Feast of St Paul
Last Sunday, I referred to the Old Testament account of the Call of Samuel (Samuel 1) and the gospel story of Jesus’ encountering Nathanael (John 1) but it was the epistle that I left out – I chose not to address it. Afterwards the reader of the epistle tapped my shoulder and asked with some feeling, why we had that reading with all that stuff about prostitution and fornication, and I responded with something like, “I know. It’s difficult isn’t it?”
Now it may not surprise you that the epistle I rejected was from St Paul. Most of the epistles are from St Paul and the New Testament would be desperately thin without his writings. There is a problem with those facts alone – you could for an argument – throw caution to the winds and claim that Paul invented Christianity! After all his writings shaped it and critically formed our understanding of it. How do we feel about Paul’s influence; about the influence of this one critical figure, this one strongly opinionated figure, as the shaping formative force behind the New Testament?
Now last Sunday, as I thought about the question ‘Why did we read that lesson?” and ‘Why did that reading get ignored?’
I realised that it was the different voices I heard in the scriptures. There were such different voices: There was Samuel, a fine history, a clear narrative. There was John’s gospel with the lucid and metaphysically dense craftsmanship of the Word, the mystery beyond all things, and yet now incarnate, “and we beheld his glory full of grace and truth.” In that context the sighting of Nathanael under the fig tree is charged and luminous with possibility.
But, in sharp contrast, the voice of the Epistle – was dissonant, it jarred against those texts. It was the typical voice of Paul in his epistles, the Pauline diatribe (and if you are trying to remind yourself what diatribe means, an impolite but handy synonym is ‘rant’. None of us like being ‘ranted’ at and I have a fair hunch that we struggle with Paul because we are uncomfortable with the diatribe, the constant unerring sense of argument and debate. But that’s the art of Paul; the diatribe is the voice that commands your attention with all its ploys and rhetoric.
So listen now to the diatribe of our patron saint, as we might have heard it last Sunday: Remember this is 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 …
|Conversion of St Paul|
‘All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’, and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
Paul begins with a saying that seems to have come from the community of Corinth, and which he uses to berate them with: behind this passage lurks a question; what does it mean to live in the body? Paul points to the resurrection of Jesus “… And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?”
There are Christians who, often thinking they are following Paul, have come to a theological understanding of our humanity that would have the body/flesh at odds with the Spirit; that see the body and our capacity for sensual pleasure, as something to be shunned; there are those who have considered Paul as the source of religious guilt regarding sexuality. The diatribe we have just read can be misinterpreted in such ways but there are powerful statements that seep into the soul:
“Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”
But Paul’s theology is more developed than that. One only has to turn to Chapter 13 with its reflection on love; to read that glorious paean on love, to realise that Paul’s vision of how we live in the body is charged with the Spirit. Hear this other voice of Paul: the diatribe that is a paean of love!
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
My thought on Paul and the body ‘Now, in a mirror, dimly’…