“Shun fornication!”


2nd Sunday after Epiphany

1 Samuel 3.1-10

Psalm 139.1-5, 12-18

1 Corinthians 6.12-20

John 1.43-51

©Suzanne Grimmett

“Shun fornication!”

You would be forgiven a little eye roll or two here, and you may be thinking this is St Paul at his most puritanical, and this reading would be better ignored….but that would miss an opportunity to address one of the great mistakes in popular Christian understanding; when we demonise the body and spiritualise the life of faith.

Preaching is a risky business. Quite often I will think I was speaking of one thing, it is heard completely differently by different people, resulting in something I did not intend.

We might infer that St Paul as he travelled, proclaiming the good news of the crucified and risen Christ, may have preached about freedom to these Corinthians.  We might then infer from this first letter, that he is horrified by the effect of his preaching, as these Corinthians seemed to have embraced an idea of freedom which is not of a kind that honours the presence of Christ within them, nor builds up community.  These Corinthians seem to have a completely different understanding of the nature of their liberation.

This text and texts like it have given Paul the reputation of being hung up about sex…and given preachers down the ages excuses to deliver moralistic sermons. In fact the words “preach” and “sermon” conjure just that puritanical, judgemental idea that gives many abundant reasons not to come to church. If you say someone annoyed you by “preaching” at you, we all understand what that means.

Also, when combined with the false idea that Christianity believes the body and sex to be instruments of sin and therefore to be mistrusted or conquered with stern willpower, it is not surprising that the church has lost any authority to speak in this area. We are sexual beings from the moment we are born to the day we die, and most of us would recognise the goodness, energy and joy of that gift.

Yet the irony is that this kind of body/spirit dualism is exactly what St Paul was preaching against in this letter to the Corinthians. The opening lines of this text read like a conversation Paul is having with those whose interpretation he is opposing. To the proposal ‘All things are lawful for me’, Paul responds,  ‘but not all things are beneficial’ and so it continues… ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’, and God will destroy both one and the other’…to which Paul responds, ‘The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.’

The dualism being fostered in Corinth is that God would destroy the body and save the spirit; so therefore whatever is done in or to the body does not matter. There is also an individualistic ethic here of “I can do whatever I want with my own body to satisfy my own desires”. Paul counters both of these claims with such passionate vehemence that we have tended to write him off as a wowser. But when we do that, we fail to notice that what Paul is arguing for here, at least, is an honouring of the body and a high view of sex that sees it as a mirror for the union we seek with God. Yet this has not been the message most have received who have grown up in the church, leading to shame and silence where there should be support and understanding.

Nadia Bolz-Weber in her book, “Shameless” asks a friend why he believes the church has tried to control human sexuality so much down the ages. Her friend responded that he ‘had always assumed the church saw sex as competition.’[1] In the great longing of humanity, to alleviate our existential loneliness, I think there is a bit of truth in the idea that sex can meet a need that is ultimately met fully in union with God. Sex, like religion, can alleviate the pain of separateness we feel and the longing to be part of something that is greater, promising to fulfill our desire for completeness. In our sacramental worship, our symbols point to this longing and where it might ultimately find its consummation. We sing “holy, holy, holy” as we unite our voices with all the saints and angels, and gather around the Lord’s table saying, “we who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread.” The secret power of Christianity lies in its embodiment. The incarnation means that God is with us, and not just with humanity but with all creation; that the universe is full of the glory of God and all matter can be gathered up into union with the divine. Paul argues this when he says,

…your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own. ( 1 Corinthians 6:19)

Far from teaching a body/spirit dualism, Paul is articulating a unity and wholeness to this physical and spiritual world through the resurrected Christ. He is telling the Corinthians to live their lives in the Spirit, honouring their bodies and one another, because all is in God and God in it all.

There were apparently practices in Corinth that used and abused people for the sake of economic or social gain, dishonouring to the image of the divine in the human. Along with temple prostitution as accepted practice, there was;

a swimming pool..and a garden setting just on the edge of town…used by the gentry for elegant dinners at which meat offered to idols would often be served and to which, no doubt, some Christians would be invited. With the ferocious social climbing and status consciousness of the Corinthians, passing up such an invitation would be difficult even for the most dedicated Christian.[2]

We cannot simply translate Paul’s words to our own context without recognising these factors, and by realising that when Paul talks about fornication he is talking about followers of Christ not only disregarding the sacredness of their own bodies but also participating in systems that exploited and degraded the bodies of the vulnerable. This is once again about power and power abuse. Our bodies and our sexual longings are meant for mutuality not colonisation. That which is divine in us is called to honour the divine in the other; anything less will rob us of both our humanity and our freedom.

Rules help us as we grow, enabling us to regulate our immature impulses and egoic responses. The problem when we use something like this letter to the Corinthians to mandate rules and regulations around sex is not only that we are heedless of the ancient context, but we are ignoring the fact that sexual morality must always be discerned in context. To say simply, for example, that sex within marriage is good, and sex outside of marriage is bad is not only an unrealistic expectation when we humans now reach puberty earlier and marry later, but it also silences the many who suffer in situations of exploitation within a marriage.  Clearly, we need a higher ethic, and I believe that at the heart of Paul’s theology we may find one. “You are not your own” declares Paul, and it is here that we may find clues to the freedom that is true liberation and not simply concerned with getting what we want.

Love and freedom cannot be brought into being in an individualistic sense. All is relationship and we communicate in and through our bodies. Sexual communication demands the same kind of congruent integrity that we would wish to bring to all other communication; an integrity where our life in Christ is authentically revealed in the way we honour one another. Rowan Williams notes perceptively.

For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming for me, it must be there for someone else, must be perceived, accepted, nurtured. And that means given over to the creation of joy in that other…To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire…[3]

All of our desires are inherently relational, so our freedom and joy in following them is caught up always in the freedom and joy of the other. Paul is passionately appealing to the Corinthians to remember this and to recognise that if they are ruled only by self-serving desires they are not free. Sexuality and spirituality speak in the same language- the language of relational union- and neither is healthy where self-interest rules. Freedom does not mean being able to do or take whatever we think we want. Union with the divine, as I think Paul preached, is found not in some spiritualised realm, but when we live embodied, authentic lives as Christ-bearers, in and through all our relationships. May Christ lead us in every part of our being, to follow the desires of our hearts to deeper communion, mutual joy and true freedom.


[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless: A case for not feeling bad about feeling good (about sex), Convergent Books, New York: 2020. 20-21

[2] Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown. Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) (p. 621). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

[3] Rowan Williams in David P Gushee and Glen H. Stassen, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context,  William B Eerdmans, Michigan: 2003. P 103