All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. Is how our second reading puts it this morning (NRSV). I have the freedom to do anything, but not everything is helpful. Is how another translation puts that same line (CEB).
St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, was reminding his flock in Corinth that just because they could do something, doesn’t mean they should. Not everything benefits us. Not everything is helpful or good.
He was particularly concerned about those who gave their bodies away to sexual immorality, which seemed to be an issue for the Corinthians, as it is for our society today!
Many in the Corinthian Church struggled with how to live, earlier in the letter Paul tells the wealthier members of the congregation have to treat the poorer members with more respect. Paul reminds them that to honor God, it all begins with the understanding that their body, not only the gathered body of the faithful, but each of them is a temple of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit is in each of them.
The Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus like a dove at his baptism is the same Spirit who was in the Corinthians and who we each were given at our baptism. We were sealed by the Spirit and Paul appeals to this understanding in how we treat and use our bodies.
It would not take a great leap to go from the sin of Paul’s day to the indulgent appetites of today in our culture. We are bombarded with images from TV to the internet and beyond that tell us to crave sex, food, wealth, the latest and greatest gadgets… and our lives are so busy, we don’t take the time to treat ourselves right – to eat the right food, to exercise properly, no matter what our age, to quit those bad habits like smoking that make our lives shorter.
“Don’t you know, St. Paul asks, that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don’t belong to yourselves?”
Our ethics lies in how we treat our body because Paul reminds us, it is connected with who we are, with everything about ourselves.
But even more than that, St. Paul was trying to get those in Corinth and those in our day, to see beyond our individual selves, to see beyond the cravings and lusts we have, and to remember that God is in each of us, the God who knows us each by name, the ground of our being, and that we no longer live for ourselves alone, but for Jesus who died for us so that we would truly live.
What might this look like today? An incident observed and reported in The New York Times' "Metropolitan Diary" [July 12, 2010] comes to my mind:
On a rainy afternoon, a woman finished lunch at the cafe at the Museum of Modern Art. She then gathers up her oversize pocketbook and large bag of gifts she has purchased in the museum shop and then steps onto the escalator to the museum lobby. As she steps off and onto the hardwood floor, the heel of her boot hits a damp spot and she slides forward. She loses her balance and falls flat on her face in front of a tour group, her packages and pocketbook scattered all over the lobby - a lobby packed with people waiting out the storm.
A man in his mid-20s rushes over and helps the woman to her feet.
"OK?" he asks, and then, quietly, "But you're embarrassed, aren't you?" He smiles, winks - and suddenly he falls to the floor. He fakes a tumble that closely resembles the woman's genuine fall.
His fall diverts the attention of onlookers from her clumsiness. "Boy, that floor is slippery - someone should mop it up before someone gets hurt," someone in the crowd says.
The young man scrambles to his feet. He makes sure the woman is OK. And she is - thanks to the sensitivity and creativity of a kind stranger, both her balance and dignity are restored as she retreats unnoticed into a nearby gallery.
It was a simple act of kindness from a stranger, but it truly mirrors the love of God in how he used his body to help another!
Consider that God became one of us in Jesus, taking on our humanity in all its messiness, clumsiness, embarrassments and disappointments and he showed us how to deal with it all with generosity, compassion and grace. St. Paul tells us to follow Jesus and honor God with our body, to turn our attention away from ourselves, but to what God has given to us to use for others.
And on this MLK, Jr. weekend, to put it in the words of MLK, Jr. “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But... the good Samaritan reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
I have the freedom to do anything I want, but not everything is helpful to me or to this world. So what will you do with God’s spirit today? Amen.