BUILDING THE TEMPLE
TEXT: 1 Cor. 3:16-17; Matt. 7:24-27
The Greek town of Corinth was a hopping place in Paul’s day. One of the primary ports on the Mediterranean, it was a city of about 75,000 people, which had risen to be one of the wealthiest and most important cities in Greece. It was also an artists’ haven, and the Corinthians took pride in both the architecture of their many temples…the Corinthian column is named for them, and also in having the most finely adorned temples.
But all of that activity had its dark side. Corinth had a reputation for some other things. They were known for abusing their poor. As early as the fourth century BC, the Greek poet Aristophanes coined the phrase to “Corinthianize,” which meant to engage in sexual promiscuity. With sailors coming ashore after months at sea and many of the temples hiring temple prostitutes, it was not a city known for its restraint.
It was also quite a religious mix. There was the cult of the Emperor, which existed across the Roman empire, and also a large array of both Greek and Roman deities, each with their temple. When the Jews were kicked out of Rome in 46 AD, many of them came to Corinth, so there was a sizeable Jewish population, and the mystery religions also had a strong hold. And then, in AD 50, in comes Paul with Christianity.
I tell you all that because our Daily Walk readings have moved into Corinthians, and many of the themes in Paul’s letters to Corinth reflect the problems of the city, which found their way into the church…as culture has a way of doing. You will read strong condemnation of their sexual promiscuity, and you’ll read Paul’s thoughts about how those in the church should deal with the fact that most of the meat sold in the public markets had come from the sacrifices in all those pagan temples. When Paul comes down hard on the way the church is celebrating communion, the problem is their disregard for the poor, and of course there are the ongoing differences between the Jewish and Gentile Christians. There is also the ongoing challenge for Jewish Christians with those of their faith who do not believe the Christian message.
It was a complicated mix of things in a wild and wooly city, and once Paul leaves Corinth and goes to Ephesus, he begins to hear tales of how corruption is sneaking back into the Church. So somewhere between 53 and 54 AD, he sends the Corinthian church a letter to try to rein them in. Welcome to First Corinthians.
Given life in Corinth, you can better understand why twice in the readings for this week, Paul reminds the Corinthian church that Christian temples are different from their pagan and even their Jewish counterparts. The Christian temple is the body…that is where we gain access to God. This was first made known in Jesus…God in human flesh…and then expanded to include all those who would invite God in.
Christians didn’t proclaim a God who was separate from people and who you had to go to a specific location to see and experience. Christians proclaimed that God came directly into any heart that would open. The kingdom of God was within us, Jesus said, and we could meet Jesus there or in “the least of these.” The Christian message is that God is to be encountered in human flesh.
But Paul is saying whether God’s residence is in a temple of marble or stone or in the temple of a human body, there are still certain ways that a temple should be treated. A temple is no less sacred because it is made of flesh and bone rather than shining with gold and silver. Treat your bodies with the respect that a holy temple deserves, is Paul’s message.
On the one hand, this was an understandable message. As I mentioned, the Corinthians prided themselves on the adornment of their physical temples. They took good care of them, both for the sake of their gods and for the sake of the tourists who came to see their fine art and architecture. But in a culture where prostitution was an accepted form of worship, with prostitutes on the temple staff, it was a bit more difficult to compare the body to a temple and still come out in the right place. For Jews, this would not have been a problem, but for the Gentile Corinthians, it was more problematic. That’s why this week’s readings are so full of sexual instruction. Paul’s not obsessed with it, the Corinthians are, and he needs to address it.
Twenty-first century America is both the same and different. Today we arrest the temple prostitutes and charge them as sex offenders. When sexual abuse happens in churches, we know now that three temples have been desecrated…the physical location where the abuse took place and the bodies of both the abuser and the abused. But Paul’s injunction reminds us that when abuse happens anywhere, the offense is not just against an individual. The offense is against the temple of the Holy Spirit.
The radical statement that Christians bring to the world is that bodies matter. They are not terrible prisons to be escaped as the Gnostics believed, but sanctified temples where God has consented to dwell. In Jesus, God became an embodied spirit. That was a descent on God’s part, but the story ends with the bodily resurrection and ascension of Jesus to show that the point was not to demean God, but to elevate God’s human creation.
Well, that’s nice, but so what? Do Paul’s words to the Corinthians have any meaning for us? Unfortunately, they do. I say unfortunately because taking the body seriously as the temple of the Holy Spirit limits what I can do with it. We’re famous for the “It’s my body, and I can do what I want with it,” attitude. The biblical witness is that’s not true. This body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the place where God dwells, and I should not be a slum lord.
In very practical terms for me, that means that I finally had to bite the bullet and find a doctor. I’ve had this fantastical bruise on my arm all week because the woman taking my blood missed, and I had to subject my body to the indignities of an exam to be sure that my temple was up to snuff. Well, I was not only up to snuff, I was over-snuffed by about 15 pounds, causing hypertension, and my temple custodian says it has to go.
So after a week of going to bed hungry and increasing my exercise, I had gained two pounds. Completely discouraged and afraid of everything in my refrigerator, I consulted a nutritionist and discovered that it wasn’t the quantity of food that was causing my weight gain, it was the kind of food. So now I’m starting over, hopefully with more success.
Trying to lose 15 pounds at 47 is not easy, but taking care of my temple is still a heck of a lot easier than for those who need to quit smoking, break an alcohol addiction, or get out of unhealthy relationships. But taking care of the temple means all that and more.
When the Christian message sinks in, we realize that wherever we go, God goes. Are we taking God to the places that God wants to go? Are we staying away from the places God longs to be? Whatever we do, God does, because God is dwelling in us. What does God do at your house? God plays a lot of Titan Quest in the parsonage. Maybe God thinks it’s cool that we’re wearing the Light Alexandrian Great Helm of Retribution and the Protective Scale Leggings of Virility, but the point is that I don’t often ask as I should.
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit swells in you?” As our final hymn will remind us, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” The Christian witness tells us that is very literally true. God doesn’t sit here in this building and wait for us to show up. God is dwelling within each one of us, expecting us to treat that dwelling place with honor and respect.
I invite you this week to think about the ways that you can spruce up God’s temple. Maybe you want to join me in losing some weight. Maybe you need to get that physical exam, take another stab at giving up an addiction, or simply try to be more conscious of the fact that you are taking God everywhere you go and engaging God in every activity in which you engage. Maybe you need to slow down and give your mind and body more rest. Maybe Sabbath needs to become more of a way of life for you.
We exist as a church community, not because you can’t access God by yourself, but because sanctifying our temples is hard. Generally it takes the support of other people who understand how hard it is and what is at stake if you don’t. We gather together as the church to help each other…sometimes we are the ones needing support and sometimes we are here to be available to others in the times that we are strong. “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.” “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” Take care of it. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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