The body politic

Second Sunday after Epiphany; 17 January 2021; Epiphany 2B (RCL); 1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51.

The epistle reading for this Sunday seems kind of oddly out of context. Who asked about fornication? In my growing-up days in a fundamentalist background, this passage was used to proscribe sex in general (outside of marriage, but even in marriage it still sort of frowned on). Paul, however, is talking about something very specific here: temple prostitution.

This passage fits with his words about meat sacrificed to idols. Worship at pagan temples almost always involved sacrifice and the feast that accompanied it. It also often involved sacred sex. The Corinthians (at least those who considered themselves ‘strong’) believed that Jesus’ having freed us from the law allowed them to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and presumably, to visit the temple prostitutes.

They are quoting Paul back at him: “All things are lawful to me.” This was part of his preaching about Jesus having done away with the requirements of the law. Paul can’t very well retract his own words, so he must approach the matter from a different direction. In both instances (meat and sex), he holds up the good of the community as taking precedence over individual freedom.

When Paul wrote about Jesus doing away with the requirements of the law, he was writing about removing the distinction between Jew and Greek. The law, in itself, was intended for good, for the building up of a just (righteous) community. But weakened by the flesh, we put it to use making distinction. Jesus’ death and resurrection does away with all fleshly distinctions. We — all — have been united in one spirit with Christ.

Visiting a prostitute takes the whole Body of Christ to the temple of an idol. Paul uses the word soma (body) with a wonderful blur of meanings in this passage. But the key is the next-to-last sentence. It’s a shame that English has lost the distinction between the second-person singular and the second-person plural (thou and ye, like the German du and Sie, or the French tu and vous). The next-to-last sentence reads, “Or do you not know that your (plural) body (singular) is a temple of the Holy Spirit among you (plural)?”

We mistranslate this to mean that each individual body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within each of us. That is not what Paul says. Our body (corporate reality) is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. To take an individual body to another Temple is a profound confusion of who we are. We are one spirit in Christ, not one flesh with a prostitute.

Poor Samuel, just a lad, with an awful message to deliver to Eli. Eli’s sons had been taking the best cuts of meat from the sacrifices being offered at Shiloh, and Eli couldn’t or wouldn’t stop them. This was a sin, not just of individual greed, but of harm to the community, whom the sacrifices were to feed. That is perhaps why the word of the Lord was rare in those days. The punishment that falls on Eli is punishment for the harm done to the whole community. The ark of God goes into captivity, and his sons die in battle against the Philistines. Eli falls from his bench and breaks his neck upon hearing the news.

When we take freedom to mean freedom from constraint, rather than freedom for the building of a righteous community, the sins of greed tear the body politic apart.

Nathaniel thinks nothing good can come from Nazareth, and certainly not the one of whom Moses in the law and the prophets all wrote. Again, in this passage, it’s a shame that we don’t have a singular and plural you. Jesus turns to the reader of the Gospel and says, “Truly, I tell you all, you all will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” We don’t see angels in John’s Gospel until Mary enters the tomb, and then she sees the two cherubim seated one at the head and one at the feet of where the body of Jesus lay. Jesus’ empty tomb replaces the inner sanctum of the Temple as the place where reconciliation is accomplished. In Jesus’ resurrected body, the body politic is restored to wholeness.

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