is, apart from being under the lordship of Christ. At the end of the passage Paul reminds his readers they are no longer their own, for they were bought with a price, the redemptive death of Christ on their behalf.
Next, Paul takes up two forms of sexual misconduct that may or may not be taking place among the Corinthians: fornication and availing oneself of prostitution. In light of 1 Corinthians 5, it is possible that these activities are taking place under the slogan that "all things are permitted." However, Paul argues against them. Fornication is a sin against oneself (one's "own body"), which he does not explain, but may be based on the view that a fornicator will never stop, thereby becoming enslaved by passion (Sirach 23:16-18). Being joined to a prostitute means being joined to a body that is other than the body of Christ.
After hearing this text, a congregation will surely be attentive and puzzled. People will become attentive as soon as words about sexual misconduct are heard. But there will also be questions and interior monologues running through their minds: "What is fornication?" "Who is a fornicator?" "The only time anyone ever hears those words is when the Bible is being read aloud in church!" "What does this text say about my friend who confided in me that he had hired an escort, and with a wink, it's clear that he meant a prostitute?"
Still, the larger issue is more fundamental. At bottom is the question of freedom and how to use it, always been a live issue for Christians. This text and others from the New Testament (cf. Romans 6:15; 1 Corinthians 10:23; Galatians 5:13-14; etc.) vividly demonstrate there is always the danger of using freedom with the false confidence that nothing will ever go wrong. But it can. Freedom used until it is misused can lead to activities that are destructive to self and society and detrimental to a living relationship with God.
So what is the answer? Many Christian traditions today are wary of, even resistant to, trying to guide life by invoking laws, customs, and mores in an "authoritarian" way. But in so doing, they can miss speaking in an "authoritative" way, a way that is grounded in "authentic" teaching. People seek guidance and expect to receive it from the church. Freedom needs wisdom and support from the larger community of believers. The congregation is a school for the building of mature faith. The life of faith is nurtured through the reading of Scripture, worship, and conversation.
In the end, the passage speaks against immoral behavior, but there is more to it than that. Paul stresses that the believer in Christ also belongs to that same Lord. There is no such thing as being one's own. Each of us has commitments that bind us to other persons or ways of thinking and living. As Martin Luther put it in his Large Catechism: "Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God."1 Belonging to Christ means that one seeks to follow him, his teachings, and the pattern of his life - a life in service to others. That is the foundation, and then one must work out the details of living in the world from there.
1Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, ed., The Book of Concord (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 386.