What's in a word? Well, when the word is sex...
It's time to get a little uncomfortable.
The focus in today's reading-focused as it is on sex-from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians is not an easy read. As I ponder sitting down to write about it, I feel the awkward discomfort any parent or child might have during "the talk" if until that point sexuality has not been named or addressed in the family. It is a necessary conversation to have, but the lack of ongoing formation in any relationship around the issues of sexuality means that the first (and now very important) talk is going to be difficult to breach, to sustain and to conclude with any party being able to avoid some degree of embarrassment or chagrin.
We are not quite sure what is happening in Corinth that would set Paul off on such an explicit and intentionally directed vector. Clearly, there are reports that are reaching him of both particular individuals acting out sexually in the community with each other, and of some more general, and generally vague, reports of sexual immorality. Earlier on, Paul's condemnation is more specific. Now, he offers a more diffuse harangue.
What makes our interpretation of his intent difficult is that the words used to describe behaviors Paul is condemning are expressed, they are offered by Paul in a language that was not his first (Greek) and are given meaning by a host of influences that derive from his own home culture and the faith he expressed as a Law-observant Jew and Pharisee. I am not discounting that clearly something is going on in the Corinth that demands the apostle's attention, and that the question of what constitutes a healthy expression of human sexuality in the church there needs to be addressed. What I am saying is that when it comes to parsing meaning from today's readings, it is we who need to be very careful as we seek to translate and apply Paul's teachings.
The Church has a very poor track record in dealing with the questions posed by human sexuality. In a faith that is SO much about "the Body," we tend to ignore the fact that sexuality is an intrinsic part of the whole gestalt that is human being. Like a wet umbrella on a rainy day, we tend to leave sex at the door of the church, knowing that we will need it later but not wanting it in the pew with us. Paul's explicit condemnation of "fornication" and "adultery" make us uncomfortable.
Of the translations of scripture I have read that attempt to translate these words into "practical" use. People assume fornication means: sex with a prostitute (temple-consecrated or otherwise); sex outside of marriage; sex with a partner of the same gender; sex with anything or anyone other than another human that you are betrothed to in some way. Adultery can mean: consensual sex outside of marriage; premarital sex; sex with anyone after a divorce, etc. Here is the point of departure: do you include ALL of these possible interpretations/condemnations in the text; or, do you focus on one over the others and thus make it your primary interpretation of of Paul's intent?
Paul's attempt to condemn the behaviors fornication and adultery present (apparently) in the church in Corinth too often results in us getting tied up in knots over the issues of human sexuality in general. We get focused on the salacious details of what should not be done and forget entirely what we are to be doing in the first place: recognizing and honoring the sacred in the other, and allowing sex (along with every other bi that goes into our whole way of human being) to be a sacred thing that takes us deeper into honoring God in each other while expressing a mindful fidelity to both our partner AND our creator.
The people of Corinth had forgotten that somewhere along the way. Paul's attempt to inspire correction meets our current society's tendency to hyper-sexualize everything, and now suddenly his words on sex seem to leap off the page and into the pulpit...and thus from the pulpit, into the bedroom. I truly believe that our task is not to draw down too intently on Paul's tendency (in most translations) to draw down on the evils of human sexuality in all its many expressions. Our call is instead to honor the grace and beauty of human love, physical and otherwise, and then bless and consecrate it as a primary gift from God to the world. Paul's willingness to take on the obverse expressions of that gift being expressed in Corinth thus becomes an invitation for us to treasure the humanity of our partners, to cease objectifying and sexualizing them and others...and to perhaps embrace the reality that the sin of sex Paul is naming is not any one behavior, it is the dehumanization of the act and of the other.
Perhaps, as we continue to grapple with the issues that roil up for us in the Church over human sexuality, we might allow Paul's struggle to assist us in being more mindful of the incredible gift that God gave us in our sexuality, and that we don't need to wait until we cannot avoid talking about it and thus wind up in that same uncomfortable, squirmy, awkward state....again.