A Temple of the Holy Spirit

January 16, 2000 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  1 Corinthians 6:12-20

            In his recent book, Trials of Intimacy, Richard Wrightman Fox tells the true story of a sex scandal that captivated our nation 125 years ago. It caught my attention on the public library shelf because, for one thing, one of the main characters is a minister, one of the most famous preachers of that era, in fact. His name was Henry Ward Beecher. Perhaps you have heard of his famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote that famous antislavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in the years leading up to the Civil War. Henry was himself a prominent abolitionist, one of the most effective speakers in ending the slave trade in our country. For 40 years he was pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, a mega-church of its time. Beecher’s influence was very broad, as Presidents and Senators sought his counsel.

            He was a very passionate person. His gospel was one of love more than judgement, and he helped transform a generation raised on strict Calvinism. His passion, which proved very effective in both preaching and praying, got him in trouble in some of his relationships beyond the pulpit - in particular with one young couple, Theodore & Elizabeth Tilden. As young adults, Elizabeth and Theodore had come of age in Plymouth Church, where they met and were married by Beecher, himself 20 years their senior. He was their mentor, as well as trusted friend. In fact, Henry and Theodore became very close, working together in the anti-slavery movement. They truly loved one another.

            Somewhere along the way, however, Beecher’s relationship with Elizabeth entered questionable territory. The two of them became very close as well. He depended upon her critique of his writings, as well as her spiritual insight. She was much closer to God than he, or so he said. It never will be known for certain if or when their relationship fully crossed a boundary it should not have. That, however, is what Theodore Tilden eventually alleged, when in 1874 he sued Henry Ward Beecher for "criminal conversation" and "alienation of (his wife’s) affection."

            We think the impeachment process was a messy affair last year. Well, the civil trial between Tilden and Beecher captured the attention of our nation as much as, or more than, what went on in Washington recently. For seven months it was front page news on every newspaper in our country. I don’t want to get into the parallels, but they are almost uncanny. There was even the equivalent of a Linda Tripp in the person of Victoria Woodhall, a questionable character who sought out and made public all sorts of innuendo. Instead of last year’s boxes of released testimony that nobody really wanted to read but everybody still read, there were pages upon pages of private, intimate letters that were published for the whole world to see. People gobbled it up then to get to the "truth." Unfortunately, nothing came out of it, for the trial ended with a hung jury. In the process, however, many lives were destroyed. Some things never change.

            This true story was in the back of my head as I read the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians about staying away from sexual immorality. Now, in the story I just mentioned, there was no mention of prostitution, of the buying and selling of sex, as there is in Paul’s letter. The boundary crossed, if indeed it was crossed, by Rev. Beecher and his younger parishioner was more an affair of the heart. Of course, nowadays we would talk more about power than romance or sex in describing how an older authority person abused his position and drew too close to someone he should not have. While helpful, that way of viewing things only goes so far. What’s missing is the spiritual dimension of it all.

            When Paul wrote to the Corinthians about shunning fornication, he connected sexuality and spirituality. Now, to be honest, the word fornication, which some translations use, baffled me as a young person. I don’t know about you, but it’s never been part of my everyday speech. Only recently did I discover that the Latin word "fornix," which means a vault or an arch, also referred to a cellar, a room below a building, which may have a vaulted roof. It was a place in Roman times where prostitutes plied their trade.

            It only just dawned upon me as I was working on this message that in Rome the prostitutes and the Christians may have been working in some of the same places. We speak of the catacombs under Rome as a safe place for gathering in Jesus’ name when it was a crime to do so. The oldest profession was also known for seeking out dark cellars, the fornices beneath that city, to safely engage in their business. It makes you wonder how many harlots, perhaps forced into their trade by matters beyond their control, found a new way of living as they encountered these Christians and their Jesus beneath Rome.

            Of course, Paul was writing to Corinth and not Rome. Furthermore, he wasn’t writing in Latin, but Greek. In this passage from the 6th chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul used the word "Porneia." You’ve heard this word before. From it we derive the more familiar English word pornography. Literally, it referred to prostitution, the selling of sex. Over the years it has also encompassed sexual acts outside the confines of a marriage commitment.

            Now, it might be helpful to understand another form of prostitution that was very prevalent in both Old and New Testament times. You see, in the Temples of various religions back then there were male and female priests who were, in effect, prostitutes. When a follower of that religion united with such a prostitute in that Temple, it was considered a religious act - a way of uniting with the god worshiped there. To the descendants of Moses this was not merely the breaking of the seventh commandment about committing adultery. It was much more serious. It was breaking the first commandment, about having no other God but Yahweh.

            Actually, the seventh commandment is connected to the first, as all the latter six of the 10 commandments have their root in the first four. If you remember, the decalogue begins with our relationship with God, and then it moves into our relationship with others. Honoring Father and Mother, refraining from killing, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness all are bound up in honoring God and God alone - which is what the first four commandments are about.

            The ancients knew something that we tend to forget - that all of life is a religious act. Our relationship with God impacts every area of our lives. Sex is not excluded. Somehow, in this generation, we have been avoiding seeing that fact, as if we can place our sexuality in a separate category from our faith. I’m as guilty of that as anyone else. You know, if you look closely at our obsession with sex in this present society, it borders on being a religion. It’s just the Temples that are different.

            Our life in the Spirit and our sexuality are intimately connected. That’s why I thought of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher as I read this passage from the apostle Paul. Now, he didn’t go out and frequent a prostitute. His sin, if indeed he and Elizabeth Tilden did as her husband Theodore alleged, may seem minor in comparison to some of the scandals of our day. However, it illustrates the tie between our sexual selves and our praying spirit. Henry and Elizabeth were very much in tune spiritually. Somewhere along the line they crossed a boundary that should not have been transgressed.

            When the apostle Paul wrote about avoiding sexual immorality, he gave a reason. Did you catch it? "Your body," he said, "is a Temple of the Holy Spirit." When two persons unite sexually, they are also uniting spiritually. There is more to it than a man and a woman coming together. Paul is known for interchanging his use of the word "body." Sometimes he is referring to the physical human body, this flesh and blood entity we each possess. Other times he is speaking of the gathering of believers, the body of Christ. These two bodies are interconnected. This passage from Corinthians makes that very clear. You are a member of Christ, a part of his body, he wrote. When you link up with a prostitute, a porne, you then become a member of another body, another religion, in fact. How can you be both?

            I don’t know about you, but those are tough words. Furthermore, I don’t think they refer to a technicality. You know what I mean, "it’s only sex if..." I’m not just talking about a President who has a narrow definition of what defines sex and what does not. I’m talking about us all, myself included. We laughed at Jimmy Carter many years ago confessing the lust in his heart, but he was and is a darn good Sunday School teacher. Men, those of you who have discovered the Internet, know what’s out there in full force. We talk about protecting children from the dangers that lurk there, but I think it’s adults who are in more peril. There’s stuff out there that eats away at our souls, because our sexuality and our spirituality are connected. We don’t turn our faith off when we turn our computers on.

            Now, you women have your own ways of treading on ground that can do damage to your spirit without technically crossing a boundary. I can more easily speak to men’s temptations than women’s. After all, as that ex Bhuddist priest, John Gray says, men are from mars, women are from venus. Of course, the ex Jewish pharisee Paul wrote something that applies to all of us, men and women alike. "We were bought with a price." Let me put that in Eugene’s Peterson’s excellent paraphrase: "Didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you see that you can’t live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body."

            "Glorify God in your body." That’s not just an impossible demand. Through God’s presence in us, the Holy Spirit of which we are a Temple, it’s a real possibility. Let me remind you of what you have already spoken this day. It’s appropriate that they come in the form of a prayer, for in scripture there is no separation between our body and our spirit. May these be my final words:


             "O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

             "If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night," even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well....

             "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." (Psalm 139:1-14, 23-24)


2000 Peter L. Haynes

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