Sunday of the Prodigal Son, February 16, 2020
1 Corinthians 6:12-20; Luke 15:11-32
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Every sin that a person commits is outside the body, but whoever commits fornication sins against his own body. (1 Cor. 6:18)
This line is from our epistle reading for today from 1 Corinthians 6. I have puzzled over this line for years, and I always just chalked that confusion up to being one of St. Paul’s complicated pieces of theology. On its face, it seems to say that most sins are “outside the body,” but that sexual sins are “sins against [the] body.”
The reason why that reading doesn’t make sense to me is that a lot of the non-sexual sins that we commit really do seem to be about the body or done with the body. Just think of gluttony or violence or drunkenness, for instance. These kind of require the body, right?
Anyway, I was again puzzling over this verse this past week, and as I looked at some of the books I have that help me study the Bible and talked with a learned friend, a solution for understanding it presented itself, but it will take a little explaining to make it clear. And of course this explanation helps to teach us an important principle of what it means to be faithful Christians.
First, a little background: The church in Corinth had problems—I mean, huge problems. Churches have problems all the time, of course, but I think Corinth in St. Paul’s time might have been the all-time worst. But instead of abandoning them as hopeless, St. Paul writes to them repeatedly to try to help them get into line and live as Christians.
To understand why this was so hard for them, you have to know something about ancient Corinth. Ancient Corinth was famous and had been famous for centuries, not just because before the Roman conquest it had been the center of the Corinthian League that united the Greek city-states for common defense or just because it was a major economic center. Corinth was famous as a place where people were deeply immoral.
And this was generally explained by saying that civilizations that were really old tended to have a golden age and then decline after that. And since Corinth was really old, it had declined a very long way indeed. Corinth was probably about 800 years old by this time, which is nearly four times the age of our own country.
So in writing to the Corinthian Christians, St. Paul not only had to help them adopt a completely different way of understanding what worship means because they had been pagans—I mean, for your average pagan, worship was usually accompanied by an orgy—but this particular city was infamous for its debauchery. People thought of it like many people do New Orleans at Mardi Gras or Las Vegas, etc.
St. Paul was trying to bring them into an understanding of faithfulness to the one true God—especially as it involved sexual morality—that was totally foreign to them. So if you back up a chapter to the beginning of chapter 5, you can see what is going on—not just in Corinth, but in the church in Corinth—that is the occasion for St. Paul’s warnings about immorality and the body.
I won’t read the whole chapter to you, but I will summarize: St. Paul begins by saying that they have sexual immorality among them, and he points out that there is incest going on (5:1). In this case, a man is co-habiting with what the Bible says is “his father’s wife” but we should understand to mean his mother-in-law. So the “father” there is his father-in-law, which means that “his father’s wife” is his mother-in-law.
Now, we might not think of this as incest—after all, he is probably not blood-related to his mother-in-law—but this is actually one of the specific kinds of incest forbidden in Leviticus 18. Why would St. Paul be referencing Old Testament law to the Corinthians? Most of 1 Corinthians is actually St. Paul taking the ruling of the apostles for the Gentiles at their council in Acts 15 and applying it to the Corinthians.
As chapter 5 goes on, St. Paul tells the Corinthians that this unrepentant incestuous man has to be cast out from the community (5:2). Again, this is basically straight out of Leviticus, which says that this kind of immorality corrupts the whole community. It defiles even the land itself. And the land will vomit out a people who accept this kind of immorality (Lev. 18:25). So since this guy won’t stop, he has to be expelled from the church until he repents (5:5).
Look, I know we’re getting into uncomfortable territory here. This is tough to deal with, but this is straight from God, spoken on His behalf by the prophets and apostles. So, let’s break this down now in terms of what this verse means about sins outside the body and against the body.
If a man steals something or beats someone up or cheats someone, he is bringing injustice into the world. But if a man commits sexual immorality, then the corruption is aimed at his own body. Injustice in the world can be remedied by making things right. If you steal something, for instance, you can give it back and pay restitution. But the kind of harm that comes from sexual immorality is internal. We don’t need to go into details, but our society is actually acutely aware of this harm even while it also tells everyone that immorality can be healthy and fulfilling.
So when St. Paul lays such emphasis on this particular area of morality, it is not only because the Corinthians have a problem with it—though they certainly do. It is because this is a kind of evil that introduces corruption into a person and his community in a way that is deep and damaging like almost nothing else is.
That is not to say that other kinds of sins are not grievous and harmful—they are. But the way that this type of sin is harmful is particularly difficult to uproot and to repent of. And so when someone is completely unrepentant—and we should stress here that the Corinthians were actually bragging about all the things they thought they could get away with (5:2)—he has to be removed from communion and perhaps even the community until he repents.
Again, I know that this is a difficult subject to discuss, but this teaching is right there in Scripture. We don’t get to skip the parts that we find uncomfortable or disagreeable. Being a Christian is not only about what we believe, nor is it only about what we do in church. Being a Christian is a whole life of faithfulness to God, and God has told us that that faithfulness means struggling against temptation and repenting when we fall into temptation.
And God Himself has told us that this particular kind of sin that St. Paul is talking about—sexual immorality—is inwardly corrupting in a very damaging way. The only sexual behavior blessed by God is the conjugal union between a lawfully joined husband and wife. Everything else, whether between two men or two women, a person by himself, multiple people together, unmarried people together, and so forth, is not blessed. And it is not only not blessed, but it is a curse. This is what the Holy Scripture says, spoken directly by God to the prophets and apostles to be spoken to us.
God does not speak this to us because He doesn’t love us or because He wants us not to have a good time or because He doesn’t care how we feel. Rather, this is a teaching given because of the way the creation itself was made by Him. When we engage in immorality, we are sinning against our very nature, against our very bodies. And the harm is very deep.
Part of the good news is that we do not have to be slaves to our passions and desires. Christ has come to liberate us from this disobedience to God. Christ has conquered death, which means that all these corrupting desires do not have to control us if we will be faithful to Him.
Sin happens. It’s true. There is not one here who does not have one sin or another. But the gospel teaches that we can repent. We can turn away from this corruption. We can receive life.
To the God Who saves us from slavery to sin, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.