I’ve always liked the way some older translations of the Bible refer to the Holy Spirit as the ‘Holy Ghost’. Ghosts are unpredictable, at least that’s how they’re portrayed. They show up unannounced and unbidden and scare the bejeebers out of someone. Maybe something like that has happened to you–a mysterious bang or bump in the dark of night and suddenly you found yourself believing in ghosts and feeling like you just lost control of the situation. I had a housemate once who had an experience just like that. The trouble for him was that he didn’t believe in ghosts in the daylight. He later put his world back together by diagnosing himself with a vitamin deficiency. I don’t really care if you believe in ghosts or not. It’s this Holy Ghost that the scriptures bring to our attention. Theologically we say that the love of the first two members of the Trinity for each other is so real, so solid, so vibrant, that we can speak of it too as an acting agent, a member of the Triune God—the animating power of the cosmos and the divine Spirit. One of the essential elements to the Christian way of life is the belief that this Spirit dwells in us. That is, Christians believe the Spirit dwells in the community of Jesus’ disciples.
In the third chapter of I Corinthians Paul is trying to get the community there to take their shared life a little more seriously. He writes, ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you’ (v. 16). Of course, it’s a metaphor. A temple is a building designed to symbolize the presence of something that can’t be seen. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his famous essay on the origin of art, makes this very point. It is the temple that allows the unseen presence to be recognized. So, one of the reasons the church community is important is because it serves the same function. It allows the intangible Spirit to be felt, seen, heard, and on a good day, even tasted. Yet Paul wasn’t talking about any particular building in Corinth, though there were temples there. He was talking about the beloved community of Jesus’ disciples. Temples don’t present God to the world: we do. We do, at least, to the extent that we are built on the foundation of Jesus Christ.
What this means is that the point of the Christian way of life is not to reign in freedom or to keep people in line—the point is to present God to the world. I doubt that any of Paul’s readers familiar with the Torah would have been terribly surprised by this. In Leviticus 19 (the OT reading for last Sunday) God tells Moses that he should remind the people of Israel that they were to ‘be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.’ God had freed the tribes of Israel from slavery so that they could present a way of life that was—within that cultural context at least—true and good.
So, in order to signify God’s presence our reading from Leviticus says the people were to not harvest every last bit of their crops. They were to leave the edges of the fields, the bits of grain they dropped, the grapes that fell to the ground. They were to leave all that for those without the means to grow their own food—the alien and the poor. They were to ‘love their neighbour as they loved themselves.’ The point of this and the other things on the list was so that they could present to the nations the uniqueness, the holiness of God.
The Christian way of life—the moral life encouraged throughout Scripture—is not supposed to be a list of rules to keep us safe; quite often it is the opposite. The Christian way of life is not about remaining untouched by sin or life’s messiness; quite often loving our neighbour requires the opposite. No, the moral character of the Christian life is encouraged because the things we do with our fields our businesses our skills our relationships, all of these things are part of a bigger story. They are part of a story that is bigger than our small goals or the little needs the advertisers make us feel.
You may have heard of a young man named Binx Bolling. Binx is from New Orleans. He sells stocks, bonds and mutual funds. He has, as he says, given up on grand ambitions and deep longings. He lives the most ordinary life possible. He had a series of flings with women from his office, all of which ended over the phone with a long, awkward silence. Binx lives mostly for seeing movies. He recognizes that it isn’t until we’ve seen some place or some emotional situation in a movie that it really seems significant. In fact, he observes, until we see our own neighborhood in a film it doesn’t seem like place of any consequence—even to us. He watches movies so that more of his own life will seem significant. Aside from that, Binx has come to recognize that nothing seems very important, or even very real. In fact, in his experience it’s only at a time of serious illness or death that people really seem solid. Then they really seem to be there. For Binx Bolling to be alive is to float from one experience to another without ever getting too invested. For Binx Bolling to be alive is simply to drift form one more-or-less satisfying experience to another.
Binx Bolling is the main character in Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. He’s a made-up character. However, I think the theologian Miroslav Volf corroborates Percy’s read of our modern situation. He points out that in contemporary culture we tend to think of flourishing in almost the exact same terms as Binx: floating from one satisfying experience to another.
The call to live with the urgency of rightly presenting God to the world is something altogether different. It is deeper, slower and more focused. Just as a temple could be designed to communicate ‘alternative facts’ about God, so could our lives. In the chapters after our reading from I Corinthians Paul writes about sex, lawsuits, marriage and food. Those are pretty significant parts of any life aren’t they? All of them serve useful purposes in their own right. Yet, for members of the Christian community, they also affect how God’s presence in the world is understood.
Let’s think for a moment about marriage. I’m aware that even bringing up the topic of marriage can sound ‘preachy’. I think part of the challenge is that so much of what we are tempted to say about marriage ignores the messiness and challenges of particular lives and particular situations. Since one must preach in generalities and live in particulars, it is tempting to say nothing about marriage at all. Yet the stuff we experience related to marriage, directly or indirectly, is the real stuff of life. It’s the deep stuff, the rich and fruitful stuff and the painful, maddening stuff. That’s true regardless of our sexual orientation, marital status, life-stage or cultural background. It’s worth giving it a little thought.
Scripture in general takes it for granted that marriage exists in some form or another. It is not an institution unique to God’s revelation to Moses. God never says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this great idea, why don’t you commit yourselves to a spouse (or a couple of spouses). That’ll make everything real nice.’ No, scripture goes at marriage with the sort of ragged pragmatism we see evidenced in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
I say Paul was pragmatic. Some people connected with the church in Corinth practiced some serious sexual license. In chapter 5 we read about a guy who slept with his father’s wife. In chapter 6 we get the impression that members of the community openly sought the services of prostitutes. Yet there were other Corinthians with an opposite set of convictions. They seemed to believe that even touching a woman was a bad idea. This is where Paul the pragmatist steps in. He says that marriage is fine—not great—but it’s fine. If you enter into a covenant relationship like that, it should be typified by mutuality. Paul speaks of a sexual mutuality here in I Corinthians. In Ephesians 5 he speaks of a more general mutual submission that should be typical of all Christian households. Those bound by the covenant of marriage are to love and respect each other.
There is a myth that most of us have bought into which is that marriage begins with falling in love or it begins with finding someone who will make us whole. We look and look and look and eventually we find a professional beach volleyball player with a PhD in philosophy, a side career on Broadway and a keen interest in protecting the rights of puppies in Pakistan. When we find this dreamboat we make-believe we are their equal, spend money we don’t have and hope for some emotional connection. When it happens we say, ‘Aha! I have fond my soulmate! I will marry him and my life will proceed on to year-upon-year of fulfilled bliss.’
The truth is closer to the oft-quoted line from Stanley Hauerwas: ‘We always marry the wrong person.’ His point is that in the covenant of marriage we make promises that we can’t possibly understand to a person we can’t possibly know. We always marry the wrong person because they are not us and because we have no idea how they will change. We don’t even know how we will change as the years unfold.
The truth is that marriage is hard. This is a surprise because we have all absorbed the romantic myth that love is natural and easy. Yes, easy, like other important things: hitting a 95 mph fastball (after seeing a slider), making an original contribution to Canadian literature or getting a new company off the ground. We have absorbed the myth that love is a prerequisite for commitment instead of its consequence. Hauerwas reminds us that for centuries Christians married people they barely knew and they had sex on their wedding night, not because they were in love, but because their relationship and the promises they made were a part of the community’s witness. That is, they believed their marriage covenant was in some way a reflection of God’s goodness and faithfulness.
It is precisely the difficulty of marriage, of most longstanding relationships in fact, that make them effective vehicles for our growth in holiness. What I mean is that the covenant of marriage is not mostly about sex, but mostly about staying in one situation long enough for us to grow up into the person God has destined us to be. Christians do not believe that marriage is about being a doormat or finding self-realization. It is about the gospel. Our vow to stick with it is what enables us to both recognize our shortcomings and experience being loved in spite of them. All this is the gospel.
In long-term relationships—friendships, marriage and others with the ‘wrong’ people—each of us learns that we are sinful creatures and that we are deeply loved. The church, the house inhabited by the Holy Ghost, is made of such relationships.
We began with an unsettling question from the apostle Paul: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and the God’s Spirit dwells in you?” The question lingers and gives us a few more to walk with: Do others see in us a God loving and faithful despite our brokenness? Have we allowed that assurance to salve our wounds? When we’ve experienced that grace, we can ask if others see in us a God who looks like Jesus, who loves in a self-sacrificial way. Those things can show up in marriages, but also in the other things the church grapples with: in our eating, in our suing and in the ways we seek intimacy.
Let me close by saying that these things matter not because there is some neon line that young people in the back seat of a car must not cross, or because there is a specific case a lawyer must never take up, or because there is a set of ingredients a chef should not touch. These things matter not because there are some things in the world so icky that they must be avoided at all costs. No, they matter because there is something wonderful to be embraced. That thing is the adventure of being a community in which the Spirit of God dwells. That thing is displaying the active presence of God to the world.