The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s114e15  Sunday 2  18/1/2015

‘Shun fornication!’   1 Corinthians 6:18

It is fascinating, to me anyway, that the sins of Hophni and Phineas included that ‘they lay with the women who served’.  It has always seemed to me to be an unlikely place to commit fornication: ‘at the entrance to the place of meeting’. (1)

These words confront us with the question about what God is actually concerned about - when, where and with whom ordinary people choose to share intimacy - or the real sin of Hophni and Phineas, that ‘they treated the offerings (of others to) the Lord with contempt.’ (2)

The gospel today is all about location: Jesus deciding to go from Bethany to Galilee, Jesus coming from Nazareth, Nathaniel under the fig tree, Jesus being more than just the King of Israel, but linking heaven and earth through the angels.   The reference to the fig tree is all about fruit and the fruit is all about there being ‘no deceit’ - ‘no guile’.   We need not use deceit, guile, or power for the kingdom.   The kingdom is all about integrity.   I expect that in Maori culture this is equivalent to ‘mana’.

The fruit is found in Galilee, the home of the less than orthodox.   Indeed, as I have noted before, the harvest of fruit seems inversely proportional to the distance from the centre of religion.   Religion that divides people into categories is inherently deceitful.   A faith that reaches out in affirmation and inclusion needs no guile.

And the essence of the sin of fornication is not the act of intimacy but the deceit involved.   One person chooses to use guile to deceive the other person in order to have their way with them.   So, by contrast, we proclaim the good news when we choose to accept others as they are, that we don’t want anything from others.   This is the same sentiment that lies behind Paul’s words: ‘What then is my reward?   Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.’ (3)

Of course, Hophni and Phineas are not just philandering young men with raging testosterone, they are clergy, sons of Eli the aged and respected priest - and their contempt of others rightly repels those who would be faithful.   As Paul critiques his own orthodox upbringing: ’The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’  (4)

No amount of preaching, cajoling, threatening or manipulation will be much effective against the raging hormones of young people, be they male or female; we can but try to empower people to be strong and wise.    It is the conveniently subordinate women who so frequently bear the brunt and consequences of intimacy.   But surely we can and ought to do something about a church which seeks to control, manipulate and marginalise others in the name of the divine.

The various denominations have always treated the offerings of people of other denominations and other faiths with contempt.   ‘No one comes to the Father but by’ our own particular interpretation of who Jesus is, is to treat the offerings of others with contempt.   By contrast St Paul in his letter to the Romans says: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?   It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.   And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.’ (5)   And this points out the importance of Jesus noticing that poor widow’s mite. (6)   Jesus noticed and treated the minuscule offering to someone other than himself with particular respect.

Of course, the importance the church puts on regulating intimacy between people is a clever way for the church to avoid seeing her own sin of treating the offerings of people, other than her own spiritual children, with contempt.   It is said that the best form of defence is attack, and the church militant needs to hear those words of Jesus about the specks and the motes. (7)   We need to remember the fate of Hophni and Phineas, and their father, Eli: the import of the message that the Lord gave to the young Samuel that night.  ‘On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.   For I have told him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.   Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering for ever.’  (8)   It is implied that Hophni, Phineas, Eli and Phineas’ wife all died on the same day.   Surely it is more than sad that such a pretty story about the young Samuel hearing the voice of the Lord for the first time is not followed up with the important message that Samuel was given.   Whether it was the dying wife of Phineas or the midwife, she ‘named the child Ichabod, meaning, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’.’ (9)

And so the question is to me - should I keep silent about the sin of the church?   As the old prayer book has it, should I seek to ‘dissemble’ or ‘cloke them before the face of Almighty God’?  (10)  ‘Dissemble’ is to ignore, ‘cloke' is to dress up in sacred language to justify.   As Eli had to warn the young Samuel: ‘May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.’ (11)

The vehemence of conservative church people against what they see as sexual promiscuity needs to be countered with at least an equal vehemence against their own sin of sectarianism.  How many people’s lives are likely to be ruined by one act of ‘inappropriate’ intimacy - in comparison to the number of people’s lives ruined by even just one restatement of the ‘reality’ of the abyss that divides people?   We might usefully remember the story of the Pharisee, one of the ones who ‘trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt’ (12) and the publican at prayer here.   Indeed if we actually believe that the church has good news for the nations, our failure as church to be affirming and inclusive of all is surely a primary reason people have no choice but to find intimacy in other places.

Fornication, in essence, is all about ourselves - our own insecurities, and the deceit we need to use to disguise this and pretend that we are someone other than who we are.

Spiritual fornication too is, in essence, all about ourselves - our own doubts that we are saved, and the deceit we use to disguise this, to pretend that we are something other than what we are.   It is not about faith at all.

1.  1 Samuel 2.22
2.  1 Samuel 2.17
3.  1 Corinthians 9.18
4.  Romans 2:24
5.  Romans 14.4
6.  Mark 12:42-43
7.  Matthew 7:3
8.  1 Samuel 3:12-14
9.  1 Samuel 4.21
11.  1 Samuel 3.17
12.  Luke 18:9