“You are not your own.” I wonder if there are many ideas that could be more upsetting to the way we think about our lives today. If the normal way of life is like a Jenga tower, the kind you build with rectangular wooden blocks, the idea that we are our own, that our bodies are our own, is one of the blocks on the bottom. Much of our how we think of ourselves depends on the belief that we own ourselves. You can probably imagine a disagreement between a parent and a child about, I don’t know, a haircut, tattoo or a new piercing. The child pushes back against the parent’s criticism, saying “It’s my body. It’s my decision.” Or maybe it’s an argument happening at the other end of the spectrum, an elderly parent is deciding whether or not to undergo some new life-saving medical procedure. “Come on dad,” the daughter says, “this will extend your life by another five years.” The dad replies, “No, it’s my body. It’s my decision. I don’t want it.”
The point doesn’t have anything to do with tattoos or medical procedures (maybe it’s the grandparent who want the tattoo or the wild haircut). I just want to point out how common it is for us to argue on the basis of the claim that our bodies are our own. What I don’t wan to do today is set up an argument about that or harangue anyone about what they do with their body. What I want to do is explain the difference between our assumption and that of the earliest disciples of Jesus. This morning’s gospel reading (John 1:43-52) told a story of Jesus calling his disciples. We know Jesus’ disciples extended the call to others. And we know that as the disciples of Jesus’ immediate circle moved throughout the Mediterranean world new cells of Jesus-followers popped up. Some of these cells were started by people we might think of as missionaries, but many more began with disciples who moved for economic or political reasons.
One of these early groups arose in the city of Corinth. The apostle Paul exchanged several letters with the disciples in this city. The community there was troubled and divided. In the bit of a letter we read today, we heard Paul trying to describe the implications of the Corinthian’s decision to live into the pattern of Jesus. The Corinthian’s issues were unique, but Paul believed his response to them fit with the broad understanding of the many disciple communities that had spread from Jerusalem in the previous decades (see the beginning of chapter 11). It’s in this context that Paul voices an assumption so different from our own. In I Corinthians chapter 6 verse 19: Paul questions this group of disciples, saying, don’t you know that “you are not your own?”
Now let’s be clear. When Paul says “you are not your own,” he is not saying that you belong to some other person. He is not trying to set up the social hierarchy of the middle ages, where lords controlled serfs. That gets welded on to Christianity much later. The assumption of early Christians was that you did not belong to yourself, but also that you didn’t belong to anyone else. You didn’t belong to your parents or to your children. You didn’t belong to some powerful whomever who wanted to control your body. This is one of the reasons women held positions of leadership in these early disciple communities that were uncommon elsewhere.
So, why? Why this idea that you do not own yourself? The basic rationale begins with something like the words of the poet in Psalm 139: “you [oh God] knit me together,” “you formed my inward parts.” The crucial thing here is not that the ancient Hebrews didn’t understand modern science. It is that, just as modern science shows, you didn’t create yourself. You didn’t make yourself happen. You didn’t make yourself appear on the stage. What’s more, just as modern science shows, you also can’t preserve yourself. Should some great solar flare leap from the sun, you would be powerless to protect yourself. Should the thin layer of atmosphere that surrounds our earth slip off, there would be no way we could staple it back in place.
Paul goes further, reminding the Corinthian disciples that they were bought with a price. What he means is that God acted on their behalf when they could do nothing on their own to put their lives back together. We were bought with a price; we do not own ourselves. Therefore, when someone is violated, it isn’t just that person that is violated, it is also God. The faith of the New Testament people was an eccentric faith. They believed they were not their own.
All that is, though, is about beliefs. Yet for these early disciples, there were clear implications for how they lived. Not being our own has implications for our bodies. That’s what they believed. If we think back to the first line of the reading (v. 12) we’ll see how they got here. Paul writes, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” The Corinthians seemed to have bought in to the first part of the statement. That’s why it shows up in quotations in most of your Bibles. There was a Corinthian man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. The community’s response seems to have leaned heavily on the idea that being a follower of Jesus meant not being bound by rules: “all things are lawful for me.” Notice that Paul doesn’t dispute the substance of this. It’s true, being a disciples of Jesus is not about following a list of rules. It’s not about never doing certain things with our bodies. It’s not centered on remaining pure for the sake of being pure. However, watch what Paul adds to the statement: “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.”
The big question then is about the purpose of our bodies. What are our bodies for? We show up with bodies, bodies that we’ve never asked for, what’s the point? What’s the bigger story? If we know what our bodies are for maybe we can avoid an obsession with rules.
There are several biblical ways to answer this question. One of the key ones for these early disciples was the idea that through our bodies we serve notice that all the earth is God’s. The earth doesn’t belong to nations or to the wealthy or to corporations. It belongs to God. Ancient kings would place their image throughout their domain as a sign that the land was theirs. Wherever humans show up they are signs that the earth is God’s. In addition to being a sign, the work of the image-bearing bodies is keep and to cultivate God’s good world.
That is all very biblical; however, in this letter Paul takes a bit of a different angle. He says the purpose of our bodies is to be a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” A temple is a physical space designed to signify God’s presence in the world and to communicate something of God’s character. We see this quite clearly in the Old Testament (the philosopher Martin Heidegger makes a similar argument). This means that the architect has as much a platform to communicate what matters most as does the priest or the prophet. To be a temple of God’s Spirit is to say to the world: God is present and this is what God is like. That, it seems to me, is what these early Christians believed their bodies were for. A human body is to be a visible sign of God’s presence and character.
However, we’re constantly tempted to place this honor only on some human bodies and only at some times. A story by the American writer Flannery O’Connor helps us see this challenge. O’Connor was a writer through and through. She attended the prestigious writing program at the University of Iowa and for a time she was a resident at the famous Yaddo artist colony in Saratoga Springs, NY. O’Connor died young, in 1964, at only 39 years of age. She had been diagnosed 12 years earlier with lupus. We could say that her body let her down at an early age.
One of O’Connor’s best-known short stories is called “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” It’s about a 12 year old girl who has two older cousins that come to visit. The girl is not impressed with her cousins. They joke about how their teacher told them that if they are ever in a compromising situation with a boy they should yell, “My body is the temple of the Holy Ghost!” The girl doesn’t think her cousins have the faintest idea what they are talking about.
The cousins are hard to entertain, and so the girl’s mother invites some local boys to take them to the fair. The cousins get back late and wake the girl up to tell her what they saw. What they can’t stop thinking about was a person, that the fair billed in its old, crass language as a ‘freak’. This was a person whose body was different than that of most other people and whose very differences were used as a source of entertainment. The cousins tell the girl that the entertainer said “God made me thisaway . . . this is the way he wanted me to be. . . . I’m making the best of it.”
The next day when the girl and her mother drop the cousins off at school she realizes that the person from the fair, the one with the uncommon body, was also a temple of the Holy Ghost. Just as God can be present in the bread and the cup and just as God’s beauty can be visible in the rolling farmland and the setting sun, so God’s Spirit can be present in bodies that are common and in those that are uncommon. God’s Spirit can live in bodies with superior minds and common minds, in diseased bodies and those yet to be overtaken by disease.
O’Connor is working with precisely this line from I Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.” In this line, it’s as though the early-Christian communities were saying through Paul, that they discouraged things like sleeping around because it clouded the picture of what their bodies were for. They believed that our bodies are joined to Christ, that we are his hands and feet. They believed that our bodies are the temple of God’s Spirit. They believed that our bodies could signal God’s presence and God’s character. And maybe if people don’t recognize God’s presence in the world, maybe it’s because we aren’t communicating it with our bodies. Maybe if people doubt Jesus, it’s because they don’t feel the compassion of his hands.
Early Christians did not discourage sleeping around because they believed there was anything wrong with physical pleasure. They believed physical pleasure was a part of God’s good creation. Physical pleasure was a validation the beauty and loveliness the world and the creatures in it. Our passage also mentions the pleasure of food. Finding pleasure in food, in the world at large or in the mutuality of a covenanted sexual relationship are all good things. The world is fundamentally a good place.
The challenge for early Christians, though, was that these pleasures could become too all-encompassing. They could become ends in themselves. And that, they believed, would make it impossible for their bodies to participate in the ongoing work of Jesus. That would make it impossible for any of us to be signs of God’s presence in the world. These ancient disciples thought it would be pretty hard for others to believe in God’s faithfulness and abiding love if they weren’t faithful to their marriage vows. They believed it would be hard for any of us to believe that God loves us with an everlasting faithfulness if the people who carried the divine image weren’t much into faithfulness.
For these early disciples, the issue when it came to their bodies, those bodies that they believed were not their own, was not how they could avoid violating some list of rules to remain pure. All things are lawful . . . but not all things are beneficial. These bodies, the bodies we call ours, they have a purpose: signaling God’s care for creation, God’s presence in the world, God’s character.
So, whatever assumptions we may carry about ourselves, our readings today present us with an option. I admit, it’s a rather strange and eccentric option. The option we are presented with is to relinquish our claim on our bodies, to trust God with our bodies and to consider the possibility that our bodies have a role to play in something bigger than our own bubbling sense of the moment.
To fulfill this purpose we don’t need a body of a particular color or a particular sex or a particular age. We don’t need model-quality bodies or competitive-athlete-type bodies. We just need a human body. We need a human body and a soul willing to welcome the presence of God’s Spirit.