Lawful or Helpful

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. By all accounts, Corinth was quite the city. Actually, according to historical accounts, Corinth was the kind of place that might make Las Vegas blush. Located on an isthmus, in between two bodies of water, it was a place of strategic military importance, so as you can imagine there were soldiers in and out of the city at all times. Because it was on an isthmus, located between the two bodies of water, it had two sets of docks, one on either end of the city, and so they were merchants, they were tradesmen, they were sailors, in and out of the city at all times, and as you can imagine with such a high concentration of temporary citizens Corinth, also boasted one of the largest red-light districts in the entire empire. Now we have the saying what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, well there was a saying about Corinth too. Actually, it was a verb, korinthiazomai, to behave like a Corinthian, which was apparently commonly used to refer to someone who frequented the red-light district in their hometown and engaged in all kinds of behavior of the sort. The fact that the city was also known for its dedication to the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and as the goddess of love and sensuality, and physical pleasure, you can guess what types of things were common in the temples to Aphrodite, three of which were found in Corinth along with, according to one historian, over 1000 priestesses in the city to Aphrodite, although they were more commonly known as temple prostitutes. The city was a hotbed of multiculturalism, the hotbed of religious pluralism. Along with the temple to Aphrodite, there were also temples to Apollo, Athena, and Zeus, and Poseidon, Persephone, Dionysus, some Egyptian gods, the cult of emperor worship, fill in the blank, there’s many more that I didn’t bother to list. And there were, of course, the philosophers, the educated, the wise people of the day. There were the Epicureans. The Epicureans who encouraged the pursuit of pleasure and tranquility, eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die. And there were the Stoics, the Stoics whose life goal was to achieve autonomy by living in a rational manner, consistent with the universe. They prize self-sufficiency, they prized control over your emotions, not letting the highs get you too high or the lows gets you too low. Yes, Corinth was a hotbed of multiculturalism and into the spaghetti bowl of beliefs and practices, the word of the Lord came. The gospel came to Corinth. The apostles preached the word of God’s law, condemning sexual sin, condemning the sins of any indulgence like gluttony or drunkenness or even pious indifference. And so came the word of the gospel, the good news that the Son of God had taken human flesh to live, to die, and to rise as the substitute for all humanity. And people in Corinth have heard this proclamation and people in Corinth believed, and the church was planted and then the Christians of Corinth returned to their daily lives. Back to work with followers of Aphrodite and Apollo, back to their homes built next door to their neighbors who were Epicureans and Stoics, back to family dinners with their supposedly enlightened pagan parents, and aunts and uncles, and cousins. See life for a Christian in Corinth wasn’t that different from what most Christians tend to endure today, and like Christians today the people of God in Corinth were tempted to absorb and to soak up and to imbibe the philosophy of their day, and try to assimilate it into the church to try to find a way to make it fit. Take for example the philosophy of the Stoics, they had a catch phrase. All things are lawful for me. The stoics believed that the enlightened person had achieved true freedom, had achieved autonomy, was the master of their own fate, and therefore could do as he pleases. Certain Christians sympathetic to that mindset adopted it, trying to find a way to bring it into the church, to apply it to their life as the children of God. And after all, Jesus had fulfilled the law, right. Jesus had come to set his people free, right. So, Paul responds to this notion in today’s reading. Notice the quotation marks in the text, they’re there in the scripture too. Paul is quoting the slogans used by some, but then refuting them, rebutting them. You say all things are lawful for me, but I say not all things are helpful. You say all things are permissible for me, but I say not to be enslaved to anything. You say food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food, but I say God’s going to destroy them both in the end. Don’t be dominated by either one. Recognize what Paul is saying here. I mean first he’s pushing back on the idea that Christian freedom is the same thing as complete autonomy, the ability to do whatever I want simply because I’m free in Christ. And his argument is simply that no man is an island, we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves, we’re all connected to other people through our vocations, we have family members, we have coworkers, we have neighbors, people who sit and silently watch us from a distance, measuring our steps to see if there’s a place for them maybe in the House of the Lord.  So Paul’s encouragement to the people of Corinth, and his encouragement to us is, don’t be like the ten year old who justifies his rudeness by saying, “It’s a free country.” Surrounded by the cacophony of voices and influence like those in Corinth, we might be tempted to justify our actions through oversimplification. It’s my life, you can’t tell me what to do, you’re not the boss of me, you do you. But the truth is different. Yes, we have been set free from our sin, but we have not been set free from our vocations. Our lives are still lived in relationship. The choices that I make with my time affects the people around me. The choices I make with my body, affect the people around me. Through Paul our Lord gives us a different way to look at things, a different question to ask. Instead of asking, “Is this lawful, can I?” we ask, “Is this helpful, should I?” We take the focus off of ourselves and our desires and our wants, and instead, we look to the people around us. Will this behavior build up the people in my life, or will it make their lives more difficult? Will this attitude pave the way for the gospel to be heard and believed, or am I simply placing a stumbling block before someone else? Is this thing I want to do, this social media post I want to make, this comment I want to say, this thing that I want to do, is it helpful? But Paul doesn’t stop there. He also gives the Corinthians a warning, a warning that he gives to us too. You say all things are lawful, but I warn you not to be enslaved by anything. Yes, we are free in the gospel, but actions still have consequences. I was recently reading something about this on the same topic and I’d love to give credit to the author, but I honestly can’t remember where I read it, but the point was that the alcoholic, the drug addict, the addict of any kind, they don’t set out to be enslaved to something, they set out looking for freedom. And the tragic irony is, the thing that they think will set them free, ends up becoming their taskmaster. They end up enslaved to it. The same is true in many aspects of life. The one looking for financial freedom can quickly become enslaved to their job, become a workaholic. The one looking to do social good can quickly become hooked on political fury and rage and self-righteousness. The one looking for sexual freedom can become enslaved to passion and shame and regret. There’s any number of things in this world that can enslave us. Paul exhorts us to remember that our bank account, our political standings, these things are not the core of our identity. No Paul says you belong to Christ, that’s what matters above all else. And that’s the last slogan that Paul engages. You say the food is made for the stomach and the stomach is made for food, and the argument here is simply that what you eat or drink doesn’t really matter, you’re just fulfilling your biological urges. This is just nature running its course. Your body was made to do these things, so doing them certainly won’t harm you. There’s a bigger argument than just food. It was a bigger argument in Corinth. It’s a bigger argument today. As in our day, this idea was used to defend any biological urge. If I have the desire, well that desire can’t be wrong, can it? Who are you to tell me not to feel the way that I feel, or not to want the things that I want? My body desires certain things by nature. Food, drink, companionship, and rest. Why should I not give my body what it wants? What was Paul’s answer? Because God’s going to destroy both the stomach and the food and the end, this fallen body and the things of this fallen world, they’re all temporary. That which has been sown corruptible must be raised incorruptible. The body is not meant for food or for drink or for anything else in this world. The body is meant for the Lord. Paul’s got a lot of law for us this morning, a lot of law in this section of Corinthians. He’s fighting back against false teaching that has crept into the church. He’s taking a stand in the name of the truth. He fights back against the temptation to let the slogans and the perspectives of our culture seep into our vocabulary unchallenged. But his words are not all thread, because words are not all law. No, he’s adamant that our bodies are members of Christ. Think about what that means. He’s adamant that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, that your body is the place where God dwells on earth today, to bless this creation in the same way he dwelt in the Tabernacle, and in the temple in days of old. He reminds us that we were bought with a price, not with gold or silver, but with the holy precious blood and the innocent suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. We belong to the Lord. And so, Paul reminds us that because we belong to the Lord, we glorify God with our bodies. We are set free. We don’t need to live in bondage to self-indulgence. We belong to Jesus. We don’t need to live in bondage to the opinions of the world around us. We belong to Jesus. The great gift of the gospel is the new life and the freedom that Jesus alone can give. So in a way, yes, all things are lawful for the people of God, but we don’t use our freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. We’ve been given the gift of true freedom, a freedom that looks past the question of “Can I?” and instead asks the question “Should I?” or, to use Paul’s language, instead of asking “Is this lawful?” we ask “Is this helpful?” And the gift of the freedom of the gospel, is that we can rest in the assurance that even when we get the answer to that question wrong, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s not our success or our failure in this life that matters the most. What matters is the gift of new life. New life that is already yours through Christ Jesus our Lord. In him we are forgiven. In him we already are right with God. And so, in him we are free to try our best, to be helpful to the people around us, not worried about the results, trusting that no matter what happens, he has already paid the price for us. We belong to him. So, with Paul this message today is simple. Don’t be taken captive to the hollow philosophies of a dying world, no matter how catchy the slogans are. Instead find your confidence in the word of the Lord, the word of his forgiveness that he speaks to you, the gift of life that he gives to you. That is who you truly are. You belong to him. In Jesus name, Amen.