1 Corinthians 6: 12-14
“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.
We all have things in life that we love. We may love coffee, books, television, video games, whatever it may be there are aspects of our life in which we take joy from engaging with our favorite hobbies or objects. Sometimes the pleasure comes from the action itself, the joy of a morning run for some people can be enjoyed regardless of circumstances. Other times it is a specific item that allows us to enjoy ourselves – if you have a favorite piece of art that you always feel better having looked at or a memento of a past event that awakens good memories then you know this feeling.
Almost any aspect of creation can bring us joy because God made all things to be good in the beginning. While we as humans may twist that creation to become negative, the raw matter of the universe is inherently good. The tools we make from those materials carry on some of that goodness, and we as the secondary creators are the ones who decide for what purpose we make something. Have we made them for good or for bad, have we built them in the spirit of their original goodness or brought them down to our own depraved sensibilities?
The right suitedness of a thing or an action defines the utility and the morality of its existence. While there are some implements which can only exist for evil, most things are made for multiple uses or can be used for several things regardless of the original intent of its making. A screwdriver can remove or tighten a screw, true, but a flat head can also be used as a pry bar in a pinch. However, we are too abstract to really make our point here. We are all of us given some universal gifts in life – gifts of ingenuity, of self-determination, of our basic desires, and many others. These gifts, these items bestowed on us by God alongside the physical objects we own, are the things we can use for good or evil and that we often need guidance for.
Paul, in our scripture today, makes a provocative statement. “All things are lawful,” perhaps alluding to a teaching that was common in the Corinthian community. “All things are lawful,” is a slogan that seemingly no one knows the origin of. Some point to Paul’s own teachings on grace and suggest that people took his teachings on ritual purity too far. Others say that it is a reference to the teachings of Diogenes the Cynic or other philosophers. Still, maybe it was just a thing that the community said to themselves apropos of nothing.
Regardless of how this idea entered the consciousness of the people, it was deceptively appealing. The idea that anything goes for Christians would be easy to believe. After all, Christ died for all sins, including mine. Who is to say that does not include sins yet to be committed as well? The basic ethic, “All things are lawful,” quickly becomes, “All things are good.” This perspective that says a person, often specifically Christians, are not held to actionable obligations is referred to as antinomianism – literally “Without Law.” While few people are fully antinomian in their beliefs, the impulse is more common among Christians than we would care to admit.
We are people freed by God’s grace. This freedom includes being free from eternal punishment, it means being free of many ritual obligations as Gentile Believers, but it cannot be allowed to mean that we have a free pass to do as we wish. It is so compelling a temptation that when Paul went on his preaching journeys, we often see that people took his teachings and twisted them in just the right way to excuse their bad behavior. The Corinthians had their slogan, “All things are lawful,” while others like the church in Rome simply took license to neglect their Jewish siblings in the church. In both cases Paul had to write letters to the congregations to clarify the teaching, making sure the whole world knew that the question, “Should I sin that grace may about?” must be shut down with, “Certainly not!” Immediately. (Romans 6: 1-2)
The way that antinomianism appears to us today is far more subtle. As heirs to two thousand years of Christian study and teachings we are too clever to just come out and say, “God’s grace is sufficient for any sin I’d like to commit, so I will commit whatever sin I’d like.” Few people are so self-aware or so upfront outside of Sunday school skits, and I do not believe they truly exist in any great number. However, for each of us we will find moments in which we do something we should not, knowing we should not do it, and then immediately go to God in prayer – not out of contrition and seeking to truly repent, but out of fear and a knowledge that God’s grace will cover our sin.
Sin is born, oftentimes, out of the legitimate desires given to us by God being corrupted by our broken perspectives. As Paul says, everyone needs and loves food but if food controls your life then you will sin in a multitude of ways concerning food. Physical intimacy is an important aspect of our human relationships, but if we let our desire for it consume us then we will quickly find ourselves pursuing it in the wrong ways. The two examples Paul provides, food and sex, are some of the most common motivators for human sin. Neither one is in themselves wicked or wrong, both blessed gifts of God, but when we chase after them in the wrong ways any number of things can go wrong.
Our list of twisted desires is not limited to these. Desires for money can lead us to all kinds of moral shortcuts. The want of status can cause us to step on our peers to get to the position we would like to have socially or professionally, Even in our households we may find ourselves putting our own wants ahead of those of our families in such a way as to cause hurt, mistrust, even resentment between their various members. Sin is not a thing we do, it is a state we live in, the gatekeeper of eternity and the blockade between us and the Kingdom of God, a prison we have built for ourselves. Our faith gives us the key to our own prison, will we open the lock?
Paul’s insistence that we must be cognizant of what is helpful to our faith is a good litmus test for what desires we feed or starve. If the things we are after are in line with the ten commandments, the spirit of the 615 mitzvot, the prophets, the Gospels, and the two great commandments, then it is something worth pursuing. The final criterion and the first are probably the most helpful in our daily life – a list of twelve moral guidelines to help us make decisions. Does my action break any of the ten commandments? No? Good. Does it support my love of God and neighbor? Now that is a harder question to answer.
The West, here referring to the philosophic tradition which is descended from Greek Philosophy and Imperial Christianity, has a particular fascination with the individual. While ethics in the ancient world were rooted in community and moral fortitude seen in terms of how well a person contributes to their community, the Enlightenment and other later philosophic movement sought to exalt the individual over community. In what would become the United States, this individuality was foundational to how we established the country. The ethic of the United States is centered on individuals and traditionally the participation of that individual in community is seen as optional, that kind of thinking is anathema to Biblical Christianity.
Freedom, in the Biblical conception, is freedom to serve God fully. We are no longer slaves to sin, but fully fledged servants of God. This means that we are free from guilt and broken thinking, from self-centeredness and greed, free not for our own sake but for that of the gospel which sets all people free. Biblical freedom, as expressed in our Eucharistic confession is freedom for the sake of, “Joyful Obedience.” That obedience is chiefly to God, but it is also a profound understanding of how our actions impact those around us. We must be aware of how our actions impact those around us, because how we freely help one another defines our Christianity more than any half-hearted attempt ever could.
This Pandemic in particular has exposed the problems with our American Christian perceptions of freedom, our own obsession with the idea that, “All things are lawful.” While certainly it is understandable that we balk at mandates that ask us to take specific action in response to any situation, the Christian should be thinking ahead to doing good before the government or any other entity tells them to do so. We should not have been rushing to horde paper products before other people could get them, should not have been buying up WIC eligible food so that hungry mothers and children could not get them, should not have fought against masks that limited the spread of a deadly virus. We should not have needed coercion to do what is good, should not have needed signs to tell us to limit our purchases. While these were all lawful to do, none of it was helpful to us, our community, or the kingdom.
However, the gift of God’s grace means that, in the event we do fall short, for whatever reason, God is good to forgive our sins and set us on the right path toward a better tomorrow. What we cannot do, and what the Corinthians demonstrate in our scripture for today, is begin from the supposition of forgiveness. We all must give an account of our life before the throne of God and if all we have to show is a firm belief in forgiveness but no personal conception of righteousness, we will find ourselves, “Saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3:15)
The glory of God is the grace of God who is with us. The mission of God set upon our hearts is to use the freedom we have from sin for the good of all people, not to satisfy any desire of our heart gone wrong. The earth, our fellow people, every object we own, and the fullness of creation exist for goodness – but only if we use the gifts we are given correctly. We use them not to glorify ourselves, nor to hurt others, but in all things to love as God first loved us. Let us all commit to earnest self-examination and to pursuing freedom that better allows us to be truly obedient to the God who has called us. – Amen.