Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 17 January 2021.
Animation of Corinth in Roman times (Source)
• First Reading: 1 Samuel 3: 1-20 (The call of Samuel to serve God as a prophet)
• Psalm 139: 1-5,12-17
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6: 12-20 (Sexual morality: the body is made to honour God, temples of the Holy Spirit and members of Christ Himself whom God raised form the dead – flee immorality)
• Gospel: John 1: 43-51 (The call of Philip and Nathanael)
I think that my favourite sandwich is cheese and onion, but I can also be persuaded by a cheese and tomato offering.
You might wonder what this thought has to do with our lessons but just look at them. Here we have the calls of Samuel to be a prophet and of Philip and Nathanael to be disciples of Jesus.
The filling in the sandwich is Paul’s exhortation to personal purity especially in the sexual realm. But this is an outworking of the calls to serve God in the other two lessons.
The two themes are however connected, but not in the sense that the red-top press like to promote, with all their voyeuristic prurience. “Ooh, isn’t that awful: tell me more!”
No, the mainspring in this area is different and it starts with God’s creation of the human body by which humanity may glorify Him. In this sense the body is not our own and we are charged with looking after it. It is created and resurrected by God
It means proper food – and proper exercise. It means the proper use of its organs and capabilities, to delight and exult where we may and to control and restrain where we should.
But the call to discipleship and indeed to be a prophet is to serve the Lord’s agenda, and not our own.
The prophets of Israel were condemned for following their own interests rather than God’s, and the closer they were to the king’s court then the more they came under pressure to approve the king’s actions and his compromises with the surrounding culture. That included nominal service to the Lord and yet enthusiastic adoption of the customs of their trading partners and allies.
If Samuel was a faithful prophet of God and of the first of the kings of Israel, then some of his successors were much more pliable in the interests of the king.
In that sense, not much has changed and many church leaders seem more keen to echo the spirit of the age as opposed to the Spirit of the Lord. What was true in ancient Israel is still the same among the nations today.
But then Philip and Nathanael were also called to discipleship. Jesus called Philip who brought Nathanael along to see Jesus for himself.
The course of discipleship was never going to be easy. They would find the same privations that Jesus did during His ministry and they would find the same kind of rejection and persecution after His resurrection.
Again, discipleship would never be about their own interests or agendas but Jesus’. Their expectations would change and their understanding of the scriptures would also be transformed.
As with the prophets, the temptations to modify the message in the face of opposition from the community and the powers of the state would always be there and would always have to be resisted.
The temptation to go easy on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in favour of less challenging and more amenable messages would reflect the temptation of Jesus Himself to pursue His ministry while avoiding the cross.
Again the temptation to compromise in the face of the demands and expectations of the state and the community would always be there.
Perhaps this brings me back to St Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians. They lived in a thriving port and commercial city where the customs and practices of many peoples were there to be seen. Anything could be made acceptable and probably was.
It would be easy for the church to be presented as kill-joy prudes focused only on their own moral and sexual hesitations.
Those in the community who were sexually satisfied and successful would, then as now, be flaunting it. Those who were less strong and less successful would be left to wallow in their own inadequacy and guilt. No change there.
And this is where the power of the gospel comes back into focus. The scriptures are clear in saying that the proper arena for sexual activity is in monogamous heterosexual marriage.
Neither fornication nor adultery are accepted – nor is any other form of activity, and this is in a city where temple or ritual prostitution was common.
Within this culture, as in our own anything-goes times (well, almost anything) there would be a sense of frustration and denial for the conscientious believer. It would be a cross to be carried, and some would stumble.
But in the gospels, Jesus was more exercised by unbelief than anything else. In the context of His times, the unbelief was in the face of the traditions and expectations of Israel which He had come to fulfil but in the face of which He was rejected. Even the city of Sodom would have a better claim to holiness than the unbelief of the rejecting city of Capernaum. (Matt 11: 23-24)
In our time perhaps the most dangerous situation is to allow sexual identity to eclipse that of faith and then to manipulate the scriptures and traditions of the church to justify it. Rather than being mastered by a sexual identity and expecting the church to endorse it, we may seek, within any state of weakness and temptation, a new dimension of penitence and acceptance of fallenness.
I believe that it was for good reason that the old liturgy of the church incorporated the words:
“If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and He is the propitiation for our sins.”
We should remember this as we seek to continue as disciples of Jesus.