A Sermon Preached on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 18, 2015
By the Rev’d Canon Dane E. Boston, Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina
Texts: I Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Questions. Our readings this morning are filled with questions. We began with Paul asking the Corinthians, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Do you not know that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? Do you not know that you are not your own?” Then in our Gospel, we heard Nathanael ask Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” just before he asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” And after earnest Nathanael makes his remarkable confession of faith, finally we heard Jesus himself ask, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree?”
Yes, questions abound in our Scripture today. And when it comes to facing an enormous pile of apparently unrelated questions, I must claim one distinct advantage over my esteemed clergy colleagues: I live in the same house as a four-year-old. Any of you who have spent time with a young child will know what I mean. The questions in our home are constant, and run the gamut from the serious and sacred to the surprising and absurd, often all in the same conversation, sometimes in the same breath! My wife and I frequently find ourselves fielding a question as difficult and important as “Mama, where is heaven?” and then as if attempting a reasonably plausible answer to that question weren’t hard enough, it’s often followed close behind by a question as straightforward and mundane as, “Papa, why is ketchup red?”
Four-year-olds have a special gift and calling to explore the world through their questions, and to help their grown-ups see and think a little differently. But that basic human need to question, to wonder, to seek, never really goes away. Adult men and women may not ask every single question that pops into our heads, and that’s probably for the best. And yet, we still have questions—we still yearn to know.
And so it is that our readings today confront us with some of the most important questions in the Christian faith and life. Now it may not seem that way at first. It may seem to you that our readings this morning are nothing more than St Paul ranting about an uncomfortable topic, and Jesus showing off to Nathanael with a little parlor trick. But let us attend more closely to the questions we hear this morning. Let us listen for the answers that break forth from God’s Word.
It’s Paul’s rhetorical questions in First Corinthians that grab our attention first, not because he seems to be discussing anything profound or spiritual, but because he talks about sex. Nothing like the phrase “Shun fornication!” ringing out through the church to make us sit up and listen. And yet Paul’s intention in this passage was not to shock and startle the good Christian folk of Trinity Cathedral, Columbia, South Carolina one January morning in 2015. (Or at least, that was not his only intention.) Rather, Paul writes so boldly and bluntly to the Corinthians in order to address a larger question of enormous importance: What part do our bodies play in our spiritual lives?
That’s a more difficult question than it may seem at first. You see, there were some in Corinth who reasoned that, because God had released and renewed them spiritually, it didn’t matter what they did physically. They took the freedom that Christ had won for them as an opportunity for license, arguing that “All things are lawful for me.” For the Corinthians, this apparently meant approaching meals–even the Eucharist–with a greedy, gluttonous mentality. And it also seems to have resulted in utter lawlessness in sex and sexual relations. “Who cares what I do with my body? All things are lawful for me!”
This tendency to discount or downplay the importance of our physical bodies in our spiritual lives has always been a temptation for Christians. Knowing ourselves to be free from the constraints and demands of the ritual laws of Moses—knowing ourselves free to eat without worrying about kosher laws, free to dress ourselves without worrying about clothing laws, free to pursue our business without worrying about commercial laws, and free to worship without worrying about ceremonial laws—the Church has, in some times and some places, almost forgotten that bodies matter.
The Church, and her members, have almost forgotten that we human beings are incarnate, enfleshed creatures—not simply creatures with bodies, but creatures that are bodies. Neglecting the reality of our physical bodies does not only open us up to all the temptations and tendencies that would dominate and enslave us–the pursuit of wealth, and the pursuit of sex; the tendency to overeat, and the addictive traps of drugs and alcohol. But neglecting the reality of our physical bodies also denies the miracles at the very heart of our faith: the mystery of the Word made flesh and the wonder of Christ’s bodily resurrection.
So what Paul sets out to do in this morning’s passage laden with sharp rhetorical questions is to remind the Corinthians that not only do their bodies matter: their bodies have been purchased, claimed, and consecrated. To belong to the Church—to be a member of Christ’s body—means that they are now free in new and wonderful ways: free from the sins that enslaved them, free from the hurts that haunted them, free from the fear of death itself. But it also means that they are now bound in new and wonderful ways: bound together in the mystical body of Christ, bound in obedience to their Lord, bound by the knowledge that “you are not your own. For you were bought with a price.” And in that announcement, everything changes.
Now if Paul’s questions to the Corinthians tackle the practical problems of living the life of faith in and with our physical bodies, the questions we find in our Gospel lesson appear to swing us in the opposite direction, entirely into the realm of spiritual ponderings. This morning in John’s Gospel we meet Nathanael, “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” earnestly pursuing what we might call his own spiritual journey.
That’s what the first question in our reading reveals. As amusing and surprising as Nathanael’s query may seem—“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”—he does not mean it as a put-down of Jesus’ hometown. What that question shows us is that Nathanael is a serious student of the Hebrew Scriptures, and that he is eagerly seeking after the Messiah. He knows that no promise of prophecy looks for the anointed Savior of God to rise out of Nazareth. Nevertheless, Nathanael accepts Philip’s invitation to “Come and see.”
Faithfully pursuing his spiritual quest, Nathanael is not prepared for what happens next. For just as Nathanael’s first question about Nazareth is not a put-down but a sign of his earnest journey, so too is Jesus’ reply to the question, “Where did you get to know me?” not a parlor trick, but a moment of revelation. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you,” Jesus says.
And after all of his seeking, all of his asking, all of his yearning to know, Nathanael finds himself known in an instant. When his path of wondering leads him into the presence of Jesus, Nathanael suddenly finds himself not the subject of his own sentences, but the object of another’s pronouncement—not the one doing the seeking, but the one being sought. And in that moment, everything changes.
Beloved, I said at the outset of this sermon that the questions that confront us today are some of the most important in the Christian faith and life. And so it is. For still today, we must ask ourselves about the appropriate use of Christian freedom when it comes to our bodies—in what we do, and in how we live. Still today, God claims us wholly, completely, and in every aspect of our lives. And that claim chafes against our own hungers and lusts—our own drives and desires. Still today, we can find ourselves stuck on a pendulum, swinging between the assertion that bodies don’t matter and we can each do whatever we please, and the belief that what we do with and to our bodies can change our relationship with God.
And still today St Paul calls to us, reminding us that our bodies do matter: not because they can become our pathway to God, but because this flesh has already become God’s pathway to us. For what Paul describes and what Jesus reveals today is not a God who sits distant, bidding us each pursue his own path—each follow her own questions—each seek out the truth that fits for each and each alone.
What we see, instead, in our question-colored passages this morning, is a God who steps down into our wondering. What we find among the queries and the quandaries of our Scripture this day is a God who knows us intimately, who cares for us deeply, and who claims us fully.
For the power in our passages today comes not from the force of the questions nor the eagerness of the askers. The power in our passages comes not from the strength of human seeking nor the certainty of human answers. Rather, the power of our passages this morning comes in the resounding response made by God himself.
When Paul asks his biting, incisive rhetorical questions, he asks them in response to the Corinthians’ human ponderings and expectations. But Paul answers them not according to human thought but in light of what God has done. Because Christ Jesus dwelt among us in human flesh, our human flesh now belongs to God. Because Christ Jesus bore a body like ours, the way we use our body reflects on him. Because Christ Jesus gave his body to be broken and his blood to be poured out, our lowly flesh and blood have become the dwelling place for the Holy Spirit of God.
And when Nathanael poses his earnest, practical question to Jesus, he poses it as if he is asking a remarkable human being. But Jesus answers with the knowing, loving voice of Almighty God. To Nathanael’s straightforward, “I’m sorry, have we met?” comes Christ’s cosmic reply, “Dear child, I know you better than you know yourself. I know your sitting down and your rising up. I discern your thoughts from afar. I know that you are fearfully, wonderfully made, for I made you: I knit you together in your mother’s womb, and I hold all the days of your life in the palm of my hand.”
For Jesus is the end and answer of all our questions, because in him, the God whom we seek comes seeking us. Jesus is the answer, and we may say this not with the glib certainty of the fundamentalist nor with the cold caveats of the skeptic, but because in Christ Jesus God grasps us. Jesus is the answer, not because in him we have found our own private, personal path to God, but because through him, God has been pleased to draw near to us.
Jesus is the answer because in him, God cuts through all of our questioning, all of our seeking, all of our searching. In Jesus, God pierces through all of our desires, all of our doubts, all of our hungers, and all of our hopes. In Jesus, God claims us, body and soul. God purchases us—all that we are and all that we have—with the priceless currency of his own blood. God calls us, and sends us to invite others, to “Come and see…the One about whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote,” the One who was foretold and who is come at last.
And in Jesus, the God who knows us better than we know ourselves; the God who loves us more than we either desire or deserve; the God who has given himself to be the great answer to all of our questions; the God who uses common water to wash us throughly; the God who makes ordinary bread and wine to nourish our souls: this God promises us that we shall yet see greater things than these.