Boy oh boy, there is a verse here that not very many church people would take literally -- the one where Paul scolds the non-believers for whom "their god is their bellies." Considering how many church functions revolve around eating and meals, that would be a problem verse.
But of course Paul isn't being literal here, he's using a certain behavior as an example of the kind of thing he's talking about. There are people, he says, who make their physical sensations and pursuit of physical pleasure the focus of their lives. They more or less worship those things. In the Roman culture of the time, some people even had the custom of gorging themselves at a feast, going to a place called a "vomitorium" to throw up what they'd eaten, and then gorging themselves some more in order to get the most pleasure out of the taste and such of their food.
Even if we don't have that kind of practice around as much today -- although who knows what happens in some parts of southern California -- we still have people who pursue physical pleasures of all kinds and block out thoughts of spiritual concerns or even the needs of others. And there are also people who may not pursue physical pleasures like that, but who may put other kinds of experiences at the center of their lives.
That happens even in church. I have been among groups of people who, after a worship service, have said they didn't "feel God was present." I always want to ask, "Well, did you bring him?" Some folks will focus on feeling a certain way so much that they forget that the feeling itself isn't the only important thing. It can happen in relationships and, like I said, even in church. Married couples know that sometimes the promise they made to each other carries more weight than the feeling they may have right that second at whatever it is their spouses have done that irritates them so. And mature Christians understand that the purpose of worship is to glorify God much more than it is to provide an emotional high.
We can center our lives on physical pleasures, other kinds of experiences, and even other people. We know folks whose entire lives revolve around another person so much that their own lives kind of fade into the background.
These and other centerpieces we might put into our lives take the place of what Christians should have as their centerpiece, Paul says: God. When we weren't God's followers, we didn't follow God, but now that we are God's followers, then we ought to follow God. It's kind of definitional.
The problem with all of those other things is that they fade when what our spirits crave is permanence. Full bellies empty. Emotions change. And people, based on what I can see of my own track record, disappoint. God created us to have him at the center of our lives, and we Christians say our lives are not what they should be when they don't center on God. Plenty of people have pretty good lives without God, of course, but we Christians claim that the fullest and most human life is lived with God. God designed us that way.
It's an age-old problem. The story of Babel says that many years after the flood, people decided they would build a tower to take them up to Heaven. When God noticed their mighty tower, we're told he had to stoop down to see it, and he stopped construction by confusing their language. The mightiest tower they could manage was barely enough to draw God's attention.
The same lesson holds true today. Without God, neither pleasures nor emotions nor people nor anything else can satisfy our spirits at their core. But with God? The dark side of those pleasures, or the saddest or most hurtful of emotions, or the worst in people -- none of those are enough to keep us from rising up.
Without God, no tower, no matter how high, how well constructed or how mightily built, is going to lift this body up.
With God, ain't no grave gonna hold this body down.