Our two lessons this evening provide us with contrasting pictures of people in their relationship with God and each other, understood in sexual terms. Now it is an accusation often levelled at the Church that it is all we are concerned with, though that is in fact far from the case, and whereas the Victorians pretended that sex did not exist, modern humanity especially since the 1960s has acted as though nothing else does.
In our first lesson the Prophet Isaiah is looking forward to a future when Israel, having returned to God and been purified, is understood as a land wedded to God. It looks forward to a Messianic future, one which we as Christians see as brought to fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who is the righteousness and the salvation of Israel, who gives himself for love of us, that we may be pure and holy and through Him. The image of married love and intimacy is profound: it speaks of mutual love and generosity, it is what God wills for our human flourishing, it is the place for children to be born and brought up, in love.
Whereas the Church in Corinth is in a really bad way: as well as taking each other to court, Christians would appear to be behaving in a way which falls short of Christian morality. They appear to have understood freedom from the law as though it were freedom from any law: extreme antinomianism – that anything goes; that they can just do as they please. This is, however, not the case. How we live our lives, and what we do with our bodies matters. For those of us who have been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit, we are called to be in Christ, clothed with him, and living a new life, conformed to him and not to the ways of the world.
There are some in the Church in Corinth who have been arguing that all things are lawful, to which Paul has to counter that while something may be lawful, it may not be advantageous, as Christians like others in the ancient world would generally subscribe to an idea of virtue ethics, put simply ‘you are what you do’ or in greater depth, our actions help form our moral character – we become what we do habitually, and thus the more we do the right thing, the more we are disposed to do such things, and thus to progress in virtue.
While they claim the freedom from being made subject to anyone, they would appear to be subject to base appetites, to lust and gluttony, neither of which help in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Thus the proper place for sexual activity remains holy matrimony, where a man and woman are joined; they become one flesh, in a life-long exclusive union where children may be born.
Christians are to love their bodies, as ours is not a spiritual religion, which despises the flesh, but which rather wishes to see it used for the glory of God and for our mutual flourishing. We receive the Holy Spirit and the grace of God, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity in our baptism, where we are regenerate, born anew in Christ, we are not our own in that we now live for God, and we glorify him in our bodies by how we live our lives.
The messianic hope expressed in this evening’s first lesson finds its fulfilment in Christ and in the Church which is his body, we were bought at a price, not thirty pieces of silver, but life of God’s only-begotten Son, who suffered and died for us, for you and for me, and for the sins of the whole world, past, present, and future. How else can we begin to try and repay such love and such generosity than by living the life that God wills for our human flourishing – gentle, generous, and exhibiting the same costly love which Christ showed to us. This glorifies God and shows due respect to the wonders of creation and salvation, it helps to form our moral character and to live out true faith and charity in our lives, supporting one another, praying for each other, forgiving one another when we fail, and being built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory. And by living out our faith in our lives we will proclaim the truth and the freedom of the Gospel – others will come and see and enter into the joy of the Lord and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.