Sermon for Evensong on the 9th Sunday after Trinity, 24th July 2016​

[Genesis 42:1-25]; 1 Corinthians 10:1-24 – The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand. (1 Cor. 10:8) 

As those of us who were undergraduates of a certain antiquity can remember, at university fornication is only possible before 10pm. But here, St Paul seems to be saying not only that it’s difficult, but extremely dangerous, possibly lethal. Really?

This is one of those passages in St Paul’s letters which does read rather strangely, unless you understand its background and context. St Paul is writing to the Christians at Corinth, which, then as now, was a Greek city. So when he wrote, ‘our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptised unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea’, it seems a bit strange, even against the time it was written – because Paul was giving a potted resumé of Jewish history, to a congregation who must have been mainly non-Jewish. It wasn’t their fathers he was talking about.

Maybe this was because Christianity started out as a Jewish sect. Indeed it was a live issue among the early Christians whether they had to be circumcised and convert to Judaism. Saints Peter, Paul, Barnabas and the early church dealt with this in the Council of Jerusalem, which you can read about in Acts 15. The answer to the question, whether on becoming a Christian, you had to be circumcised, fortunately, was ‘no’ – and St Paul emphasised it in his letter to the Galatians, chapters 2, 4 and 5. No need to become circumcised, to become Jewish, in order to be a Christian. The early Christians widened out their membership beyond Judaism to include non-Jews, Gentiles – peoples, tribes, nations, that were different from the chosen people, the Jews. 

What mattered was – what matters still – is faith. ‘A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ’, as St Paul wrote in Galatians 2:16, for example. But Paul must have found that the early, non-Jewish, Christians were well enough up on Jewish history for them to understand the force of his argument when he drew on Jewish history in support of his telling the Corinthians not to behave like people who were heathens and worshipped idols instead of worshipping the One True God and Jesus his son.

It’s difficult to be sure exactly what the Corinthians were doing wrong, in order for St Paul to try to correct them. It looks as though they may have thought that, by having a holy meal together, by participating in a sacrament of holy communion, they were then assured of salvation: they had nothing to fear at the Last Judgement, whatever they did from then on. They had a free pass, a licence, to do naughty things.

This comes across to us today as one of St Paul’s rather gloomy pieces. You’re not allowed to eat, drink and be merry. You’re certainly not allowed to chase girls.

In a way, you can understand St Augustine’s prayer, ‘Lord, make me pure, but not yet.’ There used to be a birthday card, on which was a rather gloomy-looking owl. It said, ‘Owl had never had too much to drink: he had never had sex: he had never smoked exotic cheroots’. Inside, it read, ‘In fact Owl had never been to university at all!’ 

Happy birthday, poor old Owl. But is that really what Christianity is all about? Is it just rather joyless rectitude? Of course, I’m not advocating unrestrained licentiousness. And there’s no doubt that St Paul did want the Christians to stand apart from the Romans’ vices. 

There were great temptations in Roman life. You may remember a rather jolly film (which, however, we might struggle to show in our ‘Spiritual Cinema’) by Federico Fellini, called ‘Satyricon’, which was based on a book by the Roman author Petronius, which includes the ‘Cena Trimalchionis’, or Trimalchio’s Banquet, a text much loved by all boys studying Latin in the Lower Sixth: this is where those scantily-clad maidens leaping out of pies and other extraordinary pieces of decadence come from. Sin in Ancient Rome was clearly great fun.

But how did it become possibly lethal to indulge in feasting – how come ‘the people sat down to feast and stood up to play’: how come some of them committed fornication – and ‘23,000 died in one day’! Why?

St Paul was referencing the Old Testament, Numbers chapter 25, when ‘Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab’. What was wrong with the daughters of Moab and the Midianites was that they worshipped idols, the Baals. The people of Israel were not meant to mix with those heathens – and God punished them. The lesson which St Paul was drawing was that although the people of Israel were saved, although God had made a covenant with them, it didn’t absolve them from the obligation to keep their side of the bargain, to abide by God’s law.

The same went for the poor old Corinthians. I have this rather irreverent picture in my mind of St Paul as a fierce maiden aunt, rather like my old Aunt, Margaret Bryant, the historian and Girton Girl, terrorising the curates at Holy Trinity, Clapham Common: just like her, St Paul had a tendency to pull you up short and tell you to tie your shoe laces properly. So he was telling the Corinthians in no uncertain terms that it wasn’t enough simply to the church, as though it were a golf club, ‘The Christian Club’. They had to be new men, new people, reformed, born again in the faith of Christ. It didn’t give them licence to misbehave any more.

But it’s not all so serious. There is real joy in the faith of Christ. Just a couple of pages further on in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we come to that wonderful hymn to love – it doesn’t matter what kind of love – in I Corinthians 13: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, …’ If I have no love, no charity – for that’s what one kind of love is. 

And in his letter to the Galatians, St Paul lists all the ‘fruits of the spirit’, the things that come to a Christian through his or her faith: ‘love, joy, peace’ are the first three on the list. Joy. Indeed. Just don’t confuse the sacrament, the holy commemoration, of Jesus’ Last Supper, with just any banquet, with any blow-out. It certainly isn’t a riotous party. But there is joy, the joy of faith. ‘Solid joys and lasting treasure’ indeed. 
Glorious things of thee are spoken

Zion, City of our God

Solid joys and lasting treasure

None but Zion’s children know. (John Newton, Olney Hymns, 1779).