Today, our Bible reading addresses the subject of sexual sin. And I’m very aware of the need to tread carefully. This is a sensitive subject. For a number of reasons.
It’s sensitive culturally. Increasingly, Western culture says there’s no such thing as sexual sin. That’s not actually true. There are taboos. The big ones are unfaithfulness and underage. But apart from that, as long as there is clear consent, just about anything goes.
So it is that this is discussed at school at ever younger ages. Every media outlet has a view that they want to steer you towards. Even the BBC is not neutral; they want to shape the way you think in areas of sexual ethics.
God has some loving boundaries for us, but they’re hard to hear. God’s voice is easily drowned out by the many voices singing to us. So as we seek to listen to God speak on this subject, it’s a sensitive subject, culturally.
It’s also sensitive within the wider church. One of the Anglican denominations in the United States now allows same-sex marriages in church. So has the Scottish Episcopal Church. There’s a sustained campaign to get the Church of England to do the same. The first step would probably not be same-sex marriages, but to follow civil marriages with services of blessing in church.
Sensitive within our culture. Sensitive within the church. And, third, it’s sensitive personally.
All of us have a past. For many of us, this includes points at which we’ve failed. For reasons we’ll come to, those failings can be etched deeply onto us. Others have suffered abuse of various kinds, and find that clings to them, sometimes with feelings of guilt that cannot be explained.
One friend of mine has a memorable way of putting this. He would say that there is no such thing as a straight person. All of us have experiences and desires that are twisted in some way from God’s ideal for us. As Noel Coward’s character in The Italian Job, Mr Bridger, put it: “Everybody in the world is bent.”
This is a subject on which our consciences are tender. And our fear is that when God speaks it will be to condemn us. God’s word will be a word of condemnation. We already know that we’ve failed, that we’re not good enough. So we already know what God is going to say. He’ll tell us that we’ve failed. Or he’ll ask us to do things that we don’t want to do, or can’t manage to do.
It’s sensitive personally, as well.
So I need to tread carefully. But that doesn’t mean saying nothing. We need to hear what God has to say.
God is good. God made us. God knows what is best for us.
God wants to meet us where we are. God comes to us in mercy. He offers his love and his forgiveness. And he’ll also tell us what kinds of behaviour he’s looking for in his people.
In other words, this is the same as God does for us in every other area of life. We come to God broken, with many mistakes. And God sets us back on our feet, before telling us how to live in response.
Let’s look at these verses. Paul gives us two reasons why sexual sin matters greatly.
But the message of the Bible is always good news. Each of those two reasons is matched by God’s grace and kindness. God is good, at exactly the point we need him to be.
You won’t inherit the kingdom of God
So, the first reason why sexual sin matters: You won’t inherit the kingdom of God. You won’t inherit the kingdom of God.
Verses 9 and 10: “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
The Christian life is a mixture of the now and the not yet. Now, we know God’s love and forgiveness, he adopts us as his children, he gives us his Spirit. There is a day when Jesus will return. But that is a “not yet”. We have to wait for his kingdom to come in all its fulness. We have to wait for a world free of pain and suffering, and full of joy, good food and laughter.
When that “not yet” comes, some people will miss out. They won’t be at the party. Paul tells us who those are: “the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers”
This is not because we have to earn our way into heaven. Nobody gets to heaven by being good.
It is because it is always a life-changing experience to know God’s love and forgiveness.
Remember what we said when we looked at chapter 5. These are not the kinds of sins we all do every day. These are not disputable, private things, that can only be known by someone who knows your inmost thoughts. These are big-ticket sins. These are public, unmistakeable lifestyle choices that are known by the whole community.
The Corinthian Christians must not be deceived. The person who turns their back on God’s way of life, and lapses into a clear non-Christian way of life, is showing that they’ve never known God’s love and forgiveness. Which means that, if they keep going like that, they’ll reach the judgement day without having known the full and free forgiveness that is their only hope.
Such a person will not inherit the kingdom of God. They’ll miss out, big time, when Jesus returns.
Which is one reason why certain types of sexual sin are so serious.
At one level, they are no more serious than other sins. This same list contains other sins: “greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers”.
But that doesn’t actually make sexual sin any less serious. It means that certain other sins are more serious than we often think them to be. Particularly other sins that involve a conscious choice to embrace a lifestyle other than the one God asks of us.
At the top of Paul’s list comes the word “sexually immoral”. This is a word that headlines any sexual activity outside the context God has created for it. That context is the lifelong marriage between one man and one woman. Anything outside that comes under the umbrella of “sexually immoral”.
He then follows it up with three words that explain more specifically what kind of thing he’s referring to. There’s adultery. We know what that means. Then there’s the phrase “men who have sex with men”, which translates the other two words, and describe both parties in a same-sex relationship.
We need to be clear what he’s saying. He’s talking about activity, not desire. I have friends whose only sexual desires are for other men. They read passages like this, and they can see that it would be wrong to act on those desires. Faithfulness to Christ, for them, means chastity. That’s what it means at this point in their lives, unless those desires change at some point in the future.
Just as the married person who finds themselves desiring adultery needs not to act on those desires.
But Paul could not be more clear. Wider society agrees that adultery is wrong. It’s a form of unfaithfulness. Paul says with absolute clarity that sex between two men, or two women, is just as wrong.
Which is why I would never lead a service of blessing for a married couple of the same sex. As a church, we need to welcome people from all kinds of backgrounds. Just as Jesus did. But that does not extend to blessing a relationship, if it’s something we’re told does not have God’s blessing.
Jesus’ welcome always came with a call to repentance. If we pretend otherwise, we’re saying that these sins don’t matter. They do mater. They matter greatly. Make no mistake. They’re extremely serious.
You won’t inherit the kingdom of God.
But you were washed
But God doesn’t leave us with our mistakes. His word to us is not ultimately a word of prohibition. It’s a word of love and grace. He meets us where we are.
Verse 11, once again – beautiful, beautiful words: “That is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Those of us old enough to remember the 1990s will remember it as the decade of the washing powder commercial. Daz, Arial, Persil, Surf. Here’s what normal detergent can do. But then I bought Radion, and look – this shirt came whiter than white.
The death of Jesus cleanses us whiter than white. It takes our guilty consciences, our past mistakes, and it wipes them out. There is no sin so big that Jesus’ death cannot deal with it.
1 John, chapter 1, verse 7: “The blood of Jesus his son purifies us from all sin.”
If you’re here today with some sin on your conscience, maybe a sexual sin, maybe some other sin, let these words sink in deeply. Is your sin included in the phrase “all sin”? If it is, then Jesus’ blood is the detergent you need. It’s more than powerful enough to wash it away.
“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
The reason we don’t lapse back is precisely because God’s grace is so good.
Your body matters
On, then, to the second reason why sexual sin matters. That is because your body matters. Your body matters.
Paul quotes the Corinthians. Here are two of their slogans. Verse 12: “I have the right to do anything.” Perhaps quoting Jesus, who said all foods are now clean.
Then verse 13: “Food for the stomach, and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”
Classic Greek thinking said that the body was not that important. The real you is your soul. The body is just the shell that you happen to live in for a season. But one day, we’ll be free from our bodies. Free to fly. Free to be the real me.
It seems there was a Christian version of this doing the rounds in Corinth. God has given you his Spirit. So what matters now is the spirit-realm. The body is incidental. You can do whatever you like with it, it’s not what God is concerned about.
Against that, Paul says “no”. Your body matters. It is the real you. So what you do with it matters. For three reasons.
Number 1: Your body will be raised.
Jesus was raised from the dead. And so will we be.
Verse 14: “By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also.”
Death is not the moment when you get rid of an inconvenient body. Because Jesus came from the dead with a new body. And when Jesus returns, he’ll raise us with new bodies too.
As Christians we believe in the resurrection of the body from the dead.
Your body is your real you. You’ll have a body for all eternity. Bodies matter.
Number 2: Your body is joined to Christ.
Verse 15: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?”
This is a less familiar way that the New Testament speaks of our relationship to Christ. We trust him. And as a result, we’re joined to him, united to him. As Paul says, we’re members of Christ himself, that’s to say a part of his body.
Against that backdrop, consider what happens when two people sleep together. Paul says this applies even if the encounter was as fleeting as prostitution. They become joined together.
Why? Well he quotes Genesis 2:24, the passage where God gives the human race the gift of marriage. When two people get married, according to Genesis 2:24, “the two will become one flesh”. Marriage in the Bible is a mathematical equation: 1+1=1.
Well, the man and the prostitute don’t get married. But they do get joined together bodily in a way that physically enacts becoming one flesh. They’re not married, but they almost are – they’re just lacking the public commitment side of things.
In fact so much is this so, that the Old Testament had a law about it. If two people who are not married sleep together, the man must marry her. Because what they’ve done can only be put right if they enter into the marriage that they’ve already enacted.
So the man who sleeps with the prostitute belongs to Christ’s body. And he’s just joined his body to that of the prostitute. She’d almost certainly have been a prostitute who worked in a pagan temple, which means he’s just joined an unbelieving prostitute to the body of Christ.
What a horrific thought. Second half of verse 15: “Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!”
That’s the second reason why your body matters. It’s joined to Christ, so how you treat your body is what you’re doing to Jesus.
Number 3: Your body is the temple of God’s Spirit.
Verse 19: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”
The Corinthians thought that their bodies didn’t matter, because what really mattered was God’s Spirit. The reality is the reverse. God’s given them his Spirit, which means their bodies are now temples. God has taken up residence inside. Which means that our bodies matter immensely.
All of which is to say that our bodies matter. Therefore sexual sin matters.
As a child, we used to like pottering around the rock pools at low tide looking for hermit crabs. They’re totally soft crustaceans, so they borrow shells they find, even bits of wood, to live in, to keep safe. When they grow too big, they move house. They look like crabs. But they’re not crabs. Actual crabs have a proper shell. It’s actually an exoskeleton. The shell is part of the crab.
We humans – we’re crabs, not hermit crabs. Our bodies are part of us. Our bodies matter.
Here’s why our guilty consciences cling to us so strongly in this area. Verse 18: “All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.”
Sexual sin actually strikes to the very core of who you are. It’s sin that actually affects you, the real you, your body. And so our memories are more vivid, our consciences more persistent.
Which is why it’s wonderful that, yet again, God does not leave us feeling guilty. Once again, Paul has a word of grace to end on.
But you were bought at a price
Look how verse 19 goes on: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price.”
This is the picture of the slave market. The idea appals us, but it was more like the job centre back then. Many slaves were really well looked after. If a wealthy patron bought you, you had a job, you had a home, you had food provided. The drawback was that you no longer owned yourself. You were someone else’s property. Of course whether this is a good thing all depended on whether the person who bought you would take good care of you.
Every Christian is in this category. We are not our own. We have been bought. God has bought us. He owns us.
We could not have a better owner. We could not be in better hands. We will be so well looked after you’d never believe it.
And what was the price paid for you and me? Paul simply says we were bought at a price? We were expensive. The apostle Peter elaborates in 1 Peter 1:18-19. “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ.”
That’s how much God paid for you. That’s how much he wanted you. So now you’re his. And that’s wonderful.
Application / Conclusion
So sexual sin matters. It matters because otherwise we won’t inherit the kingdom of God. It matters because our bodies matter greatly.
But God’s grace and forgiveness towers over our capacity to sin and to fail. If you’re a Christian, you were washed. You were sanctified. You were justified. You were bought at a great price. Praise God for that.
From which flow two commands for us all.
Number 1: Flee from sexual immorality.
Have you ever been chased by a wild animal. A bull? Charged by an elephant? You don’t play games of how close you’ll let the animal get before you start to run. You just run. For your life.
Or you’ve seen pictures of the volcanic eruption on Guatemala. Houses, cars, whole villages, swallowed up by the pyroclastic lava flow. If you hear that the flow is heading towards where you live, you don’t have one last fling enjoying your home. You run. You flee.
Flee from sexual immorality. Not dally. Not see how close you can get without getting burnt. Just flee. Run. For your life. Get as far away from it as you can.
And number 2: Honour God with your bodies.
The question is now what am I allowed to do? Not, “What can I get away with?” Not even, “What is beneficial for other people?”, although that’s an improvement.
The question is: What kind of behaviour brings most honour to God? How can I use this body I’ve been given so that all praise and glory goes to God, my creator, … and my redeemer.